Kingdom Animalia, the second collection of poetry by Professor Aracelis Girmay, is a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards, which honor the best literature published in English each year.
Aracelis Girmay interview on New England Public Radio/FCR
Q: First, could you share a bit about your work? What thoughts and feelings were you grappling with in Kingdom Animalia?
I was reading Darwin's The Origin of Species and was really interested in how we are all related and the idea of common descent. The last few pages of Origin of Species are so beautiful. They remind me of how connected we are. Everything. Any being on earth is related to any other being. Many of the poems are elegies to people and places, and different cells, variations of people who are alive now but who were different even ten years ago or so. And the idea of loss, and how everything is dying and also simultaneously being born into some other version of itself. The fact of how connected and related each of us is, and looking for a kind of hope and solace in that. Asking, how are we related? How can the questions I ask of a cloud be applied to my own body? How can the questions I ask of my sister be applied to the ground? Really asking metaphor to help in this process of learning to see things newly with hope and belief that there is, or can be, some consolation in this way of seeing, living.
Q: How do your teaching and your writing feed each other, or do they?
Absolutely. The classes that I teach come out of real love and real questions that I'm asking of the books that I'm reading, and the questions that I'm asking in my own work.
Similarly, in classes I am deeply inspired, and moved and taught, by my students. You're reading text as a group. That's what is so beautiful about creative writing classes. People can write on their own, but what happens that's different in classes is you're in a community. You have a poem in front of you and you're asking questions. So each body is helping me to see a dimension that I wouldn't have seen otherwise in exactly that way. Poems that I have lived with for years are given new meaning by this group of people. And not just the people, but the place. And prompts; the experiments that we do in class, the responses that people have, the questions that they have. What does it mean to write? Does a poet have responsibility? Does a poet not have responsibility? Who has the right to tell what story? These are the questions that students are grappling with. Sometimes they pose brand new questions. Sometimes I've grappled with the questions before. But students are always telling me and teaching me something different or reminding me of the stakes in creative writing. Every time I'm in that room there is a nervousness and excitement. You're really different when you walk out.
I feel particularly at Hampshire that we are so led—and I think this is one of the beautiful things about Hampshire—by questions, wrestling with things, the messy debate. And by interdisciplinary work. Students bring in different ways of reading or a different toolbox. You've got these different languages and these different investigations, and they're all in conversation in some way. I feel really taught by this place and believe that there is great possibility in this mode of teaching and learning. … It's likely that the practice of writing will hopefully help us to see how contradictory and beautiful and strange we are—will help us to ask questions of ourselves and our belief systems, will help us to imagine and contribute our own imaginations to the world. …
My students, over and over again, deepen my person with their stories and arguments and investigations. They take risks in the work—and I expect for them to. This means that I also must take risks. I teach with hopes that we will develop our craft as readers and writers in very serious ways. This is not necessarily about mastery and arrival. Though I do want students to leave as serious practitioners who are able to think critically about the work as it relates to craft and quest, I want students to always be learning, reaching, trying toward something genuine and new, deepening their work and the ways they think about the work. If I expect this of my students, I must expect this, too, of myself. And I think my students, too, expect this of me.
Q: How did you learn that Kingdom Animalia had been selected as an NBCC finalist and what was your reaction?
A: I was in New York. I had just had dinner and got a text message from someone who was at the announcements saying, "Congratulations, you're a finalist for the NBCC."
I was with my partner and we sort of screamed and started jumping up and down. Then he said, "What does that mean?" I said, "I think it means the National Book Critics Circle, but that can't be right. Maybe I'm misunderstanding something." I got on the train and checked my email and it was really the National Book Critics Circle.
I had been trying over winter break to work very quietly on writing a new poem, something longer and unlike anything I have written before. You finish a book and then you hope you can make something else, so that's where my focus had been.
Any time that anyone reads even a single poem, I feel so lucky and honored. They are giving minutes of their life. This was the farthest thing from anything I would have imagined. It was beyond my wildest hope or thought for the book.
Q: What happens next?
I'll go March 7 for the finalists' reading. Then March 8 is the awards ceremony, when the recipients will be announced.
My Hampshire colleagues have been amazingly supportive and have helped me with rescheduling a few things so that I can be there at these two events. I feel really, really lucky.
Q: Were you aware that year before last a Hampshire College graduate won the NBCC Award for Criticism?
Yes, I read the Eula Biss book [Notes from No Man's Land] just in November. It's a great book of essays. I struggled with them. Learned so much from them. Wrestled with them. Her mind is vast and the essays are full of information, many-armed and many-eyed and, sometimes, resist resolution—which feels messy and honest and full of real grappling, real learning.
Hampshire writers and the NBCC:
Eula Biss 95F, 2009 Award Recipient in Criticism, Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays
Jon Krakauer 72F, 1997 Finalist in Nonfiction, Into Thin Air
Professor of Literary Journalism Michael Lesy, 1985 Finalist in Biography, Visible Light: Four Creative Biographies