Alexandra Lytton Regalado, the author of Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) read three poems by Aracelis Girmay and I was stunned. Then we got to sit down and chat and she spoke about grief, distance, transitions, her personal mantra, and the word she writes on herself.
Black: What made you choose the work of Aracelis Girmay?
Regalado: Reading Aracelis is like wading into dark water. I’m drawn to the mystery and restraint of her work. She keeps you at arm’s length and I appreciate that control. When I discover a song I like, I ration it out because I don’t want to fully grasp the pattern of the melody, don’t want to decipher the lyrics. It’s like hands are covering your eyes and you’re prying open the fingers and looking through the cracks. Aracelis’ poems deal with mis-seeing, or seeing partially. Declarative statements evolve in increments and that creates a sense of estrangement. She uses these slight shifts of perspective—tiny kaleidoscopic degrees, fly-vision—that relay a steady and relentless sense of seeing.
Her poems are wound tight—there is as much communicated in the blank spaces as in the words themselves. Aracelis says, “Strangeness is what troubles or opens us into discovery” and I’m trying to cultivate that strangeness in my perception. When things become everyday we take them for granted, we are buffered and numbed, and I’m trying to tap into that acute and raw sense of first experiences that makes everything boom, wow, and ah!
Aracelis presents this revelation so clearly in her poem “Second Estrangement” in two metaphors: a child lost in a crowd accidentally reaching for the hand of a stranger and a bird flying into a plate of glass. Aracelis says she carries around a quote from Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem “Headlong”: “Be strange to yourself, / in your love, your grief.” This has been a hard year for me and I’m trying to channel into that wonder.
Black: And why these particular poems?
Regalado: I have a difficult time with transitions and this year has been wave after wave. I’ve been reading a lot of elegies and thinking about different ways of dealing with grief—whether we receive it with openness or resistance—in particular, I’m interested in what happens if we chose distance over vulnerability.
It says a lot about you—how you respond to pain—your threshold, and if you prefer to go through it alone or if you seek the comfort of others. Most of the time I choose the solo/distance combo—and I have a high pain threshold—and I usually get by with “Shake it off, Roll with it, Deal with it later” mantras, but sometimes I freak myself out and think: I’m going to pay for this compartmentalization, this postponement of feelings. More and more I feel I need to scare myself into my skin and say, “Hey, this is happening now,” and turn my attention to the present moment.
The clock is ticking really fucking loud. I’m hitting my mid-forties so there are those middle of the night living-in-a-very-human-skin realizations, and both of my parents are having serious health issues, and my husband and I are in the woods with our three kids now entering adolescence. So, I have a stack of poetry books on my beside table and they are my routine, in-lieu-of-morning-prayer readings. Aracelis’ poems resonate with me, and these, in addition to my old favorites: Rilke, Woolf, and Tom Andrew’s The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, are what’s keeping me grounded.
Black: “Elegy” asks us to consider our own mortality in a way which is both prescient and immediate. This again echoes throughout “Luam and the Flies”—the sense of mortality. Can you speak to this as you see (or don’t see) it in Girmay’s work?
Regalado: In “Elegy” Aracelis riffs on the idea of touching, what we hold on to, and carry into our every day. How can we be like the tree that grows and makes itself “useful to the nest” and shades “the heads of something beautiful” regardless of the ongoing cycle of births and deaths? “Nothing else matters,” she is urgent in her instructions: “Listen to me. I am telling you / a true thing.”
The “kingdom of touching” includes all that is disappearing, our human selves and the things of this world. What floors me is Aracelis’ confidence—she’s totally comfortable in that unknowing, that constant flux, and there’s never a need to over-explain. It’s something I have to learn; I have to fight the urge to leave things resolved.
“Luam and the Flies” is about deliberately residing in that uncertainty—really digging your feet into the realization that we are not “moored to place”. That’s another thing that I really connect with: Aracelis’ work is deeply rooted in her Afro-Latina identity, relating customs, tradition, and history in a way that is intrinsic and understood. Her poems don’t say: Look at me, so ethnic & distinct! they say: Here I am, human & ready to connect. It’s that searching voice that invites us: “Daily I am looking for signs / of what has lived & what is lost.”
I’ve become obsessed with ampersands after reading her work. Also, her enjambed line breaks and her use of commas as stanza dividers, those yokes and tethers, those snapping points and lists that guide us to how we will one day become a “city of eggs”, a “harvest” a “&”, a “port / or harbor”. She taps into our sense of mortality so quietly and subtly like those “serious games” we play with ourselves, creating gods to negotiate with, our perspectives shuttering between “You. Not you.” Her poems offer that nudge and with such a slight touch.
Black: Does this work connect to your own in some way?
Regalado: When I wrote the poems included in Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) my gaze was oriented outward and because I was writing in El Salvador (the murder capital of the world) mortality is front and center.
There is a saying, “Aqui no se vive, se sobrevive” and I wanted to understand what it meant to live, or in the case of many women, to survive in El Salvador. In my poem “La Sandía” I describe how I used to think of myself as just “human” but when I was giving birth to my first child it was as if a machete split me in half and I was sent “searing into my gender.” I never intended to write about women’s issues or social justice poems but it felt impossible to write about me, me, me when there was so much going on around me. Aracelis’ work points to the direction my new work is taking. My gaze is turning inward—I can’t seem to find enough time to be alone.
The new poems I’m writing are very personal and I need to gain a little more distance, grow a thicker skin before I send them out into the world.
Black: What are you working on now?
Regalado: In the air I’ve got lots of spinning plates: I’m writing essays, short stories, an ekphrastic poetry collaboration with Emma Trelles; I’m co-editing a soon-to-be-launched Salvadoran/Salvadoran-American online literary magazine; I’m translating and editing bilingual collections forthcoming from Kalina press (the small publishing company I co-direct in El Salvador), it’s the third year I’m co-organizing an annual book fair in El Salvador, and developing art programs with the Museum of Art of El Salvador (MARTE) to promote contemporary Salvadoran artists.
That’s just my working life; it’s a constant juggle: mom of three, wife, daughter, sister. Just listing all that makes my shoulders ache. So, what am I really working on right now? Learning to let go! I would never get a tattoo—I have enough scars from a car accident when I was 21—but if I were to get one now it is the word Relinquenda. Latin for “relinquish”, it’s a word my mother introduced to me, and it seems what I need now is a constant reminder to let go. So, Relinquenda is not a tattoo, but a word I constantly write on my palm, my wrist, my fingers. It’s also the working title of my new poetry manuscript.
Aracelis Girmay is the author of four books including the most recent, The Black Maria (BOA Editions, 2016). She was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for her collection, Kingdom Animalia and in 2015 received the Whiting Award for poetry. Girmay received her MFA from NYU.
Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s poetry collection, Matria, is the winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). Her poems, stories, and non-fiction have appeared in Narrative, Gulf Coast, The Notre Dame Review, and Creative Nonfiction among others and her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2018, Misrepresented People (NYQ Books, 2018), The Wandering Song (Tia Chucha Press, 2017), and others. Co-founder of Kalina press, Alexandra is author, editor, and/or translator of more than ten Central American-themed books including Puntos de fuga / Vanishing Points: Contemporary Salvadoran Prose (2017). She is the winner of the 2015 Coniston Poetry Prize and she was the recipient of the third Letras Latinas / PINTURA PALABRA DC Ekphrastic residencies. Her ongoing photo-essay project about El Salvador, through_the_bulletproof_glass, is on Instagram. For more info visit: http://www.alexandralyttonregalado.com
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Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.