In October 2020, BOA Editions, an indie press located in Rochester, New York, named poet Aracelis Girmay the first editor-at-large of its Blessing the Boats Selections, a line of poetry books written by women of color. As the editor of the selections, which are part of the press’s American Poets Continuum Series and named after Lucille Clifton’s 2000 collection, Blessing the Boats (BOA Editions), Girmay will choose one or two books for publication each year through 2023. (The inaugural submission period was held during November; the selections will be announced later this spring.) Girmay is the author of three poetry collections, most recently the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016), and serves on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund. One week before she received her first batch of submissions, Girmay spoke via Zoom about her approach to poetry and her plan for the selections.
How do you see these selections carrying forward Lucille Clifton’s legacy?
I think of her as somebody who was always opening up space—whether it was in her poems or at a reading or around a table—and making space for stories. And I think about how profoundly she told the truth of her life when it was shunned or taboo to talk about abortion or illness or race or whiteness. I think of her legacy as opening up space for herself and for others to live and breathe by—so it feels so right that these selections exist because it’s part of what she did in her poems and in her life.
Why is opening this space for women poets of color so important?
We are so lucky any time anybody speaks with their full voice and questions—it’s a gift to humanity. Any time anybody carries their complexities and shares how they think, feel through, and try to make sense or undo sense in the world helps us as readers be and imagine more world. I think that’s critical, vital work. To have a space made specifically for women writers of color is a commitment that feels like it should be an obvious one—but we know the world of publishing and how white writers and male writers tend to dominate these spaces. I think the more the work and the books represent what the world looks like, the better we are.
How do you feel when you come across a manuscript that you love?
I am shifted in some tiny or big way. It’s a lot of work to really spend time with somebody else’s effort, and I feel the deep gift and honor of that. Spending time with someone else’s thinking and figuring can shift my thinking and sense of what’s possible in language and thought and can really teach me to pay attention newly, differently. And so when I come across a manuscript I’m excited about, I feel changed in some way. Sometimes it’s a physical sensation; sometimes I can’t even put words to it; and sometimes I can say, This is making me think x, y, z. But in some way I am different.
How do you think you’re changed?
In Deborah Paredez’s book, Year of the Dog, she’s got these famous photographs from the Vietnam War and some photographs from her dad’s personal archive of his time deployed in Vietnam from San Antonio. She repeats these photographs and changes where they are on the page and sometimes hones in on certain details. I move through the world and engage with found materials all the time, but somehow encountering them in the container of this book, and spending focused time on what Deb has made, gives me a chance to ask questions about the making. What does it mean that this photograph repeats? What does it mean that this poem is before this photograph here and later this word is missing? I become attuned to what it makes me think, and I start to wonder about the conditions out of which this piece, this poem, this book emerged. My own thinking is stretched as a reader, because it’s not about pinning meaning down, but about reading for possible meanings. And that feels like a practice that could just go on infinitely—but I also feel like I’m leaning toward the writer and their making. What I can think on my own is different from what I can think with another. I am different and made different by that collaboration as a reader with that writer.
What do you predict will be difficult about reading for these selections?
I feel as certain as I can be that there will be many manuscripts that are just incredible—I imagine it will be hard to choose at all. It feels super important to me to communicate to people how much we need everyone’s voices as they are. For every book there are so many voices and people who make that book. The ways that we come to our language are always full of other people—each person’s book is teeming with histories, experiences, and peoples. And for each book there are so many other books that, because of logistics and other things, don’t get published. I feel the seriousness and responsibility and joy of this work and also the hope that people keep finding, no matter what, ways to their work and ways to share their work. Because there’s always so much more out there.
Do you have screeners, or will you read all the manuscripts?
I will read everything. That feels important to me.
What kind of books do you think are at home with BOA?
I think about the BOA books through which I came into reading poetry: books by Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Lucille Clifton. And I think about the newer books that BOA has published by Deborah Paredez, Chen Chen, Diana Marie Delgado, and Barbara Jane Reyes—they’re so different. I can’t say what a BOA book is, which is part of the gift and luck. I can’t guess what’s going to be next. And even thinking about Clifton’s books—there is such range and change across the books. So I don’t know what a BOA book is, but I will say they are books of great heart and such a range of imaginative strategies.
What kind of questions do you ask of a manuscript when you’re reading it?
Of course it depends on the work, but there are questions like: What are some of the things, whether they’re formal or conceptual, that are being communicated? What are some of the questions and commitments? In this role as an editor, I often take notes and spend time with the manuscript, as a student of the manuscript, and ask: What are the poems asking? What is the shape and order of the manuscript asking or wondering or rejecting? What does it mean or feel like to move from the front to the back in this manuscript—is that important to it, is it not? Is this one book or is it a few books? What does the book make possible, what do the poems make possible, and is there a way to sense what’s vital to this poet? Those are some general questions. Hopefully, I ask different questions with each manuscript.
Are those the same questions you ask yourself when you’re nearing completion of a book?
Yes. There’s another question that I ask myself that I don’t ask when I’m reading manuscripts, which is a question of belief: Do I believe this? Is what I’m saying true? I’m often concerned with truth, even if that has to do with, say, order—like, does this feel disordered, as it must be, because it feels like the truest way to carry this story? But I can’t ask that when I’m reading these manuscripts—I can’t know that for another.
What strategies for revising and putting together a book would you recommend? I read in your interview with Claire Schwartz in the Bennington Review that you had taken all the verbs out of the black maria to detect the ratio of joy to grief in them, which I thought was such a wonderful strategy. Do you have other strategies you use or that you recommend to students?
For a time it is important to let the work be strange to you and to not know everything and all. You can’t know everything and all, and I believe in letting things be mysterious. And then I love it when I get to go to my work, or students go to their work, or I go to their work, and just make observations. I remember the first time I experienced this: Marie Ponsot came to visit a class during grad school, and we were asked to sit in a circle and make observations about poems. No observation was too small. And I remember how hard that was—to not analyze, but to observe.
I bring that exact exercise to other people I work with and to myself. What are your verbs doing? Which verbs are attributed to which things? What’s happening with your syntax? Is there a structure you’re often following? And observe not with judgment yet, but as a way to meet what you’ve made newly. When you read out loud, if you read out loud, what are the moments that knock at your heart? Which are the moments you feel go on for a long time? And maybe you want that. Then we’ll highlight in different colors different kinds of things and then spread out the work and say, “Oh wow, there’s a lot of heat on these five pages and none for twenty—does that feel like what you want?” Experiments that have to do with going into the work with someone who doesn’t know everything about it—and then reminding yourself to observe and learning what to do with those observations.
What do you do with those observations?
Those observations help to make decisions. Sometimes that decision is not necessarily a resolution, but a decision to let this be what I can make right now. Sometimes I’m going to try and teach my imagination; I’m going to try to teach myself something different and not, for example, keep attributing these verbs to these people. And I’m going to push myself into remembering a range of verbs we can be in. But sometimes it’s okay to just leave things messy and unresolved, and to be aware that’s a thing you’re leaving as it is.
In Claire Schwartz’s interview, you said that when Nikky Finney asked you what you wanted to do with your poetry, one of the hardest things you had to assert was: I want to publish a book. If you can remember—why do think that was?
I’m trying to think about who I was then. One of the reasons was knowing how that one book takes up other people’s time and space. It was hard for me to come to terms with the difference between writing to deepen my own spirit and thinking, and stretching the private work of writing to the outward-facing or community-facing work of writing. It took me some time to reconcile that taking-up space, and feeling convicted enough, or strong enough to say, I want to make space for my voice among the voices. And I want to be part of this conversation. I want to carry my stories in the names of my family out of my house into conversations with this person’s names and this person’s stories and this person’s trees and land. I think it took me some time to say that it was important, not just to me, but that I had a piece of a story, a tatter of a story, that could meet somebody else’s tatter, and that my tatter was meaningful or important enough to share with others.
What force helped move you to the space to want to publish a book?
Joy, probably. I’ve always loved to read. I love the feeling in my mouth when I’m reading; I love finding out what catches when you’re on the train and suddenly somebody’s lines come back to you. In life, when I’m in something really hard, a poem suddenly is something to lean on—I’m always shocked by that. I think the joy from reading eventually made me feel like, let’s try. Let’s try!
I think people of color face a lot of pressure to write in ways that make their language or culture or background legible to a white reader. What would you maybe say to those writers who face that pressure?
I so want to know, I so want to read and hear the work and languages that are people’s marrow languages. And whether that’s a question of image, diction, syntax, whatever—privacies or semi-privacies of mind and imagination are so interesting to me. The ways that people write toward their different selves, the others who share their languages—it’s critical. I feel like I’m saying obvious things, but we lose and lose when we’re always facing whiteness, which diminishes everyone. Everyone. Including white people. It’s hard to be in some Englishes and publishing in the United States, in a publishing world dominated by white people. It can be really hard to hold onto our compasses and imaginations. And those are the things that we most need. I think of Toni Morrison, who was writing about Black people and for whom we were the center of her eye and ear and self—and look what that’s done for everyone.
Saidiya Hartman talks about holding on to one’s illegibility, which is not as simple as whether we’re legible to white people or not, but a greater question about the extent to which we try to be read by others. I think the gift of reading is that we find ourselves in these spaces of friction and unease with the possibility of resolution and rupture. We’re alive for this much time [snaps fingers]. We lose when we’re trying to be someone else.
It’s such a fraught question, I feel—I have compassion for the parts of me and the parts of people I love and students I’ve had the chance to work with [that make us] feel like we have to imitate another in order to be taken seriously or allowed into the room or the school. And I understand those pressures. And I think it’s a devastation of place, imagination, and ancestry.
What books are on your desk? I can see a few of them.
I’ve got Mangaliso Buzani’s a naked bone, which is a beautiful book. Dionne Brand’s An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading. Lucille Clifton’s How to Carry Water. Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. Deborah Paredez’s Year of the Dog—whoops! A horse’s eye just came out of that! [Holds up a small scrap of paper with the image of a horse’s eye on it.] Maybe my youngest squirreled this away—I was making a collage and I couldn’t find it.
Eyes literally falling out of your books! What would you recommend writers reach for?
My friend Ross often talks about trying to make a thing he doesn’t know how to make. That speaks to me. I encourage people to reach for what moves them in the making, what resuscitates or revitalizes their thinking and being.
What would recommend writers guard against?
I recently saw footage of Lucille Clifton talking about writing as “taking the risk to go out on your fear.” I think that it sometimes does take courage just to write. And then it can take courage to send your writing out into the world to be considered and read by others. I want to remember that I am reading courages, among other things, as I read submissions. And I hope that those whose manuscripts are not chosen don’t grow discouraged. Disappointment is one thing. But discouragement can be really hard to overcome, especially because we are so often conflating worth with being chosen. It’s hard not to do that. And so it feels important for me to say what my Aunt Margaret said to me almost a decade ago: “I used to always sing and then I stopped. Don’t let anybody stop you from singing.”
Dana Isokawa is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.