I could scarcely give a better introduction than the poet Naomi Shibab Nye provided to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s second collection, At the Drive-in Volcano, calling her poems “Rich with sources and elements—animals, insects, sugar, cardamom, legends, countries, relatives, soaps, fruits… Aimee writes with a deep resonance of spirit and sight. She’s scared of nothing. She knows that many worlds may live in one house. Poems like these revive our souls.”
Nezhukumatathil is author of three poetry collections. Her first, Miracle Fruit, won the 2003 Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Poetry Book of the Year, and the Global Filipino Literary Award in Poetry. Her second, At the Drive-In Volcano, won the 2007 Balcones Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection, Lucky Fish, won the 2011 Eric Hoffer Grand prize and the gold medal in Poetry from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Her most recent chapbook is Lace & Pyrite, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay. Among her other awards are a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a 2009 Pushcart Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Black Warrior Review, FIELD, Mid-American Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Tin House.
She is professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature, is the poetry editor of Orion magazine, and will be the 2016-17 Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi’s MFA program in creative writing. Given all this, and a busy family life, we are grateful for these poems, and for her time and breadth of responses for this interview.
—Chris LaMay-West, poetry co-editor
In your collection “Lucky Fish”, there’s a wonderful found poem composed of lines from e-mails from high school students who’d read your work, “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill.” The first line is quite profound: “If I were to ask you a question about your book and sum it up into one word it would be, Why?” What would your answer be to that question, applied to your writing in general?
I write to make sense of the world but also to serve as a record for what I witness in my tiny corner of the planet. My language and facility for metaphor have always been rooted in the natural world. I agree with Diane Ackerman who says, “Few things are as satisfying as meeting nature on its own terms, attending to its rhythmic demands, and then trying to snare it briefly in the net of the imagination…”
I’ve heard other poets talk about how, while they might have written poetry from an early age, it wasn’t until later that they became a poet in the sense of commitment to poetry. How and when did you start writing poetry, and was there a moment like that for you?
I’m always jealous of those people whose lives had poetry as a component early on. Looking back, my “training” was in exploring the magical and musical language of the natural world: octotillo, mica, cherimoya, pomelo—my parents made sure that I knew the names of animals, plants, and constellations at a very young age, so I was exposed to beautiful language all the while thinking I was going to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a doctor. It wasn’t until late in my college years when I even read a poem by a living poet. The first contemporary poem I ever encountered as Naomi Shihab Nye’s prose poem, “Mint Snowball.” Reading it was, as Emily Dickinson said, very much like the proverbial top of my head were taken off.
As I became more and more immersed in finding other contemporary poets, it became clear to me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing and reading. My parents were confused and hurt, I think—all my life until late in college I told them I was going to be a doctor, after all—but after they saw how committed and excited I was about school again, they said as long as I could tell them I’d always want to be a student, they’d support whatever subject I wanted to pursue. At this point I was an adult, of course I didn’t need their permission, per se, but that support meant and still means so much to me. None of my other relatives my age had ever been encouraged to pursue the arts, so this was a huge deal and leap of faith for them.
What differences do you see in what you write about and how you write (in terms of language, form, etc.) in your current poems versus earlier ones?
As for the differences in what I write “about” across the span of 3-plus books, it’s so hard for me to articulate because that covers about fifteen years of writing and publishing regularly, and I’m happy to have others way more experienced and/or detached try to parse that out. But I can say that I feel like there is more immediacy to my work. My heartbeat feels much closer to my skin now. Some have said there’s a direct correlation to that in my third book (the first written after I became a mother), and I hope that’s even a little bit true.
One of the poems you’ve shared with us here, “Forsythe Avenue Haibun,” is this particular form, the haibun. You have a dog named Villanelle. Are there any other past or present poetic forms you love? What draws you to a particular form?
Actually, Villanelle, my sweet geriatric dachshund, has moved on from this world. We have a new dog, a rescued chihuahua named Haiku (and yes, I am a complete dork, I am very well aware). I adore the haibun, the sijo, and oh, the villanelle is so lovely! When I use form, it’s almost never deliberate—form usually finds me much later in a draft. I never set out at my desk and say “Today I shall compose a sestina,” but I find that subjects or images that bear repetition naturally find themselves pushing and rearranging into a formal shape. Sometimes a subject gets so broad and unwieldy, I’m grateful for form to rein it all together.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in writing about your work, put her finger on one of my favorite things about it, that it is “rich with sources and elements.” I really love how, in your hands, things from growing up in the ’80s, from India, from the Philippines, from global history and politics, and personal history, all freely inter-mix. Do you consciously build these cross-pollinations into your writing? Or do they arise more organically?
I feel like there is such a universal sense of wonder and beauty and horror when observing the world around me, I can’t really help but use the language of science and fable and myth when drafting a poem. My not-so-dirty little secret is that I probably read more science and natural history books than poetry books, but I do feel like Mother Nature is the best poet of all. Most days I feel like I’m just trying to catch up to her, to capture a little of her wonder to record on the page before climate change mucks it all up for us.
I noticed over time that a lot of animals and plants show up in your poems, as for example, in “The Smallest Commotion” featured here. And then I discovered the delightful “World of Wonder” online column you had on The Toast, and the environmental work you’ve done. What are some things you’re inspired by about the natural world that you hope show up in your writing?
I love the care and the return you get by taking care of your environment. Years ago in my own gardening, I stopped using any chemicals or pesticides, and tried to plant smarter, meaning use plants to ward off pests instead—which is hard to rely on in rich, shade-covered soil where mosquitoes and weeds thrive during the summer. But there has been a noticeable shift in the increasing numbers of songbirds that now frequent my yard, of monarch butterflies that visit—all to my young sons’ delight. It seems so obvious, really, but there is so much bounty to get back if we only remember that our human comfort/ease is not paramount to other living things. As far as writing is concerned, a former classmate once told me that when he thinks of India, he thinks of poverty and dirt. That stuck with me all these years and really burned me up. No way was I going to let people get away with thinking that of my father’s beloved home. I started to draw upon nature as an alternate lens to re-imagine what it was like growing up Asian American in predominantly white towns, and while I never shy away from the darkness and despair found in nature, I hope people can see more of a focus on the praise and the wonderment that can be still found in the landscapes around us.
On the topic of environmental work, I read that you have a recent chapbook of nature poems that you did in collaboration with poet Ross Gay, Lace and Pyrite. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it’s going on the list! I was curious about the process of working with another poet—how did the collaboration work in the writing and the assembly?
Ross is a dear friend and I’m always inspired by his work on and off the page. In the late July swelter and dragonfly buzz of the summer a few years ago, we began a poem correspondence, based on no prompts, no assignments, just that we were to send a poem at least once a week, maybe more if we were lucky. No commentary needed, we were just going to hold each other accountable knowing someone was waiting for our poem three states away. Happy mail. Turns out he’s one of my few friends who still loves writing letters, so it was an added bonus to what I thought would surely end by the time I visited him in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana as a visiting writer of Indiana’s MFA program. But we kept going with the letter poems. Over the course of a full year, Ross was also able to visit my family and flower gardens (unfortunately when many of the blooms were already spent during a particularly dry summer’s end) before we boarded a train together for the Millay Artist’s Colony in the Berkshires in upstate New York. There, we met up with several other writer friends (who were also working on independent projects of their own), and revised and finished this series of poems, which was first encouraged by Hannah Fries, formerly of Orion, and then passed into the capable hands of Organic Weapon Arts press.
“Josephine, The Original Salamander” is a poem that on the surface seems entirely about a historical character but is imbued with such vivid emotion, especially in the offset rhyme about apples, that it hardly feels less personal than poems of yours that one might surmise are more biographical. Do you have to work at that emotional connection in more political or historical pieces, or is it there when you start writing them?
Thank you! It’s not something that I’m conscious of as I draft the poem, but since most of my poems start with an image, part of my process in writing is trying to find out why that image was so arresting to me in the first place. I was fascinated by this female performer who was called a salamander, what that must be like to make a living like that.
My favorite poem from At The Drive-In Volcano is “Flashlight Fish.” It fuses the narrator’s delight at being newly engaged with details about light and marine biology. I can never read it without tearing up, in a happy way, and I have to assume a really authentic feeling went into it to produce that reaction. Has your ability and willingness to expose these kinds of personal feelings in your writing changed over time?
You are too kind! You know, I find it is extremely difficult to sound detached about certain relationships, and with my fiancé (now husband) it was pretty much impossible. And while I am happy to sing praise songs and find ways to capture exuberance on this planet, I’m hoping the reader knows/assumes that there are always going to be memories/variances that will remain private. I’m so grateful for all the emails and people who come up to me after a reading and say they connected to my work, but it’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, every instance of I in a poem is for me, persona.
I thought I knew a fair amount about you and your work before sitting down to come up with the questions for this interview, but in the course of research I read that you grew up on the grounds of a mental institution! Could you tell us more about that, and what influence you think it’s had on your writing and your world?
Ha—good sleuthing! I’m actually working on a book of nature essays that touches upon that, so there’s no way I could fit it here in the space of this interview, but I will say that my mother was a psychiatrist (she’s retired now) and we moved from hospital to hospital, often living right in the doctors’ quarters on the grounds. It made for a particularly unique childhood, but I always felt safe to explore the grounds—something in hindsight I’d never ever let my own young sons do today. There were times by necessity I couldn’t be outdoors (someone escaped, security swarmed the grounds, etc.), but my parents always made sure I had ample access to the library so that was a solid constant in my life—and it still is!
I read an interview with you talking about your writing process where you mentioned “stress eating gummy bears.” I loved that, because I could picture you writing! What are some other things that are part of your process, in terms of time, place, stuff going on in the background, etc.? And how has the where, when and how of your process changed now that you have two young boys?
Ha, I forgot I had revealed that. Right now I’m gathering up poems to form a manuscript. Outside of the actual writing of poems, it’s the most difficult but most rewarding part of the book process. It’s fun to step back a bit from the composing and take inventory. For me, there are no hard-and-fast guidelines, and I go about manicuring the manuscript in a completely different way for each book. The only similarity between the three books is that I never set out to write a book. That is, I’ve never written consciously with a project or theme in mind.
Liz Rosenberg describes assembling a manuscript as trying to go on a “journey without a map,” and I agree, but just like going on a road trip with no map—it can be a grand time, filled with surprise and fun stops along the way, or one giant hot mess and you’re left needing to use the bathroom with no rest stop for miles! When I get to about 25, 50, then about 90-100 pages of poems, I pause and gather them into a binder and make notes in the margins. Then I don’t look at it again for another 25 or so poems.
Right now, I’m at the 70-something page mark but I’d wager only a third of those will eventually make it in another collection. I’d love to try a themed manuscript one day, but it seems really difficult right now. I just haven’t found a subject I could maintain for 60 poems’ worth, but I’m in awe of those that do. This is the first time in eight years that both of my kids are at school, so time has opened up in a way that I haven’t had in some time, but they are always on my mind, in my writing room. And of course, bits of their Lego creations and various drawings of ocean creatures can be found in my office now, in addition to a bag of gummy bears.
Among the many spheres of your life, you’re a professor of English at SUNY Fredonia. I’ve read interviews where you talk quite movingly about the influence teachers such as David Citino had on you. From experience on both the teacher and student side of the equation, what do you think are some ways that the teacher-student relationship helps a writer develop? Are there some aspects of poetry you feel can’t be taught?
I’ve been teaching at the college level for close to twenty years now and leading a writing workshop is one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life. I hold that relationship very sacred and close to my heart. I hope to show students who have forgotten what it’s like to be creative (the students who are forced to take an arts elective) or those who have been praised and rewarded all their life for creativity—both kinds of students and all those in between—I hope I can both push and encourage them in some very real and concrete ways in each class, each semester.
The teacher-student relationship is one that quite literally saved me from a very foggy and unclear path of what I thought I wanted to study. David (who founded the MFA program at Ohio State, and died in 2005) was the one whose class I stumbled into as an undergrad chemistry major. I had never known any living poets until I met him. He not only gave me permission to write, but he told me never to apologize about writing about family, my background, my then-hapless dating fiascoes. In other words, he showed in word and deed that no subject was too big or too small to write about. And that there were thousands of poetry books—a whole treasure trove—just waiting for me in the library where I could discover how others had tackled these subjects before me—and also what subjects were missing from these collections. I think both teacher AND student must have patience and trust in each other, and that both should be open to learning. Learning very often is a two-way street. My best students are the ones who know that balance of being open to suggestions and also knowing when to push back against me, force me to look at a text in a new way.
And speaking of students, the students in the poem I mentioned earlier “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill” seem hilariously obsessed with comparing and contrasting you with Walt Whitman. Do you have any thoughts about Walt Whitman you’d like to share?
So much to say—I love the wildness and swoops of his long lines, the way he talks about the body and breath.
In addition to being a working poet, you’ve also been the guest judge of several poetry contests, and are currently a poetry editor at Orion. On the editorial side, what do you look for in a poem? Are there some aspects that, if they really wow you, you’ll overlook shortcomings in other areas?
I have to be surprised in some way, by shape of the poem or by image or rhetoric turn. I look/listen for music and dazzle. I need to feel like I’ve traveled a bit from the title to the last word of a poem. And this isn’t scientific or theoretical, but it needs to feel a little bit like magic on my tongue when I read it out loud.
What have you read recently that inspires you? Or listened to or watched, for that matter!
Last month my husband surprised me with tickets to see the musical, Hamilton. I’m trying to write without hyperbole here but please know that it is simply the greatest single piece of art I have ever seen in my life. That cast recording and the musical itself are probably tops on my list of current obsessions. I’ve been lucky to read the forthcoming poetry collections of Raena Shirali and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, which are both utterly dazzling.
Your statement on winning the NEA Poetry fellowship in 2009 said, “I hope to demonstrate how one can be situated without being rooted–be able to travel without getting lost.” You’ve recently been on sabbatical from SUNY Fredonia while working on other things. What projects are you currently situated in, and what are you traveling to next?
New projects include gathering up and solidifying my next collection of poetry, and I have a collection of illustrated nature essays in the works. This coming fall, I’ll be teaching at Ole Miss’ MFA program for the academic year so I’m looking forward to relocating with my whole family for a change of pace. That’s about all I can see project-wise for certain right now—my plate is gloriously full.
Here at Mud Season Review, we are required by law to mention mud season in some fashion. As an avid gardener living in western New York, you must be familiar with the phenomenon. What do you appreciate about mud season, personally or artistically?
Mud means thaw and soon-to-be release from the iciest, dreariest winters in the land (western NY). It also means worms and the Pascal moon and birdsong and getting the garden cleaned up and wearing my favorite red Hunter boots as I walk my garden to see what survived and what didn’t.
As our featured poet for the print issue, you have a soapbox. Do you have any thoughts about things that you wish contemporary poetry (or writing in general) were doing a better job of? Or praise for things it’s doing well?
Though I am very proud of my time in grad school and the chance to work with incredible faculty and peers (many of whom I still consider family friends to this day), I know my writing would have been different had I been exposed to more writers of color, particularly more Asian-American poets. Most of my first collection, Miracle Fruit, comprised a good portion of my thesis and has gone through several printings, but I would not have been able to put it together without some crucial writing tools I picked up in grad school—I learned how to read and write critically, and I also learned the necessity of finding other kindred spirits to help continue the camaraderie long after workshop has ended.
You have to remember that this was mostly pre-internet, so I didn’t know very many writers of color, outside the ones in my writing program. The act of writing can be a lonely endeavor at times, and I’m so grateful for the fellowship and writers I’ve met from being a faculty member at Kundiman and thrilled there are places like Cave Canem and CantoMundo to help foster writers of color across the country. Luckily, today there are more resources and more places that have a deep commitment to finding and showcasing diverse voices. The internet, for all its perils, has been huge in introducing others to the wide range of voices out there. It’s a vibrant and wondrous time to be a poet, much less lonesome I think than even a decade ago.