The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Interviews Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Aimee Nezhukumatathil about her collection Lucky Fish.

This is an edited transcript of the poetry book club discussion with Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview (you can read the unedited discussion here). To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.

Mark Folse: The poems I think of as the “travel poems” in the first book—”Hundred Island,” “Kottayam Morning,” and “Houseboat”—these are some of my favorites. There’s such an ability to capture a moment in a place with great simplicity and beauty: a very fine water color instead of a Polaroid. These types of poems crop up less, further into the book (“Two Egg, Florida” a notable exception). Are the poems chronological, or ordered by some other affinity (the last book being clearly the baby’s book)?

Gaby C: I would love to hear a discussion of the structure of the book in both an architectural and thematic sense. Also how the idea of nature and myth grows/shifts over the course of the book.

Aimee N: Mark—not chronological per se, but you are right that the last section is more the baby or motherhood section. The first section was indeed intended to be a sort of travelogue, and then I hoped to bring the reader back “home,” so to speak . . .

Growing up, I always felt like I was explaining myself/my family to my friends, boyfriends, etc. But as a poet—I find the perfect solution—I feel more free to be interpreter, investigator, historian . . . and yes, there is always the intersection of three cultures looming over my shoulder: Pinay, Indian, and American (born in Chicago) . . .

Camille D: I wonder then, as a sort of intersection between JS’s question and your answer to Mark about home, if one of the things that the travelogue poems do for you is create a broader sense of what home might be? I’m interested in the way poets do this, how they stretch the boundaries that hold them in by traveling in their poems.

JS: And as you mention, cultures looming, mixing sometimes easier, sometimes less . . .

Gaby C: I hope it’s a clear question. This book excites me so much and I may be thinking as I ask . . .

Aimee N: @Gaby—Oh, you have such a great eye! I also teach environmental lit here at SUNY-Fredonia and the quote I always keep on my syllabi is from one of my heroes, Rachel Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders of the universe, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.”

Gaby C: I love that. LOVE.

Aimee N: Ah, Camille and JS—yes, yes—definitely mixing easier at times. Camille doesn’t know this about me, but I moved five times before I was fifteen. So creating and recreating and devising some place to call home I think is always looming in the back of my poems . . . even though I never set out to say “Hey! Today I will try to write about HOME!” 😉

Adrienne: I really like that Rachel Carson quote. It seems as if, in many of your poems, what isn’t said—whatever that may be—has a real presence. Like, in “Twelve/Twelve/Twelve.”

Aimee N: Oh, thanks, Adrienne! You were thinking of the exact poem I was thinking of in my last response.

Gaby C: I also teach environmental lit and so my question contains that. I think of this as an ecology that you are creating; how we read/see/make poems mirroring how we are complicit in all kinds of generative and destructive activities.

Brian S: Along with Adrienne’s comment, I noticed a number of the poems in this book ended on a question or series of questions. I like the meditative feel that provides.

Camille D: I like that Carson quote, Aimee. This is the quote I put on my Nature Lit syllabus and which seems in line with a lot of what’s happening in your book: “For the nature poet, it is not that when we pay close, animal-bright attention the world seems to come awake and speak. When we pay attention, we can tell the world is awake, that it means, hugely and richly, all the time.” — Jan Zwicky

Aimee N: @Gaby—Yes!! I was always interested in nature and environmental writing/authors, but when I first became a mom three years ago, I think THAT is when it really hit me (cliché, I know, I know!). BUT I took everything so personally because I kept thinking about what this planet is going to be like for my sons when they are older. I was outside so much of the time in all of my “home-places” and so much of our culture now keeps kids inside. I’m always trying to find ways to go against that. Like trying to record things for them in case they don’t get to see/experience them for themselves . . .

And thanks, Brian. I also (since becoming a mom) have given up on being a know-it-all. I was a bossy kid and started school early so it was humbling (and truth be told, REFRESHING) to admit, which I do FREELY now that I don’t have answers. Nope. Not at all! So yes, I think the endings of my poems reflect that . . .

Brian S: Yeah, nothing ever made me feel quite as ignorant as when I was trying to be a parent.

Aimee N: @JS—Zinnias are my fave! Even though the Japanese Beetle continues to vex me, I can’t resist planting bulbs every spring so I have fireworks in front of my house all summer long . . .

Gaby C: Yes. Absolutely. And there’s also the aspect of culture and story becoming extinct or homogenized in some way. How we tell stories so as not to forget . . . keep passing them down. But then does that lend to certain things becoming “exotic” in reductive ways? I kept thinking of the incredible balance you strike in “Birth Geographic.” What we expect (in all kinds of ways) and what is real and luminous.

Camille D: Did you write all the poems in the book after you were a mother, or do some date from beforehand? We always like to hear about the genesis and compilation of the collections we read.

Aimee N: “Birth Geographic” was written in response to a piece of writing that depicted hospital births, specifically C-sections, as horrific and monstrous. I was always leery of touching that subject in a poem, but when I was at MacDowell, it was one of those things where the poem found me, not me trying and scratching for the poem. I wanted to show that even the unexpected and unplanned C-section could also be magnificent and beautiful and LIFE-affirming, and most importantly, to make someone care who wasn’t a mom or parent, or who even LIKES babies 😉

Brian S: Can you talk a little about how you decided to use the emails from those high school students in the poem? And what it was like to be compared to Walt Whitman, for better and worse?

JS: Well, his beard is much better . . .

Brian S: Hard to compete with that beard . . .

JS: I cannot!

Camille D: One of our members had an intriguing question related to that poem Brian’s just mentioned.: “Regarding the poem ‘Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootil’—it might be interesting to ask Aimee about her views on ‘doing charity’ in art. When/how, in her opinion, does it work? Would she say that she’s doing charity in a poem like this? Why or why not?”

Aimee N: Brian—Oh, that found poem from the high school students—it’s one of my faves to read aloud . . .

Gaby C: I think it’s a tremendous poem. Necessary and urgent and just beautiful.

JS: And funny.

Camille D: Gaby, I’m not sure if you’re talking about “Birth Geographic” or “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootil” as the threads crossed, but I agree on both counts, for different reasons.

Aimee N: I was having a super busy week in school and I think something like four high school English classes were studying my first book all at the same time, independent of each other. I lost track of how many emails I received that week, but I’d come back from class and BAM—someone saying how they preferred Whitman to me. A few said they preferred me to Walt. It just got so funny sometimes, so heartbreaking and sweet. I loved that so many random students felt so strongly about poetry and felt chummy enough to tell me about it  😉

Adrienne: I actually asked that question about “doing charity” and later realized that “charity” might not be the best word. I just liked how the poem seemed to become a way to identify with the students . . .

Gaby C: “Birth Geographic.” But yes. Both.

Mark Folse: The “Ghost Fish Postcards” seems very Whitmanesque, a poem to the natural world in a Gaia/Pier at the Gates of Dawn sort of way. Your interest in nature and environmental literature and the Whitman reference all just clicked (which is why I love these chats).

Aimee N: Mark! Oh, bless you!! 😉 It was (along with “Birth Geographic”) one of my most ambitious poems to date. When I go over a page, I feel a little antsy and nervous 😉 I was a faculty member at Kundiman, a retreat for emerging Asian-American poets based on Cave Canem’s retreat for African-American poets. . . and each summer a group of us (students and faculty) send postcard poems to each other. I didn’t think to save any of them until half way through and then started writing through and in response to various postcards I sent out.

Adrienne—I love visiting high schools and at first was super surprised when invites from high schools started to outnumber colleges. And then I thought—of COURSE! I feel a deep deep affinity to high school students I think, as I struggled to find my place (oh, I thought I was going to be a doctor just like mom, can you hear the cliche Asian-American child guilt!?) and at least with my first two books, I think you can see that a bit too . . . it will be interesting if it holds true for “Lucky Fish” though . . .

Brian S: Just want to throw my appreciation for “Birth Geographic” out there too. I especially liked section 4 where you worked in the folk wisdom. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, I think.

Aimee N: Thanks, Brian!

Brian S: Can you tell us a little about the origin of the Betty Brown poem? (And I loved the play on the name at the end.)

Aimee N: “Dear Betty Brown” is based on a true story—there is a YouTube video of her in her patronizing voice . . . I could never recreate it! . . . But in the epigraph, she asked a Chinese-American to please consider changing his name to something she could pronounce. Can you imagine the nerve!!?

Brian S: I grew up in the South—I think I hear her voice in my nightmares. And while I loved the poem, I have to say I wasn’t a bit surprised by the attitude. It was one of those shaking my head things.

Aimee N:

Aimee N: Earlier someone asked about the timeline of the book. Some of these poems were written while I was waiting for my second book to come out (so, as early as Fall 2006) and I put the finishing touches on “Ghost-Fish” in July of this past year and that was the last poem I decided to include, so about a third was written before I became a mom.

Mark Folse: There is just such a marvelous sense of reverential wonder at the mystery of the natural world reduced to the beautiful particular.

Brian M: Can you talk a little bit about “Snake Hips,” perhaps including punctuation around the title and the technique at the end with pinch and the end rhyme?

Aimee N: Alice Fulton’s use of the double == sign in her poems influenced me and encouraged me to play around with punctuation as a visual “word” or “state” for the reader to encounter. To me, I was envisioning pause and beauty and danger in the ::{ }:: I’m still wondering if it works, but I loved so much the play and delighted in the rhyme at the end . . . it’s something I still want to experiment with, a new thing to me.

Brian S: So would you say that’s a direction you might explore in your future poems? I’m always interested in looking for what I think of as bridge poems.

Aimee N: Oh yes, sure, but I say that hesitantly, as you can imagine too much of {}<>#$%^&* will simply be distracting and um, annoying  😉

JS: Certain punctuation has programming context; ‘==’ for instance is a comparison, but ‘::{‘ does not.

Aimee N: I am such a dork, Brian M, but also—do you see how the { also looks like a snake’s mouth open in profile?

Gaby C: I love that.

Aimee N: Ah, yes, JS, but I think I’ve heard her use == as almost a double pause of sorts too.

JS: Yes, I can see the snake mouth—that was my first reaction.

Brian M: Ha-ha, yes, I was thinking of that, and the “hips,” and the beginning and end of a snake, if that makes sense . . .

Aimee N: Oh, good! Nice to know that I am not the only visual nerd around here  😉

MarkFolse: ASCII art. Don’t get me started.

Aimee N: JS—yes, though programming language is so so interesting!

Brian S: How far along are you into your next manuscript? Or are you even thinking about it yet?

Thelma: At some point, I’d love to hear you talk a little about the editing process, how much your editor(s) at Tupelo had to do (or not) with such things as arrangement of the contents, specific suggestions for revision, etc. No rush, though . . .

Aimee N: I hardly ever think of “next book” . . . well, except times like NOW, when a book is just about to be released and I clearly will be working towards some THING . . . but I have about forty poems I don’t hate, but for me numbers don’t mean anything. I wish I could say: Oh! I wrote about sixty-five poems! I’m done! Ha.

For each collection I easily had well above 200 or so poems that I cull and cull and prune and prune—and just when I think I am done, I write some more!

Thelma—I’ve been blessed by insanely supportive people at Tupelo. My managing editor, Jim Schley, worked with me in the sleep-deprived months this past summer when I had my 2nd baby in June, was very patient with emails from me at all times of the night (when I had a moment to myself), and he was very hands-on and had NO qualms about telling me if a poem fit or not. But it was very much a collaborative process, of which I am very grateful for and proud . . .

I was writing poems all the way up to the day before my son’s birth and then about two weeks afterward. Now, any fool could know that those poems were nine times out of ten NOT ready to go in. On one to two hours of sleep? NO WAY. But thankfully Jim and a few trusted others could say so, gently, and I for the most part, listened. And still others they fought to include when I thought the poems still needed more time. Ultimately, I had the final call on the poems and the structure, but it sure did help having trusted eyeballs on the pages, especially in those gloriously delirious months after I had the baby!

Camille D: Isn’t it amazing how much you can actually get done in the window just around the baby’s birth? It’s the months later, when they are awake more, that things get really hard. For us at least.

Mark Folse: If I were looking for a transitional poem, Brian, I would look at “The Light I Collect,” that brings together the travelogue wonder of some of the earliest poems with the anectdotal-ness of the middle, personal poems in the subject of your son. It seems to meld the various voices together so well. Not a sudden change of direction, but a collection of past experiments into some, one thing.

Brian S: Aimee, where did all the eels come from? Especially the folklore surrounding them?

Aimee N: Brian—I wish I knew! I was reading about eels a few years ago, not for research or anything, just because it was fascinating (I also went through this with whale sharks, bees, ants, etc.), and they popped up more than I would have guessed or expected in this collection.

Brian M: Has Foosh been talked about? If not, a quick note?

Brian S: Oh yeah—the definition reminded me of 6th grade at the roller rink. First fractured bone of my life.

Aimee N: FOOSH—I just loved the sound and play of the acronym, that it IS an actual medical acronym (falling on outstretched hand) . . . and let the supposition go from there..

Brian S: Thanks to everyone who stopped in tonight and for the questions. Thanks to Camille for choosing this terrific book, and to Aimee for agreeing to join us tonight.

Gaby C: Thank you everyone!!

Brian M: Thanks Aimee!

Aimee N: Thanks so much, everyone!! I’m so honored to be a part of this! And for the awesome questions! Cheers everyone! Sending a virtual cupcake to you all!

Camille D: Thanks, all y’all. Until next month!


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