This past February, we Amesians were fortunate to have Aimee Nezhukumatathil read at our MFA program’s 8th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness, and the Creative Imagination. Flyway blogger and Assistant Poetry Editor Extraordinaire sat down to talk with Aimee:
Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes my favorite kind of poetry. Her recent collection Lucky Fish (2011) borrows language from the natural world to explore the very intimate as well the very strange. Her poems are both personal and universal, moving through space and time to celebrate and to wonder.
Before Lucky Fish, Aimee published At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize, and Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry, and the Global Filipino Award. She teaches at the State University of New York-Fredonia, and lives with her husband and two sons.
Recently Aimee visited Iowa State as a guest at the 8th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness, and the Creative Imagination. Amidst all the excitement I got a chance to sit down with Aimee and discuss poetic process, growing up and gaining a sense of place in the world, and of course, deep sea creatures.
Andrew Payton: We did a round table discussion in workshop of your recent collection Lucky Fish and we all really enjoyed it.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thank you.
AP: So some of your poems are very intimate, while others, “Two Egg, Florida” for instance, are way outside of daily experience. What’s the most common spark for a poem? How does a poem form for you?
AN: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s one set easy answer, but I can tell you probably the most common thing is that for me poems always start with an image. I’m always in envy of people that say, Oh, I’ve got a great title for a poem—for me it always starts with an image or a word that just sounds really beautiful in your mouth, you know? I just can’t get over it. Like the flower plumeria, I’ll be turning that around, but I don’t want to write about plumeria yet. So it’ll just be triggered by an image, but helped along by words I’m always tumbling along in my head. If that makes sense?
AP: It does. Do you keep bank of words or a sort of reserve for when you’re having trouble getting something out?
AN: I keep an image journal. It’s a whole mish-mash of things—recipes I want to try, things I want to jot down that I don’t know will ever be a poem but like the sound of. It’s almost like one of those old fashioned commonplace books where I write down quotes that I like or maybe a couple lines that I’ve been playing around while I’m loading the dishwasher or something. And then later, when I get time to write, I flip through and something usually will pop up from there. And I find if I don’t write it down, it will be just lost in the mind and out all of a sudden.
AP: You also experiment a lot with form. Do you impose forms on poems, or do the poems create form for you?
AN: You know, I think probably a little of both. My first love is obviously free verse and that will never stop. But I’ve found lately that when I’m reading about things like teenage suicide… One of the teenage suicides from gay harassment happened less than half an hour away from where I live in Western New York. It was a fourteen-year-old boy who hung himself in his parents’ yard just because he was being bullied. I find when the subject matter is too painful, or you can’t even make sense of it in some ways, I’ve found that by using form it helps to make sense of it. In a way, I couldn’t find words for it in free verse. It’s been an interesting, kind of pleasant surprise in some ways because I always shied away from form. So with becoming pregnant, when things are just so out of control and you can’t really plan the next day how you’re going to feel and how the poem’s going to get to you or whatever, and being a mom—it sounds all cheesy, like now that I’m a mom I’m writing formal poems, that’s not it at all—but I’m just trying to find some sort of structure in a world that’s increasingly becoming unstructured.
AP: As we were looking at your book in class, we kept running into certain images—the penny, the fish. When you’re writing–
(pause and laugh, while University of Minnesota-Mankato gymnastics team cheers and screams in the hotel lobby)
–do you go through a collection with the idea to place these images into the poems? Or are they more like obsessions that you can’t get rid of?
AN: I think it’s more of the latter. That’s really perceptive. I’m always in awe of people who say, Oh, I’m writing this collection of whatever-themed poems. I’m just writing poems. Eventually I’ll check to see if anything’s gelling. If not, keep going, keep going. It really just came out organically, these images of the fish, these images of luck or love embodied in the magic and surprise of finding a penny or something unsuspected. Those things always came up because they are a kind of reoccurring obsession. When I was forming and molding this into a collection, it was hard for me to avoid—another fish appears or another shiny object—it almost came about organically. By no means was I thinking themes or repeated motifs. Eventually I’d like to take on more of a project book with an overall thematic subject, maybe something historical in nature, but just not right now. It’s on the backburner. I love reading them; I just find them really hard to write.
AP: A lot of poems about the same thing.
AN: Yeah. Part of the reason I love poetry is that when I sit at the desk I never know what I’m going to write. For me that surprise and delight would be sort of taken away. I suppose you could have that still with an overall subject, but I even like that the subject is a surprise nine times out of ten. I never sit down and say, I’m going to write a funny poem or I’m going to write a birth poem. The subject comes out much later.
AP: Back to the obsession with images—are you obsessed with anything right now?
AN: Yes. They permeated a little bit of Lucky Fish, but much more so now: deep sea creatures. I’m talking the really deep sea creatures, not just like dolphins, but the really deep stuff. I don’t know if you’ve been following this, but there have been recent photographs and recent expeditions to animals that have never been photographed before on the very bottom of the ocean—this is just in the last three months. Things like hairy crabs or crabs that seem like they have hair—they’re more like filaments, it’s not technically hair, otherwise they’d be a mammal and not a crab. They’re white and they’re furry and they’re called yeti crabs. This was just discovered four or five months ago, so I’m just obsessed. And that’s just what’s out there that we’ve gotten on film. It never ceases to amaze me. How much else is out there? What I’m working on right now is finding a way to capture that magic for children—it’s very difficult—but I’m working on poems that children can understand that give scientific and biological information about these animals to give a sense of what’s on the bottom of the ocean.
That’s what I’ve been obsessed with. The shapes and the textures. There’s no vocabulary for this. This stuff that is really uncharted and no one’s been writing about—at least not yet. It’s not like you can use the tried and true similes of a dolphin arcing in the water. There are movements and shapes that nobody even has similes and metaphors for yet. In a way, it’s kind of exciting, but it’s also kind of intimidating that you’re one of the few people that’s trying to tackle these subjects and trying to present them to the world in a literary form when there isn’t really a model for it. Do you even know what I’m talking about?
AP: Well, I don’t know the crab specifically, but I’ve seen the Planet Earth episode.
AN: Yeah, yeah, but even deeper than that. I could just sit and watch. Actually, that’s what my four-year-old was watching this morning when I checked on him. Some of them are a little—as he calls it—scawy, vewy scawy. You know, animals eating each other. But there’s a deep sea one that’s relatively benign and mystical with jellyfish just kind of floating around. So it’s an exciting challenge, but a challenge nonetheless, trying to fit these life forms into words and trying to translate them to the page when there aren’t a lot of models out there.
AP: That’s interesting. I often read about something that I want to write about, but it’s so far away from me that I don’t even have the language. Even things that do have language—something in another place…
AP: So you use many images from the natural world, and you’re working on a book of nature essays. These images occur often in your poems. So how does nature shape you and your writing?
AN: You know, I always say that with Nature with a capital ‘N’ is the greatest writer. I’m just trying to take notes as I observe it, trying to track it down before it disappears again. I think in some ways when dealing with these bitter subjects like deaths or break-ups or something like that, it’s almost the opposite problem—even with birth or love—I find that dipping into the language of nature and using metaphors from the natural world give a new spark or new energy. Rather than just, Oh I love you, or, Oh, I’m sad you broke up with me—those themes are definitely important and I don’t want to avoid them in my work—but finding ways to make them new I guess.
For me, incorporating metaphors with a natural bent always freshens it up. So even if I’m writing about first love, it still feels new to me if I’m using the medusa jellyfish as a metaphor for first love—for me, that’s exciting and new. I think it’s almost intertwined; it’s almost hard for me to divorce that because I watch so many of these documentaries and read so much. The majority of what I read is actually field guides or nonfiction nature books—it’s kind of my dirty secret—I read much more of that than I do actual poetry. So when it comes down [to it], when I’m actually composing, that vocabulary’s already embedded in me. So it’s hard for me to say I’m not going to write about nature, because that’s the thing that’s already been stirring around in my head. I feel like the natural world is full of metaphors that are very much applicable in 2012, just as much as they were in 1912.
AP: Our MFA program has a theme of tackling place in writing. As someone who has two parents from two different places, and not living where you grew up, how do you maintain a sense of place? And how does that inform your writing?
AN: These are the best questions I’ve had, easily, in the last six months or so. Usually it’s like, Where’s your favorite place to write? What music do you listen to?
AP: Those are important, too.
AN: Those are great, those are great, but these are really meaty. Since this is Flyway—my Iowa connection is that I lived one year in a tiny town called Independence, Iowa, near Cedar Rapids where we’d go for shopping or something. My mother was a psychiatrist at one of the Iowa mental health state hospitals. I moved around and had kind of an unusual childhood, but wherever I lived the one constant was libraries and my father taking me around outside.
That’s something that I kind of lament a little bit. I can kind of see with some of my friends kids, this is a totally different world and totally different culture where the kids are inside looking at a screen. And I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, because I love my iPad and the technological advances, but if we wanted to have fun we would be outside. There was just no other way to it. TV was not really used as a babysitter for us, so we always had to be outside. Even if it was a place that we didn’t know exactly, that was part of the fun: to go tromping through backwater creeks in Independence, Iowa, or exploring the literal edges of desert in Phoenix, Arizona. Going back to that one constant of libraries, I could pick up a rock or pick up some plant and I was blessed with a dad who really knew his stuff. So he wouldn’t say, Oh that’s just a flower, he would say, Oh that’s a yellow bell. He would give me names at a very early age. So I was the annoying kid who could point out constellations, and not just say, Oh look at the stars, but, Oh Orion is close to Venus right now. Given that vocabulary at such an early age was absolutely crucial to finding a sense of place. If I was in Independence, Iowa, or Phoenix, Arizona, you could still see Orion—that was a constant. So even though the actual landscape we were in changed, there was a constant of the stars and there was a constant in going to the library to see what we actually saw outside today. It was an adventure.
When I was a kid, it was always presented with such excitement. Oh look at this new landscape. We’re going to be in the middle of Kansas! How exciting! And if we found it boring, our parents very much put the onus on us. If you are bored, you are a boring person. How can you with your facilities and your imagination be bored? In some ways they shamed us into having an imagination. I kind of liked that. And hopefully I try to instill that in my kids as well. I know sometimes I’ll have to give in and have the latest video game, but for as long I can fight it, it’s going to be up to them to make their own way in a landscape and be outside and find excitement from tromping around in the creek. There’s so much more imaginative play you can do there rather than staring at a screen and having the story brought out for you.
It was never presented as weird or unusual to me—I think I would have rebelled against that—it was just what my family did, and that’s all there was to it.
AP: You just brought up your kids. A common struggle for us grad students is finding the time to write with all other duties. So with teaching and having two kids, what’s your secret to chiseling away a bit of time to write?
AN: If I had the one easy answer I’d be so rich right now. It would always drive me bonkers when I’d have visiting writers that would say, Oh I wake up every morning at four and just do it. I kind of laugh now in hindsight, thinking I had all the time in the world as a grad student, but I very much know the reality is when I was a grad student I was swamped. There were always deadlines; it’s just a different kind of being swamped. The only thing I can offer up is that wherever you are on this planet, if you find yourself attached to a partner or not attached to a partner, writing has got to be priority. If it is, you’ll find ways. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I think it’s that striving for perfection or routine, that’s where people falter. I like looking at it as, I feel better when I work out or I feel better when I have my favorite dessert. I’m not going to stop doing either of those things. I know I feel like a complete person when I am writing, but I also know I feel like a complete person when I’m hanging out playing Candy Land with my kids. I think it’s this weird external pressure—honestly it was drilled into me—wake up every day and write, or be a night owl and just always come to the desk. That’s all fun and great and definitely works for some people, but the big part of it is accepting it within yourself. I know that sounds weird and Zen, but if you do make that priority—you’ll have weeks you have to work on teaching or papers, but maybe the next week then. It’s when people don’t put it as priority, that’s when things go awry.
I didn’t really start getting publication success until I started having that sort of leeway with myself. There were definitely times when I did get up every morning and write—from eight to twelve, I had the luxury of a schedule in grad school, and write, and though not all of it was writing I was at the desk and it felt like a job to me. But so my normal natural self rebelled against it, so I wasn’t putting in the exact concentration. Everybody is going to be so different—that’s another thing I wish I heard in grad school—no one said, What works for me may not work for you. It was instead very much, I have the key and you’re going to follow this pattern. Somebody needs that discipline, but I think everybody can agree that you need to find a way where writing is going to fit in in your life and everything else will fall into place. There were times that I had have a three day break in between, now it’s almost a week, two week break in between because I travel, I teach, heaven forbid I want to be a good mom, a good friend, but I don’t beat myself up over it. Here’s the thing though: when I get to the desk, it’s on. No Facebook, no retail therapy. It’s concentration time. So I might have just two hours as opposed to my luxurious four hour block before, but that’s two hours when I am drafting and writing. That’s helped, too. There’s an urgency there that maybe wasn’t there before. Ultimately I’d say that whatever you can do to keep that urgency alive, so that when you’re sitting down at the desk, it’s happening. Go for it.