One of the cool things about this blog is that very talented poets actually contact me about their poetry–either because they read the blog or are referred by their very talented poet friends. One such talented poet is Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who’s the author of At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize, and Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the ForeWord Magazine Poetry Book of the Year and the Global Filipino Award–both collections published by Tupelo Press. Aimee also has new poems appearing in Ploughshares, Antioch Review and American Poetry Review. She is an associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia.
Her work is detailed and often science-based, but there’s also a sense of adventure, desire and love that helps make her writing both relevant and accessible at the same time. For instance, here is one of my favorite poems from her collection At the Drive-In Volcano:
The fear of long words
On the first day of classes, I secretly beg
my students, Don’t be afraid of me. I know
my last name on your semester schedule
is chopped off or probably misspelled–
or both. I can’t help it. I know the panic
of too many consonants rubbed up
against each other, no room for vowels
to fan some air into the room of a box
marked Instructor. You want something
to startle you? Try tapping the ball
of roots of a potted tomato plant
into your cupped hand one spring, only
to find a small black toad who kicks
and blinks his cold eye at you,
the sun, a gnat. Be afraid of the x-rays
for your teeth or lung. Pray for no
dark spots. You may have
coal lung. Be afraid of money spiders tiptoeing
across your face while you sleep on a sweet, fat couch.
But don’t be afraid of me, my last name, what language
I speak or what accent dulls itself on my molars.
I will tell jokes, help you see the gleam
of the beak of a mohawked cockatiel. I will
lecture on luminescent sweeps of ocean, full of tiny
dinoflagellates oozing green light when disturbed.
I promise dark gatherings of toadfish and comical shrimp
just when you think you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat.
Here’s the interview:
What are you currently up to?
I’m on sabbatical right now and last month I traveled to the Georgia Aquarium to fulfill a life-long dream/research project on whale sharks. I swam with four whale sharks and about 6,000 other fish, including a giant hammerhead. It was, to put it plainly–short of my wedding and the birth of my first child–the most exhilarating experience of my life. I’m working on an environmental children’s book about the whale shark and a series of young adult poems. Meanwhile, it seems like I have been putting the finishing touches on my new manuscript for forever, but this time I mean it. This past summer, I had a mammoth 120+ page manuscript, so some serious slash-and-burn took place. My husband and I just bought a new house and we’ll be moving in less than a month so I am also staring at various paint color chips scattered on my office floor.
At the Drive-In Volcano includes several references to location. So I’m wondering how important is location to your work?
I’m very particular when it comes to describing a landscape. For me, as both a reader and a writer, landscape is the very anchor (or at least one of them) for the whole poem to stand. Much of my writing comes from a life unsettled (having lived in seven different states since childhood) and to write about what a slice of land looks like or feels like is perhaps my way of mooring myself within the white space of a poem. The nature writer Gretel Erlich said that part of what helped shed her outsider status was to become a part of a place where “a person’s life is a slow accumulation of days, seasons, and years, anchored by a land-bound sense of place.” I have something very close to that “slow accumulation” here in Western NY, thank goodness, but at heart, there is still a wanderer in me.
Nature plays a role in the collection–from taking pictures next to volcanoes to taking the fins off sharks. Is science and the natural world a fascination of yours outside of writing?
One of the most common questions I get when I am a visiting writer is some variation of “Are the relationships/break-ups in your poems real?” My answer is that I can say that in poems that touch upon a romantic relationship, the biggest mistake one can make is assuming that the “I” of the poems is really me. I like to think of it as a composite or a sort of mosaic of a person, who just happens to have some similar qualities to me, but is not really me. But something that I’m very proud of content-wise, is that as you read through the book, you can be sure that any of the scientific or nature “trivia” found in my poems is all factually true. I didn’t make up anything just for the sake of the poem, or because it ‘sounded’ better. So when I say in my poems that there is a wasp that can fly away holding a lizard in the clutches of its wee legs, or that when an octopus becomes stressed, it eats its own arms, I’m not just trying to conjure up some make-believe tra-la-la just to evoke a certain mood. Mother Nature is the greatest poet of all. I just take my cues from her. There’s no way I could ever top the poems she gives us every single day. Just step outside and look around.
I read on your website that you have a dachshund named Villanelle. While reading your collection, I noticed you used the villanelle more than I’m used to seeing from other poets. Could you speak about both the villanelle and Villanelle?
The villanelle form is one of my favorite formal structures in poetry. I love to teach it, I love to write them. The repetition of the form lends itself to jumping in even deeper to an obsession. All the lines of the villanelles in my book are enjambed—that is, I don’t actually repeat a complete line and barely even use the same rhyming word, unlike the ‘traditional’ villanelles in the vein of Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle,” where whole lines are completely used again throughout the poem. People say an enjambed villanelle is more difficult to compose, but for me, finding a subject (let alone a line!) that bears repeating again and again is easier said than done. I adore puzzling through the possibilities of unexpected rhymes in the villanelle. Also? I love that the rhyme scheme is “aba aba aba aba aba abaa.” Just saying it out loud cracks me up. As for my dachshund, Villanelle—she’s taking an ‘extended spa vacation’ with my folks in Florida, as she did not take too kindly to a new baby in the house. But she has home-cooked (yes, I said cooked) meals from my mom and even though I miss her terribly, we visit often and she is generally living a glamorous life every dachshund dreams about. I almost named her “Strudel.”
In the poem “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia,” subtitled “The fear of long words,” you write a reassuring poem to students about the length and spelling of your last name. Do you have a particular instance of a student having trouble with your name?
Oh, too many to mention in this space. I’ve had students say after the first day of classes that they were relieved because they thought I was going to be “one of them foreign guys who can’t pronounce anything right.” (Way to make a good first impression on your professor, no?) All during elementary school and high school, I felt like I had to explain so much of my culture to well-meaning friends and boyfriends. They knew I was American—had no accent whatsoever, but yet I was still different in lots of ways to them. It’s funny, because my writing is still a lot of that “explaining” I think. Why I couldn’t do this or that, why we eat this or that, etc. In the 70s, the pediatricians in Chicago (where I was born) routinely told immigrant families to teach children ENGLISH and only ENGLISH, else they would be ridiculed in school, etc. They really drilled this into my parents’ minds, and even though my mom is a doctor herself, she was scared into following the orders. I wish I could hunt him down and slap him. I feel so cheated that I missed out on learning 2 beautiful languages: Tagalog and Malayalam. Never ever wanted to shorten my name. Even my husband didn’t want me to take his name—he knows it is such a part of me that I would never want to lose. I think because my sister and I were raised in suburban neighborhoods where my family was the ONLY family of color, I was so used to having to ‘explain’ my (then) unusual packed lunches of lumpia and fried rice, etc. Or having fish for breakfast, etc. So I think in some ways, you could say I spent my whole childhood and teen years building a language that is accessible and vibrant. Poetry was finding its way through my everyday language before I ever knew what was going on.
Who are you currently reading?
My sabbatical reading list keeps getting longer, but the most recent reads include poet Paula Bohince whose new poems just blew me away, and a gaggle of children’s literature to get a feel for what is out there as I work on my book on the whale shark. I am still plugging away on this almost 600-page long The Culinary History of Food. It’s a veritable doorstop, but chock full of fascinating bits. It covers food culture in ancient hominids to the intricacies of canned food. I particularly found the section on medieval cooking to be a gas! I realize that those sentences make me sound like a huge nerd and you would be right to think so, but it’s a must-read for any foodie. For fiction, I was a little late to the party, but I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–as close to a masterpiece as I ever read. It’s also the last book that made me cry.
If you could pass on one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?
Oh, I have lots of little morsels of advice: read often and a lot. Floss. Invest in a good pair of shoes and write letters more often. Listen to the paper take the ink when you sign your name.
Finally, and a little off topic, who’s going to win the Big Game this year? Ohio State or Michigan?
Clearly, you did not do your research, Good Sir. The Buckeyes may have dashed the hearts of their fans to smithereens by getting obliterated by USC this month, but this is the Tressel era: OSU 35, UM 3.
Apologies go out to any Michigan fans who (probably now formerly) read the blog, but I noticed that Aimee was a Buckeye fan, and while I’m moving to Georgia on Monday, I just had to get a prediction from a poet on how that game is going to go down. (Btw, any USC fans watch the game last night? Go Beavers!)
To find out more about Aimee and her work, I suggest checking out her website at www.aimeenez.net.
Also, Tupelo Press, the publishers of Aimee’s two collections, have a website at www.tupelopress.org.