Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry: Lucky Fish, winner of the Hoffer Grand Prize for Prose and Independent Books; At the Drive-In Volcano;and Miracle Fruit. Poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Quarterly West, New England Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and Tin House. She has been awarded an NEA Fellowship in poetry, the Glenna Luschia Prize from Prairie Schooner, and the Angoff Award from The Literary Review. She is professor of English at State University of New York at Fredonia.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes like the Sirens sing in her favorite folktale, The Odyssey. Only she lulls her reader not to their death, but to transcendence. It was a true pleasure reading her poetry collections and I am thrilled she accepted my request for an interview.” In this interview, Aimee discusses the influences of life on her writing, and reflects on how she cultivates poetry from the mundane.
Superstition Review: In an interview with Robert Lee Brewer for Writer’sDigest.com, you stated, “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.” What a beautiful thought. In what ways do you attempt to pay homage to Mother Nature in your writing?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thank you—‘paying homage’ is not really something that I am conscious of when I write. In fact, ideally, I’m not very purposeful with intent in the first drafts of my writing. For me, it’s only upon a much later reflection that I make specific choices with regard to the line and diction of a poem. Sometimes I only recognize the tone or mood of a poem when the poem is long done, and even then sometimes it’s still a mystery!
SR: “Two Moths,” published by Poetry Magazine, is an exquisitely written poem that laments the atrocity that is child sex slavery. Will you talk about how you found your way to this poem? The closing image of the moths is stunning. Did that present itself early or late in your writing process?
AN: Thanks so much—that means so much, as that poem was the result of hours of reading interviews and documentaries about human trafficking in India. As I assembled my first three collections, I took care to select poems that included hopefully stunning and beautiful imagery from the environment. In the poems I’ve been writing the last couple of years, I hope that imagery from my poems are still arresting, but in a way that helps the reader to look outward in a more global way. Right now, I’m being drawn to poems that help us travel (including to some uncomfortable places) around the world, but that situate ourselves as being part of a larger community without feeling lost. This is what I seem to be scribbling at any rate—a big and lofty goal, I know and one that I am formulating exclusively for this interview because like I said, when I show up to my desk to write, I can’t think about that ‘larger picture’ or I will just freeze looking at the blank page. It’s the image, the line, the breath, and the white space that help me stay focused on the poem at hand. The what or why of a poem for me comes much much later, if at all. The moths appeared very late in the drafting process of this poem. I knew I had wanted to use an animal of some sort to represent a smudged eye from the combo of makeup and crying, and then I knew I wanted to use an insect, then a butterfly to conjure up the idea of transformation—but couldn’t quite put my finger on a winged insect that had a visual impact and also fit with the image I had in mind. I checked in with a relative in India who has a biology degree, and he suggested a silk moth and the minute he said it/ I heard it, with that short ‘o’ sound, I knew that was it.
SR: Your poem, “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill,” also from Lucky Fish, is composed of lines from letters you received from high school students. What gave you the idea to combine these e-mails into a work of poetry? What do you hope to impart on young readers of this piece? Did you ever write a poem that really didn’t have a deeper meaning but everyone still tried to give it one anyways?
AN: Too funny—well, first, I am always drawn to punchy, chewy pieces of dialogue or ads, etc. I can’t help it. After receiving dozens of these emails, I noticed some repeated sentiments, almost chant-like, so to me, when reading all of these student emails together, I was very much drawn to the sounds first, content later. Of course I found the humor of dozens of high school students telling me quite openly and honestly what they thought of my first book and I was truly charmed and amazed at the lack of filter in their responses. The poem itself is just a tiny fragment of various responses that I received in a 24 hr period, but I think Annie Dillard talked about found poems best when she said, “…Turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.”