December 13, 2015
Interviewed by: Brett Hanley
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is Professor of English at State University of New York-Fredonia. She is the author of three poetry collections: Lucky Fish, At the Drive-in Volcano, and Miracle Fruit. Lucky Fish was the winner of the gold medal in Poetry from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. At the Drive-in Volcano was the winner of the Balcones Prize, and Miracle Fruit was the winner of the Tupelo Press Prize. She also recently published a collaborative chapbook of nature poems with her friend and fellow poet, Ross Gay.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil was the visiting poet at McNeese State University this fall and kindly agreed to an interview with us via email.
“I’m (like most poets) a poet of obsession. When I can’t quite shake an image from my mind, I know it’s time to sit and write through (or around) it.”
BH: In your recent interview with Divedapper, you mention that you unapologetically write about joy and wonder. Something I admire about your work is that the joyfulness of it consistently seems earned and sincere. How do you know when a poem is the right amount of joyful or the right amount of affectionate?
AN: I guess the truthful answer is that there is no litmus test of happiness in a poem for me when I’m writing or revising, but what I can suss out is whether a poem’s emotional core is the right temperature. I don’t really even think of that until I’m well into revisions. Cheryl Strayed has this great quote that speaks to this: “I write to find out what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.” I was an early reader and read everything I could get my hands on: stories, biographies, science books, my mom’s medical journals. In stories and mythology, however, it bored me when things were depicted in black and white. The books I poured over were the ones that had conflict, not just in plot, but in imagery/characterization: Medusa was horrifying to look at, but she was once a beauty and was cursed, for example. In my poems, I try to have nuance and edge to every image—because that is just how I view the world: there is always a dark shimmer to beauty and sometimes a beautiful shimmer to a dark or ‘ugly’ image.
BH: I love the way that you seamlessly connect the image of a werewolf with both your dachshund and your son in “Lobison Song” and the way you connect images of occurrences in the natural world with so many different things in your poetry. How do you know when an image from something you’ve read or learned about is right for a poem?
AN: I’m (like most poets) a poet of obsession. When I can’t quite shake an image from my mind, I know it’s time to sit and write through (or around) it. And I confess that while I do obsess over details and images, my associative mind won’t let me stay in one place for long.
BH: Was there a moment or time period when you knew you needed to commit to a career in poetry rather than to a career that explored your other interests?
AN: I never (and still don’t) bank on a career in poetry per se. My career is teaching and I’m rather happy to say that there’s no other job I’d love more than being in the classroom, actually. I knew pretty early on that I loved the classroom and loved the workshop environment for the most part, or rather, what it could be at its best—a salon of encouragement and challenge and wonderment. This is my fourteenth year of being an English professor and I just love leading workshop and teaching so much. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to discuss books and poems and creativity with students of all ages and I love the challenge of finding ways for my own interests (painting, the natural world) to intersect with my job.
BH: What effect do you think the collaborative effort with Ross Gay for Lace & Pyrite had on your poetry? And how do you think it affected your garden?
AN: I count so many of my favorite writers my friends, so working on this project with Ross was pretty natural, as we have corresponded through letters for years before our chapbook came out. Our voices are pretty distinct from one another, I think. But in the chapbook, I think it’s interesting to see how layered our influence was on each of our individual “sections.” When I was going through final edits, I was like, “how did that Ross-y phrase get there?” But for me that was a good thing, and I hope he feels the same. ☺ He works with an organic community orchard and in his own vegetable garden in Indiana, and I was constantly learning new/old tricks to turn my own flower gardens less reliant on chemicals, so that was a big change I’m proud of, especially with little boys and a Chihuahua running around my backyard.
BH: Have you learned anything lately related to animals or plants that you think our readers would be interested in knowing about?
AN: All the time! I get excited about the world nearly every day with something I read. But I’m painfully aware not everyone gets as excited about say, a coconut, as I do. Or the texture of a single octopus siphon. But you asked, and those are the last two things I was reading about. Not for any writing projects, mind you, but because at heart, I’m still that 5-year-old who just loves to read.
BH: In one of our recent conversations, you mentioned you were on sabbatical. Do you have any exciting plans or projects in the works for this time away from teaching?
AN: I’m finalizing a new poetry manuscript, working on nature essays, and one of these days, I’m determined to make the perfect loaf of bread from scratch (no bread machine).
Brett Hanley is a first-year poetry candidate in the MFA program at McNeese State University and a reader for The McNeese Review.