2011 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. | February 4, 2011
Episode 20: No One Here Ever Wishes You Happiness: A Conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil by Brian Brodeur
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of the prize-winning poetry collections, Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-In Volcano and the forthcoming Lucky Fish, all from Tupelo Press. Other awards for her writing include an NEA Fellowship in poetry and the Pushcart Prize. She is Associate Professor of English at State University of New York-Fredonia, where she received the Hagan Award and the SUNY-wide Chancellor's Medal.
Published Date: June 29, 2011
Introduction by AWP staff member Will Fawley: Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This interview originally occurred at the 2011 AWP Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.. The recording features Brian Brodeur and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
Brian Brodeur: I’m Brian Brodeur, and I’m here at the 2011 AWP Annual Conference in Washington D.C. with the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Aimee is the author of three poetry collections, all of which were published by Tupelo Press, Lucky Fish, At the Drive-in Volcano, winner of the Balcones Prize, and Miracle Fruit, winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, ForeWord Magazine’s book of the year award, and Global Filipino Award, and finalist for The Glasgow Prize, and The Asian American Literary Award. She lives in Western New York with her husband and two young sons. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, welcome.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thanks, Brian.
Brodeur: Would you mind reading a poem for us to get started?
Nezhukumatathil: Sure. I’m going to read “Table Manners.”
In India, Northerners pride themselves
on eating only with their fingertips,
while Southerners enjoy their foods
with the entire hand, to the wrist if need be.
No wonder JoAnn and I sit stunned
at the dinner table as our cousins
scoop and slurp their lunch: dried fish
in gingilly oil, poori soaked first
in sambar then cooled in cucumber rayta.
I motion to Oomana, the servant girl:
do you have fork, spoon? She laughs
a little longer than necessary, then
disappears into the storage room.
Each finger-lick makes us grimace
but secretly I want to join them
in slick-smacking this beautiful food.
The three-year-old sees my fork
and cries until he gets one
of his own to bang and draw
lines in his plate of sauce.
No one here ever wishes
you happiness and now, now I know why:
this is supposed to be of your own doing,
your own relish, of your own open hands.
Brodeur: Thank you. Your poems, across all of your books, are rich with physical details of the sensual world. Food especially figures prominently in your work. Could you discuss this briefly? Would you consider food a healthy obsession for you?
Nezhukumatathil: Possibly, depending on the meal, probably healthy or unhealthy (laughs). I love food. I love to eat. I make no bones about it. I try to eat fairly health conscious, but that doesn’t always work out when someone puts a plate of cupcakes in front of me.
I think that part of that is food is such a part of growing up, in that everybody says, “I remember mom’s spaghetti,” or something like that. Food for me served as an important catalyst when I was growing up, and usually we were the only Asian-American family in whatever small town we lived in. I’d have friends over and they’d be like “Eew, what is that, worms?” And I’m like, “It’s noodles.” But noodles was so crazy exotic to them, which is so ridiculous when you think of spaghetti. This is just a different way of serving noodles, in pansit, a traditional Tagalog dish.
Brodeur: Well, kids, I imagine, would be especially cruel.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, and you can imagine, so of course I always wanted to fit in, so I’d be like, “Yeah, yucky pansit! Give me some mac and cheese.” And it kills me and breaks my heart. I hope to goodness my parents never heard me disavowing their food, because, truthfully, my sister and I grew up with such amazing, delicious Indian and Filipino food. I always found myself having to come up with language to my friends to be like, “Look, try this eggroll,” or, “Try this whatever, it tastes crunchy,” finding ways to make it accessible to them and non-scary and non-exotic, you know? It’s just delicious. So I think food was a nice way of bridging the gaps of the weird Asian family with weird noodle food to some of my small town friends.
Brodeur: Your mother is Filipina, and your father is from South India, so that itself was kind of a melding of two different cultures. Was the dinner table for you guys sort of a larger metaphorical space?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh yeah, that’s actually really amazing that you were able to pick that up. I think that’s exactly right, actually. Even now, the running joke is my dad is the one who, you know, my Indian father, is the one who taught my mom how to make a good Indian curry dish, but the thing is that my mom’s curry is, what I think, more delicious and more authentic tasting than my dad’s. So it’s like she one-upped him in his own cultural dish. I used to laugh at it, but now I just gleefully accept it.
My husband, who’s from Kansas, Western Kansas, makes incredibly, insanely delicious and authentic tasting Indian food, recipes from my grandmother, better than I can. And that used to irritate me so much. Like, how did this turn out better? This is my grandmother, you know? So even now, we’re still blending the cultures too, and joyfully so. I think that’s a great metaphor for really how I grew up and how my family is now actually.
Brodeur: And it’s also lunchtime, and here we are talking about food.
Nezhukumatathil: I know, surprise! (laughter).
Brodeur: But you know, family history, marriage, motherhood, daughterhood, etc., figures prominently in your poems. How does a poet make art out of the autobiographical? Or how do you make art out of it?
Nezhukumatathil: It’ll be interesting. The book is fresh out, new just within the past weeks, so it’ll be interesting to see the reception on that. I know…
Brodeur: That’s Lucky Fish. Lucky Fish is the new one from Tupelo Press.
Nezhukumatathil:That’s right, thanks for the plug there. You know, when I was a grad student, single, I used to kind of like roll my eyes like, “Great, another mommy poem,” you know? I have no connection. But what I found is, actually I did have connections. I think one of the dangers of writing about what maybe some people might think is sentimental, is the idea of like, “Oh, you’re the first person to give birth,” and not have that awareness, as with any subject. Any poet worth her salt would be cautious of that with any subject, not just with motherhood, or not just being in a family, or being a daughter. You have to wonder about that, like what else are you making new, what are you bringing to the table new? And I think for me, what I at least hope to do is to kind of make those connections.
I love finding metaphors, through food as you noticed, but through also, the scientific, biological world. My background is actually Chemistry, but I love, my actual reading time is spent reading field guides or books on raccoons. Just anything but poetry essentially. I love finding those natural metaphors working their way into talking about intimate relationship details of what it was like to give birth, or that kind of thing, so that I’m not just recording, “Hey, here’s notes from the delivery room,” but trying to find the universal, to make those connections. And universal for me is nature, looking at what’s outside, or food. Those are the two connections I find with anybody, with any culture, any gender, any status. Everybody likes food, everyone can see animals in nature, or can at least experience them, or read about them, that kind of thing.
Brodeur: And everyone has a family.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, at some point. Even if you consider yourself a loner, you have your own made family.
Brodeur: They are a daughter or son.
Nezhukumatathil: Exactly, exactly. So yeah, that’s at least my hope, that I don’t want to be pissing off any single folks or people who aren’t parents or anything, but still finding that they can ultimately see that these are poems that celebrate life and living with joy, and delight, and loving food, and hopefully being just good, genuine people - and finding the good in people too. I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s really where I was coming from when I was writing these poems.
Brodeur: I think we need more sentiments like that in poetry.
Nezhukumatathil: I hope, I mean, I’m a big dork at heart. If I were to write some straight, smart poems, that would be such a farce.
Nezhukumatathil: Exactly. I have no street-cred, and I’m well aware of that (laughter).
Brodeur: Well, do you think of family poems, the motherhood poems, the daughterhood poems, etc., as being a kind of nature poem?
Nezhukumatathil: I think so. I teach environmental lit and I teach environmental writing, and I think it’s important too. When I was doing research for how to craft my syllabi, I noticed a lot of people were including books on, you know, plants, animals, but they were forgetting humans, as if we’re not a part of it. And that’s where the environmental edge comes in too. If we’re not taking notice of how humans factor in the equation, our planet is not going to be around much longer. So I think, yeah, that’s very apropos to this. In some other circles I’m considered a nature poet. In other places I’m like, “Oh, I write about family,” but I think they’re one in the same in some ways.
Brodeur: When you’re assembling a manuscript, and I’m not sure exactly of your process of doing this and I’d like to talk about that in a second, but do you consciously try to avoid sequencing like poems next to each other or do you consciously say, “Well, I don’t want to have a nature poem section” or something?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it varies with each manuscript. With this one in particular, the order and organization went through, I want to say at least a good five kind of shufflings, like major changes, not just, “Oh, I took out one poem.”
I wasn’t so much conscious, at least in the beginning, of sections, as I was to how the poems are having conversations with each other. For example, the way this, ‘Poem A’ ends, what emotion or what kind of mood do I want to set to the next poem? Do I want it to shift, do I want to stay on the same vibe? It’s almost like putting together this great set-list for a party in some ways, or setting a good mood music CD. It’s like making your greatest hits kind of, in a way, but for one event. And I guess the event being the book.
Some CDs you want to listen to like some kind of dance party music first and then take it down. Some people can’t stand that disjunction, they need to slow down gently. Hopefully I shook it up enough. In doing so, I found natural groupings and it did end up having to be…naturally it fell into some of the motherhood, pregnancy poems happen toward the end. So in some ways it’s chronological, but it definitely did not start out that way. I was really looking at the beginning and ends of poems, and seeing what came out of that. In fact, I wasn’t planning on having sections at all actually.
Brodeur: Working with the editors at Tupelo Press, this is your third book with them, which I think is always interesting when poets actually find a home. What has that process been like? How active are the editors in making suggestions, for either individual poems or entire book-length manuscripts, etc.?
Nezhukumatathil: For this collection, it’s very much hands on. My editor in chief has seen me through three collections and we’ve had a little bit of change up in staff here and there. This summer, my managing editor Jim Schley and I worked back and forth. I just gave birth in June…
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you. And as early as July, we were going back and forth on what to include, what to take out. It’s quick. I don’t recommend this to anybody, but for whatever reason, right before my birth and right after birth I had this kind of ‘whammo’ concentration of, I don’t know, just this extra, extra creative energy that I was pouring into my manuscript on those sleepy, odd hours. So bless his heart, he was dealing with emails at four in the morning. Whenever I was awake with the baby I’d suddenly have this idea, like “Oh, breakthrough! This poem needs to go out,” or whatever.
And what I also appreciate, perhaps most of all, is their candor. Tupelo has no qualms about telling me, “Yeah, that’s not gonna work,” or “I think maybe you’ve had no sleep, so maybe think about it.” And for a new mom that was especially – I did, in hindsight, need to hear that. But they also were very much amenable to saying, “Oh my gosh, why didn’t we think of this before? How did we miss this?” So it was very much a collaborative process, not so much during the composing of it, but once they had maybe about the fourth edition of this manuscript, that’s when we could go back and forth with ordering, if there’s a couple egregious poems in there, that kind of thing. I really liked having this kind of overseer, so that, especially in my sleep deprived state, I wouldn’t tumble off the cliff and produce this wildly erratic collection, so that at the end people would be saying, “wow, clearly she assembled this on no sleep.”
I felt like I was in very good hands actually with Tupelo. And because they know how I read, they know what I can do in front of a crowd. They also know when to pull back and say, “Ok, Aimee needs rest,” or that kind of thing. I love that kind of family relationship. They also know when to put me out in the spotlight, when to hold me back, to not overexpose me, to pull me back, and so I’m very grateful.
Brodeur: So they’re also kind of managers as well?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, in some ways. For poets, I always feel so cheesy to say, “Oh, they’re setting up a reading for me,” or “they’re my agents” by any means, but they kind of oversee this whole ushering out into the world of this book. This is partially their creation as well, so they’re very concerned on how this is brought into the world. So for that I’m very grateful
Brodeur: That period directly following the birth of your child, was it an especially creative time?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, I think so. I’d like to ideally think I’m creative all year round, but I think maybe, this is my second child and I don’t know what it was. No other mother I spoke to has had this situation. Now I’m actually finding it more difficult to write than it was the first few weeks. Honestly, it should not be like that. It’s usually the first few weeks that are so difficult. I think maybe because there were so many times when I was up at odd hours of the night. My mind was just racing, thinking, lots of thinking. It’s not like the baby can have a conversation with you yet at that point.
Brodeur: At least not verbal.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, and it makes it seem like, “Oh, I wasn’t concentrating on the baby.” I very much was, but different nuances, different – I mean, so much creative energy was coming forth. I actually am so glad I had this outlet of putting together my manuscript during that time, because it wasn’t creating brand new poems necessarily all the time. I could do that for a little bit, but also go back to the structure of my manuscript. So, different parts of my brain were working all at once.
Brodeur: Do you think that that kind of altered state you were in, I mean, were you writing new kinds of poems for you?
Nezhukumatathil: I think so. But not wildly erratic haikus all of a sudden, like spitting out baby haikus. (laughter) Nothing like that. I don’t want to mention them right now, maybe the readers can pick out which ones they think were written in those months. I think it’s pretty clear, but I don’t know. It’s really hard to talk about it without coming off as seeming cheesy, and like, “Oh I’m suddenly Earth Mother now, and I have all this energy flowing.” I mean, I never even talk like that in my regular life.
All I know is I was awake, I had lots of time to think, and I had a good outlet for it. For me it happened through birth, but it’s also happened in other times when I’m away at MacDowell, for example, or any other time where I have considered time to think, while I’m driving. I was involved in a long-distance relationship, so those long-hour drives, multiple hours on the road, I feel were very creative too in that way. Just giving the poet time to think, I think is just crucial and necessary.
Brodeur: Many of your poems utilize humor. Could you talk about your use of humor as a rhetorical device? Maybe that’s not the best way to frame that question.
Nezhukumatathil: It sounds so serious now all of a sudden! (laughter) Yeah, and bless you for even saying that, because I always picture my sister’s voice on my shoulder. She would be rolling her eyes if she heard that question. Again, I mentioned before, I’m just one giant cheeseball, and so I never set out to be like, “Ah-ha! I’m going to write a funny poem now!” But there are things, I’m quick to laugh, I find things amusing, easily so. It wouldn’t ring true to me if I were to look at the world with a dark, brooding, critical eye. That’s not how I look at the world, even seemingly serious subject matter, traditionally serious subject matter. I do find humor in situations. I think that naturally comes out.
One of the things I at least try to be conscious of, only during the editing process, not during the creation part, is the humor getting in the way of whatever mood or beauty or situation that I want to evoke. Are people going to remember the ‘haha slapstick’ part and nothing else? That would make me sad. Only then do I even turn to those thoughts, only in the editing process. The creation, I mean there’s so much that’s funny. Birth is funny. Motherhood is funny. Trying to put a bowl of pansit noodles in front of a junior high boy is funny to me. And I don’t take myself seriously very much, and I don’t take the world seriously, for that matter, in certain aspects. I think that it comes out, I guess, in my poems.
That’s not really the greatest answer, because again, I don’t want to say, “Today I have to do three funny poems to balance out the serious ones.” And I know that’s not what you’re asking, but again, there’s so much humor and lightness, why not have that in my poems, why not? It’s kind of like what you said, anybody can be street-tough and bitter and jaded. I think it’s almost even harder to find joy, especially with what’s going on in the world right now. Jeepers, turn on the news and it’s really hard to smile. So when I’m in that quiet, considered moment I do like trying to find, where can I find beauty, where can I find joy and light?
Brodeur: Yeah, absolutely. And on that note, your poems, I find, are seldom overtly distressing or sad in their tone. There is a kind of worked for, fought for, and won, levity or joyfulness in the poems, which I find attractive. They also achieve a kind of poignancy, without this overtly heartbreaking tone or stance. Anyway, this isn’t a question! Could you talk about the challenges of the contemporary praise poem?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, I think, and maybe I spoke to it a little bit in my last question, there’s so much jadedness in this world. I know there’s a lot of people who don’t like that, who don’t find praise poems appealing, or interesting. You always walk the line of, are you going to be too sentimental, or too cheesy, or too Pollyannaish. I don’t want to come across as that, per se, but you know, I can only do so much on the page. What people bring to the poem is their own baggage that I feel like I have no control over.
If people can’t pause and say, “Hey, I’m gonna imagine” – I have a poem in Lucky Fish that reimagines The Lincoln Memorial actually, since we’re here in D.C., and what would happen whenever we get a new design for the penny. You know, the Lincoln Memorial is on the back of the penny; what would happen if I happened to be out there with my wild and crazy kids running all over. If people find that image cloying, or cheesy, I can’t do anything about that. I think it would be hilarious. Or if any person I knew happened to be memorialized in the penny accidentally.
I think that’s praising life, I think that’s praising children, I think that’s praising, again, just being alive. I think, recently, I have been surrounded by so much, and even just in the news too, but also personally, surrounded by so much death, so many suicides, so many feelings of inward turmoil. And there’s a time and a place for sad, reflective poems. I just couldn’t bear to do it, not when I was bringing life into this world, and not when I was carrying life into this world. I needed to do something to say, “Look, we’re not all going down the drain.”
Brodeur: We can’t, we can’t! For the sake of my children now! (laughter)
Nezhukumatathil: Exactly, and not even so much that, but I’d like to think that even if I didn’t become a mother, I’d like to still fight for the light, fight for finding not all gloom and doom. When you meet a person don’t be thinking, “Oh, what do they want from me,” or that kind of thing, not be so jaded. It goes back to what I try to do in my Environmental Lit classes. If we’re not taking the time to appreciate this stuff, we’re all gonna be in our insulated, ipodded, plugged-in modes, and not be, even looking at the person in front of you, sitting on the train. Who knows, that person could change your life, or whatever! Again, this sounds so cheesy to people, I’m aware of that.
As far as the contemporary praise poem goes, people are going to write poems that they think are praising life, praising beauty, praising joy. If people don’t like it, I don’t want to say, tough, but that’s not my problem at some point. I want to write poems that are crafted well, that have musicality, and that are a joy to bubble off the tongue. So I try to bring that, the poets tool kit, into each poem, during the editing process. After that, I can only do so much to help people not be jaded and bitter, and that kind of gloom-and-doomy. And I love reading quiet, gloom-doom poems too. There’s a time and place for it, but during that time of my life when I was writing these poems, I felt like I needed to bring joy to life.
Brodeur: It’s completely understandable. Well, the love poems that conclude At the Drive-in Volcano are particularly celebratory, I think. Do you find it difficult to write about a happy marriage?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah. (laughter) I mean, some people always joke, “Don’t you get more material if it’s a broken marriage or a bumpy marriage?”
Brodeur: Or maybe more readers.
Nezhukumatathil: (laughter) Yeah, more readers, the voyeurs. There’s a poem in my latest collection actually, it’s called, “Are All The Breakups In Your Poems Real?” That stems from an actual – You know when I give readings, especially to high school, that’s the number one question that I get asked during question and answer sessions, unfortunately. And it’s not even, “How did you become a poet? Do you have any advice to a young poet?” College students and high school students, they want to know about the relationships. And in some ways I think that’s kind of cool, because they want to know, “Ok, someone went through something remotely similar that I did,” or is going through a new relationship that’s ending well, or ending badly. And there’s that longing. I think people really want to find a poet, or poems, that they can connect to in that way.
Again, I make no qualms that I am a cheesy, sentimental person. But also, I don’t want to saccharine coat everything. Writing about a happy marriage, hopefully I’m not just saying everything’s peachy keen, because that’s also not true. We definitely, my husband and I, who’s also a writer, he’ll be the first to admit, not everything is like bowls of heaping curry and just happiness and joy with our sons. That’s so unrealistic and I wouldn’t want that actually. There are trying times. But again, that’s for another poet to discuss. For me, I’m excited to praise marriage, to praise love really, and to celebrate that.
Brodeur: Do you think that it’s part of the poet’s role as a kind of celebrator, and to make a joyful noise? Do you feel that that is the role of the poet in a larger sense, or one of the things that we can do or should do?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, I think I’m loathe to have any should-do’s, but if you look at the classical drama masks of comedy and sadness, I think they are so often depicted as, you can’t have one without the other.
Brodeur: Drama and comedy.
Brodeur: Tragedy and comedy, sorry. (laughter) We’re both off.
Nezhukumatathil: See, we need food. We need food right now. I’m very much probably on that happy, comedy side, but there’s a lot of the sad breakup poems in At the Drive-in Volcano. I think you almost can’t have one without the other. If you are trying to be realistic, and trying to depict a life, which is what I’m trying to do, not my life, but a life of a persona, there’s still plenty of things that I won’t ever put in a poem. That’s just for me and my husband, or me and my sons, or anything like that. And there’s definitely poets, I’m very grateful to them, who celebrate sadness, and who celebrate melancholy, and I’m just not that poet.
Brodeur: I’m curious to hear about your writing practice. What is your process of composition? How often do you write? Are there particular times of day, or even year, when you’re more productive? Is it like every time you have a baby, you get a rush of creativity?
Nezhukumatathil: That’s an apt question, and that didn’t happen with my first child, so this was ridiculously unusual. Right now my husband and I have a fairly routine schedule. Kind of balancing childcare between two writers too is even another challenge. But we also know that that’s what makes the other go. My husband will be a not happy husband if he doesn’t get his writing time. I will be the not happy mother if I don’t have my writing time. And we’re both better parents if we have that too. We try to fit that in.
I’ve never been one of the people, I wish I could’ve, I wish I can be that person, it’s just not working, to get up at dawn, write before the kids wake up. That’s not me; I value sleep way too much. So I write when I can, which is maybe twice a week. But as long as I have those where I just know, unless a child is bleeding, I’m not to be disturbed for those crucial hours, and vice versa with my husband.
And whole poems may not come out of that, but I feel like, because it’s always simmering, some sort of good stew is always, not to do the food metaphor again, but something is always simmering on the back burner. So I don’t feel worried. Even if I go, heaven forbid, two, three, four weeks with nothing, there’s still something. There’s that open document file, there’s always a notebook that’s got lines that I’ve just written down as I’m cooking, or as I’m on my way to run some errand.
Summertimes, we definitely are able to try to balance childcare a little bit better, and it works for us. Both of us, thankfully, aren’t the ones that need that rigid schedule to write and be able to feel like you’re making some headway in the world. So a few hours a week, that seems to be ok for right now. Hopefully, when the kids are older, I’ll have more, but that’s the reality.
I came from a Wisconsin fellowship where I had no obligations to anybody for a year, one class to teach, and nothing but to write my book. So I think, “Gosh, I should have had four manuscripts done in that time!” You can’t beat yourself up over it. You make do with what you have. And there’s people who work outside of academia who find time, who find ways to write. So there’s time. You just have to figure out what you can cut out of your life.
Brodeur: And of course you just published Lucky Fish. I guess this question is two part. How do you know when a manuscript is finished? And are you working on other poems for another manuscript while working on poems for a certain manuscript?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, and those are always good questions too. And that’s always one of my favorite questions to hear other poets give answers to, because it varies so widely. I think with mine, each book had it’s own process too. Actually, the one commonality I have with all three books is that I was never one of those that was like, “Oh, I have a new project, or I’m working on this theme collection. This is my poem about cars or whatever, so I’ll put it in the car manuscript. I think, more power to poets who can do it, I just couldn’t work that way.
I think I would actually get stopped up if I were to think in manuscript form. I just write the poems, put in my time at the desk. After a while, there’s no even set number, but maybe after about 50 poems, I start kind of taking a couple steps back. But really I don’t even think about a manuscript until at least that far end. And that’s not 50 poems written, that’s 50 poems that I feel like are worth keeping. So you can imagine, maybe like 200 whole poems that had to be written before I get 50 that I’m not embarrassed about or I feel need a lot of work. But because I’m working that far in advance, there’s poems in Lucky Fish that I wrote during 2002-2003, when Miracle Fruit, my first book, was coming out.
I think because I work in that way, not thinking of whole manuscripts, I am able to look at things like, “Hey, I think this fits and speaks to what I talked about earlier with what I talked about earlier, like “This would be a good poem because ‘Poem D’ ends this way.” And, “Oh, this poem I wrote five years ago would be a great companion on the next page for this. That’s what I’m doing now. I have poems that I don’t know what it’s going towards, and I won’t know until I get to about that 200 level mark.
So there’s always something going on the back burner. Right now I’m writing creative nonfiction, so a little kind of longer, you could almost say prose-poemish pieces, but they’re lyric and my mind is just thinking in longer sentences nowadays. It depends, with each time in my writing is a different kind of “phase” I guess. Right now my phase is not poems.
Brodeur: Would you care to talk about – your website calls them a collection of nature essays? How far into it are you, how did the project start, etc.?
Nezhukumatathil: This is, I guess, a different thing, because with poems I just said I don’t work towards any project. This one I am at least collecting in some sort of manuscript form as I’m writing, in some ways. So it’s different how my mind is kind of able to fit that way.
I mentioned that I moved around a lot in my childhood, to varying, different kinds of landscapes. I was born in Chicago, but I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, so I’m used to seeing Saguaro Cactuses outside my bedroom window. Then, moving to western New York, central Ohio, even making some pit stops along the way to Kansas. My mother was one of the head psychiatrists at various state mental hospitals. All of these state mental hospitals are located kind of in the boonies. I don’t know if it’s purposeful, to keep the patients away from people, or some of the criminally dangerous patients away from society, but that’s where we lived.
So there was a lot of playing outside time. I got to know the geography and landscape very well. I think that was the nerd in me who wanted to know, “What is this leaf?” Even seeing leaves were so different from Arizona, where it’s mostly different shapes of cacti. And I was a curious child in terms of biology and zoology and stuff like that, making dioramas for no reason, not for a school project, but just because I wanted to make a diorama.
So the non-fiction essays I’m writing have a little bit of the “What is it like to grow up in a mental hospital and not be a patient,” to live on the grounds, but also to explore the different landscapes too. There again, I guess they could say celebrating the different landscapes, celebrating the Phoenix Desert, which is not desert anymore, sadly it’s all built up, but celebrating, you know, Western Iowa. And then, inserting myself just a little bit here and there to ground the reader through. But mostly, it is kind of highlighting how you don’t really hear many descriptions of Southwestern Kansas with a mental institution looming over it. I don’t know exactly where it’s going with that, but that’s what I’m kind of enjoying doing research on, and doing more research on the animals that lived there at the time of my childhood.
Brodeur: So flora and fauna, and mental patients? (laughter)
Nezhukumatathil: Exactly. Wouldn’t that be a great title? Yeah, that basically sums it up right there, for better or worse. With maybe five percent of the ‘I’ in there, that kind of thing, ‘me’ in there, but basically that’s about it. That’s my “angle,” if you will. And I feel so cheesy even talking about projects and manuscripts, but with non-fiction, I have to just envision, “What am I doing?” I’m writing about Collared Peccarey Pig in Arizona, then switch to something else, some sort of garden snake in Iowa, and I have to find some sort of thread going through it. That’s how I’m doing it anyway.
Brodeur: Well, best of luck with that project. Thank you for sitting down with us, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Thank you.
Nezhukumatathil: That’s right. Thanks Brian.
Closing by AWP staff member Will Fawley: Thank you for tuning into the AWP Podcast Series. For other podcasts, please tune into our website, at www.awpwriter.org.