The below is an excerpt of Andrew Kuhn’s interview of Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request.
AK: Your poems have a terrific range of reference in them, and all kinds of out-of-the-way words and facts–like “dinoflagellates” and “monkey spiders.” Yet your voice in the poems is very direct, unpretentious, conversational. It’s sort of like listening to a very excited friend who’s high on words.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thanks. With a very few exceptions, the voice in my poems is quite similar to my own speaking voice and so I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to know that my pleasure reading usually involves science and nature books, field guides, natural history collections, etc. So I suppose some of the vibrant language from those types of texts sometimes invades my daily speech. My husband is so used to me talking about a rare jellyfish for example in one sentence and the next thing out of my mouth is about fixing a porch light, but I can see how it can be a tad jarring if you’ve newly met me.
AK: You grew up in Chicago, and your accent is American, but there are other pieces to your background that have had an influence on your life and your approach to language. Can you tell me a little about your name?
Aimee N: It’s my maiden name, my father’s, who is from Kerala, in south India. Since my parents had two girls, I couldn’t bear to change my name and my husband thankfully never wanted me to change my name either. In fact, he said he would be ‘disappointed’ if I did change it. . .
You know, another piece to my development in language and in writing is that I came to poetry relatively late compared to most of my peers. I never knew there were living poets until my junior year of college. I started out, as many children of doctors do, as pre-med, majoring in chemistry. I’m glad I switched to English, but I still have a deep love of the language of the sciences, the musicality of the names of flora and fauna . . . Even various elements and molecules have a music to their names, so I think that might hopefully carry over into my writing.