Andy Kuhn talks to award winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, the author of three acclaimed books of poetry, is coming to Katonah Sunday October 2 for a reading, part of the Katonah Poetry Series. An Asian-American who writes with an unusual combination of erudition, warmth, humor, and disarming intelligence, she recently spoke with Andy Kuhn about her life and work.
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.
AK: You’re young—thirty-ish?—and already you have three books out, a bunch of awards, and you’re a professor. You may have come to poetry later than some of your peers, but it seems you got going pretty fast.
Aimee N: Well, I’m actually 36. I’ve been deeply blessed to have a great mentor at Ohio State—the late David Citino. And the writing community of Madison, Wisconsin where I was on a poetry fellowship for a year after grad school gave me crucial support just as I was assembling what would later become my first book of poems. I always felt my peers in grad school were much better read than me, and so much of my poetry education has been reading and reading, trying to fill in the blanks of what I wasn’t exposed to in high school and early college. But I’ve always loved to read and that above all else, has been key to my development as a writer. I’m always bewildered when I encounter a student who wants to be a writer, but doesn’t want to read.
AK: Your life has changed a good deal in a few years, I understand–marriage, two kids. Has that changed the way you approach writing, and your subject matter?
Aimee N: Well the obvious answer is that the new developments in my family—I have a 4 year-old who just started preschool this week, and a 15 month-old—have forced me to be more efficient on smaller bursts of time. But my husband is also a writer and I try to make it a priority for both of us to squeeze in some writing during the week—we both are very present in our sons’ lives—I think it would be too easy to be resentful or be daydreaming I was somewhere else if I didn’t have that outlet. As for how it’s affected my subject matter, I’d best leave that to others, but I feel like there is a deeper sense of celebration and gratitude for the small things in life, perhaps more of a sense of urgency now in my newer work.
AK: You’re on the road a lot. Is that draining, or do you get a certain kind of energy from meeting your readers?
Aimee N: Both. But whatever tiredness I feel is assuaged by the dynamics of being a visiting writer or a workshop leader in both high schools and universities all over the country. I actually do love readings very much—so much of your time as a writer is spent alone in a room, and readings and workshops are a way to connect and have a conversation with an audience and get out of my own headspace, so to speak. I love the immediacy of that connection, too.
AK: I guess you know that the Katonah Poetry Series has been going for a long time–since 1967–and we’ve had a lot of terrific poets. Looking at the list [at www.katonahpoetry.com], do any of our past readers stand out as writers who have influenced your development as a poet?
Aimee N: Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux are two that spring to mind when I think of those early heady days spent reading and sitting on the floor of the Ohio State library–two women who wrote about the body and being a woman in such honest and visceral ways–and though I think my poems are very different, I think reading their books gave me a sense of permission to write about the body, of motherhood, and to not be scared of having a sense of vulnerability on the page too.
AK: What have you been working on lately? Do you plan to share some recent work at the reading?
Aimee N: Right now I am working a bit more on lyric nature essays, so I won’t read those during my visit, but new poems are always brewing at any given time in my little blue office. I just finished a summer exchange of poems via post mail with a dear friend, the poet Ross Gay, whose own writing I adore so much, so I am also working on revisions of those early drafts too. So I might try out one or another of those—you’ll just have to see!
AK: I’m very much looking forward to it.