A Sense of Marvel and Astonishment: An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Eric Farwell

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new collection, Oceanic, is a generous, romantic, and ambitious look at the different stages of life, and how we experience the love and wonder that lead us to become more fully realized and compassionate as we grow each decade. The collection, Nezhukumatathil’s fifth, threads the thoughtful consideration of one’s relationship to nature and myth found in Lucky Fish, with the personal and playful relationship poems that provided the spine for At the Drive-In Volcano. This amalgamation allows Nezhukumatathil to engage with new aspects of her poems, inviting deep sensuality, a grounded sense of personal politicization, and even wry humor-as-cultural-commentary into the work. All of these elements make Oceanic Nezhukumatathil’s most cohesive collection to date, as she takes her prior preoccupations and dissects them in new ways that invite, as all of her work does, a sense of marvel and astonishment.

 In the midst of AWP and end-of-semester work, we were able to speak about the new elements and cohesiveness of Oceanic via email. Relentlessly positive, Nezhukumatathil responded with answers that always linked back to a central idea of doing work that’s “not scared of facing the darker places but still believing in good.” Even though it was electronic, Nezhukumatathil’s answers left me feeling inspired, positive, and genuinely impressed by her ability to see light in every aspect of life.

Eric Farwell: This is the first collection of yours that’s overtly autobiographical. The book has a lot of poems that deal with things indirectly through metaphor and stand-ins from nature, but it’s anchored by you brokering your past with where you currently are in life. How did having these two areas to bridge inform your approach to the manuscript?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Perhaps this collection feels like it pulls from autobiography more than my previous ones do because of the intimacy and intensity created with some of these poems, but I don’t see any more personal experience here overall than in previous books. It is the connection to nature and intimacy created by that connection that might give the illusion that I’m revealing more about my life than I have before. But that’s the beauty and power of writing about nature –how that can strengthen our connections to this planet, but ultimately to each other who share a small bit of space on this planet.

EF: One kind of poem that appears throughout the book is a celebration of your marriage. Each covers a different aspect of that relationship, and each seems to get more and more intimate. Some of that intimacy, like in “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” and “Starfish and Coffee” is directly sexual, which is a bit of a new element in your work. Did this emerge naturally in the poems, or is it a result of working on poems that are more directly revealing and personal?

AN: This new direction/boldness as you call it in the question below–I think there were many factors to help and encourage me to write with a more direct sensuality–one is that the rise of the uglier/loudest characteristics of those in charge of our government doesn’t really celebrate brown bodies. And in pop culture–we’ve come a long way from what I saw in the 70s and 80s growing up, but to depict brown, female bodies in a joyful, praise-like manner is still overall pretty rare. And I think this country has internalized this glaring absence of an Asian American woman/mother/friend who dares be audacious to express joy & sensuality & desire also worries, sometimes all at once–well, I’m hoping to just add my voice to a bigger chorus of poets who are allowed to contain multitudes of selves.

EF: This boldness also lends edge in more surprising ways. In “In Praise of My Manicure,” you turn the mundane act of getting your nails done into a statement of empowerment, of reckoning. Again, did this emerge naturally, or is it something you had to work at? Do you think this aspect would have developed as confidently if you hadn’t taken seven years between collections?

AN: Poems like “In Praise of My Manicure,” were written in response to the fear and disdain and de-valuing of brown skin. It’s tempting to say of course this is in response to governmental leadership, but the ugly truth is that this feeling of not being able to live up to mainstream (white) beauty standards is something I faced since adolescence. And that is due in part to a sheer lack of representation of girls and women who looked anything vaguely like me once I stopped watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood–I mean, I’m talking about magazines, books, movies, tv shows, pop stars–I never saw an Asian girl being the object of a crush, or even as anything else besides some sort of a math whiz or some other cliche. My teachers certainly never encouraged me to read any books that had Asian girls as main characters. Again, this shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone, but it’s something I wanted to address as a woman in my 40s.

EF: I was hoping you could speak to how the play in your work has changed between Lucky Fish and Oceanic. In the new book, you have two found poems that consist of one-star review snippets of the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. There’s a lot of comedy in how wrong-headed and oblivious the reviews seem to be, but they also seem to be making a larger comment about the divide between historical value and modern significance.

AN: Seven years in some ways feels like a long time between collections and to others, it’s too quick for a collection–all I know is that I was writing and visiting schools as a visiting writer through all those years, perhaps slower than I’m used to, but I’m used to writing pretty fast so this was a welcome slowing down and being present for my family and close friends. I travel a lot, and I’m interested in what lasts and what feels transient and am drawn to what lasts and what isn’t forgotten in a blink.

EF: In your past work, your poems incorporated a lot of nature and mythology to end up at a place of astonishment. Here, those elements are more grounded in biography, and I’m curious if that was a difficult transition to make, since those aspects of bringing wonder into the work via these elements was such a part of your voice early on.

AN: I’m always going to be drawn to wonder and joy when I write because I never know “what” I’m writing until I get a draft (or five) down first. But I also believe there was a deliberateness to not shy away from darkness and past heartbreaks even as push and fight for love and tenderness in my revision. I’m acutely aware that my sons both can read now (that’s the first time I can say that with any of my books) and though there is much I still shield from them, there is an opening of some dark doors I need to open for them so that they are better able to process grief that their beloved ocean creatures are dying, there are kids all over the planet who are in dire need of basic care and help. I don’t at all imagine my poems will prepare them for this darkness entirely, and certainly I imagine there will be several questions I’ll need to field from them, but if showing some dark moments– alongside joy and love– helps them to keep their hearts tender and have empathy for others, then I’ll be beyond glad.

EF: The other major aspect of the collection is an exploration of how you define yourself at this stage of your life. Self-portrait poems are woven throughout the collection, showing you as a mother, an Indian girl, a private person beginning to open up, and as a partner. Do you feel that these poems were necessary to help you define yourself as a poet in her forties, who is remarkably happy and settled, or were they written in some way to help you make peace with these definitions of yourself?

AN: Oh, don’t get me wrong–I have my many moods and temper flares, but I think I found as I was writing deeper towards the natural world, there was a deeper reach into what it meant to be a woman who contains multitudes and who still visits schools where a high schooler can tell me in 2018, I didn’t know an Asian American woman can be a poet! We have made lots of headway, but there is still a long way to go for high schoolers to not feel like writing poetry isn’t “for them.” I’m not interested in defining myself as much as I am sharing tenderness and vulnerability in a poem, an encouragement in a world that insists on the quick and disposable. I want readers to really sit, really think about words and beauty and what brings you joy and wonder and how you can also reflect on past hurts but use that as a strength in facing the future, especially when there are little ones like my son who are looking to me and my husband and others for how to interact in this wild and disappointing and confusing and buoyant world.

EF: There are three poems that re-imagine the myth of Psyche and Cupid, with Cupid disobeying Aphrodite but ultimately abandoning Psyche as a partner. What inspired these specific poems, and how do they fit into your own experience? I can tell you I read them as comments on the intangibility of true love, whether it can ever really be relied on to stay, but I’m not sure that’s correct.

AN: This reimagining is a nod to re-make myth to fit my own experience, and why not? I think so much of myth is that it inscribes absolutes–you disobey, there is a punishment, and even the “rewards” are not always rewards in the long run, especially for women. So while I will always fight for love and goodness and justice, there are many grey areas–and that is a much more accurate representation of life experience, I think. Cupid and Psyche has always been my favorite and scariest myth–but the way I reworked it is to also serve as a warning –and I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy, but here it is–to be your own golden love, be it being too invested in your job that doesn’t value you back, a relationship where you have to ‘earn’ affection and basic kindness and respect, cutting ties with toxic people/situations in your life, etc.

EF: While the collection has all of these new elements, it still ends on two optimistic poems. One deals with your astonishment at growing to love Mississippi as a home, and the final poem, “Bengal Tiger,” suggests a connection between you and the animal, with each experience and memory living as a stripe within you, reaffirming yourself as a person of wonder, fables, and multitudes. Has the intrinsic value of having optimism in your work changed for you at all? As an element, do you see its use or value shifting both personally and in terms of application?

AN: So much of what we see on the news is beyond depressing. It’s also often full of hate and rage and material not fit for my seven-year-old to hear, which is in itself embarrassing and depressing, because both him and his older brother love learning about other people and cultures around the world and have such curious and searchings mind. And though I keep an eye on the news to know what is going on in the world, and to stay informed, it is heavy to bear for a person who is normally an optimist. And when that optimist has two children who are even MORE optimist than herself and who naturally believe in people’s goodness, I feel like I want to make something that ultimately mimics my outlook–not scared of facing the darker places but still believing in good. And yes, as someone who moved six different places before she left for college, HOME has always been elusive–but am so happy to find a velvet space for my family and my family’s art here in Oxford. It has a complicated history to say the least, but I’ve never been more valued and seen and heard than in this beautiful state. And I’m here to fight and push for light and love so that my half-Asian kids also feel like this is a place to feel safe in and to be joyful in–a place to call home for all of us.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. Her newest collection of poems, OCEANIC, is out with Copper Canyon Press. She is also the author of the forthcoming book of illustrated nature essays, WORLD OF WONDER (2019, Milkweed), and three previous poetry collections: LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003)–all from Tupelo Press.  Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay. She is the poetry editor of Orion magazine and her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize.

Eric Farwell has written for the physical or digital arms of Brooklyn Rail (forthcoming), The Paris Review (forthcoming), The Village Voice, GuernicaThe Los Angeles Review of BooksSalon, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Vice, The Believer, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and GQ. He teaches English Composition at Monmouth University in New Jersey.