PF detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Beach Scene, Guernsey (Children by the Sea in Guernsey) - 1883;


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Pirene’s Fountain interviews
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
With Lark Vernon Timmons

It's a great pleasure having you share your time and thoughts with our readers!   Welcome.

1. Tell us, Aimee, did you pick up pen and paper at a young age?  Describe that first creative spark if you would.

I can always remember drawing, or writing stories and illustrating them, writing haiku or acrostic poems about rainbows and unicorns (it was the 70s/early 80s after all). I think my parents and most teachers didn’t know what to do with me. We didn’t own any children’s books so I read my mom’s medical books and old leather-bound Reader’s Digest books of my father. They both worked full-time but they always found time to take my sister and me to the library where I’d stuff my bag full of science and joke and magic trick books. And then finish them and then beg to go back: and repeat all year long. In elementary school, I was shuffled off to a ‘gifted’ program where I made dioramas of the Underground Railroad, dinosaurs, various Greek gods, and wrote these little ‘reports’ of the various wives of Henry the VIII. Then I’d return to my regular class after lunch. You’d think this would be a recipe for being a weird little outcast, but I had a sassy tongue and always stood up for the kids who were being teased so no one ever teased me. If they did, they only tried it once. I also loved chasing (and being chased by!) by boys on the playground and was the hula-hooping champion in 5th grade. I say all of this only because I firmly believe this is a direct correlation/explanation of why I was ultimately drawn to poetry in the first place: the fun and delight of language, the study and quiet reading and research, the performance and satisfaction of making people laugh.

2. I found it poignant that a fifth grade Chicago area teacher was inspired to present a lesson called "Stanzas, Metaphors, Similes and Nezhukumatathil" after sharing your poem "First Fool" with her class.  When did you begin learning the craft of poetry?

Fairly late, I think, compared to most of my peers. I was a chemistry major in college until end of my Sophomore year, and then I was cramming as much workshop and literature I could handle. I took a year off before I went to grad school and that was the real serious beginning of digging into poetics. I felt like everyone was so better read than me in grad school so I made it a point to read read read and try to fill in all the gaps. I’m still doing that. I hope I never stop.

3.  In a "How a Poem Happens" web interview, you remarked that on your best teaching days you come home excited to write, and on your best writing days you're excited to go back and teach.  Can you speak a little about how the two go hand-in-hand for you?

Ha—now that I have two little sons, I’d like to amend that: “On my best teaching days, I come home exhausted and thankfully there is a meal artfully prepared by my husband (who is mythic in his generosity b/c he too is a writer and teaches full time) or else I would be eating take-out and I have no energy left to do anything but play a rousing game of CandyLand (with the baby in my lap) or read the latest Clifford the Big Red Dog book with my four year-old. Sometimes I might even remember a great poem idea when I brush my teeth at night.”

4.  You have said that you take your cues from Mother Nature, "the greatest poet of all."  Have you always been inspired by the physical world?

I’m not sure if “inspired” is the right word, but yes, I have always felt a pull and push to record the landscape, first starting as a way of remembrance, I think. My family moved five times before I started high school and it was my way of remembering the smell of creosote shrubs in Phoenix, catalpa seeds and wide skies in Kansas, fruit and veggie stands and showy maple displays of Western New York. And then I had the same impulse to record and try to make sense of my travels to India and Philippines, lands where my parents are from and where I feel both strangely at home and yet very much a stranger.

5.  Would you share the research process used in your poetry and why it's important?

I love the play and re-shaping/imagining that goes on when I craft a poem stemming from any of my actual experiences, but one thing I won’t fudge—I feel like I owe that to the reader—is that if I mention an animal or plant in my poems, you can be rest assured that I have thoroughly researched that element through (if not my own direct observations), then through field guides, photographs, video, or various botany or zoology books. I’m still very much that girl who loved to read science books and make dioramas; only the dioramas are now poems.

6.  Aimee, your name appears among a stellar group of writers on a list of "20 Top Asian Americans in Literature." Quite an honor!  Which writers, past or present, have had the greatest influence on you/your work?

This answer will never be finished and I know I will think of others even an hour later, so for now, at this moment, let me just say: the late, great David Citino, Naomi Shihab Nye, Lucille Clifton, Sei Shonagon, and every single book from Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire.

7.  The apt and beautifully titled poem,"Overwinter" was written for inclusion in Starting Today:  100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days What was the process and experience of writing for our Commander-in-Chief like?

The beauty of that project is that those poems were written on the day we were assigned, so there was an almost electric charge to celebrating this historic event while it was happening. My day/poem was scheduled fairly early in his presidency and I just wanted to capture the sigh and approval of not just millions of people around the world, but also…various insects, mollusks, birds—things that can’t obviously speak and express their relief.

8.  Your charming website is where I discovered, among other delights, that your pet dachshund is named after a poetic form, the Villanelle.  Do you utilize poetic forms often, and if so, do you find them challenging, limiting (or both)?

I love them and don’t use them enough. For me, they require long stretches of concentration and quiet—but my favorite form that I never tire of is the Japanese form of the haibun. I adore its shape visually and the intimacy of it to the reader: you get this intense prose block of lines and just when you think it’s done—you get a sort of whisper in the haiku at the end. Even on days I’m too busy or tired and I think I can’t write, I can always find fruit in a haibun.

9.  We’re all excited about your new collection, Lucky Fish.  Can you tell us about it? 

This collection was first started in the months after the birth of my first son in 2007 and I wrote the last poems for it about two months after my youngest son was born in the summer of 2010. Obviously I was semi-delirious (but joyful to be writing and wanting to write at all) in those heady early days but my editors at Tupelo very wisely helped me sift through and cut poems that I was too protective of to see that they were still unfinished and even a bit raw. But it would be wrong to say this book is about motherhood and pregnancy. The voices and personas in this book are more confident, surer of themselves than my other two collections and pretty much bursting at the seams with happiness and love, which not so-coincidentally mirrors what was/is going on in my personal life. I think ultimately this book is a collection of love poems—to Nature and all her delights underwater and in the garden, to family and dear friends, and I feel it’s the most honest document I’ve ever written about what it means to be grateful in this world.