In honor of our inaugural 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry, Managing Editor Su Cho conducted a micro-interview with our Poetry Prize Judge, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Read on to learn more about the insistence of joy, what makes a poem stand out, and the things Aimee Nezhukumatathil would tell her past and future self!
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Oceanic. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her collection of nature essays is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions and she is professor of English in The University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Su Cho is the Managing Editor of Cream City Review and a PhD student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is an Advanced Opportunity Fellow. Her poems are forthcoming/can be found in Colorado Review, Cincinnati Review, Pleiades, The Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.
1. Every time I read your poems, I can’t help but see the value of the joy of discovery, and that joy, in turn, creates community. During this tumultuous political time, maintaining and nurturing joy is not only important but also work. How does this feel for you? Do you think this relationship has changed for you over time? Or do you see it manifest in different ways as you keep writing?
Oh thank you so very much! It’s not exactly a conscious development *towards* joy and wonderment, but rather an insistence for it. And it is most definitely work—though my pals would absolutely say I’m an optimist, my very closest pals know I’m a worrier and over-thinker, especially in light of the political and environmental concerns we’ve been facing. But this is nothing new. As a woman of color, I have known for a very long time that the world operates very differently for me than say, my white husband. Add that to us raising two mixed boys who have some of the most kind and wondrous hearts I know and even though I have an overwhelming sense of dread and despair most days for the world they will live in when I am long gone—it becomes even more imperative for me to point out beauty and yes, joy on this planet for them. This doesn’t, however, mean that I ignore darkness and ‘scary’ topics in my writing. But I suppose I do try to lean toward light. I think for many people, it’s more helpful to fight for things we love, rather than out of a reflex of fear. I mean—many of our political leaders would rather women of color be in a constant state of fear and panic. So when I turn towards joy and beauty in my writing, it is most certainly work. But it’s the most beautiful and important responsibility in work I’ve ever had.
2. You’ve written so many great collections of poetry. How would you describe your journey as a writer and teacher from Miracle Fruit (2003) until now? What has evolved? What has remained steadfast?
You are too kind, but talking about my work this way gives me the heebie-jeebies—I’d rather you or other readers make such conjectures/observations. But I will say I definitely feel more comfortable to push against my love/hate relationship with linebreaks and to make my lines and white space more expansive than the tight/neat blocks of my earlier poems. Over the course of four books, I think—I hope—I’ve expanded my gaze to larger concerns of the natural world. And there’s at least one constant for my poetry: that most of my poems can be read as love poems. Or at the very least, born of love.
3. What makes a poem stand out to you? Is there a poem or a book you can’t let go of right now?
When I get to a poem, I want to be surprised—with the poem’s music, images, and/or the physical look of it on the page. I don’t ever want to be able to guess the next line or image, or know how the poem will end, and I want to also feel like I don’t want the poem to end in the first place. I want to stay in that poem’s world, like stepping into the landscape of one of those snow globes—I want to be shaken up and even after all the shaking settles down, I want to look down at my feet and know my world is not the same. I’ve recently loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, and a new poetry collection out any day: Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, by Michelle Peñaloza, and just read the astonishing new one from Carmen Gimenez-Simth. Oooh—and Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón.
4. If you could travel to the past, what would you tell your past self? If you could go forward in time, what wouldn’t you want your future self to forget?
I’d tell my size-2 twenty-something self, that I wasn’t chunky in the flippin’-slightest, and to tell my twenty-something poet-self that the only advice ever worth taking in the literary world is: to floss, assume kindness in those you don’t know (unless proven otherwise), and give thanks by helping out others who come after. I was always going to write—no one needed to remind me to write and read widely. But simply put: doing these very specific things would always keep me writing, and give me more opportunities to write and teach. And I’m a Capricorn—I don’t forget things. 😉 But I’d try to forget who told me if I wanted to be a successful writer, I needed to keep writing at the forefront of my life, no matter the cost (sleep, relationships, etc). I’d argue that I’d feel better about myself when writing isn’t at the front of my life—that I’m a more expansive writer and mentor because I have other interests and people with whom I love to share them with, not in spite of. And my folks are still alive, but they live far away in Florida, so I’d remind my former self to drive and visit as often as possible back when they lived just an hour away from me when I was in grad school in Ohio. Also I’d always want to remember our family vacations: both when I was a little girl, sleeping in the backseat of our blue Oldsmobile, and also now that my boys are still little(-ish) and begging for us to stop at any rock shop they see advertised on the road.
Submissions to our 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction and Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for full guidelines.