Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Tami Haaland talk about the human, the nonhuman, a love of revising, and the sorrow necessary in celebrating the natural world
SUMMER IS MY favorite season in Montana, where winters can be long, autumn can sometimes be lost in October snow, and spring can be soppy—or worse—gray and dry until May. But summer is glorious and each morning I move into a chair on the upper deck surrounded by trees. Here, I read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic while I listen to the red-shafted flicker call to her young, coaxing them to flight. Sometimes she calls in a certain pitch signifying emergency, and we go out to chase an errant cat from the tree, or a sharp-shinned hawk from the back yard. She has trained us and we happily comply.
I like living with animals, and I like the delight of Nezhukumatathil’s work which moves seamlessly into the world of animals and plants, fusing her own historic connections with the present moment, her broad palette of imaginative expression with the interior experience of each life.
In a recent email exchange, I asked her about the world she creates in her poetry and prose. —Tami Haaland
Tami Haaland: To say that you simply celebrate or find solace in the natural world minimizes what you do. You lift the barrier between humans and nonhuman species to find ways of identifying and learning lessons about strength and resilience from individual animals. You navigate into examples of racism, sexism, child prostitution and other wrongs and relate them, sometimes surprisingly, to immersive experiences with animals. In your “Peacock” chapter in World of Wonders, for example, you portray a teacher who insisted you only draw “American” animals and would not accept your rendering of a brilliant peacock. Would you discuss this intertwining of animal story and resilience?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thank you so much for recognizing how that space of celebration and solace is pretty much always blurred in my work. That’s how I’ve always interacted with nature so to package it up in neat and sorted boxes of stanzas or paragraphs would be disingenuous of me. For me there is no celebrating the natural world without sorrow—for past memories, for what has been lost, what we are on the verge of losing, etc. And that’s a good thing! It means we are human and can feel more than one thing at a time. As Whitman said, “I am large and contain multitudes.” I would hope we would all want to encourage multitudes in our writing.
TH: I admire the way you blend time and space—memory with the current moment, childhood with adult experience, and animal life with human life. For example your opening poem in Oceanic, “Self Portrait as Scallop” gives us a sense of what it must be like to be a scallop hunted by water birds. The scallop imagines what it is to become “a jewel in your nest.” This blending, particularly of animal and human, strikes me as a premise, and it allows for many daring steps, including a persona poem in the voice of a cockroach. Would you discuss this movement across some of the old barriers and prohibitions, like the advice to avoid anthropomorphizing, that have been common in the past?
AN: The short answer is that most of the writing about the outdoors that I grew up with and had exposure to was written by predominantly straight white men whose experiences and relationships to the outdoors are vastly different than mine. And while I did (and do!) appreciate them and learn from them I also realized very quickly that their notion of what nature writing should be did not serve or acknowledge the way I move and live and love, and have been treated on this planet. I’m hesitant to give out rules for what nature writing should or should not be, but rather, I want to reflect the world with a nod toward expansiveness and inclusion and diversity rather than a narrow and limiting view. After all, as I joke with my students, it is 2021, not 1951, and I want our writing and readings to reflect that.
TH: Which writers inhabit the undercurrent of your work? Do you have moments when you recognize a rhythm or pattern that may be an echo of someone else?
AN: So many, and all the time. I always hope to be intertwined with my writing heroes in this way, and welcome it with open arms. I don’t think I trust any writer who says they don’t have any influences or that they are an original, ha ha. It is hard for me to trace every branch of literary lineage in this small space, especially when so many of my friends are excellent writers as well, but this week alone I recognized perfumes of Rachel Carson, Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Brian Doyle, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, and Kamala Das. And that’s just from the literary world, but any given week, there is music, painting, my parents, my children, my garden, my husband—all who have a profound effect on the way (and what) I write.
TH: In Oceanic, you write in a variety of forms—sonnet, haibun, ghazal, and litany to name a few—and you align right, left, and center. How do you find your way into the form of a poem? Is it predetermined or does the poem make its demand known?
AN: To get right to the nuts and bolts, I’d say maybe 3% of the time I set out to write in a particular shape or form. The other 97% of the time happens in the delight and mystery of several revisions. I live for revision. Love it, really. The drafting is mostly excruciating, and you’d think after five books, it would get easier somehow but it is perhaps even more exhilaratingly difficult to draft a page of anything. I write everything longhand and sometimes I will set a line break that I know I want to keep, but generally I don’t think about how the poem is going to be shaped while I’m drafting. I’m more focused on the content early on. But the revising, oh, how I adore revising. The vast horizons where I can see nothing but open ocean, and perhaps the occasional pelican breaking the skyline.
TH: You seem to work in a strong community of writers. How does this affect your work, and what advice do you have for students about developing connections with other writers?
AN: Oh, thank you, that is one of the greatest blessings of my life, to have a fortress of friendships that have seen me through highs and lows of over 20 years in the publishing world. But this wasn’t always the case, this was very deliberate and has taken years of work. I think one of my ‘secrets’ (though I’ve never kept this to myself) is that I am much more interested in bringing others up than climbing over anyone on the proverbial ladder of success. And you can tell from a mile away in the literary landscape today who is interested in helping others and building community, and who is ultimately out for themselves. They burn bright and fast, but they fade eventually. I’m in this for the long haul: I love making art and mentoring others and helping others find ways for them to make art. I don’t know how else to be. I want my life’s work to be known as helping others, to be radically generous with support and encouragement. And if some people love my writing too, well, shoot, that is a giant bonus.
I first started publishing in grad school—before social media and most online connections—and my classrooms were very much mainly white spaces. I had a few key professors and friends from my cohort but it was pretty isolating overall. But—to find people like Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi (founders of Kundiman) and other people of color who were like-minded and wanting to build each other up and cheer for each other rather than promoting competition and jealousy is such a beacon in what can often be a murky literary and often toxic landscape. They single-handedly flipped the script of what a writing community can be. I’m reminded of other friends (who are now confidants) that I met while teaching around the world (pre-pandemic) through programs like the Writers Workshops in Greece, amazingly talented writers like Sean Hill and SDSU’s very own Matt de la Peña from the Minnesota Northwoods Conference, etc. I think you definitely shouldn’t wait around for community to find you, but also know that libraries and coffee shops and local universities are great places to seek community—and are pretty much free. If you have online access, there is even more of a wealth of opportunities. For all the negatives about social media, there are so many more positives in bringing people together and making writers and writing classes at any level more accessible that I could only dream about when I was just starting out. Take advantage of your local library too!
TH: The world of your poems is large, intricate, interconnected. I think of fractals, human patterns reflected in animal patterns and vice versa. You describe your love for husband and children in admiring layers of animal references. This seems like a conscious choice in an age when our environment is threatened, a comportment toward the world that is tender, honest, and sometimes ferocious or humorous. How does the current state of environmental threat affect your poetry?
AN: Gosh, thank you so very much for seeing that. We’ve very recently received even more bad news about the state of climate change and I firmly believe that there is so much that we love on this planet that we can still fight for, even (and especially!) when we are full of despair. The sad truth is I didn’t see anyone who looked, loved, and lived like me in many of the poems I was taught growing up. So you are absolutely right in guessing this is very deliberate—it was devastating and made me feel isolated to see exactly zero Asian American women in most of the movies and books I grew up with. I can think of Li Young-Lee and Maxine Hong Kingston as literally the only two Asian American writers I was taught before I was in my mid-20s. I didn’t know it at the time but what I would have given to see anyone that looked like me have a crush, get married, have a family—and who actually likes spending time with that family, ha ha.
Most of the environmental texts and poems I encountered curiously did not mention (and I hate this as a noun but it just fits) actual parenting, making a meal for someone, or tucking them in at night. So what that can tell people is those two things (parenting and caring about the environment) can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done together, or at worst, “it doesn’t sell.” When that is the opposite of everything I believe in, and am. My parents modeled this for me in their own way—both have advanced degrees in the sciences but absolutely made sure that I learned about the outdoors and gardening, and made sure they had dinner with the family every night. Why should I want to separate these things in my writing when they have never been separate for me in life?
The minute—I’m talking the moment—the very first book project I fully embraced that you can be a mother, wife, and care for the environment at the same time, was the very book (World of Wonders) that sold more copies than I could ever imagine. Landed on the NYT bestseller’s list for eight weeks. I mean—so many big houses rejected this manuscript. So many people said they couldn’t sell it. So I think the ‘lesson’ here (and again, I’m generally loathe to be prescriptive in writing, so please forgive me) is to write what you believe in, even when all odds and publishing history tells you there’s no room for it, that there’s no readers for it. And of course, be humble enough to want to revise and revise some more with your whole heart and brain. But ultimately—you’ve got to be the one to first believe in what you write.
TH: Where is your work taking you now, and what else would you like people to know about your work?
AN: I’m working on some things for children and young adults, and always more poems, always more poems. I’m writing a food column for Orion Magazine now called “A Taste of Wonder” where I get to explore edible bounties: figs, dandelions, chocolates, etc. As I type this here in Mississippi, we are on the edge of another disaster of sky-high COVID cases so there is an incredible sadness and despair that edges everything I do right now—my youngest is too young to get the vaccine and so I’m trying my best to keep us all safe and happy. My sons love school and they love being outdoors with their friends and even in so much despair, that gives me great joy to see their childhoods intertwined with the outdoors. I hope that embrace and curiosity shows them—shows us all—how much we are interconnected and depend on each other. And in turn I hope that helps us to be a bit more tender too.