Being Your Full Self on the Page: A Conversation with Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil

abstract yellow leaves on a tree.

As a longtime fan, I was excited to interview Aimee Nezhukumatathil on a chilly October afternoon at the Katherine Anne Porter House, where she later read excerpts from her poetry collections, including Oceanic, and her bestselling collection of essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, for an appreciative audience. Her essay collection—part memoir, part reflections on the natural world and its beauty—came out in 2020, when Nezhukumatathil was originally scheduled to read at the KAP House. Of course, the pandemic had other plans, and Nezhukumatathil’s appearance was postponed—twice. She told the audience at her reading how pleased she was to be visiting Texas State at long last, and one member of the audience—me—was grinning wider than the axolotls Nezhukumatathil writes about.

“I kept looking up and seeing you smiling so big,” Nezhukumatathil told me after the reading as she autographed my copy of Oceanic. So naturally, talking to her one-on-one in the cozy sitting room of the KAP House earlier that day was especially thrilling, and her generous advice to a fellow poet, mother, forty-something, and nature lover will stay with me for a long time. Our wide-ranging chat included the joy of reading about squids, her sons’ opinions on her work, the importance of authenticity in writing, and why technology has made it an exciting time to be a poet.

Melissa Huckabay: The natural and oceanic worlds are clearly inspiring for you, as seen in World of Wonders and Oceanic. I admire how you use sea creatures, wildlife, and plant life as powerful metaphors for human experience. Where do you think your preoccupation with the natural world comes from? Why is this type of imagery so generative for you?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I love your question so much. Even as a little kid, I tried to make sense of myself and the world around me through the language of the outdoors. I felt good and safe in the outdoors, and it was only other humans that made me feel like I didn’t have words. I always say Mother Nature is the greatest poet—I’m just trying to take notes. Also, I’m just a big nerd that reads all about animals. I never read for the intent that I’m going to mine this for material, but when I get home, I’ll probably be reading about a squid. That’s just my idea of a good time! Nature has always been a part of my vocabulary. When I’m trying to make sense of the world, the language of the outdoors provides me all the metaphors I could possibly want.

MH: As a mom, I really appreciate your embodied, evocative poems and essays about motherhood—I’m thinking, for example, of “Self-Portrait as C-Section Scar.” How do you approach writing about motherhood?

AN: I think—this is not prescriptive for everyone—but what works for me and makes me feel comfortable is this: even if I uncover something that’s difficult or painful or sad to remember, I want to begin and end in love. I’m also keenly aware that my eldest is now fifteen. Many of his friends know who I am; I’m easily Google-able (laughs). I want a relationship with my son always, and I don’t want him to be embarrassed. So now that he’s older, I give him the heads up. If he were to tell me tomorrow, “Mom, stop!” then I would, or I’d at least not mention him specifically. There are five million other things I can write about, but there’s nothing in my writing life more important than my relationship with my children. They’ve never yet had any discomfort with it; they think it’s cool, really. But we will see how it goes in the next decade. My sons have been in situations where they’ve read an anthology for class and their mother’s writing is in it. I don’t want there to ever be a surprise in those anthologies! Imagine being fifteen years old, opening a book, and seeing something that wasn’t so pleasant about you in there. My boys, therefore, get full first choice on whether something gets published. I absolutely want to honor that motherhood has many facets, but I want to start and end with love. I love those hard poems too, but that’s just not what I’m doing.

MH: Thank you for sharing that. I’ve also noticed you are unafraid to interrogate experiences of racism and misogyny in your work. How do you create a safe space within yourself as a writer to tell the truth, unapologetically, including examining systemic wrongs?

AN: I know there are people who can separate themselves [from the work] when they write. I can’t in many ways. What I mean by that is at the end of the day, I need to like who I see in the mirror, and that’s a good rule of thumb for everything, not just for writing, but for living. I know I would feel bad if I didn’t push myself to be authentic, in the sense that I’m not purposely trying to deceive anybody in my life or writing. I also know what happens when people stay silent about these topics. Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I don’t think people mean to be hurtful; they just don’t know. Many times, even my close friends don’t know. When World of Wonders came out, many of them said, “I didn’t know you were hurting then.” At the end of the day, I need to look at myself in the mirror, and I know that staying silent—and I’m thinking of the coming generations—does no one any good.

MH: I really enjoyed reading World of Wonders and the reflections on your childhood within it. I particularly appreciated the stories of growing up in the 80s—we are about the same age. I haven’t yet seen many poets or essayists writing about our childhoods.

AN: Yes! It’s so funny, because when I talk to many people our age, that’s the number-one thing they say. They appreciated the pop music and culture references. When editors suggested trimming some of that, I said please no, even though there might be only three people who are interested. But turns out all the forty-year-olds I meet are saying “oh my gosh, I did that too.” It’s a very specific childhood. So that makes me so happy.

MH: How did you re-enter your childhood world and describe it with such precision in World of Wonders?

AN: There is something about 80s music that can send people in our generation instantly back in time. Right? Anything from Culture Club to Prince, I can just be transported. That’s one of the beautiful things about music and the best kinds of writing—you can feel like you’ve traveled without ever leaving your chair. For my essays about childhood, I listened to my 70s and 80s soundtrack because there’s something about 70s yacht rock and the synthesizer pop of the 80s that can conjure up those feelings instantly. And music videos, too. Music videos were my window out of my small town, and they were so big for us.

Also, I never saw anyone bring in pop culture to writing about the outdoors. I read so many books, but I rarely saw anybody who was a mother either, and if I did see a mother, it was someone—no judgment—but they were what we might call “granola,” with Birkenstocks and no makeup. Where were the people who loved makeup and pop music and had crushes on boys? I wanted to show in World of Wonders that you can be your full authentic, true self on the page and still have an encyclopedic knowledge about flowers, plants, rocks, and crystals. I’m grateful we don’t have to choose to be one thing or the other now; I know that wasn’t always the case. People didn’t make it easy for women to be outdoors without home obligations, for example. But it’s 2022, not 1952.

MH: Right?

AN: By the way, I wrote World of Wonders to my boys—I didn’t know it would even be published. It was a bedtime storybook, essentially, for them. They would think it was weird if they didn’t show up in there, and if the vibrant, hot mess that is their mother wasn’t in there. I listen to pop music, I make mistakes, and I love the outdoors. I’m very conscious of including those bits of me personally in there so they could see a record of their mother and see her outside. I never saw people who looked like me spending time outside in books.

MH: That’s one of the reasons I love your poetry. You are your full, authentic self, and all these different facets come together in your work. I find that inspiring as a poet.

AN: Oh, thank you. I will say it’s not always easy. It’s felt very vulnerable because the way I was taught in poetry, you need to be almost “too cool for school” and never show the cracks in the façade. One of your own at Texas State, Naomi Shihab Nye, she was the very first living poet I ever read, and I related to her. When I say she has a special place in my heart, that’s the biggest understatement. She was my lighthouse poet and helped me be myself.

MH: This might be partly self-serving, but what advice do you have for emerging poets, including poets like me, who are emerging a bit later in life?

AN: I would say—and I know sounds cheesy, but I’m living proof it works—be kind and send thank you notes for everything, actual paper thank-you notes. I can’t tell you how meaningful it is. Be kind, be grateful, and find something that you’ll always be a student in for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s eco-poetry or confessional poetry. You don’t ever want to be a “master of fine arts” and then it’s all downhill from there. If you look at it as a place of abundance, rather than a hindrance that you’re starting “late,” then you’ll see that you have valuable life experience to offer and you’re also living in an exciting time. Technology is at its peak, so we have access to poems and poets that we never had before. That’s better than going to school in the 90s! Back then, if the library didn’t have any Asian-American poets, I was at a loss and really had to dig. Now there’s nothing you can’t find.

The other advice I would give is don’t listen to anyone who says, “this is what you should be doing,” like you should be writing X number of hours or you should be publishing by now. That doesn’t work for everyone, including moms. I don’t want my writing to be good but my personal life to be in shambles. In the late 90s, every visiting writer [at my MFA] would say, “you need to get up at four in the morning and write.” I didn’t do that when I was single and in grad school, I couldn’t do that when I had a newborn, and I can’t do it now. Don’t listen to that. Find your own way. There might be ebbs and flows, but you’re never going to stop writing.

Finally, especially for mothers, there’s no such thing as writerly balance, and you shouldn’t want balance because that means no one personally or professionally wants you and your art isn’t tugging on you. I always want my kids to be wanting me; I always want my art to be calling to me; I always want my students to be needing me; and I always want to have friends and be a good partner to my husband. There are people who make so much money by teaching you how to “achieve balance,” and that’s the biggest farce, and it’s a doubly big farce for women. There isn’t balance. And one more thing: if you ever feel behind, worrying everyone’s publishing and you’re not right now, remember that you’re on your own path. And that path is golden.

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