BONUS: Making Space for the Erotic with Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of a book of nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, & Other Astonishments (Milkweed Editions, 2020), which was named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in non-fiction, and four award-winning poetry collections, most recently, Oceanic (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). Awards for her writing include fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Council, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for poetry, National Endowment of the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her writing has appeared in NYTimes Magazine, ESPN, and Best American Poetry. She is professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Transcription by Alletta Cooper
[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]
Pádraig Ó Tuama: Hi friends, thanks very much for listening to Poetry Unbound. Season 7 is finished, and season 8 is going to be coming out in the winter. And in the meanwhile, in between these seasons, we’re going to be releasing a few interviews that I did last year at the 2022 Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark in New Jersey in the States. It was a great time to be there. Thanks very much to Martin Farawell and everybody else involved in that festival for the invitation and the warm welcome. I know you’ll enjoy these interviews. It was a thrill to make them.
This interview is with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, poet and prose writer of magnificent work on nature. If you want to keep in touch with things Poetry Unbound you can sign up for the weekly free Substack. I write a reflection on a poem and offer a question and people respond to that every week on a Sunday. So keep in touch, and looking forward to season 8, and all the best.
Pádraig Ó Tuama: So Aimee Nezhukumatathil, it is such a thrill to sit down with you. We’ve been in a little bit of communication. Let me introduce you first of all. For those of you who don’t know, Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of The New York Times bestselling illustrated collection of nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. There were people who are clapping for your book. And Aimee has four previous poetry collections: Oceanic, Lucky Fish, At the Drive-in Volcano, and Miracle Fruit, and has a chapbook co-written with poet Ross Gay, Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens.
There’s a line that I’m going to continue to quote back to you today, which is what Roxanne Gay said about your — I think it was about Oceanic: “Nezhukumatathil’s poems contain elegant twists of a very sharp knife.” And we will be coming back to Aimee Nezhukumatathil “the butcher” over and over, because listen to this: in a poem, “[On] Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance,” which we made a Poetry Unbound episode about, there is so much butchery and blood in it: the teacher butchering your name; there is blood on an apron. And then consoling yourself, or the speaker consoling themself at the end of the poem, thinking about being the new girl in a class where everybody’s looking at you. This is how it finishes: “Think of their pencil cases/ from third grade, full of sharp pencils, a pink pearl eraser. // Think of their handheld pencil sharpener and its tiny blade.” There’s that blade again, Aimee, that we will be talking about this. And then listen to this — this is from years ago from a poem called “Small Murders”: “I let him have it: twenty-seven kisses / on my neck, twenty-seven small murders of you.” So please welcome warmly and with a bit of trepidation, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and all those sharp knives. [laughs]
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: It’s so — You’re going to make me — when I hear it out loud, it sounds really scary.
Ó Tuama: I’ve only just begun, Aimee.
Nezhukumatathil: I know.
Ó Tuama: I’ve got so many notes.
Nezhukumatathil: It sounds so scary, but I promise I won’t break out the knives here.
Ó Tuama: I hope you do, because this is so much of what you do. It’s extraordinary. I wanted to ask you, as we begin, where would you say a love of poetry began, and was there a particular poetry or even a particular poem for you?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, I love this question because I have an actual answer to that. And she’s a beloved poet from Dodge Poetry Festival. But the first living poet I ever encountered or knew of came fairly late to me compared to most people in the audience. I didn’t know there were any living poets. That’s how kind of sad my humanities education was. And I went to nice high schools. But I didn’t know there were any living poets until I met the poetry goddess of my heart, Naomi Shihab Nye.
She was the first poet — she wrote the first poem that I read by a living poet. I was a junior at university, and the poem was “Mint Snowball.” So if you don’t know this poem, do look it up. She calls them paragraphs now. It’s like a paragraph prose poem. But it was the first time that I saw a reverence for family, reverence for food, and just the sensory detail. Naomi Shihab — or sorry, Emily Dickinson, another poet of my heart says: if I read a poem and it makes me feel so cold, no fire could ever warm me, I know that that is poetry. That’s what it felt like when I read “Mint Snowball.” It felt like the top of my head was taken off. I was so cold. And now Naomi and I send Christmas cards to each other. So it’s very strange and surreal, but it really changed my life. The next week, much to my parents’ consternation, I dropped pre-med. I dropped chemistry because of this poem. That’s how huge it was. I changed the course of my life because of this poem.
Ó Tuama: It changed your life. And I mean, poetry is craft and technique, but clearly, there was something that went much deeper than craft and technique in that. It changed your life. What would you say that was? What was the draw?
Nezhukumatathil: I think it was — and I get a little bit of this of course in fiction as well, but in poetry with that precision of Naomi and the warmth that you could just feel from her poems off the page, it felt like an instant friendship, an instant friendship. And I think of all the poems and poets that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and reading on the page, and it’s just that instant kind of community, that I’m instantly joining a conversation that I have never had before or since in any other genre besides poetry. I feel like I’ve traveled without ever leaving my chair.
Ó Tuama: I was going to ask, instant friendship with whom?
Nezhukumatathil: With a person that may have so many differences from me, but someone who is so electric and someone that I want to get to know or be stuck in an elevator with, no matter how creepy or scary or sexy or anything, I just — There’s something so magnetic with this invented persona that was so attractive to me. If you’re holding an anthology in your hands, it’s this gathering. It’s this bouquet of the most complicated people around and personas. And it doesn’t mean you want to be friends instantly for the rest of your life, but they’re magnetic, I guess I should say. Let me amend that. They were the most magnetic groupings of people I had ever met.
Ó Tuama: Wonderful. The last couple of years, you’ve done a lot of interviews and writing about World of Wonders. We won’t be talking too much about that. We’ll drop into that in a little bit. Because I really want to talk to you about erotic poetry because there is so much eros throughout so much of your work. And why don’t you just dive us right in with a particularly meaty specimen of a poem called “Why I Crave Ribs Tonight”?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, my goodness. If the people on the podcast can see how much I’m just blushing here. Because I’m so used to — It’s so refreshing and so nice because so many times when I’m being interviewed, and I mentioned this two days ago, it’s, “Oh, talk about the land, talk about nature.” And they don’t see the full picture of my work. So it feels really amazing but let’s just say I’m tickled. I’m tickled for this.
This is a poem. It’s in a concrete form. It’s a carmina figurata, which means a shaped song. So I think in the ’70s, there was a lot of kind of bad carmina figuratas. If it was a sad poem, it’d be in the shape of a teardrop. If it was about a lollipop, it would be in the shape of a lollipop, that kind of thing. And this one, I wanted to do something a little bit unexpected. And my favorite food is ribs. No matter how hard I try to be vegetarian, I cannot say no to ribs. And so it’s in the shape of two spare ribs. This is called “Why I Crave Ribs Tonight.” [Editor’s note: this transcript includes the poem as printed in its original publication. The episode audio reflects the poem as read live, with slight variation to the original.]
|Baby, don’t even
come near me
with that napkin.
Just let me at
each bone, slick
& sweet with smoky
sugar sauce. See all
the steam when
I nudge all the meat
off with my tongue?
(The only kind
of cloud we see
this lemonade day
in June). All this
driving & I need
to feel food
in my hands
no knife or fork
tonight. I want
to burn my lips
just enough, but
not too much
it hurts to kiss.
& that reminds me
of the glowing heart
inside me. How each rib
curves around, locks
|tight in neat snaps
along the back—make
your hand like that
around my small
wrist & lead me
to the bathroom.
Stand with me
in the shower
feel the tender spot
my ribs, lift my hands
above my head
& trace the space-
my sides with a blue
bar of soap—let this
be the only way
I’ll ever come clean.
Ó Tuama: [laughs] I was reminded when I was reading through some of these poems about how the word “carnal” comes from the word “carne” meaning meat.
Ó Tuama: And that is such a meaty poem in terms of the description of human body, and sex, and lust, and enjoyment, as well as ribs and eating with your fingers. [audience laughs] Could you talk to us a bit about your interest in erotic poetry?
Nezhukumatathil: [laughs] Yes. I’m so sorry. I keep getting the giggles.
Ó Tuama: I’m loving it.
Nezhukumatathil: Oh my goodness. I just finished a poetry reading where I was talking about that delicious sensation of laughing when you’re not supposed to be laughing and that’s — I didn’t know I’d be doing that here so.
My interest in the erotic. See, I feel like I’m 12 years old all over again. Actually, maybe not ironically, when I became a mother, I was struck by the dearth of sensuality in poems about this transformation with your body. And for me, they were kind of inextricable. I don’t become a mother without, you know — and at the same time, I guess I’ll say it was so few and far between to see. We have amazing goddesses as well. Sharon Olds, for example, who comes to mind. But for my generation, it was weirdly absent. Suddenly you become a mother. Suddenly sex and sensuality is just gone from your life. And that was kind of frankly, the exact opposite.
And I think I also wanted to speak back to 17-year-old Aimee, to say, “You don’t have to choose one or the other,” that they could be intertwined. And I just love this, the challenge of the specificity as I do with all my poems, how to be specific without being garish. How to be specific where it becomes contagious to want to look at another body, to enjoy a body in that kind of delicious appreciation instead of shame. I grew up with so much shame or nervousness or had to make myself small or just invisible. How do I blend in? And suddenly I was just not interested in that whatsoever. I wanted to be messy. Motherhood is messy, life is messy, and I just wanted to reflect that and be true to that in my poems as well.
Ó Tuama: I want to come to shame in a while because to my mind, to speak of sex for so many people is to speak of shame. I’m curious, given your interest in animals, whether you think that the human animal is one of the only animals that experiences shame when it comes to sex.
Nezhukumatathil: Gosh, that’s such a good question. I think so. I think so. I’m going to be pondering this question now for all week long. I think so, or at least an outwardly demonstration of it.
Ó Tuama: Yeah, and not every human has shame about sex, but there is a lot of shame about sex.
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, for sure, for sure. And I count myself in that as well. I was also by American pop culture. I was born in the States, grew up in the States. I never saw anybody that looked remotely like me depicted in a way that was crush-worthy. How shall I say? For example, no teenage movies, no rom-coms featured an Asian American woman that people were crushing on. So it wasn’t that long ago, I want to say maybe 2018, 2019, there was a movie that was released on Netflix called “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” I don’t know if anybody has seen that but — [audience cheers] A few people. I was weeping like a baby in that movie, and it’s not a sad movie. But it’s an Asian American teen young woman who has crushes. Just that simple — I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see that in my life. I’m 47 years old. I had never seen an Asian American woman have a crush or someone else crushing on her.
So to have no music video, no music, no books, no movies, at least that I had access to, depict that was, I think sublimely, it tells you, “Oh, keep your desires to yourself.” And I was kind of the nerdy girl with pink glasses and just very bookish and things like that. So I think for me, it’s a way to kind of reclaim that on the page as well as in life. But poetry gave me — I hate saying “permission” because nobody told me not to — but when you grow up 47 years and not seeing anybody that looked like you be depicted in pop culture as crush-worthy or someone to have desire or to have that person’s desire depicted, you start questioning subliminally about yourself.
Ó Tuama: Yeah. And not just hiding it, but doubting that you should even have it.
Ó Tuama: Something even deeper.
Nezhukumatathil: Or express it, to write it. Even that kind of thing.
Ó Tuama: We have some more spicy poems. I wonder if you could read “When Lucille Bogan Sings ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’”?
Nezhukumatathil: Sure, sure. Lucille Bogan, she was the first Mississippi singer that I encountered when I moved to Mississippi with my family about six years ago. She was part of the juke joints all over the state actually. She was run out of town because her songs were not only so racy, there was all kinds of racy juke joint songs at that time. But she was a woman, and she was making so much money at her juke joints. People were flocking to her. So some of her competition, male competition, just ran her out of town. She has a happy ending though. She took up with a younger man. So…
Ó Tuama: Haven’t we all?
Nezhukumatathil: …yeah, she took up with the younger man and lived kind of happily in Arkansas with all of her money that she made from writing these very kind of racy songs. And I used to read the lyrics out loud, and I want to keep my set here PG, so you can look that up on your own. But this song is called “Shave ‘Em Dry.” So the poem is called, “When Lucille Bogan Sings ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’.” [Editor’s note: this transcript includes the poem as printed in its original publication. The episode audio reflects the poem as read live, with slight variation to the original.]
“I blush quicker than a school of blue jack mackerel
arranging itself into an orb of dazzle to avoid
“nips and gulps from the dolphins who’ve been silently
trailing them, waiting for them to relax. When I hear
“her growl—her scratch-thirst and giggle when she drops
swear words pressed to wax—I can’t even look him
“in the eye when I ask him to give it a good listen
with me. But he does, ever patient, and we both get
“a light bless of sweat on, a bright address that still maps
us to each other after all this time. When I read him
“the lyrics, the pink of my cheeks is like the pink
of an orchid mantis. Just when you least expect it,
“the pretend flower will reach out and snatch a butterfly
from the air. When I say flower I mean how her song
“blooms in the cicada-electric Mississippi night. When I say
pink I mean nectar I mean a long kiss good and sweet.”
Ó Tuama: Thank you, and that’s from Oceanic, your most recent collection of poetry. You do something really interesting in this. There’s the engagement with the erotic, there’s the engagement with Lucille Bogan’s work, but then there’s those clarifications that you do at the end. “When I say flower …”; “When I say pink … .” There’s those clarifications where you’re bringing us deep into what’s happening using, of course, some steps of nature. You talk about the “cicada-electric Mississippi night.” Could you talk to us a little bit about why it is that you moved in that direction with that poem? It’s such an interesting level of clarification.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you. Clarification is one way to put it. I like to think of it as an assertion. You may have heard cicadas before, you may have heard the word Mississippi, the location Mississippi. Here’s what I mean when I say it. And particularly about this state that is so fraught with horrific violence and racial histories that this country is still processing, and we’re still feeling the after-effects from. We’re still in it. That I don’t want to discount that, but I want to say, “I know that that exists. But when I’m talking about this, I’m talking about pink. I’m talking about long, slow kisses when you’re sweaty, and I’m talking about the music you hear whether or not you’re inside or outside.” There’s cicadas. It just feels like cicadas, that kind of thing. So to have that assertion there, it means to kind of scrub away whatever you think about this landscape or whatever you think about Blues, whatever you think about Mississippi, I have something to offer, too. I’m here. I’m here.
Ó Tuama: Because alongside those clarifications, there is place, the place of Mississippi, the place of your body, the place of the speaker, and the relationship and the marriage there, as well as the place of a woman’s body in conversation with Lucille Bogan there. Place is such an interesting assertion again in this to say, “Look again.”
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah. There’s Filipinos and Chinese Americans who came to Mississippi, worked the shrimp boats, things like that. I never learned about that one day in social studies class, not a single day. And so it’s kind of a callback. I’m certainly not the first, but I want to just make space for others through the body, through my body, through the speaker’s body here in the poem.
Ó Tuama: I reread “Love in a Time of Swine Flu,” which we might come to now in prep for this, and found myself thinking about how with all of the COVID precautions that have been going on over the last couple of years, and questions about bubbling and avoiding and sheltering in place, et cetera, how relevant this poem was to something that we all had to share.
Nezhukumatathil: Yes. This poem, it almost sounds quaint. Swine flu almost sounds quaint back in, I want to say this had to been 2009. There was maybe two months of worry, which seems so small and so light compared to kind of what has happened now. You all must remember that swine flu, swine flu that was on the news. And that happened when I was pregnant with our last child.
And so what my doctor was saying is that anybody who was pregnant was at a higher risk. So the only thing else I would just add to what you said is that, and it’s so different because I don’t even want to compare. I think it would do such an injustice to and disrespect to the people who are presently still suffering from COVID and long COVID, and they’re two separate things. But just that sense of wanting to connect, in this case, the speaker’s husband wanting to connect even when the world is telling you not to sometimes for your own good and for your own health and other ways as well.
My husband is a white guy from Kansas. It is not lost on us at all that not too long ago we would’ve been forbidden to even be together in this country, in our parents’ lifetimes. My parents wouldn’t have even been allowed to be together. Even just mixing of Asian Americans from India and Philippines was also forbidden in this country not that long ago. So that’s a lot to think about for one poem, but it absolutely was weighing on the back of my mind of this coming together during danger, during forbidden times. Shall I shall read it?
This is called “Love in the Time of Swine Flu.” [Editor’s note: this transcript includes the poem as printed in its original publication. The episode audio reflects the poem as read live, with slight variation to the original.]
“Because we think I might have it,
you take the couch. I can count on one hand
the times we have ever slept apart
under the same roof in our five years,
“and those usually involved something
much worse than this sort of impenetrable
cough, the general misery involved
with dopey nausea, these vague chills.
“But this time, we can’t risk it—our small son
still breathes clear-light in the next room
and we can’t afford to be both laid
up on our backs with a box of tissues
“at our sides. Especially now that I carry
a small grapefruit, a second son, inside me.
In bed, I fever for your strong calves,
your nightsong breath on my neck
“and—depending where we end up—wrist
or knee. I fever for the slip of straps down
my shoulder, I fever for the prickled pain
of lip-bite and bed burn. You get up and come
“back to bed. We decide it is worth it. I wish
my name meant wing. The child still forming
Inside me fevers for quiet, the silence of the after,
the silence of cell-bloom within our blood.”
Ó Tuama: “I wish my name meant wing.” Say a bit about that line.
Nezhukumatathil: My name actually is French for “beloved,” and who would not want to be called beloved, and especially by your parents. I was very much a wanted child after a stillborn, the first child born in America on 400 years of both sides of the ocean. But I think there was moments of just wanting to — not to escape by any means — but to fly. Just being — I guess, no, you don’t know [laughs] — but I was going to say, being pregnant. You know how it is, Pádraig.
Ó Tuama: [laughs] I’m an empathetic person, but yeah, I don’t know.
Nezhukumatathil: My bad. My bad. Wanting to not feel so heavy all the time. But always the wing meaning — I think what people think of when they say wing, to fly away, to escape — I just mean just to move around fast and to come home to roost, to make a nest, all those bird metaphors, all those things, very much applicable here, but the coming home, just wanting to feel light, frankly.
Ó Tuama: In prep for this, I read a couple of articles about erotic poetry from various encyclopedias of poetics, and a distinction is made between love poetry that might express affection and erotic poetry that will speak about passion and desire and specificity the more that erotic poetry has gone on. Often when you think of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, for instance, it’s extraordinarily erotic, but lots of it is hidden in simile and metaphor.
Ó Tuama: I’m so interested to know whether — and this might come back to shame — I’m really interested to know whether for you in the speakers of your poems to name specificity like you do in this, where is it? “I fever for the slip of straps down / my shoulder,” “the prickled pain / of lip-bite and bed burn.” Is the specificity of that, is that something you have to go to go? Do you have to give yourself permission to do that? Or has it become easier for you as years have gone by in writing?
Nezhukumatathil: That’s such a good question. I think, no, at this point — I think in graduate school, I was always so nervous about what people say, and on the page — and it’s taken a while, so it’s not like this happened overnight — I’m pretty fearless and grateful to have that fearlessness on the page. So it’s not a permission thing, but it’s more of like, I want that specificity so people know this is not just opening my window and looking out at a field and saying, “Oh, I like those flowers. It reminds me of love.” That kind of thing. I wanted to be specifically about one man, one sensation, because that’s what I’ve been doing to other people’s poems my whole life. So I just wanted to join that conversation as well.
And for me as an Asian American woman, mother, I think I’m maybe too aware, sadly, all too aware. It’s maybe frowned upon to say, “I love being with my husband. I love being with my children. My husband is still the most exciting person on the planet to me.” It’s kind of gag-inducing. I’m aware of that [laughter] but if a man were to say it, it’d be like, “Oh, how nice. You love your kids.” What? The bar is so low, you know what I mean? [laughter] But it’s something with, and, “Oh, you’re loyal to one woman, bravo.”
But for a woman to assert that it’s eyes-rolls or suddenly the haters come out. And so I have no answer for it except for the fact that I won’t back down. And I think it’s also healthy for, I think of, in particular, my sons, the grapefruit in particular, who’s now 12. I want them to see that it is in fact possible that they should be looking for that in their partner, that they won’t settle for anything less than what they see of their own parents.
And why should I be ashamed of that? Why should I be ashamed of wanting that for my — especially my boys in particular. I don’t want them to feel — I want to curate and give an example for them, most of all, to expect nothing but the best treatment from their future partner if they choose to have one. And not to go searching for it or numb themselves, but to know that it’s out there somewhere, that kind of thing.
And I want anyone to know that after years of being absent in literature, I want people to know that it’s okay for an Asian American woman to have that, to want that, and to express gratefulness for that too, knowing that it could be gone in an instant. I never forget that either as well.
Ó Tuama: And lots of your poems, like the one that I mentioned earlier on, “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance,” there is a solitary nature to some of your reminiscences. And it wasn’t that you were alone. You speak warmly about a loving family, but there is something in you that does feel like there was at times individual solitude, as well as also feeling isolated culturally, depending as to where you’d moved. And I know you moved a lot. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about your relationship with that.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, yeah. That’s such a beautiful question and such a tender question, too. It’s funny because I never felt alone when I was outside. I only felt — and I could be alone outside, but I never felt sad or lonesome. That’s kind of a happy place. If I can’t be with my family or friends, I love being outside. It’s other people that made me feel lonesome.
And I think growing up, we moved around so much, as you mentioned. Every four years, we moved to another, how shall I put this in a succinct way? My mother is a retired psychiatrist. She had contracts every four years at various mental institutions. So we lived on the grounds of various mental institutions, which made for a chaotic kind of childhood, but also one that I remember so fondly with so much joy and like, “Oh, a new place. A new place to explore.”
My husband always laughs when I talk about this, but when I see barbed wire now on a prison or somewhere, I think, “Ah, home.” [laughter] It’s so messed up, but I truly do. That’s how safe I felt. That’s how beautifully my parents kept me feeling safe and happy, even in what could be very isolating places, predominantly white places, rural places. They made sure that my sister and I knew the names of plants and animals. I can tell constellations in Kansas versus Arizona.
But it was when I would meet that cruelty of children who would be gathered staring at me like a zoo creature, like, “What are you? Or are you a patient?” And I don’t blame them. I was the first Asian American many of them had ever seen. But that’s when I felt so alone when I was with a group of white people, always having to explain myself, always trying to say, “No, I’m not Native American. I’m from India, or my father’s from India.”
But it was the outdoors that I felt — the catalpa trees never asked what I was. I could watch turtles and turtles would crawl onto my hand and they’d be fearless of me, and I could call out to birds. Birds would have conversations with me. So my friends used to call me Snow White when I was little, but I always thought that was weird because I didn’t want to do anything with white. So Snow Brown or something like that, I don’t know. But animals would just come to me, and I always felt so much love and tenderness even in what could be perceived as scary places.
Ó Tuama: I’d like to keep talking about that. But I wonder about the poem “In Praise of My Manicure.” That feels to me, that that has a sense of assertion that speaks back from that place of solitude at times.
Ó Tuama: Forced solitude.
Nezhukumatathil: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. That’s such a good astute observation on that. And this poem, I’m not a dancer at all. I love dancing, but I’m in no way, shape or form have any practiced dance.
Ó Tuama: We’re on a stage, you can try out a few moves.
Nezhukumatathil: No, no, no, no. I don’t want to cause a riot of exiting here. There’s a beautiful classical dance form called Kathakali from South India and Kerala where my father is from. And many of the main dancers wear green face makeup. Again, talking about, I wanted to share that to some friends. And they immediately, their reaction was, “Ew, gross. They’re all fat. Yuck. How could they dance?” So immediately, what that tells me at 10 years old is, “Oh, I’ll just keep my Kathakali obsession to myself or hide my books or posters or something under the bed.”
What was acceptable was Kirk Cameron or Michael Jackson or Ricky Schroder, all these people that was acceptable in the ’80s to have on the wall, not a green faced Kathakali dancer. And then it just, I don’t know. It didn’t happen overnight, but one day I said, “I’m done with this. I’m done with trying to blend in.” So I did not plan this. And I’m realizing here, I’m kind of laughing because I mentioned sparkle glitter nails, and I have black sparkle glitter nails. So this is not a prop. This is me. This is called “In Praise of My Manicure.” [Editor’s note: this transcript includes the poem as printed in its original publication. The episode audio reflects the poem as read live, with slight variation to the original.]
“Because I was taught all my life to blend in, I want
my fingernails to blend out: like preschoolers
“who stomp their rain boots in a parking lot, like coins
who wink at you from the scatter-bottom of a fountain,
“like red starfish who wiggle a finger dance at you,
like green-faced Kathakali dancers who shape
“their hands into a bit of hello with an anjali—I tell you
from now on, I and my children and their children
“will hold four fingers up—a pallavam, a fresh sprout
with no more shame, no more shrink, and if the bright
“colors and glittered stars of my fingernails scare you,
I will shape my fingers into sarpasirassu—my favorite,
“a snake—sliding down my wrist and into each finger:
Just look at these colors so marvelous so fabulous
“say the two snakes where my brown arms once were.
See that movement near my elbow, now at my wrist?
“A snake heart can slide up and down the length of its body
when it needs to. You’ll never be able to catch my pulse, my shine.”
Thank you. So I wanted to just mention those hand gestures, I never do hand gestures when I read, but those are actual dance moves from Kathakali. I won’t do the feet, but the snake, the sarpasirassu, the four fingers up, that’s all classical South Asian dance as well.
Ó Tuama: There’s a way within which your engagement with nature is — it’s part of a conversation and a tense conversation. It’s not anthropomorphism. You’re not just kind of looking through them and using them as a vehicle. They’re there and you know it and the snake heart sliding up and down its body. Somehow, it’s both anthropology as well as profound nature writing in conversation with each other, without each being diminished or being appropriated.
I’m curious about how that tension holds for you, the poet, the scientist, the observer, the researcher, all of those things, the environmentalist in you. You hold all those in profound tension, and we see it over and over again in your work. Animals aren’t just props.
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, absolutely not. Those were my friends. It makes it sound like I had a lonely childhood, but animals, I have such a kinship with them without trying to be too precious about it. But I was also a voracious reader. You know I didn’t read poetry. I didn’t read literature as a kid. My joke is — but it’s true — I thought Dr. Seuss was one of my mom’s coworkers. [laughter] I just really did not read children’s literature. I was thinking, “Oh, this is a famous friend.”
My parents would drop me off in the library, in the kids’ section, and the kids’ book at the time — now, it’s so vibrant — at the time, the kids’ books were like, “See Jane buy a cake. Jane lost her cake. Help Jane find her cake.” And I was thinking like, “Jane is a moron. This is so boring.” So I would sneak over to the grownup science section, and I would just be on the floor with books on volcanoes, shells and minerals, and rocks. And I’m kind of frankly still that girl.
So I was reading for pure pleasure, still do read for pure pleasure, The [Incredible] Hunt for the Giant Squid. I’m reading a book on ants right now. It just gives me a vocabulary for things that I haven’t been able to name otherwise. And also the books that I was reading at that time in the science section, I would be so excited to turn to the back and say, “Who is this person? I love this.” Always an older white man. Never saw anybody that looked like me outside. I mentioned I didn’t even see them outside breathing, let alone the author of anything, at least in my libraries, never stocked those books.
So it was, again, subliminally, one more thing to say, “You don’t belong here. Stay in your lane. Be a doctor.” Because at least I saw my mom who could do that? I did not see anybody who loved makeup, who loved pop music, who had crushes on boys, and who also had an encyclopedic knowledge on flowers and plants and sea creatures. I didn’t know you could be all of that or do all of that. I thought you had to choose one or the other. If I did see a woman, there was no family involved. If I did see a guy who has a family, the family was just never outdoors with them.
So I kind of wanted to write the world that I know of from my parents. My parents were — this makes it sound cruel, but it was such a joyous occasion — we have Super 8 videos of me trailing behind them at three years old, harvesting tomatoes from their garden. And sometimes I’d pick green ones yet just because I was so excited about the tomatoes. And I could hear, Super 8 videos were silent, but I could hear my mother chastising me, probably swearing in Tagalog, like, “Leave the tomatoes there, Aimee.” But I had that excitement of being outdoors. And I only think of it as being with family, happiness, which I realize not everybody has or has access to. But that wasn’t me. And I wanted to put myself in the outdoors.
So when I talk about snake hearts sliding up and down the length of a body, I wanted to mimic that audaciousness. That’s just what I know of how to make metaphor. Really, Mother Nature is the best poet. I’m just trying to take notes.
Ó Tuama: Something that I noticed in reading through World of Wonders, again, was another W word, “work,” which is extraordinary levels of research, scientific levels of research. I mean, you’re reviewed in Scientific American, you’ve contributed to outside of the fields of poetic journals, you’ve contributed elsewhere in science as well. And I hear not only that commitment of work to you in terms of research, and I’d like to hear about that, but I hear you do things in terms of your prompts to your writing students as well. One of them, you tell your class to watch a sunrise or sunset without a cellphone, and there’s a —
Nezhukumatathil: Now that is work.
Ó Tuama: Yeah, exactly. Tell us about that as well as then your own work.
Nezhukumatathil: Well, I feel a little bit sheepish here because at least with World of Wonders, the books I’m working on now, I’m definitely keeping notes and doing a more structured research. I have to kind of confess, I actually didn’t do research for World of Wonders.
Ó Tuama: Apart from your life.
Nezhukumatathil: It’s absolutely. Yeah. So completely just, I’m a big nerd. I told you, I had to fact-check a couple things, I mean the press, and it’s been quadruple fact-checked to make sure I got things right. But when I say that I was reading books on shells and the axolotls and whale sharks and stuff like that, when everybody else was reading Dr. Seuss, that’s kind of not a joke. So that’s just how I learned to make sense of the world, was reading about nature. So I maybe cracked a couple books with World of Wonders. And for those of you not familiar, it’s a collection of 30 essays about different plants and animals. That’s just from my ridiculous —
Ó Tuama: Lifetime of research.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, that’s just fun. That’s just what I do. So it’s work in some ways, I guess. I’m reading all the time, but I’d never set out as, certainly not at 10 years old, “One day I’ll be writing a book about the whale shark or something like that. I better file this away.”
Ó Tuama: The vampire squid. That’s my favorite one.
Nezhukumatathil: The vampire squid. Yeah, that’s just because I’m a big old nerd, basically. But what I will say, though, that’s not the case for everybody, and I’m aware of that. And I don’t mean to shame anybody. And in particular, my students who come to me, none of my classes are required. So they are either nature writing students or environmental literature students or poetry students. And the last thing I want to do is shame people and wag my finger at them and say, “You need to be doing this.” Because that’s how I was taught in many cases. “If you don’t devote yourself three hours to writing, you’re not serious. You have to do it every day.” I didn’t have that as a student. I didn’t have that single. I certainly don’t have that now as a mother of two teen boys. I don’t think I ever really necessarily want that. And if it works for people, great. But I definitely don’t want to be prescriptive to my students.
What I want to do is give them a chance so that they can let themselves be astonished without distractions. And so I do actually collect their cellphones in a bucket just for half an hour. And you would think I am sending them off to the gallows or something, walking with a basket. And then the sad look on their faces as they drop their phone and it’s just 30 minutes.
And I will say, it wasn’t always this way. So that’s something — those of you who are not teachers, I’ve been doing a variation of this for over 20 years, or I’d say maybe 15 with the cellphone. And at first, it was like, “Oh, no problem, no problem. We could go an hour.” As the years go by, it is torture, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s kind of torture. You could see them twitching a little bit without, I can see them reaching for their phones. They’re used to taking a selfie with the sun or taking a picture of the sun. It’s a harder assignment than it seems to watch — to stop what you’re doing and take in the sunset.
Thoreau says, Oh, the ideal situation is having four hours a day to be outside, to walk over the land. And so again, I bow down to anybody who could do that, but I’m like, “Come on, Thoreau, your mom was doing your laundry, sharpening your pencils.” We don’t have that. But I’d like there to be a happy medium. I’d like there to be some time for my students to let themselves be astonished to hear or re-remember things that they had maybe forgotten.
So the first time is difficult. I’m not going to lie. The second time, it’s not, because I have them do a series of five or six observations. By the end, their phones are not even with them. I don’t have to collect them. They just don’t take them out. So it’s a relearning. I know they can do it, but it’s the pushing them to have that consistency. “Look what can happen, and look at your writing.” They also notice too. I don’t have to tell them. They notice, “My writing in a half an hour observation is disjointed. I can’t concentrate. It’s very just reportage, pure reportage.” By the end of the semester, their writing is chock-full of music and metaphor, all the stuff of poetry. And it’s because they’ve let themselves be astonished. They have let themselves not be distracted. So that’s not something I did. I wanted to help them get to that place on their own without me hovering over their shoulder.
Ó Tuama: I’m still hearing your relationship with solitude and your fruitful relationship with solitude coming through in terms of what you’re passing on as an educator then in that way.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, because when I tell a group of sorority and fraternity students that my happy place is outside by myself, you can imagine the looks. They’re like, “Okay, our teacher’s a little woo-woo or wacky,” and then by the end, we’re weeping at a tree. I mean, I kid you not. This is from actual experience. To see the frat guy who had his hat turned down being like, “Something must be in my eye.” But I’m just weeping now after they read a beautiful passage from Arthur Sze, or something that they’re opening themselves up again. They didn’t realize how close they had been to the outside. They have been passing a catalpa, walking to and from class. They didn’t know the name catalpa. Now I have students saying, “Hi, catalpa,” when they walk by, that kind of thing. I’m not giving them tools. I’m giving them a chance to remember what it was like to have that wonder in their lives.
Ó Tuama: Wonderful. In a while, I’m keen to talk to you about that poem, “Sea Church,” and to talk a little bit about religion as well. But I wonder if we have some questions. We’ve got some mics up here. I think we’ve got space for maybe three questions. Share your name and then launch us right into your question.
Audience Member 1: Okay. My name is Tarik, Aimee.
Nezhukumatathil: Hi, Tarik.
Audience Member 1: You mentioned letter writing to Naomi, also to Ross, and you also mentioned the getting away from technology with instantaneousness of communication. And so I’m curious, can you speak to letter writing and how, 1) letting time breathe between communications allows you to navigate your friendship, but 2) how writing maybe outside of a public eye has helped you broaden your connection with the friends?
Nezhukumatathil: That’s such a beautiful question. Back to writing letters, and it’s one of those magical things. You all know the sensation of seeing a friend’s handwriting in the mailbox, or if you don’t, maybe you can get back into that. And it’s also an exercise I do with my students, to bring back my students here. I bring in postcards, and sometimes we just write letters or postcards to people. Not to depress anybody, but sometimes I have to show them where to put the stamp because they have not — or where to put the address on a postcard. They haven’t written a postcard at some of them.
So one of my assignments that I love to do — and I’ll get right to your question, this dovetails right into it — is I ask them to send a postcard to somebody where they don’t give the heads-up. So it could be to a family member. They have to know the address. So I ask them, just bring an address to school. Many of them don’t have people’s addresses in the way that I used to kind of know people’s addresses by heart. So they bring a address to school. Sometimes it’s their roommate. I’m like, “Okay,” because the only address they know.
But oftentimes it’s to a parent, to a grandparent, to an aunt who’s always bugging them. And I have them write three things: mention your body, mention something, an observation about the outdoors, and to conjure up a color that is not found in any crayon box or any paint kit. You have to invent it. So instead of saying, “The sunset is pink,” you have to name a color on the spot. So: “The sunset is the inside of a frog’s lungs.” So, “inside of a frog’s lung” would not be on a crayon, for example, or I don’t think, or maybe that’d be the kind of crayon box I would like.
Ó Tuama: That’d be in your crayon box, though. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Nezhukumatathil: And so we wait. I make them promise to not give a heads-up that their beloved has a postcard coming to them. The responses are so magical, Tarik. It’s just so magical.
One person in particular, I think within the last five years, mentioned he wrote to his grandma who was in an assisted living home. He was a frat boy. He is like, “She’s the only one who would appreciate this in my life.”
I get choked up recalling this, because he got choked up in class. He said that, I guess they have mail call in the grandmother’s assisted living, but right before dinner, people would get mail, things like that. And his grandmother hadn’t gotten mail in a while. He said that she was so proud she stood up and read the postcard to the entire cafeteria, to the dining hall. And then everybody else is like, and anybody else who had grandkids were happy, but also mad, “Why is my grandson not writing to me?” And things like that.
So the mother called my student and said, “Brian, you have to write to your grandmother once a week now. It’s the only thing she’s talking about that she’s reading the postcard to her caregivers,” that kind of thing. And by the end, I checked in with him at the end of the semester, he said, “My mom got me a stack of stamped postcards, and just every Sunday before I go to bed, I write to my grandmother.”
And so I reconnected with this student just this past summer. I hadn’t seen him for four or five years. He said, “Aimee, my grandmother’s passed away now.” But what he didn’t tell me, didn’t tell the class, is that his grandmother was writing postcards back to him. And so now he has this gift that he keeps on his desk of 10 postcards that his grandmother sent. Oh, I’m such a dork here.
But he said, “Aimee, out of all the things in college,” — and he’s a successful business startup young man — “the thing I learned most was that postcard exercise.” And so now he’s postcard person. He’s like the postcard guy. All his friends ask him to write postcards, and they’re his little mini poems. They’re so extraordinary.
Anyway, so I guess that’s maybe an answer to your question. And it’s three sentences, sometimes a little bit more, three sentences can change the course of a whole relationship that he was just kind of out of sight, out of mind, admittedly. And now he has this beautiful remembrance of his grandmother and vice versa. In her last years, she would always wait. Every Wednesday there’d be a postcard from her grandson, and that she would be bragging on to the whole time. And one, her roommate would say, “Claudia was insufferable, always with those postcards.” But she was saying in a joke, “We all were a little jealous of Claudia.”
I guess, it’s just that slowing down and taking inventory of what’s really important to you. So I would just finish by saying it doesn’t take a pandemic to do that. But a stack of postcards, it’s what? Now, I forget. This is terrible. 40 cents, 50 cents now, but the best 50 cents that you’ll spend, and you can just make someone’s day. Just get a stack of them all at once, so you don’t have to worry about stamps and see what happens there.
Ó Tuama: How lovely. Thanks for the question.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you for that beautiful question. Yeah.
Audience Member 2: Thank you. Aimee. I just want to affirm you in your love, passion, and devotion for your husband –
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, thank you.
Audience Member 2: – as somebody who’s been married for 34 years. So I want to go back to the erotic poetry. In an over-sexualized society, how do you stay in that mode of what you’re living?
Nezhukumatathil: That’s such a good question, and I’m not sure if I have the right answer to that. Because I don’t want to at all diminish the question, but I know, admittedly, what I think is what I want to put out there for the world is going to be different than anybody else in the audience. So I really hesitate to be — what might be over-sexualized for maybe you and I, maybe that’s a Monday for somebody else. And I love those poems.
I think for me in particular, and this by no means is prescriptive, and some people don’t do this, some people do do this. I think of my eldest, the one who made me a mother in the first place. He’s now 15. And in the age of social media, almost all of his friends know who I am, follow me on some sort of social platform. I don’t know. I’ve tried to put myself in his position. Do I want to have my best friends when I’m 15, read about my parents’ sex life or — [laughs] And as much as I say, “Oh, it’s the speaker. It’s the speaker.” You can’t tell a 15-year-old boy that.
For me, and only me, the answer’s no. It’s not going to stop me and my sons have been coming to poetry readings with me since they were three months old. So I think we just have to remain true to ourselves, not blend in. Let your glittered fingernails blend out when you want to. And that’s in all areas of life. The way you move, the way you love, the way your body is shown or not in your poems, and feel what’s right.
I think for the longest time, I saw such an absence of anybody that looked like me, so I know what I feel comfortable with. I try to picture my son’s face sometimes when I’m writing, and sometimes I give him a heads-up and say, “Honey, this is coming out want. I just want you to be aware.” [laughter] And I think that’s fair. That’s the relationship I have with him. But it doesn’t mean everybody else has to do that as well.
I could never speak to my parents, for example, about sexuality. And there was nothing nefarious about it. It was like “out of sight, out of mind,” that kind of thing. And I don’t want that for my son and I. But I so appreciate the question, and I thank you so much for it.
Ó Tuama: Thank you. I wonder if you could read “Sea Church.”
Ó Tuama: And then we talk a little bit about religion because I’ve always wanted to talk to you about religion.
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, thank you. Thank you. And not too many people do. So thank you for saying that. “Sea Church.” [Editor’s note: this transcript includes the poem as printed in its original publication. The episode audio reflects the poem as read live, with slight variation to the original.]
“Give me a church
made entirely of salt.
Let the walls hiss
and smoke when
I return to shore.
“I ask for the grace
of a new freckle
on my cheek, the lift
of blue and my mother’s
soapy skin to greet me.
“Hide me in a room
with no windows.
Never let me see
the dolphins leaping
“for this waterprayer
rising like a host
of paper lanterns
in the inky evening.
Let them hang
“in the sky until
they vanish at the edge
of the constellations—
the heroes and animals
too busy and bright to notice.”
Ó Tuama: One of the things that this poem does is it goes through church to look at a kind of cathedral of the world. And it seems to me that you have a fluency in a language of religion that you then push through when it comes to being present in the world. Could you talk a bit about that?
Nezhukumatathil: Sure. Absolutely. And I think this might be just for the record, the first and only time in over 20 years that anybody’s ever asked me that. So I so appreciate this question and this chance to even talk through it.
I was baptized Catholic. My father’s side of the family is Catholic. It’s the southern part of India. It’s all Catholic, mostly Catholic down there. My mother in the Philippines in a very Catholic country, her family is Methodist. And the simple answer is nothing sad about it, is that my dad wasn’t too keen on taking us to church every week and my mother was. And also I was, to be quite honest, as a young girl, terrified of church, at least the churches that I went to in the suburbs of white America.
And then when I went to my mother’s Methodist church, it was like, “Oh, here’s pizza, here’s popcorn, there’s songs and dance, and boys who I had crushes on.” So church became this fun social thing. I speak so fondly of it and I’m so grateful because church for me, it was, I don’t know if I’d say home, but a place where I could get grounded again in a chaotic time or a chaotic week or anything that’s where my family would come together. And I was lucky to have pastors who were what I call the epitome of presenting teachings of love. No matter how I didn’t always believe everything that was presented to me in, “Don’t do this or there’s going to be hell to pay or scary,” I don’t know, I just — The only time I was ever hit in school was by a nun too. I mean, I was still young enough to be, or old enough to still have the ruler across and that was because I just wanted to go to the bathroom. And so it just was not, for me, anyway, a pleasant experience. But again, contrast that to pizza and cute boys and there was no choice.
Ó Tuama: We all love the Methodists now.
Nezhukumatathil: Yes, but I want to be honest and I want to say it because that was a gateway for me to say, “All right, I feel comfortable here. What else can I learn?” I was more open. I let myself be astonished by what I heard. I still had my doubts, my little scientific young Aimee wondering: How is this really happening? The creation story, what’s going on? That kind of thing. But I was never shamed for my questions. And I had a lot of questions from the Methodists as well.
But at least — and the church that I went to as a college student, my pastor was arrested for protesting in favor of GLBTQ rights. We’re the first church in Ohio that hung a giant rainbow flag.
Let me just say that I’m grateful that way I was brought into religion was born of love and vulnerability and encouragement to ask questions. I know that that’s not the case for everybody. And I know that religion was a place of hate and despair and shame, kind of the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings, at least according to my interpretation of it.
And I think I don’t explore it a lot in my poems, but I do, I think, always want there to be an undercurrent. And then also in my book of essays, I wanted each moment to begin and end with love. It doesn’t mean that I shy away from darkness. It doesn’t mean that I shy away from sadness or despair, but I wanted to land on love because that’s what I come back to in my own life. That’s how it was handed to me. And for those who didn’t have that in their life, it’s not a brag, it’s not, “Look at me, this is what happened.” I want it to be like, “This is a possibility. This is the world that I want for us all.” And that it could be.
It was the case for two immigrants who didn’t have a whole lot in common except for a shared love of Elvis and the garden. [laughter] And they made it work somehow and it wasn’t smooth by any means. They still are squabbling in their gardens now, retired in central Florida. But they showed me a pathway. And ultimately I don’t have goals in my poems, but if I had to name one here and now it would be to show a place of possibility and love. And there’s other poems that don’t do that, don’t need to do it, and that is great. But I wanted to make room at the table for someone who is searching for a chance to remember the wonder and love that is possible for us all.
Ó Tuama: Well, what a place to end.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you. Thank you.
Ó Tuama: I want to thank Aimee Nezhukumatathil, poet.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you.
Ó Tuama: Writer, butcher, erotic explorer of body and freedom and color and the world. Thank you —
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Ó Tuama: — so much for the generosity of what you’ve shared.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you for those beautiful questions.
[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]
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