Sunday, March 27, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Aimee Nezhukumatathil

A 1/2 Dozen with a Poet

-- finally --
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
who talks about
a wild array of obsessions,
inspiring young poets,
finding the right partner
(after a lot of doubt).

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

The poetry of two Sarahs: Sarah Vap & Sarah Gambito; writing haibun; anything glittered or sequined--I'm a regular bower bird; Sunday evenings: making a rainbow of purees for my 10 month-old and watching him delight DELIGHT in the joy of trying new foods; peacocks (the national bird of India); listening to my almost-4 yr old narrate his day to his baby brother: “Today we found shadows. Sometimes, I have a big shadow, sometimes a little shadow. Your shadow is probably very, very small.”

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers:

Your mama was right: saying please and thank you will get you far. And more than that, I believe in the sweetness and civility of the thank-you note. With a bona-fide stamp and carefully lettered address. Listen to the paper take the ink. I believe in Happy Mail.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?) and Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I was involved with a tumultuous grad-school/then long-distance relationship on and off for most of my 20s. I didn't start dating my husband until I was almost 30 and my 1st book had already been published a couple of years before that. But before I met him, I was totally unsure of what the future would hold kids-wise or husband-wise. TOTALLY unsure and doubtful....there's so much you can't control, even if you have type-A tendencies like me. The guys I dated (my grad school boyfriend not-withstanding) never understood the importance of writing to me, or frankly, could handle any of my writing or teaching success (I got my first tenure-track job when I was 26)--and I dated lots of writers, many of them 'successful' themselves! So what I thought of my future in the love/romance/family dept was pretty bleak, or at least nothing long-term. I took great pride in buying/renovating a house by myself, thinking I would be the single lady with the small dog and that's that. I never knew that in less than a year from buying that house, I would meet a super-talented writer that I deeply loved and who understood and put up with my mercurial tendencies (and who I wanted to father my children--that last tidbit weeded out a LOT of guys, hee, hee)! Most importantly, we genuinely LIKE each other's company. There's something to be said for being able to travel around the world together with excruciating long delays or crazy situations (accidentally abandoned together in a city square during rush hour with no restaurant or place to even sit down in hot hot southern India while mosquitoes have their way with us and monkeys pelted us with grapes, anyone?) and we still emerge being able to laugh together, with nary an argument between us.

I don't have all the answers but I do know it's far too easy to think (and society doesn't do the greatest job of showing there are other options, which is one reason why it is important for me to mention my two young sons in interviews or in my writing) that women (let alone minority women) have to make a choice between career OR family. But I'm here to say you DON'T have to choose (if you don't want to). It's not easy, but I wouldn't trade any sleepless nights or applesauce-crusted blouses for it.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

My favorite part of teaching poetry is that "light bulb moment" that happens in a student's writing where everything kind of clicks and their metaphors land from outer space or next-door and they find a space to put into words what they couldn't say before. When they realize their writing is above and beyond anything they ever imagined writing could be. And then watching them WANT to read more, and more, and more--on their own, not for any assignment or extra-credit. I think students are hungry for poetry but sometimes that hunger has been suppressed for so long, they just about forgot it entirely. But all of us can remember the joy we had when we were first reading rhymes and metaphor and filling in pictures in our minds for the parts that weren't illustrated in children's books. I love getting my students to that moment where they unplug, step away from the computer, and read because they WANT to. Because they are hungry for it. One of my greatest privileges as a professor--and I do consider it a privilege, really--is introducing them to new poets of all colors and backgrounds that they wouldn't normally find on their own, and helping them join the poetry conversation mid-dinner party, so to speak. Having students return to the joy of reading, not just for a class, not for any writing assignment--but for the sheer happiness of reading again. And of course, that naturally creates the best writers, the ones who are willing to take risks, to try new forms, new subjects, etc. I also teach environmental writing and literature, and those classes are especially near and dear to my heart. I tell my students, "If YOU aren't writing about this planet (that fishing hole at grandma's, those mountains you hiked as a kid with your parents, etc), who else is going to do it?"

What’s your take on touring?

Whenever possible (and as long as it is not disruptive), I bring my sons to various campus events and sometimes they even travel with me to readings across the country.

Once, my then almost 11-month-old eldest son came along to an end-of-the semester poetry gala reading for my graduating seniors and it was my husband (who also teaches in the English department) who held him in the back of the room, read picture books with him, and yes, even fed him a bottle--all while I was emceeing the event, taking pics, and meeting their parents. I do think it is important for students to see us as a family unit at these events, especially when they are held at what is normally considered "family time" for us in the evenings. But most importantly, I think it's healthy for them to see my husband with the baby and more than once have some young women come up to me after an event, cooing about how they hope and wish they find a guy who "clearly loves to be out with his child, cuz that's just so hawt." Heh. And these are women who have been accepted into MFA/Masters/PhD programs or who are just starting out teaching, so they very well might be in academia long-term and isn't that an awesome thing for them to see that it is in fact possible that a future partner be able to do this for them?? And there's a partnership of course. When my husband has a presentation in our campus-wide Research Expo, you can bet that it will be ME who is carrying our infant around and trying to keep our now-toddler from toppling trays of cheese cubes so that my husband can emcee the event and mingle freely. But I'd be lying to say I don't cherish those times I travel alone, have that alone time and quiet in a hotel room, catching up on my own reading and sometimes if I'm lucky--my own writing. I keep connected with my family via the wonders of Skype, but I do so enjoy having that separate identity, the living out of a suitcase, indulging in the glories of room service, and making students of all stripes (I'm often giving high school assemblies or as a visiting writer at colleges) laugh and laugh and not take themselves too seriously, hopefully making them want to rush back to their own rooms and quietly put pen to paper.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three collections of poetry: Miracle Fruit, At the Drive-In Volcano, and the just-released, Lucky Fish (all with Tupelo Press). Poems and essays appear in Tin House, Orion, Brevity, and American Poetry Review. Awards for her writing include the Pushcart Prize and a poetry fellowship from the NEA. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia where she received the Chancellor's Medal of Excellence. She lives with her husband and young sons in western New York.