Adam Kampe: I always start off with a very, very tough question. If you could just introduce yourself?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Alright, sounds good. Hi, I’m Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I’m a poet and I’m a professor of English at State University of New York, at Fredonia.
Adam Kampe: You know, as I’ve been reading more and more of your stuff, there’s such a playful and visceral crackle, if you will, in your poetry. It’s so evident and clear that you love the living world, the natural world, that surrounds you, us. And just a couple of lines that jumped out today as I was reading a few different poems: “flip flops and fishhooks” and “fruitwounds of cherries.” That’s, like, my favorite. Do you recall the moment you fell in love with words, or a moment?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I think I’ve loved words and sounds of words all my life. It’s just, it was never really…you know I’ve been ingrained since basically I could speak I was trained to say, “I will be a doctor when I grow up.” You know. But something tipped me off when I was sitting in organic chemistry labs trying to figure out a formula for hexavalent chromium. I was thinking in my head how beautiful that sounded. Hexavalent chromium. That should’ve been a red flag to all who were involved that I was not gonna be a doctor anytime soon. At the same time, my parents---my mom is from the Philippines and my father is from India---they just have such a natural color to their language. So even though we didn’t have the same literature perse, and the traditional kind of bedtime stories, no Cat in the Hat or anything like that, before bed, they would me tell stories, you know, just describing a particular beach where they that played around in when they were younger, or something like that. And they would say sampaguita flowers, Patar Beach, Pangasinan. Things like that. Those words and those sounds were so…just fantastic to me. I loved rolling them around in my mouth as I drifted off to sleep, that kind of thing. It’s really something, even now, when I’m composing poems I can feel myself muttering to myself just to get the exact sound right. But that was I think from as long as I can remember listening to stories from my parents.
Adam Kampe: Ok. So switching gears a little bit from personal background, I had read in an interview that you said your favorite words changed depending on how high the sun is in the sky. I was just curious what are some of your favorite words today?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Oh my goodness. You’re gonna call me out on that one. Yeah, I like geode. That kind of rock that you split open and there’s a bunch of crystals in it. I like geode. It kind of sounds like what I picture the rock to be like. And I love….one of my favorite adjectives is spectacular. You can’t really sound nonchalant when you say something is spectacular. Say like, “oh, that movie was spectacular.” It doesn’t really happen like that. I find myself smiling. I’m smiling right now just saying spectacular. So, yeah, these would be my two today: geode and spectacular.
Adam Kampe:And I’m curious if you, if there’s a poem be it your own or someone that you really appreciate, maybe a first poem that you memorized and took it in and inscribed it onto yourself. Or if something’s that you make an effort to do?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Oh yeah. I actually have my students do it as part of an assignment. So I fully, fully believe that’s something that, when you’re waiting on line or something, it’s just one of the most beautiful, magical things to actually have a poem ready on the tip of your tongue. There are so many things that you memorize that are just nonsense, like Facebook passwords or whatever. So you owe it yourself to as a human being, I tell them to kind of faux mock them that you know we’re about the be only species that can memorize, besides birds essentially, that can memorize a poem so take advantage of our superiority as species. Do you know what I mean? So I have one. “When You Are Old.” It’s one of those classics but it’s one that I’ve remembered from, gosh, before junior high. I just thought it was so beautiful before I even thought, “I need to know what this means or what it is? I just thought it was so magical. Do you want me to say it off the top my head? Now I’m challenging myself.
Adam Kampe: Sure. That’d be fantastic. Thanks.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil:Let me go. Alright. No pressure, no pressure."When You Are Old."
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989).
Adam Kampe: That’s me clapping through the speaker phone.
Music: Aki's Apple by used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on the WFMU's Free Music Archive. freemusicarchive.org.
Considering the Poetry Out Loud Finals are just around the corner [April 29-30], she was kind enough to demonstrate the art by reciting Yeats. Here's the first of a handful of posts with Aimee. [5:20]