NEA Literature Fellowships

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2009 - Poetry)


          Let me say it was not easy
          to listen to all the snips like tiny birds
chirping under the floorboards to my father's studio
downstairs. Those years of groaning branches wired
and tugged into a cascade, spilling over the base of the pot?
            like mountain stream, like light. Most of all,
                       I hate the slants. Why these plum trees always sit
                       off-center, asymmetrical and empty in the place
                                             where heaven meets earth in a ceramic pot.
                                             What waste of air,
                                  thick with the scent
                                      of snipped fruit buds
                                      and metal. I could
                                      grow good there,
                                     pale roots
                                  whirling like a thumbprint
                                                       on his wrist. Some nights when I knew
                                             he would be home late, I'd sneak into his room,
                                             search the shapes of apricot and maple trees
                                             for dragons, tigers, birds with wild tails.
                             Nothing like a girl
                       and her outstretched arm
                       food to fat
                       white fish.
      Or a girl parting curtains, waving good-bye to her mother.
     Sometimes he'd surprise me with bon-kei: small buildings
      and people nestled right there in the black dirt, the trees
          looming large in the center of the miniature city. A
                 tiny paper house could look alive with just
                           the light from a single match. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil was born in Chicago, Illinois, and received her MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction from The Ohio State University. She is the author of two poetry collections: Miracle Fruit, winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Award, and the Global Filipino Award, and At the Drive-In Volcano, winner of the Balcones Prize, given to the best collection of poetry published in 2007.

Her writing has been published in several anthologies, and has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Boatwright Prize from Shenandoah, the Richard Hugo Award from Poetry Northwest and the Emerging Writer's Award in poetry from The Atlantic Monthly. She is associate professor of English at the State University of New York-Fredonia where she won the Hagan Young Scholar Award and the SUNY Chancellor's Medal of Excellence for Scholarship and Creative Activities. She lives with her husband and son in Western New York.(

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Author's Statement

I identify with writers who find themselves at home in a world in which the boundary between the local and the global has increasingly been blurred. It's a wrestling, if you will, with a shift from a specific locale to ‘elsewhereness.' I write with the intersection of three cultures always looming over my shoulder--Indian, Filipino, and American--providing my writing with a layering and fusion of pop culture and customs. As a poet, I find a perfect solution to capturing these blended traditions. I serve as interpreter, investigator, and historian. Worlds rife with fauna and flora--King Cobra snakes, cuckoo wasps, violet guavas, sea dragons, and whale sharks--come alive for me in this way. I hope to demonstrate how one can be situated without being rooted--be able to travel without getting lost.

As a new mother, so much of my writing is done in my head in the wee hours of the morning or on small bites of time. The NEA allows me freedom and, most importantly, time--to work on what will be my fourth collection of poems. It grants me the chance to travel and continue to write about sea animal conservation efforts at various oceanic research centers--writing that I began before my son was born. Receiving an NEA is fruit and light for me here in the snow belt of my sleepy little town. We can have up to eight months of snow and freezing rain, but oh--when that final thaw happens--the land bursts into berries and fat globes of fruit until fall. This award helps me carry a bit of that summer warmth and delight, stretching it for far longer than it would naturally last otherwise. I'm deeply grateful to the panel of judges and the NEA to help me record the delights of the natural world for my poems and for my young son.