Michaelsun Knapp: I was wondering if you would mind talking about INSIDE THE CLOUD FOREST DOME, its impetus and some of the process of writing and revising that poem, and I would selfishly like to hear you discuss the choices you made to, in the first half, do these fabulous leaps, and then, in the second half, do this wonderful delineation staying on the forest and walk in Cloud Forest Dome, and to stop leaping.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: A few years ago, the wonderful writer Robin Hemley invited me to give a reading in Singapore and during my down time, I visited the namesake garden of the title with my mother. I’ve been going to botanical gardens all my life, all over the world—I mean, I have very distinct memories of sitting in a stroller and leaning over and trying to grab flowers with my chubby hand—but nothing could prepare me for the wondrous beauty of Singapore’s gardens. The caesuras are a way to signal to the reader that not only is the speaker hesitant in trying to recreate this magical place too thoroughly, but there are also huge moments unspoken about a parent’s guilt from being away from home, fitting in perfectly, and not so perfectly.
MK: Line 7 in that poem, “here rotten? Everything roots” is so great! Would you talk to me about the process you took to craft the poem to come to this mind-blowing line?
AN: Thanks! The truth is I can’t exactly name a moment of specific direction in any of my poems. All I know is 99% of the time, I start with an image, not a concept or even a mood—for this poem, I started simply with a sketch of liana vines (plants I’d never encountered before in person or a picture from a book, and not that I’m some sort of botanist at all, but this is quite rare for me to not have at least heard about this plant, so I was terribly vexed and excited about liana all at once). I thought I was going to write an essay about the plant at first, but the siren call of compression and a tiny bit of telegraphing in poetry called to me instead. All I know the minute I feel like I ‘know’ what the poem is going to be about, it’s a signal for me to leap and leap in the poem to a place where I don’t feel comfortable. It’s only during revision that I can go back and look at that happy mess of words and try to make sense of it.
MK: What kind of impulses did you have with this poem that you tried and kept, tied and then discarded, or ones you thought of but didn’t engage in, and why?
AN: After my first draft, I knew I didn’t want the main focus to be on the speaker being a “tourist” in the poem, and so I cut a dozen or so lines that concentrated on the speaker so that the specifics and musicality of the garden itself are hopefully what stands out more than the I of the poem.
MK: Birth Geographic blew me away. I was crying in a Starbucks after I read it the first time, and then again at work at 3am. I have to know, how did you write that? There is so much vulnerability and love and pain and hope. How did you survive writing that?
AN: Oh my goodness—you are way too, too kind! Thank you so much! That piece from Lucky Fish was first published as a lyric essay and I’m eternally grateful to essayist Barrie Jean Borich for seeking it out in the first place. An editor once told me to wait ten or so years before ever writing about pregnancy or childbirth, and though it stung at the time, I’m glad that it didn’t silence me or stop me from tackling the subject of having a difficult emergency birth of my first son. What it did do was put me back to my desk and really interrogate each word of that piece (more than my usual revisions/edits), and to focus on each bit of white space, to make sure it was saying what I needed that piece to say. I had never seen any piece of writing about a Caesarean birth that didn’t cast it as this evil monstrosity or the mother as pretty much a failure. I wondered where were all the poems that sang of the beauty (and sheer terror—I didn’t want to shy away from the very real fear I had) and strength of such a common occurrence?
I never thought I’d publish it. It was the first thing in a couple of years that I wanted to write just for my own eyes, and perhaps for my husband, and for much later—my son, as a record of how he came into this world— and I hope it stands as a record of what huge love and gratefulness I have for them. At the time, there was a big trend-wave of these hugely ironic, detached poems, so I thought there was no place in publishing for a big messy love poem featuring a C-section in the middle of it, but it’s actually one of my most requested poems when I give readings at colleges across the country. And not from mothers, either, but more from sons and daughters who were themselves c-section babies and who tell me they’d just never read anything like it. It’s miles away the most personal thing I’ve ever written to date and as such, it’s far easier for me to imagine people just skipping over it in my book. J
MK: What books are coming out that have you excited to get to read?
AN: Oh there is always a pile of books near my bed about to topple over. For poetry, I’m excited for Raena Shirali’s debut book, GILT. Allison Joseph has a bunch of chapbooks coming out next year, and there’s also LOOK, by Solmaz Sharif, and HALO by C. Dale Young. Now it looks like I’m into one word titles right now or something, but I swear I didn’t plan that! As for non-fiction, I’m absorbed in reading about coconuts and snowflakes right now.
2 Poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
INSIDE THE CLOUD FOREST DOME
The needles from the hoop pines
inside the cloud forest remind me
of the bristles of my son's baby brush
and I am sick with a cold so I ask
the waiter if they serve any ramen
but he thinks I'm asking, Is anything
here rotten? Everything roots
so well here in the cloud forest, like
the liana vines draping purple smiles
along the walkway of the biodome.
Nothing is rotten in the cloud forest.
Everything is fresh, especially the crown drip,
the fog drip, the stemflow
into humble streams and pools.
Starfish and Coffee
after the song with the same name, by Prince
Prince knows the sexiest meal of the day is breakfast—
the meal that separates the sexy from the selfish shellfish
after a night so wild the fitted sheets slough
halfway off the bed like velella velella jellyfish—
the bluesails left on the shore after a riotous night.
And that’s how you feel after tumbling
like sea stars on the ocean floor over each other.
A night where it doesn’t matter
which are arms or which are legs
or what radiates and how --
only your centers stuck together.
Underwater volcanoes send up pillow lava
and after a night like that you rest
your head on it, not caring about
the burn, but the startle of falling asleep
with his lip just inside yours.
All the shifts and small adjustments
with this fish-bright and beautiful body.
A nightstand knocked clean of its clock.
What care and flair goes into the person
who rises after a night like that to mix
flour, sugar, eggs, and oil—who puts on
a pot of hickory coffee, a fine butter dish,
a vial of syrup on the table—then goes back
to the bed where you lay: cheeks still rosy,
one hand still clutching a fistful of pillow,
hair tentacled over the side of the bed
your three hearts so full, so hungry, so purple.