Passages North interviews poetry contest judge Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Associate Poetry Editors Zarah Moeggenberg and Cameron Witbeck talk with Aimee Nezhukumatathil -- judge of this year's Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize -- about geology, line breaks, and white whales. Zarah: What do you enjoy most about writing?
Aimee: I write most things out long-hand these days first, and I love the sh-shhshhush of graphite from my pencil grabbing the tooth of paper in one of my writing journals.
Cameron: There are so many different websites and magazines that serve as venues for contemporary poetry, where do you find yourself returning when you want to be surprised? (Note: You don’t have to say Passages North—we know you know what’s up.)
Aimee: I always find crackles and surprises in the pages of Orion, The Normal School, Indiana Review, and online in Diode and The Collagist. And yes yes, Passages North! J
Zarah: I also know that you do a great deal of research which breathes into your poetry. Your poems are laced with beautiful, yet specific words, which catch the reader. For instance, “lanugo / —fine hairs like a furred stem of a daisy” in “Lobison Song.” Many of your poems even give us brief definitions that add to the excitement of the text. What interesting things have you been researching which seem to be working their way into your writing?
Aimee: I’m always reading science books—not for any specific research, but because I genuinely love to read about this planet. I’m almost done with The Search for the Giant Squid (and not coincidentally, the first pics of a giant squid have recently surfaced!) and the most recent thing that led me down a sinkhole of freshman geology class: The Moh’s Hardness Scale (of gems and minerals). But I don’t know for certain if these things will surface in my poems or essays. It’ll often be months or even years before something I read appears in a poem. Most recently I have been finding that my time spent studying and tracking stars that appear in the summer months in North America are finding their way into some new poems, but I believe the time I was reading about those stars was over a year ago.
Cameron: You’ve spoken about “the speaker” before and how some audiences have difficulty distinguishing the author from the “I.” What’s the strangest thing someone has assumed you’ve done or said because it was in a one of your poems?
Aimee: Nothing I’d classify as “strange,” but just wrong…
Zarah: At the graduate workshop Q&A at NMU last year, you mentioned that when you write, the words hit the page in a relatively organic way. But when I look at poems like “Notes for the Heartbeat at My Feet” in Lucky Fish I cannot understand how that could be so: “Or sometimes, you’d sniff at my waist, then look up / at me—frantic, expectant—like when you corner / a toad on our walks…” There are places in your poetry where the structure of the line mimics the actions of subject. What is your process in line breaking, and how much drafting do you do to get it just right?
Aimee: Ha—thanks so much! Well I definitely have to say that I rarely pay close attention to line breaks during the drafting phase—much more of my focus/energy is on the content, of getting it all down on the page. I wasn’t lying—I do break lines while I draft, but at this point with my writing, knowing when to do so seems to come more out of a genuine hunch or a natural breath or a place where I want to lean on the tension of a singular word or phrase. I pay much more attention to line breaks when I revise my poems and read them out loud.
Cameron: What’s your white whale? What one elusive thing or topic do you want to write a poem about someday (but not today)?
Aimee: I haven’t really ever written about the death of a loved one. I can’t bear to even think of what energy it would require of me—it scares me to think of losing any of my loves and yet, of course that also tells me I should face that subject someday. Just not today.
Zarah: When you are judging a poetry contest, such as Passages North’s Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize this spring, what draws you to a poem? What catches your eye and makes you want to read it again?
Aimee: When I get to a poem, I want to be surprised—with the poem’s music, images, and/or the physical look of it on the page. I don’t ever want to be able to guess the next line or image, or know how the poem will end, and I want to also feel like I don’t want the poem to end in the first place. I want to stay in that poem’s world, like stepping into the landscape of one of those snow globes—I want to be shaken up and even after all the shaking settles down, I want to look down at my feet and know my world is not the same.
To enter the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, or the Thomas J. Hrushka Memorial Nonfiction Prize, go to Passages North's submissions page. (Quick details: $15 entry fee, $1000 first prizes, deadline: March 22, 2013.)