How has your first book changed your life?
28. Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I had just come home to my teeny apartment from a long day of teaching and saw the big UPS box at the top of the stairs. I don't even remember climbing the stairs or even opening the box and unwrapping the paper. I know everyone talks about the tactile feel of their book, the weight of it, in a very drama-filled rhapsody and I wish I could say something different, but I tell you, if you have never held a Tupelo book, you are missing out on one of the highest production qualities of any poetry book I have simply ever seen. The satinsilk matte cover with French flaps--it was a dream come true right there in my hands.
How involved were you in creating the cover design?
I sent the creative team at Tupelo a few images I found of various tropical fruits and peacocks. In hindsight, I realize peacocks have nothing to do with the title, although I have a poem called "Peacocks," but what can I say? I know it's silly, but it's my absolute favorite bird... I just wanted to incorporate that obsession in some way. But WK Graphic Design, hired by Tupelo to design my book, found a great image of an actual miracle fruit. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but they arranged the fruit in such a way to resemble the spread wings of a peacock. I actually gasped when I first saw the pdf file for the first time. It was more beautiful than I had ever hoped for.
Shortly into grad school, I knew I wanted to teach creative writing. My mentor and thesis director, the late David Citino, actually told me not to get an MFA if I wanted to teach and I went home deeply wounded and deflated. I wanted to be him for crying out loud, and here he was telling me the chance of me actually getting a job was slim to none. I see now that he told me that so that I wouldn't concentrate on the 'race' that so many MFA students fall into: publish in journals, publish a book, BAM--you get a job! And because of what David told me, I really did hunker down and focus on writing, not the race (and reading, oh goodness, how I re-learned to read). I was hired for a tenure-track job before I found out Greg Orr picked my book to win the Tupelo prize. I had some teaching experience, a bunch of publications to my name, and a lovely little chapbook, but it wasn't in that dream 'order' that so many people think is the magic key to poetry glory. So, no, I actually didn't think my life would change per se, but I'd be lying to say I didn't somehow feel validated a little bit, especially in a university setting with a book--a book that I could hold and feel and students or colleagues hopefully wouldn't be wondering what the heck I was doing there (I was twenty-six and looked like a more dressed up version of my students when I was hired). I actually found out about the book over Labor Day weekend of my first semester teaching.
How has your life been different since?
I suppose more people recognize my name--I guess that has been the most interesting change. I get lots of email from readers I've never met and I answer every one of them--mostly from female high school and college students just writing to say Thank You for writing the book and mostly they are just so glad to read a female Asian-American poet they can actually relate to. Not only in experience but in the 'accessible' language they say I use. Virtually all of my readings now are paid invitations to various colleges and high schools, and I love being able to interact with students outside of my own little sphere at SUNY-Fredonia. Someone suggested a blog, just to keep track of what was going on during my book tour. A few months before the book's publication, I started one in '02 back when blogs were a fairly new and weird concept that sounded like a disease ("Oh, I heard you have a blog,"). In just a few months, I went from having a few friends read it to almost a thousand people reading it daily all over the globe. Actually, I won't pretend it all had to do with the publication of my book, because my geriatric dachshund, Villanelle, actually was a little star of the blog. She has fans all over the world from Brazil to Finland to Saudi Arabia. When I didn't post pictures of her or describe her daily shenanigans for awhile, my inbox would be loaded with complaints and suggestions for "More dog stories!" It just got to the point where I was getting a bunch of questions in email on dog care or solicitations from parents wanting to arrange a marriage for their son, or recently released prisoners asking for a "private poetry tutorial," and I even had a certain Pulitzer-prize winning poet (who shall go unnamed) harass me from it, so I deleted the entire thing and now only post rarely, and definitely zero information on my personal life. I'm sure I will post more once my second book comes out in April '07, but for now, it's just weird bits of photos and snippets from my garden.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I actually had no idea what to expect. No one in my MFA program had published a book of poetry since I entered the program, so I didn't really have anyone to give me the heads-up about publication. Tupelo did a great job of setting up some readings and took out a goodly amount of ads in places like Poets and Writers and the AWP Chronicle. I had no idea Tupelo would throw me a book-launch party at this hip little gallery in TriBeCa. In fact, at that point, I had never heard of a poet having a book-launch party, so that made me feel a bit glamorous.
As far as surprises go, my blog went from a list of what I ate when I traveled to this...thing that really invited a closer look into my life. At first I was pleasantly surprised that so many people took the time to read it, but I had no idea it would get the attention it received.
I also didn't expect to have such a response from high schoolers, particularly young women. When I was in high school, I never would have had the guts or even interest to track down a writer that I admired, but those have been my favorite correspondences. Especially with minority students. I never even knew there were Asian American writers that were alive (!) until I went to college--it just was not part of our suburban middle/upper-class curriculum--and I suppose I was too swamped with my bajillion extra curricular activities, none of which were reading poetry, to ever try and seek them out on my own. For me, there was absolutely zero guidance or encouragement to be introduced to writers of color, so I just admire these students' pluck and vibrancy and want to encourage that interest in writing as much as possible.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
I gave a lot of readings that first year it was published. Lots. Tupelo set up a nice set of places for me to read--bookstores, high schools, etc. But I also took the initiative and contacted all of my friends from out of state and asked for contact info on local high schools, indie bookstores, and colleges. I sent emails. I made calls. I did lots of so-called grunt-work because I knew I didn't have an agent who'd do it for me. I figured, if I want to make sure that no student ever says "I never knew there were Asian-American poets" again, I had better well do the groundwork and get my name and poems out there. Some were paid gigs, but more often than not, I was just so happy there was an audience, so I've read in front of 3 people and over 500. My department was extremely helpful (and patient!) in scheduling me for teaching duties twice a week, and without that, it would have been difficult to get to other campuses during the week. My students too, have been so supportive and they understand that sometimes I won't get to an email right away because I'm on the road. But I make up for that elsewhere by giving 200% in and out of the classroom, spending hours commenting on work I've assigned and work that students give me "just to see what I think" outside the classroom. I also make it a point to have several visiting writers during the year here at Fredonia and I think the students and my co-workers know that I am a better teacher when I am also traveling, giving talks and readings. And I'm a better "traveling poet," because of the time I do put into my teaching. For me, they go hand in hand and to do one without the other would be like watering half of a plant.
The best advice?
I think the golden rule is still the best advice for everything, but before, during and after your book comes out, it's a perfect reminder to treat others as you want your book to be treated. When I fall in love with a book, I write the author and tell them so. You want reviews? Write some for others. You want invites to places for a reading? Try to do the same for others, and fight to get them as many shiny dollars for their art as well. And when you are a guest--give them everything you've got. Read with energy. Be audience friendly and look people in the eye. Don't read over your limit, make every person (and especially the students) you meet feel important and special, and have good manners for goodness sakes. Saying Please and writing thank-you notes in the writing world go very, very far.
Did winning the ForeWord Prize have a big effect on your book's popularity?
I don't know for sure, but I think that may have been one way for college and high school librarians to even have it in their libraries, which was very key for building my audience. So many people who wrote to me first saw the book in a library or school setting and then ended up buying it after renewing it so much! I also like that you can never tell each year who will win--and that small presses really do have a chance at winning a prize at ForeWord.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Tupelo is one of those great presses who really wants to create a poetry family, one where your poems (and future poems) really do have a HOME of sorts, so very early on, my editor, Jeffrey Levine, assured me that Tupelo would be happy to print my next collection. I was already knee-deep into my next project before Miracle Fruit even hit the bookstores. My next collection is a marked change from the lightness in my first one--it's a darker look at the world, at relationships in particular, all told from the perspective of someone who is obviously in love with nature, in all its lovely and scary forms. I was really grateful to have that pressure off during the writing of those poems, wondering if I was going to find a home for these poems or not. I could really concentrate on just getting the writing done and as a result, my next collection, At the Drive-In Volcano, will be out from Tupelo this spring.
I'm so glad Miracle Fruit had a slew of reviews, from newspapers around the world and Publisher's Weekly to tiny paragraphs on a website. Everyone has been so generous and very thoughtful in their introspectiveness. But as far as an effect on my writing, I can honestly say it doesn't even factor in my day-to-day hammering on my keyboard.
My life already has changed in so many ways since my first book. I'm married now to a wonderfully supportive (and cute!) writer, and would like to start a family eventually, so I already know my life will change-- the amount of time we have for writing and reading on the porch together with drinks in our hand, or the carefree days of taking road trips with our geriatric dachshund. I'm actually writing non-fiction now, and the process for me is slow, slooooow, sloooooooooow, and I am both really frustrated and loving the process all at once.
Richard Hugo said something like, You have to have a little arrogant streak in you. Not in real life, of course, he goes on to say, in real life, be nice. It's funny--it was such a lightbulb moment for me--I suppose I would have always kept writing had I never come across his little wonderful book, The Triggering Town, but it really gave me permission to not apologize for once. I think little girls, especially, are trained early on to say sorry for everything: for being loud or too quiet, for being first, being last, for winning, for losing. But on the page, I know I can be as bold (or as nuanced) as I want to be. No apologies needed (unless they are to myself, during revision!). I think just writing poetry forces you to be a more careful observer, and in turn, a nicer person, or at least one who takes care of this planet a bit better. Eco-writer Rachel Carson said if we pay more attention to "the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction." And I do see that play out in my students every semester, actually--they save resources more, spend more time in parks with a notebook instead of bars, and they actually take an interest in the world outside their dorm room. I know it doesn't happen with every student and it's a small start, but one that can make all the difference.
When Cleopatra received Antony on her cedarwood ship,
You could not live without my scent, brought pink bottles of it,
of these crushed purple blooms for wrist, cleavage, earlobe.
the smell of my perfume, the one you handpicked years ago.
on my neck, twenty-seven small murders of you. And the count
. . .
next interview: Sarah Mangold
. . .