Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Aimee Nezhukumatathil's Lucky Fish

(Photo Credit:
I have read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first two books, Miracle Fruit (2003) and At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), both from Tupelo Press, in one sitting. However, it took me nearly two months to finish her latest full-length collection Lucky Fish. (2011, Tupelo). This was due to the fact that I am in my last semester of my MFA and I have been frantically working on my thesis. But personal circumstances aside, I am now glad I took my time.

I’m not the kind of person that likes to compare a poet’s new work to her past (wow I’m bad at this review thing), because I think everyone writes from whatever self they are at that time. That said, if you are fan of Nezhukmatathil, you’ll enjoy this book. The difference with Lucky Fish is merely the passage of time; the poet is a new person with new experiences that inform this collection, particularly the last section that includes a series of poems about pregnancy, breastfeeding, motherhood and parenting. What remains constant is Nezhukmatathil’s ability to create world that is simultaneously filled with the mundane and magical.

Comprised of three sections, the first sets out with a wandering spirit, traveling the globe. Nez tells us that “The Globe Is Just An Asterisk,” which is both the section title and the first poem of the book. The last line serves as a springboard for the poems that follow; “I will always find a way to dig.” And dig she does, and we dig along with her. Dig up stories from India and the Philippines. Dig up animals from earth, sky and sea. Dig our forks deep into a berry pie, its “buttery crust.” The section ends with the speaker eating the soil of New York, Arizona, Florida and Ohio. Dig in.

In the second section we dig through time, into adolescence, recalling deeply the pain of childhood, of being different. We witness fruit trees being stolen and the school mascot finally gets a chance to speak. Even with all the narrative poems, Nezhukumatathil still infuses this collection with lyricism like her poem “Reptilian’s Lament” that begins:

Too cold.
Too tongue.
Too bug-eyed.
Too gill.

Throughout the book we encounter many forms, including a number of list poems. My favorite, “How to Be A Poet,” lists five words, “Breath / Spiders / Boxes / Eyeliner / Thirst,” where the meat of the poem lies in the five endnotes. These structure experiments energize the paintings of these poems, which are mostly written in couplets or triplets. Also in the second section, we see Nezhukmatathil dig into a political poem with “Dear Betty Brown,” shaming the Congresswoman for asking a Chinese man to consider changing his name to something that is simpler for her to pronounce.

If I didn’t change my name for my husband,
I’m certainly not going to change it for you.

Damn straight, Ms. Nezhukumatathil. Damn straight.

In an interview on The Rumpus, Nezhukumatathil states that about one-third of the work in this book was written before she became a mother. This fact doesn’t make the books final section, "Lucky Penny" – which is mostly about becoming a parent – seem out of place. Nezhukumatathil has consistently written about people: parents, siblings, friends, lovers, fiancé, husband – and now sons.

Perhaps the most powerful poem is the longest of the section entitled “Birth Geographic” and subtitled “an auto-bio poem sequence.” The poem, written in eighteen sections, begins, “When you give birth, there is no map” and from there on the shape and content grapple with trying to find order in a chaotic, emotional experience. Nezhukumatathil weaves together stories of her parents' births, folklore, bowerbirds, even directions, in between the narrative of giving birth to her son. While she makes it clear that the personal stories of her poems are never held to any truth standard (though the science in her work is always based in fact) this poems brings with it the truth of experience, abandon, manic struggle, elation and fear. I was left breathless.

As someone who loves holding a book, enjoys the feel of paper and glossy covers, I must say that Tupelo continues to make beautiful books. The cover art for this collection, entitled “Mermaid Tail” by Ellen Yeast, an extreme close up of the tail end of a rainbow-colored fish, is lovely in its simple elegance. It is the perfect visual companion to the colorful, flavorful, textured world with which Nezhukumatathil remains fascinated. In fact, that is perhaps what I love most about Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry: she is filled with a childlike playfulness and wonder with the natural world, entranced by its magic and her poems always share that magic with us.

While speaking at AWP about “How a Poem Happens” Nezhukumatathil told the audience to always have a variety of books on your desk; her desk currently held books about seashells and pirates. Everything can go into poems, whether it is the history of the paper, Thanksgiving dinner, Michael Jackson’s former pet monkey Bubbles, or a lucky penny. These people, places and things are all there and Nezhukumatathil is a master at layering details and narratives, braiding together multiple stories or images, and then returning, renewed. After reading her books, I love to go back and sift through the poem-layers, digging through the pages. Her poems make us all “find a way to dig.”


Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil was published by Tupelo Press in 2011.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fleeting Pages Rocks My World

Fleeting Pages represents exactly what I love about the Pittsburgh literary scene. We have passion, enthusiasm. We are scrappy and hardworking. We are people who take a chance to do something risky, last minute, all for the love of words.

In essence, Fleeting Pages consists of taking over (taking back??) one of the spaces, left empty by a failed big box bookstore in Pittsburgh, for one month, starting April 30th, and filling it with independent & self-published work of all kinds, book arts, workshops, events, and..?(insert your ideas here)?… All revolving around various forms of written self-expression.

Weave is going to be involved in a few different ways. Of course we'll be available in the store, but we're also planning some workshops and perhaps a reading. I love the idea of reinventing an old, corporate space and re-imagining as a grassroots, community-driven space. I love the short term nature as well, because it adds a sense of urgency and really gets people off their asses and in the space. It's more than a store in this way. It's more like a month long community gathering. A space for intersections.

You should contact them with ideas or if you have a book to sell.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things

New York City. Technology. Art. Feminism. Food.

I'm in New York City this weekend and this is the view from my hotel room.

I'm curious to see it tomorrow with all the people working. There were some yesterday, but not many. I need to write about those memorial pools. There is something so feminist about building a park and pools in this space. Or rather, something yonic, when compared to the phallic nature of most cityscapes.

My trip has otherwise been relatively low key. The food thus far as been delicious. Pizza at a little place across the street. I had jerk chicken at The Islands, then late dinner of shells and cheese at Alchemy, both in Brooklyn. I also discovered that rosemary tastes delicious when mixed with Tanqueray and pear puree.

There was a panel speaking about the impact of technology on feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum. There was some fascinating statements that the panelists made, such as the fact that the internet equalizes voices because they are disembodied, therefore eliminating existing prejudices. Someone then countered and said the internet is not a safer, less judgmental place for trans men and women. Someone used the verb "mushroomed" and I love it and it will show up in a poem. High heels were called a power tool. Technology is linked to consumption and therefore is linked to insecurity.

Then Sal got up at the Q&A and made a statement. He said that he works for a nonprofit tech organization and that he often encounters people with a cause debating whether technology is good or evil. He ultimately said that technology is a tool and merely speeds up/amplifies/magnifies/highlights what already exists. Technology cannot be inherently good or bad because it depends on how it is being used. I was proud of him and the panel seemed both interested and exhausted by his statement because he summed up what they had to say very easily, but then another woman said that he was right and therefore it's up to us to make sure that technology has the impact we want it to have.

We also saw the Judy Chicago exhibit in the Center for Feminist Art. Her piece "The Dinner Party" is devoted to highlighting women throughout history that have been overlooked for their amazing contributions. It is an awesome piece and I have so many names to research. I am considering doing a poetry project in conjunction with it.

Later we met up with Sal's sister and her partner at Alchemy and talked the night away. Sal confirmed with them that I am improving at taking public transportation. When I got to LGA on Friday I took a cab to Queens and then the subway to Manhattan. Subways don't stress me that much and I've taken the Metro enough now to feel ok with it. Busses still make me nervous. Who knows where you'll end up when you get on a bus. Oh San Francisco Muni system... we'll have fun getting to know each other this fall.

When I first got into grad school, Sal and I had just begun dating. We took a trip that May to NYC to celebrate. Here we are again, full circle, celebrating my completed thesis. I like this tradition.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ok, I'll Admit It

Sometimes I pee with the door open. Actually, I live alone, so I always do. So what?

I've recently been exhausted by dealing with the ramifications of revealing personal information via my art. Specifically, important people in my life found this poem and I am feeling the heat. I need some sunscreen. SPF 327 please.

I also have a fear of being judged by people on public transportation. I know that THEY know I'm not supposed to be there.

It's not like I didn't think about the ramifications of sharing my personal life. In fact, I told my family about said poem, the content of which they already knew about, so nothing was a surprise. I'm very aware of what it means to be afraid to say something. I was fearful for a good portion of my life. So fearful that I didn't even say things to myself. I've come a long way.

Sometimes I spend a whole day doing absolutely nothing. Sometimes I won't go outside for an entire weekend.

I'm aware that my life does not exist in a vacuum. Making my personal life public affects the people I care about. However, it most often affects them in that they are made  uncomfortable. It ultimately isn't about me. It's about them being embarrassed. Sometimes people worry about me, how being public might affect my career. Mostly, they worry about themselves and the other people I might betray by being a public artist.

I currently weigh 185.2 pounds.

Honesty is a big part of who I am as a poet. I'll be the first person to admit my faults, if I'm aware that they exist. I can be aware, I can reflect and consider consequences, but in the end, it's my life. It's my poem to write.

What are you afraid to admit about yourself? What are you NOT afraid to admit?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stick a Fork In It

I like finishing things, checking them off one of my many to-do lists. Striking a line through even the most menial tasks gives me happy goosebumps. I love feeling done with something.

Sal likes to say, when you're done, you're dead. 

I met with my thesis director this week and he told me I was finished. He had no big changes. No small ones either, unless I wanted to make line edits on my own to individual poems, but he felt that as a whole the manuscript was set. I don't think I reacted the way he expected. I think I said something to the effect of "okay" and nodded.

As I was leaving campus I texted Sal. He was excited for me. I posted it to Facebook. People were congratulatory. I told my mom. She was proud.

I'm not feeling it. I'm proud of myself on some level, somewhere. I feel it. But mostly I feel deflated. I loved waking each morning and devoting myself to those poems. I was in love with editing. I was falling in love with forms. I've got two sestinas, a sonnet and a ghazal. I loved that writing poems was my job and that others were expecting me to create this thing. So I had to commit myself to it each morning. I loved waking up early, sitting at my desk with my coffee and clementines, deciding which poems to work on that day. Printing them out and observing the shape the words made on the page. Laying them all out on the floor.

Now I have to write cover letters and job applications.

I still need to defend, but I've never really been worried about that part. I can speak intelligently about what I've written. I can talk about my influences. I'm strangely excited about my defense. Maybe then I will feel more accomplished.

I know that my manuscript isn't really done. I know that two years isn't enough time (for me) to write a full length book. But my priorities have shifted. I could not graduate without my thesis. Now that I have it, I can. Now I must fall from this safe bubble into the world and try to create that magical space on my own and somehow not let the noise of the world distract me from committing myself to writing each morning.

write thesis

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm Filling Time

Lately I have been reading wikipedia pages about the human heart. I've learned about the four different chambers, the inferior and superior vena cava, the walls that separate sections. Sometimes I clench my left hand into a fist just so I can image the size. It's smaller than I imagine, the heart.

I recently put together my thesis manuscript into one document. I've had the poems, the introduction, the bibliography, the sections - all of these were in separate files on my computer. But this week I copied and pasted them all into one big file, formatted section numbers, adjusted margins, created a table of contents. It felt good to print it out and hand the draft to my director. I'm almost there.

After I got all the poems in one document, I copied the poem text into this text analysis software, which then sorts your words in a big list by how frequently they appear. This has been invaluable in terms of me having documented evidence of my obsessions. The word body appears in my thesis nineteen times. Then, the words hair, hands, eyes, skin and heart all appear seventeen times each. Spider shows up nine times. Vibrator twice. Ten palms, nine teeth, seven kitchens, seven blues. I have a document open always where I jot down title ideas. I am enjoying this ongoing process of information gathering. Maybe I should call it Ten Palms, Nine Teeth. Or Nineteen Bodies. Let me get those two on my list real quick...

Other recent accomplishments include my issue of Caper Literary Journal being posted this week. I guest edited a small selection of five awesome poems and one awesome short story for March. I had so much fun soliciting work from awesome writers I know. Something magical happened with this process actually; fascinating themes emerged dealing with creation, mythology, death, rebirth, retelling, bodies and magic. It's a magical collection. I am very proud to make public their work.

Additionally, this morning my poem "One Million Cow Eyes" was accepted by the new Adanna Literary Journal. Founded by Christine Redman-Waldeyer and guest-edited by Diane Lockward. I'm excited and honored to be included in the inaugural issue of this awesome feminist journal. This poem is about the animal scientist Temple Grandin who is also a high functioning autistic person. She's an especially amazing person and I recommend learning more about her life and accomplishments.

Other than these things, I'm mostly soaking up spring and time with my family. California feels closer and closer and before long I'll be on a plane headed toward The Bay. I went to the shooting range with my dad for the first time yesterday and nothing terrible happened. In fact, I got to know myself and my father a little bit better. So I'd say it was a day well spent.