“I’m not sorry for writing about wonder and joy.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
One of the hallmarks of your poetry is your mining elements of the natural world, of botany and biology and zoology and chemistry, for metaphors, as ways of connecting with your experience. I’m very interested in the fact that you started out studying chemistry both for the ways it trained you in scientific thinking, how that informs your poetry, and also how the pivot actually worked, what it looked like to move from being a chemist to being a poet.
Oh, that’s a really good question. The heart of it is just that I idolized my mother and father. And I know that’s not really the coolest thing to admit as a poet but: I adore them. They are both still alive, and I’m forty years old and still, nothing pleases me more than to make them happy. And I am painfully aware that won’t always be the case. Basically what it came down to was I wanted to be my mom and my mom was a doctor. Since I was four years old, when I was trotted out to these little doctor parties and when they would ask me, Aimee what do you want to be? I would say: Doctor! All these doctor-pals of my parents would cheer and applaud and I got used to that, not even realizing what that actually meant. Really it’s so sad that it didn’t occur to me truly what that entailed until I was in college. That’s when it started actually occurring to me that I need to be amazing in science and math. I was kind of okay at them but I needed to be amazing at it. To actually have someone’s heart in my hands, I needed to be the best, and that was clearly not happening.
So the long and short of it is, I found myself in chemistry and biology classes, loving the precision of language. I loved the precision of naming compounds, that everything in biology had specific names, but what I was also drawn to was the musical language and diction of science, and in the margins of my notes for lecture, I’d start scribbling what I know now to be metaphors, or getting distracted by the music of these compounds. I didn’t know it then, but I was actually kind of creating a rhythm from this new vocabulary. Then meanwhile the bell would ring and I would realize, Oh, no, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do in my lab tonight!
When I was little, my parents worked at different hospitals and so it made for kind of a lonely childhood, but I never felt alone because I had a younger sister who was the absolute pearl of my world, and we were always reading all of these science books around the house. We also loved being outdoors. Growing up as one of the only Asian-Americans in most of my school always set me a little apart, always observing. But my parents fostered a sense of being grateful and amazed and wanting to always be curious about the world and its inhabitants so I never truly felt alone. I can remember my father taking me and my younger sister on a hike in the mountains around the Phoenix suburbs, pointing out the names of each of the various cacti and desert flowers we encountered. We’d stop and find bits of quartz crystals or geodes hidden on the trails: such treasures! Saguaro, ocotillo, yellowbell, shrubby bulbines, chuparosa—just try to say those names out loud without smiling. So my “writing” started off, I think, just as a love and a wanting to record what I see in nature. Science will always be one of my very early loves, but I think my greatest gift to humanity was not becoming a doctor.
Not being in the position of holding a beating heart in your hand.
No, it’s a great, it’s a fascinating answer. My dad is a geneticist and my mom is a microbiologist and so the first eighteen or whatever years of my life were very similar. I was really interested in science and took all of the cool science-y classes. Growing up I would say I wanted to be an oncologist, and I have this distinct memory of sitting in an organic chemistry lab and the instructor was talking about benzene rings and I couldn’t get the sound of “benzene rings” out of my head, that sort of slant rhyme. I was just sitting there singing “benzene rings” over and over in my head. I was thinking about how lovely it was and then totally missed whatever she was saying about covalent bonding or whatever.
Exactly! Oh my gosh, that’s so similar. Also, to this day, my dirty little secret is that I’ve never been able to light a Bunsen burner by myself. I was always batting my eyes enough to get another boy to do it for me. I’m so ashamed! I was able to get all the way through my junior year of college without lighting one. I’m still terrified of it. People have fears of drowning or of snakes but I’m terrified of the Bunsen burner.
I wonder if there’s a name for that?
There’s got to be. It’s not just fear of fire, because I can handle that. It’s so shameful. The only time I can say with all honesty that I used my feminine wiles was to get guys to light my Bunsen burners for me.
Some people will do it to get out of a ticket and you use it to get your Bunsen burners lit. That’s great. You have that poem—the big long “hippo” word—
Right, the fear of long words. All you have to do is write the poem title and say what it means, and it’s immediately charged because of your last name.
Sure. Part of it stemmed from my mother being a psychiatrist and we didn’t really have literature around the house. It was all kind of science and medical books and one of the books she had was actually the hard copy version of a list of all the phobias.
Yeah, and it’s all online now. At first it’s so easy to kind of laugh at these phobias, like the fear of long words and things like that, but I also realized there’s a person behind each of these phobias, and so my nervous laughter kind of turned solemn. Oh my gosh, there is a person who is actually afraid of the color white, for example—how does that person move on this planet like that? Or what if the person is afraid of the moon, you know? Or afraid of something ethereal, like actually afraid of flowers, what must it be like for that person to function in the world? The poem itself doesn’t take on persona in that way, but that’s kind of the origins of it. To give concrete examples of what it means to be afraid of long words and also to speak to some moments of autobiography.
When I first started teaching, and still, sometimes, on the first day of classes I have students say, “I thought you’d be walking in with a sari and I wouldn’t know how to react or how I’d be able to understand you,” and I’d be tempted to say, “Well, what if I did walk in with a sari, what’s wrong with that? Or what if I did have a thick accent?” I teach at a predominately white school, so it’s interesting to see how people come into class and make a sigh of relief, almost like, “oh you’re not one of those Asians that I can’t understand.” And I just really want to push back against that, you know? What if I was? Would I not have that dignity afforded to me? That’s the origin of that poem. But I also did want to have, in some ways, a kind of a love note to students to just say calm down. Maybe by turning the mirror back at them, they would realize, "I have nothing to be afraid of here.”
I love the idea of that specific poem as a love note to your students. You’ve written that Lucky Fish is basically a collection of love poems and I love reading it that way, whether to your sons or to your husband or to your dachshund or to the places you've spent your life or to the natural world.
That was the first collection I had written as a mother. I was pregnant with my second child when I was putting the finishing touches on it and I had a little toddler running around also, so I was in a very different state of mind than even my previous book just three years earlier where I wrote the entirety of At the Drive-In Volcano before I ever had a child or before I even had the idea of a child.
I think what it really came down to was that the transformation in this case was that I became much more aware of how much darkness there was in the world. Having that immediate, almost feral reaction of wanting to just put my mama bear self over my children and protect them from every slight or hint of darkness. And of course, that’s just setting yourself up for failure. There’s no way you could or should do that in a way. I had my moments of thinking, oh this world is terrible—why am I bringing a child into it, you know?
As I was doing my regular reading of science books and science journals, there were some animals I was actually doing some research on that had been declared extinct while I was writing about them! The last four or five members of the species were left on the planet and were going to be gone just within a year. It’s almost overwhelming to say, I’m going to change the world when you have a newborn at home, but the one thing I felt like I could do on a smaller level is say, at least I’ll have a record for my children to see how much I love the world and how much I’m willing to fight for the goodness and the beauty that’s in it. I don’t even know what this planet is going to be like in the next ten years or what images they’ll see on TV in another ten years you know?
For example—I didn’t know then that I’d be having to explain to my seven year-old why there is a man, someone’s child, lying face down in the middle of the street, why no one covered him up. I keep thinking of those images of Ferguson and back then—just a few years ago—I couldn’t even imagine those. It’s just terrifying, it’s almost overwhelming to think, Oh my gosh what other images are my children going to see that I can’t even imagine right now? I can’t protect them from that, but at least I can record bits of beauty and light in a book for them.
You have the line, “the light I want to collect is free,” and that seems to me like a central line to understanding your whole body of work. These are just collections of light to give your kids to wield as defense against the unimaginable darknesses they are bound to encounter.
Yeah! The unimaginable, I love that. And it’s weird talking about the unimaginable with a poet, right? We’re supposed to be able to imagine everything, but I think you and I would both agree that if we were told, even two years ago, that we would see the body of a teenager laying face down shot in the street and nobody would have the decency to cover him up or to take him to the hospital, we would have been like, No! No. Way.
I read that yesterday would’ve been Michael Brown’s nineteenth birthday.
Oh my gosh, I did not know that. So utterly devastating.
And you know, there’s no kind of easy answer. All I know is that sitting in a big chair with a tiny six-pound baby in my hands and then having a notebook in the other trying to scribble out a line or two, the last thing I could do was to write about death or murder or despair. I couldn’t do that. I’m not saying, oh there’s not a place for that in poems, because goodness knows I’ve needed those poems in my life, but in Lucky Fish, I’ve never been so clear in what I wanted to write. I’ve never set out to write for any audience ever before except for when I was composing the poems in that book. And that audience was a six pound baby and a three and a half year-old boy clamoring for my attention and begging me to watch videos of his favorite jellyfish. That was my audience. So how am I going to write poems about murder and justice and stuff like that? I’m sure those will come later, but at that moment, these were all I could do.
That’s a really great way to say that. That image of your six-pound baby in your arms. What else could you possibly hope to write?
Exactly! I hope I don’t sound defensive because I know some people who would’ve rolled their eyes thinking, oh brother— a “mommy poem!” How dare that happen, you know? I think it’s a kind of a selfish reader that thinks, "This has to relate to me in some way." Instead of being open to reading something that might expand your view of the world and then maybe one could ideally recognize the shared humanity in that, you know? I still wouldn’t even say those are "mommy poems" or "pregnancy poems" per se—it’s only like less than one-third of my book. But overall, when I was thinking of audience I was thinking more along the lines of, How do I describe this beautiful location in India or this beautiful location in Kansas (where my husband is from)? I simply wanted to capture the magic of those places and highlight beauty and joy. Not like, Oh, I became a mother so now I need to write “mother poems.” That’s not it at all. I just wanted to have a different lens through which to view the world, if that makes sense?
It does, and it’s so interesting how that seems to spring in part from your reading science books, science journals, reading about the natural life in places like India or Kansas. I don’t think that kind of research is typical for most poets.
I was just giggling because the easy answer is that I’m such a nerd. And I realize I kind of forget until it’s pointed out to me. It’s just, I mean you said it so nicely. My best friends know that in the winter if I am in front of the fireplace reading the latest Smithsonian or telescope magazine or whatever, I am in heaven. That’s not research for a poem, that’s just me. I cringe to hear myself say this, but that’s me, relaxing.
This goes back to my father, I think, just modeling after him. His idea of a good time was looking at his stack of science journals and relooking and there’s always something new for you to see in the back issues of National Geographic. I didn’t even know who Doctor Seuss was—when my father would take us to the library, he would basically plant us in the science sections, with books on volcanic formations, or books on the architecture of shells. He would get his grown-up science magazines and journals and sit in a big chair where he could still see us, and we would just be there for hours and I’d never, not once, be bored. I have such fond memories of that. And it’s still really to this day how I unwind. I actually read way more nonfiction than I do poetry or fiction. That is my absolute joy and pleasure. This past spring, I was just reading about the search for the giant squid and then I was reading a book on the collapse of honeybees.
I love that. That’s so unique and it comes across so much in your poems. The facts of the natural world become such a structural element of your poetry. I’m thinking of your poem, “How to Be a Poet,” which is really just this collection of facts-as-footnotes. It’s such a unique way to approach an ars poetica. It’s cool to hear that comes from a very natural unforced place.
Yeah, I realize when I’m hearing myself say these things out loud, I’m like, wow I just told Kaveh that I’m reading about bees and hunting squids and that’s my idea of a good time.
So much of what it is to be a writer is just being curious, having a curiosity that demands to be sated. I imagine one of the big struggles that is going to emerge in teaching writing is that we’re going to have people who have grown up with the entire compendium of the past 10,000 years of human knowledge carried around in their pockets at all times. The durations of their curiosities will have diminished to this point where as soon as you have a question, you can answer it. Natural curiosity maybe isn’t left alive long enough for people to really wonder and to think about answers imaginatively.
Oh, that's so interesting—that our curiosity, if we have it, could be fulfilled so much more quickly than ever before. When I was in college, which was not that long ago, that was right on the cusp of all this internet-y action. If I wanted to know what is the name of a pine tree that grows in Vermont, I would actually have to go to the library, the botanical library and actually like thumb through things, where now I can just Google “pine trees Vermont.”
In the interim between when you had the curiosity or when you had the question and when you arrived at the botanical library to figure it out you would’ve come up with a dozen possible answers of your own.
Or other questions, or even in the process of being in the library flipping through encyclopedias, sometimes you would even forget, what was my original question, and come home with three other things that you wondered. Gosh it sounds so nostalgic, but that’s exactly it. For better or for worse, we can get our answer very quickly, but we also sacrifice that time of not knowing.
I plan to teach writing as long as people continue to let me, and one of the big challenges I anticipate facing in a career of teaching is this question of, how do I foster and grow that sort of curiosity? Because you are going to have naturally curious students, of course. But you are also going to have some that just aren’t, and how am I going to foster that sort of curiosity and wonder at the world from which all meaningfully crafted writing emerges, you know?
Oh definitely. I think the best thing you can do is to model curiosity and wonder yourself. Lucille Clifton said, “I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder.” My environmental literature students always know what I’m actively researching and studying and I know what flora and fauna they are interested in because that’s just how we banter at the beginning of each class. And before I know it, they bring in articles for me on squids or narwhals, or various jellyfish—and I do the same for them. I still have students from a decade ago forwarding me interesting articles they’ve come across about a corpse flower or fluorescent squid—things we’ve discussed in class long ago.
So much of your work deals in wonder. You have the World of Wonder column which is a favorite. It seems so tethered to the central concern of your poems, this notion that we are the beneficiaries of so much of this absolutely impossible wonderful bizarre beauty. The way that you write about it in the column is so obviously written by the same person that writes your poems.
I’m thinking about the column about the tiny flowers, the wolffia, where you talk about them being scattered around an insect wedding. There are a million ways to write very dryly about this species of tiny flowers that exists, and that existence is interesting by itself. But then your poet mind takes it to this place of imagining an insect celebration using these tiny wolffia flowers. How did that column come about?
I pitched it to Roxane Gay, who I adore. She’s a person who is so wicked smart and funny, curious and so full of exuberance, and I told her about this idea of just posting a little nugget of wonder, something to take you away from your desk job for maybe five minutes and read and just to be jolted to think, "What in the world—this exists on this planet?!" I thought, why not get more people alert to the magic and the light of the things on this earth.
Like what you said: on the internet, we are exposed to so much despair and violence, and I’m not saying to ignore it by any means, but I just also want to create small remembrances of the good on this planet too. It is sweet and lovely, on your lunch break, to think about the comb jelly, or the fairy penguins, the teeniest little blue penguins on this planet. The biggest response has been from people who are not writers actually and who just go to The Toast for like a little bit of humor. The best emails I’ve received from the column say stuff like, “Thank you, I never knew this tiny flower existed. My mind was blown for two minutes today, now I have to go back to my insurance job.” I love those emails so much.
That’s what it is. Amidst all the horror and anger popping up in your newsfeed, there are also these happy little blue penguins, you know? These tiny little bursts of joy. To bring it back to your poems, one of my favorites of yours is “Birth Geographic.” Towards the end of it, in the fifteenth section, you say, “Because I know talk like this frightens you I’ll say it only once if I am ever lost or someone… if I ever go missing know that I am trying to come home.” A lot of your work seems very intimate and personal and tethered to Aimee’s Personal Experiences of Life on the Planet Earth. But that is a moment in the poem that seems like it’s coming from a really deep sort of internal place, a kind of honesty that is frightening to put in poems. It’s been published as an essay too, right?
Yeah, actually it was published as an essay first so it’s been this weird hybrid kind of animal.
Right, maybe a lyric essay or something. I try not to get bogged down in taxonomy but whatever it is, it’s one of my favorite things that you’ve written. I was wondering if maybe you could talk about that instance, controlling the force of a moment like that.
Well, thank you so so much. That is absolutely the one piece of the whole collection that I hemmed and hawed most about whether or not to include it. It is as close to autobiography as I’ve ever gotten. The veil is lifted.
Right, and we feel that as a readers.
Oh thank you, thank you. And so I was really, really nervous about it but I tell you what—when I had my first son, my birth was an emergency c-section, and it’s not something that anybody wants or is excited about. I had this big emergency happen where, yes, I did almost die on the operating table and so I turned to poetry as I do with any big jubilant or deep despairing part of my life, and I could not find a single poem that did not refer to c-sections as this horrible, monstrous kind of occasion. That there was no joy in it or, heaven forbid, you find the beauty in it, but the end result was that I have a healthy, vivacious child.
Eventually I was like, why is this subject not in a poem? And I thought, if this even helps one person or just shows that it’s out there, that it is possible to be happy if a birth doesn’t go exactly like you pictured, then maybe it can give me the courage to include it in a book. I know birth is a topic that makes some people cringe but it’s also my number one most e-mailed/asked about poem that people write to me and thank me for. I’ll have all these frat guys coming up to me after a reading and saying, "Dude, that poem about your c-section was so incredible. I was a c-section baby too, and I showed it to my mom and she cried."
So when it was published as an essay, I got so much positive response and people who’ve also had c-sections have said thank you. My first time at MacDowell was my first time away from my child to write and so it was two years after the fact, I guess, and it happened to be on Mother’s Day weekend. My husband was the one who was like, “Aimee, just, go go go—I’ll be so mad at you if you don’t take this chance!” He even arranged for the MacDowell staff to make this amazing dessert for me and deliver it to my cabin on Mother’s Day. I could go on and on about how he supports me, but I don’t want to make you gag.
Aw, that's wonderful.
My husband just blows me away—he’s also a writer and professor and in no way, shape, or form ever gets resentful. He’s never been like, "You left me here with the boys while you get to go off and write." It’s just never been like that.
No, that’s another interesting element of your work. This sounds maybe silly to say, but it seems like you really love your husband.
(Laughs) I hope not in a saccharine way, where you are trying not to roll your eyes—
No, no, no, I mean, you seem sincerely grateful for and to him and in your poems you include incidents of his helping you out or guiding you or putting up with the mercurial nature of your being a writer. The standard poetic posture is to have a sort of ironic appreciation for or affectionate deprecation of one’s partner—but you seem to just like really love your husband, unironically, which is an interesting place from which to write.
Haha, it’s not very stylish, I know. Maybe this is totally nerdy to say—of course I love my husband but I think the nerdy part is that I like him too. I really, really like him. If I wasn’t married to him I would just admire him so much as a human being. So I think hopefully that’s the part that comes out, not the love necessarily but that I very much adore his presence. I’m so glad he’s on this planet.
I guess “Birth Geographic,” is the one poem where I wasn’t trying to be like, Oh this is the persona of Aimee writing. I tried to include everything as real as possible. When I say I was terrified in it, it was because I was terrified. But then when I say I was filled with joy and everything was okay, I also wanted that to be in print too—that there could be a joy at the end of a c-section. A woman I work with actually said, about my birth, “Oh no—I’m so sorry that monstrous thing happened to you!” And I thought, You just called the birth of my first child monstrous. So this poem—and the whole Lucky Fish book actually—is a way of saying, I’m not sorry for writing about wonder and joy at all. One of my poet friends once told me, “Careful, Aimee—it’s not very hip to be too happy in a poem.” But if that’s what being cool means, I hope I never am. Nerds of the world, unite!
Interview Posted: June 29, 2015
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