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Interview with 2016 1/2K Prize Judge Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Our 2016 1/2K Prize Judge is Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of many poetry collections such as Lucky Fish and of the upcoming collection of essays World of Wonder. In this interview, she discusses genre-blurring, some of her favorite animals, and what she might be looking for in the prize-winning entry.



Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently, Lucky Fish.  She is the poetry editor of Orion magazine and her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Brevity, Poetry, Tin House, and in The Best American Poetry series. She is a professor of English at The State University of New York at Fredonia, and in 2016-17, she will be the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
You can follow her on Twitter @aimeenez.

1. Congratulations on your upcoming collection of nature essays, World of Wonder! In the spirit of judging a multi-genre contest, what do you see as similarities or differences?

Thanks so much! I believe in both the narrative and the high lyric register that can be found in all three genres and I also believe in the slippery mist of genre-blurring too. Part of my biggest fun of judging contests is that I truly don’t have genre expectations—I really and truly want writers to “make [genres] new.”

2. After conducting research on many fascinating plants and animals, do you have a favorite?

I have too many to mention which is why I started writing a book on wondrous plants and animals in the first place, but the peacock is my favorite bird (and the national bird of India) because of the audacious coloring and strut of the male. And I adore the mysterious (and audacious in its own watery right) narwhal, the unicorn of the sea. My favorite amphibian is the axolotl—he looks like he has a goofy smile on his little pink face.

3. In your collection Lucky Fish, “Birth Geographic” reads like an opus of different forms and narratives in one amazing poem. Could you speak to the decision to give “Birth Geographic” the designation as “an auto-bio poem sequence”compared to the other poems in the collection? How did you envision the progression of the sections and its final form?

That means more than you could possibly know—thank you. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written, featuring an emergency situation with my eldest son’s birth. I hadn’t read any comforting poems that included a c-section and so I wanted to make sure people knew that and perhaps give it a bit more agency as a poem if people knew I wasn’t writing with the use of a persona. That’s as close to who I am as a person in any of my writings. And yet—I wasn’t able to use a narrative to guide the reader through, as the whole birth was far from narrative in the first place—so instructions like how to build a bluebird nest factor in with folklore from my mom’s family in the Philippines and recollections from what ultimately was one of the happiest days of my life.

4. Are there any books you find yourself returning to time and time again?

D’Aulaire’s book of illustrated Greek Myths, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Neruda’s Odes, and Lucille Clifton’s collected poems are never too far from my writing desk.

5. What do you feel drawn to in contemporary poetry? What gets you excited when reading a poem?

I want to feel transport and surprise. I want to either feel like I’ve traveled out of my chair over the course of reading a poem or I want to be quite jolted with a surprise bit of sound or imagery. When I finish reading a poem, I want to notice my heartbeat slamming into my chest or that I had to catch my breath a bit on a final exhale. The best writing does a little bit of all of that for/to me.

6. What might you be looking for while reading for our contest?

Oh, no big deal—just everything in my answer above 😉 . I’m thinking it should be pretty easy to spot. But seriously, the number one thing I’ll be reading for is surprise, and I’m not necessarily saying that ‘surprise’ needs to be loud, bold, in your face—it can be quite quiet. I plan on reading all of the finalists out loud—so there has to just be a surprise on my tongue, a bolt from the blue if you will.


The 2016 1/2K Prize will be open from July 1st to August 15th. For full submission guidelines, click here for our Contest page.