Curated Prompt: Aimee Nezhukumatathil – “The World is Full of Paper: Writing Epistolary Poems (Epistles)”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

by Agha Shahid Ali

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

The Context

The hand-lettered envelope. The canceled stamp. The tooth of the paper that nibbles the ink. The epistle is a type of poem that underscores the best intimacies that can arise from a letter: the measured and focused address to a specific recipient. In a world that values the addictive glow of a screen, the speedy text message, the quick hello and check-in—much can be gained and admired in a poem that follows the ancient and simple form of a letter.

The word epistle comes from the Latin word (espistula) for letter. In the Middle Ages, the art of letter writing was often taught as a necessity for building community and encouraging discourse. In fact, the writing of epistles was actually amplified as old road structures began to decay and crumble. Travel became increasingly difficult—people soon relied on letter writing to conduct and negotiate business in place of making a claim in person. Another variation of the epistle is one that Ovid himself employed—epistles as a way to explore persona. In his Heroides, he imagines letters written by neglected or abandoned heroines of Greek mythology: writing as Penelope to Odysseus, writing as Helen to Paris, as Medea to Jason.

When is the last time you opened your mailbox and found a bona fide hand-written letter? So much of mail these days is ‘sad mail’—coupon flyers, missing children notices, bills, sweepstakes packets. But oh the joy and delight when you find your name written by a friend or loved one’s hand! Or the surprise and mysterious architecture of a handwriting you’ve never seen before! When was the last time you wrote a letter?

The Exercise

Feel free to mimic the relationship uncovered within most epistles—the letter poem is addressed to someone ‘you’ can’t talk to for whatever reason—the person is far away or deceased or famous, or even someone you know well, but you can’t say what needs to be said in real life. It should be clear to the reader who is being addressed within the title or the first few lines. There are no meter or rhyme rules for this form. This type of poem is more of a vehicle to explore persona and voice.

Still stuck? Write an epistle to any of the following: 1) an animal or plant, 2) yourself, ten years ago, 3) yourself, twenty years ago 4) your beloved, twenty years ago, 5) a future version of you, even if the future you imagine is simply ‘tomorrow’ 6) a company or corporation 7) one of the seven deadly sins or virtues (ie. Dear Lust,… or Dear Patience,…) 8) your zodiac or birthstone 9) your favorite “guilty pleasure” food or 10) the city you call ‘home’ in all its complicated and wondrous glory.

The Why

I’ve found that writing a poem TO someone (or some-thing!) makes the edges of imagery focus crisper into view. And in that focused state, the epistle begins to tighten up the rest of the poem’s language so that a distinct persona emerges and establishes a clear and immediate tone and mood in ways that other poems might not. And yet, writing a letter to a stranger takes the innate intimacy of an epistle a step further: it requires the invention of an imagined other (even if the person exists, he/she is still being imagined), and it fashions a sort of detailed handiwork about why we might find ourselves wishing to talk to them. And isn’t that such a good and necessary occupation, a welcome slowing down and stepping away from a handheld device or screen? I like to think of writing epistles as a writing towards—and attempting to love, or at least recognize—the strangers that live inside each of us.

For More Inspiration:

“Frame, an Epistle,” by Claudia Emerson

“note, passed to superman,” by Lucille Clifton

“Letter to Simic from Boulder,” by Richard Hugo

“As Children Together,” by Carolyn Forché

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil is professor of English at State University of New York–Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature. She is the author of three poetry collections: Lucky Fish (2011), winner of the gold medal in poetry from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize for Independent Books; At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize; and Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the Global Filipino Award. Poems and essays are widely published in venues such as Tin House, Ploughshares, Orion, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and noted in Best American Essays. Other honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Western New York in the middle of berry country with her husband and young sons.

A Conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of Lucky Fish, winner of the Eric Hoffer Prize, and At the Drive-In Volcano, winner of the Balcones Prize. Her first book, Miracle Fruit, won the Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry, and the Global Filipino Award. Her poetry and essays have been widely anthologized and have appeared or forthcoming in: American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, FIELD, Shenandoah, Mid-American Review, and Tin House. Her writing has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in poetry. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia where she was awarded a Chancellor’s Medal of Excellence. She lives in western New York with her husband and their two young sons.

* * *

LR: Your first book, Miracle Fruit, won the 2003 Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry, and the Global Filipino Award. Could you describe the journey that Miracle Fruit took from birth to publication?

AN: A good third of it was from my thesis from The Ohio State University (my MFA is also in creative non-fiction) but I had a magical and productive year as a poetry fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing in Madison and that allowed me the time and resources to write the rest of it. I queried a few publishers directly and received lots of positive feedback so I decided to try my hand in two contests—one of them was, at the time, a relatively new press—Tupelo Press—and I about fainted when I got the email that Greg Orr selected my book as the eventual winner that year. I hadn’t even completely unpacked yet. I was twenty-six and had just moved to western NY for my first year teaching at SUNY-Fredonia.

LR: Your poetry often uses fanciful imagery and direct tones of address (as in “First Anniversary, With Monkeys” and “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?”) to relay moments of intimacy and elements of personal experience. What kind of poetic decisions do you find yourself making when you work with autobiographical subject matter?

AN: I try not to bore myself. And talking solely about myself bores me. And I admittedly have a relatively short attention span. And I’m always thinking of two or three things at once when I write. So, the trick for me is to be able to type or write as fast as the images leap in my head. I know I’m onto something if a metaphor startles or surprises me—I’ll try to hang on and follow that golden thread for as long as it will let me. I believe in an underworld littered with gems. In another life, I have to.

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