A Conversation with Aimee Seu
I was excited to meet Aimee for tea one afternoon following her reading at the Virginia Festival of the Book to discuss her debut collection. I was astounded by the ferocity of her poems, their vulnerability, their unflinching look at both the grotesque and the beautiful. The collection flirts with the traditional lyric but ultimately pushes its boundaries, leading us to reckon with the reality of familial loss while also holding space for the ecstatic truths of the body, both erotic and spiritual.
KA: When I read your poems it feels as though they unfurl—there’s a lushness and urgency that, to me, gives the impression that it sprung from your head fully formed. Of course, I know that’s generally not how writing a book works. Could you tell us a bit about where you were when the book really began to take shape? What was that process like for you?
AS: The phrase “sprung from your head fully formed” reminds me so much of the Greek myth of Athena being born, and I wish I could say it was like that, but really I was here in my second year writing my thesis and it just felt so disparate. I think I kept my life so compartmentalized. Bulimia was really secret… I was in this long-distance relationship and I was at school learning about poetry. Writing is so solitary in a way because memory is so solitary… all these things in my life felt walled off from each other. So, when I was writing my thesis for UVA I put all of the poems on my bedroom wall and tried to sleep with them there. For some reason having them that way instead of in a stack—which is so linear, almost like a train track where it goes one way or the other—to have them in a scatterplot…my brain is picturing the Milky Way from the outside right now… that was really helpful for me in starting to see the shape of the book. I realized that not only could all these things live next to each other, but actually they were so dependent on each other. Even to touch on one, it became necessary to have these other worlds. They gave each other shape. The very last thing I wrote for the book is the prose piece in the third section. The manuscript was without the piece up until the last minute. Brian Teare said, “It needs one more thing. It needs something that gives us story. I know you resist narrative sometimes, but you gotta try.” And I think it only felt done after I wrote that prose piece, which I originally tried to write as a poem, trying to let it be automatic, let it flow. That was the final thing that made it feel fully formed and finished.
KA: It’s wild to me that a book can be in conversation with so many things: friendship, youth, bulimia, relationships, family, religion–they are all interwoven. I think what really tied it all together from my perspective as a reader was a strong sense of love. Love for all the people in these poems, of course, but maybe more impactful to me was how much of the book reads like a love letter to the self. I’m thinking of your poem “Love Letter to Myself at Sixteen.”
AS: That is actually so psychic of you to say and really affirming for me, because as I was first writing it was a love letter to my ex—the whole book was. He’s the beloved in most of my poems, who then never read it, refused to read it. So I really had to rearrange in my brain who it was for, to ask myself “What is this thing I made?” I realized that anytime you’re writing a love poem, it’s to yourself, you know? Because you’re actually creating an altar to something that you are feeling and the beloved is just sort of this stand-in, this trigger, for all these things inside of you. That poem “Love Letter to Myself at Sixteen” was an assignment that Gregory Orr gave us. He said, “I want you all to go home and write a love letter to yourself.” And we all looked at each other as if he had just told us to go endure hours of torture. I just remember looking up at one of the people in my cohort and seeing her close her eyes and shake her head. It’s such a hard assignment! But I would recommend it to anyone. Now, whenever I’m dealing with some insecurity that makes me feel so unworthy of love, I’ll try to write a love letter to that thing.
KA: I really felt this strong sense of urgency moving through the poems. Every time I read a line I thought, “There’s no way she’s going to write an image that is somehow truer than the last thing she said.” But then you elaborate and throw in another. It almost feels like literary edging, and I say that because it seems like sexuality and pleasure are pretty central to the book. I’m thinking about “Clitoral” and “G-Spot” in particular. I’m wondering how you generate images when you’re writing something like that.
AS: I think that to write an ode you have to do a lot of experience research. With something like the orgasm poems that’s really fun. But also sometimes–like my ode to my coat—it’s like you’ve already done so much research just by enduring your life so far. And so to write an ode, I had to think, “How many times have I felt homeless?” in order to write something like that. And you realize that you have all these images inside you that sometimes you don’t even want to engage with, you know? Also, this is embarrassing, but I don’t actually know what edging is.
KA: Oh! It’s like when you get close to orgasming, and then you stop, and then you keep going.
AS: Oh my god—genius! Wow, that is so kind. That is such a beautifully generous way to see my work.
KA: I guess what I meant by that analogy is that it feels relentless in a good way. And it feels like at the end of your poems, there is a thought that crystallizes and breaks open. That’s how I saw a lot of the odes and love letters in particular.
AS: I feel obsessed with images. I always told my students in Intro to Poetry: “When in doubt, end on an image.” Because images carry feeling better than feeling carries feeling. Anytime you’re looking at something beautiful or hideous, it’s through the lens of whatever you’re feeling at the time, even if that feeling is indifference, even if it’s numbness. The image can’t help but be adorned by that, and I think I have so much of an urge when writing to bring the reader with me, not even because I so want to give them the gift of the image, but because it’s almost like when you’re mining your memory for images—it’s really scary and you don’t want to be alone. Especially in a lot of the bulimia poems, it felt like to bring the reader there with me was to access that memory again and to not be alone like I was that first time.
KA: There’s such an intensity and ferocity in these poems, and a big part of that is the vulnerability. I’m wondering how it feels to have this artifact out in the world now?
AS: It feels, first of all, really good to be done with that. It’s like I wouldn’t want to keep editing poems about that ex, poems about those addictions. It’s like when you’re writing and editing and revising something you’re still in the world of it, at least in some small percent. And I want to put space between myself and a lot of the things I wrote about. At the reading the other day it felt so intense, to be both there in my body and there in that way–because usually you’re negotiating one or the other. You can decide what you’re saying to someone, or they have the book and they’ve settled these things on their terms. But being in person is the ultimate ground zero, where it feels really crazy to be saying some things out loud. I feel like I kept getting this feeling when I was looking at the book in my hands that, if time is not linear, there must be a way to bring things to light, that in a way I reached back and saved my younger self who almost didn’t survive these things. And to just know that if my book is ever in the hands of one single teenage girl struggling with bulimia, or infidelity trauma, or really any trauma, that that is enough. That’s more than I could have ever hoped for it.
KA: As someone who has struggled with bulimia, I feel really seen through your work in a lot of ways. It’s not something I have written about, or that I talk about a lot, because it does feel like an intensely secret thing when you’re going through it. I know Lousie Glück writes about eating disorders a little bit, but I don’t think a lot of writers are exploring this subject.
AS: First of all, I feel really honored that you would trust me with that, because you didn’t have to, and it is so taboo. And I know Louise Glück writes about anorexia, and I think there is a lot more writing about anorexia because it’s “more beautiful” culturally. In a way it’s secretly promoted culturally. It’s more “palatable” somehow. No one wants to think about throwing up, or abusing diuretics, or crazy shit like that. It almost seems like bulimia is anorexia’s “dark sister,” you know what I mean? And that is not my own thought, I have to give credit to my friend Emily Lawson, who once said that to me. It was definitely a really hard part about the book coming out. I think my family read Velvet Hounds and they were like, “Damn, we know all the bad shit that happened in your life, in our family and in our lives, but to have never known the way that came out…” I mean, it came out in a different way for all of us, and I think that was really emotionally uncomfortable for a lot of people in my life. Bulimia is almost like a spirit that possesses people, and it’s way more rampant than we acknowledge. The older I get the more I feel like I don’t know a single woman that hasn’t had, at some point, a “food thing.” It’s a product of our culture and men struggle with it, too. I was like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna write about it.” Because poetry in some way feels like bulimia. It feels like this explosion of your soul where like I couldn’t keep these things down. I had to just get it out.
KA: And I don’t think you at all romanticize it. I feel it’s very balanced—but you also acknowledge something which is the elation in the release of it. The wild abandon of just going crazy, and then being able to “undo or erase” that feeling. I thought it was amazing how you balanced the honesty of that: both the terror as well as the elation. It’s one of the reasons why people do it, that addictive quality.
AS: There is some crazy soul-parallel stuff happening between us. It’s an acknowledgment in my soul that it hasn’t been easy for your soul either. It’s really helpful for you to tell me that, because it’s something you have to think about any time you’re writing about addiction. I feel this way when I write about drugs, too. Like, how do I do this without misleading the youth? Because it’s not cool, it’s super uncool and debilitating. Even on an interpersonal level, I know my niece who is fifteen is going to read it and being a fifteen-year-old girl in a body is so fucking hard. So, I wanted to write about it in a way that is honest, to write about how awful it is. But you’re right, people don’t acknowledge that bulimia is a high. It looks so insane from the outside, but it is. Because I was writing about that, the very last poem to be added was “Ode to Pomegranates.” I thought, “Okay. I need to have one food-affirming poem.” I wanted to write a poem that said “Everybody should eat,” you know? As the book was being printed, I slipped it in and said to my editor, ”I’m sorry, but it needs this!”
KA: I love that you wrote an ode to this beautiful fruit. And I love that you link it to sexuality and a celebration of the body. I want to go back to an idea you mentioned earlier about the act of writing being similar to building an altar. If that’s the case, I’m wondering what writers would be in your pantheon? Who were you reading and in conversation with while you were writing this book?
AS: I love this question. I think that because it’s my first book, my brain reaches all the way back to what first moved me when I was pretty young. My sister got pregnant and moved back into my mom’s house, which was really hard for her. One night sitting in my room under these blue Christmas lights she recited from memory the poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. All I wanted in the entire world was to impress my sister, and the poem enveloped me in such a huge world. I thought, “I’m gonna do this.” I’d been writing silly little rhyming things with my mom from an early age, but the first poems that I took seriously were trying to emulate that world. In that poem, which is actually pretty short, there’s a layer of angels, there’s a layer of childhood, there’s a layer of death, a layer of love and tragedy… and there’s hell, too. To make anything that big with language and have it contained on one page is like, “Fuck. how do I do this?” And it was really to just impress my sister! But, growing up, the poets that were important to me were probably E. E. Cummings, Baudelaire. Once I got to UVA the most important discoveries for me were Rachel McKibbens, whose work my friend Emily Nason gave me, and Lynda Hull, who my friend Michelle Gottschlich introduced me to. Those poets–it’s like when you find a musician that makes the exact sound you’ve been craving, but a sound you never could have made yourself. Like hearing something and thinking, “This is the closest to the way my brain waves are working. This is what I need.”
KA: If there were a soundtrack to Velvet Hounds, what would that look like?
AS: It’s insane that you would ask that, because I was feeling really bored, jaded, and resentful of my book on my way here. I was like, “These poems are so fucking old. I don’t want to think about my ex again.” They became tasteless to me, and I don’t know if that happens to you, but I worked on them for so long. But my friend Emma made this playlist for me and it was the most generous gift anyone has ever given me. Every single song corresponds to a poem in the order of the book. And I think the dream for many poets is to be able to read their own work as a stranger, but we never can. We see all the guts of it, the process that it took, and we see the weak spots. But listening to that playlist was the closest I’ve ever felt to reading my work as a stranger. I mean, obviously, there’s so much about music in the book, and one of my peers once said, “Your poetry has so much music in it. That must be really important to you.” But growing up I felt a deep discomfort with music. I felt like a bad dancer, like my taste in music made me seem dumb. I never went to a dance. And then I dated this musician, so it was like dating someone who was the master of my ultimate fear. Then I started doing MDMA and it completely helped heal my relationship with both my body and with music. I realized that my body is the vessel of pleasure, that there’s no way to dance wrong. I think for a long time I thought that being a good dancer meant catching the music or doing something really active, but actually what it feels like to me is that to dance is to let go of the desire to hold, to let something run through you and surrender. I spent so much time resisting that and being afraid. Also, both my best friend and ex are in punk bands and I think I wanted to take from that a sense that dirtiness can be beauty, you know?
KA: I think that really comes through. How did UVA change your writing while you were here? I think there are probably a lot of people at the beginning of their writing careers who might read this, and I’m wondering what advice you’d give to those readers who are thinking about their first book.
AS: I don’t feel like I am wise enough to answer the second part of this question, but I can try. I feel like UVA changed my writing for sure, but you also have to wonder if it changed any more than it would have in four years if I was doing anything else. I feel so lucky to have gotten this opportunity, but I also would like people to know that academia is not the only way to do it. There are a million ways to push your brain through writing. A lot of the poems were written in undergrad while I was just living in Philadelphia, studying something else, barely making it through some days while working at this laundromat, feeling miserable and depressed. So, I just would never want someone to feel discouraged, like if they can’t go to an MFA that they can’t get it, because that’s just not a thing. But I do know that reading my professors Lisa Russ Spaar and Rita Dove really enhanced my writing. So much of learning to write is done through criticism and affirmation. It takes someone looking at it and saying, “This is a poem.” Then, you’re no longer in your head asking, “What are these scraps of brain matter?” This might be a hot take, but Brian Teare said to me (and I think this isn’t an uncommon thought process) that when you’re done with your manuscript, you know it. It will click into place and you’ll feel really good about it and you stop editing and finally put it out in the world. And that sounds really nice, and I do think that happens for some people, but I was editing up until the day it got taken. And there are still weaknesses and flaws in it for me. So, I kept feeling discouraged, like it was never going to click into place, or feel perfect, or be done. And that’s actually okay. You put out a “flawed” book and then you put out another one. I think that if it doesn’t feel perfect, that’s okay. Trust that it is something.
Aimee Seu is the author of Velvet Hounds, winner of The Akron Poetry Prize. She graduated from the University of Virginia MFA in Creative Writing Program (poetry) in 2020 as a Poe/Faulkner Fellow where she was recipient of the 2019 Academy of American Poets Prize. Other awards she’s received include the 2020 Los Angeles Review Poetry Award, the 2020 Henfield Prize for Fiction, the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize at Temple University, the Temple University 2016 William Van Wert Award, and the Mills College Undergraduate Poetry Award. She was a semifinalist in the 2019 New Guard Vol. IX Knightville Poetry Contest judged by Richard Blanco and a finalist for the 2020 Black Warrior Poetry Prize judged by Paul Tran. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared or have forthcoming publications in Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Los Angeles Review, BOAAT, Redivider, Raleigh Review, Diode, the minnesota review, Blacklist, Adroit, Harper Palate, and Runestone Magazine. She is a Philadelphia native currently living in Tallahassee where she is a poetry PhD student at Florida State University. Her current project is a series of nonfiction vignettes.