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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Writers @ Grinnell: Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Graphic+by+Zoe+Fruchter.
Graphic by Zoe Fruchter.

Aimee Nezhukumatahil has published multiple poetry collections, including Oceanic (2018) and Lucky Fish (2011). She is also the current poetry editor of Orion magazine and a professor of English at the University of Michigan, teaching creative writing and environmental literature. Her book of illustrated nature essays, World of Wonder, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions later this year. Nezhukumatathil sat down with the S&B’s Kelly Page to discuss how poems are like chicken bouillon cubes, a life-altering encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye and the extinction of pygmy rabbits driving her to write.

The S&B: So I wanted to start out by asking why do you write poetry? I know that’s a huge question.

Nezhukumatathil: That is a huge question. I think I love writing poetry because I kind of think in poems. So I don’t have full-on narratives, for example, if I’m trying to remember something I remember a sound, I remember images, and I like kind of connecting those images with other moments or other things I’ve read. With poetry, I love the compression, and I love the reliance on imagery. It’s like a chicken bouillon cube, so it’s very packed and yet you have to be aware of the line break that’s coming and what kind of magic can happen when you break the line. So I call it listening to the tyranny of the line break, but it’s a delight actually, rather than something to be scared of.

The S&B: At the roundtable earlier, you talked about how finding the poem “Mint Snowball” by Naomi Shihab Nye in college made you switch majors from Biology to English. I’m just so curious about how that one poem was so powerful that you made such a life shift.

Nezhukumatathil: I know, right? I just had never read anything like that before. It talked about family in such a loving way, the speaker’s remembrance of a grandfather patiently making this ice cream dessert, and I also became hungry reading it, so I didn’t know that that could happen, and also I just loved that it didn’t seem to have a lesson necessarily, too. It wasn’t like a fable where you get the moral of the story or anything like that. It just felt like the biggest gift of someone else’s memory of this childhood dessert and I just carried that with me. It’s been twenty years later and I still carry it with me because it was the first time that I knew words could create such a beautiful image.

This maybe doesn’t speak well to what poems I was introduced to before, but it just was never presented as a living, breathing thing, and I didn’t know at the time that that poet was alive, but she felt alive to me, and everything about the poem felt alive and spoke to me in ways that I had never come across before in my reading, and I was a big reader. So that poem, I think, just presented me with all kinds of possibilities, in terms of form as well as content. I never knew that you could be a happy poet, you know.

The S&B: Did you feel like there were things you needed to express through poetry? Do you use it as, like, an emotional outlet?

Nezhukumatathil: Not really at all. I absolutely treat it as a craft, so definitely not a form of therapy for me in any shape or form, but I think I look at it more as a way to kind of understand events, so some of those events are actually events that happen in my life, some of those events are things that happen in the world around us, like, why are there so many colonies of bees collapsing? I don’t want to put my opinions about that in an essay, per se, but I want to see it as a poem. I want to have that compression, again, in a poem. Maybe I’m just kind of trying to remember this really high lyric register of an experience, or maybe I’m just trying to remember an image that is dear to me, and so for me that’s a poem. I don’t function in drawing out a fuller narrative in my work. I like having a bit of mystery and compression in the work.

The S&B: How do you feel like your relationship to academia fits in with your craft of poetry?

Nezhukumatathil: I love teaching so much, and I think when my teaching is going well, my writing is going well, and when my writing is going well, my teaching is going well. To me, they’re so entwined and I get so exhilarated in a classroom getting people excited about poetry or hearing their thoughts on a poem or what this craft element in poetry is making them think or want to try in their poems, so I just feel like, I think I always want to feel like a student of poetry so I think when my students realize that, feel that vibe from me that I’m also pushing myself in my teaching and pushing myself as a writer too, they feel a bit at ease knowing that I don’t have all the answers and that I’m gonna try my best to help present them with the possibilities, and I just love that dynamic. This has been my dream for so long, so I feel — I think I just keep going back to that word, exhilarated — I feel exhilarated in the classroom.

The S&B: So you do a lot of writing about nature. What attracts you to writing about nature, and what do you see its work as?

Nezhukumatathil: There’s so many different aspects of nature writing, and one of the ways I like tackling it in my own work is that really just I love the planet and I want to kind of shout it from the rooftops that there are so many plants and animals that we don’t even know yet, and I love learning when I read a poem or an essay about the world so I’m hoping when people read my work they learn a little about the planet but also themselves, too, and it kind of started from a time when I was researching pygmy rabbits, and before I could finish writing about it, pygmy rabbits were named extinct. There’s a few that are in zoos around the world, but they’re extinct. And I’m not a slow writer. So that kind of freaked me out.

And I think that, coupled with having kids in the last decade, made me realize there’s gonna be animals that I love that are not gonna be around when they’re my age. So I think my heartbeat was just that much closer to my skin, in that I made, there was almost a hurry-up to my writing in ways that I didn’t feel that insistence, almost, before. Like ultimately I want my kids to know that I love them, but also love the planet so much. If writing is the only thing that takes me away from the kids at all, I want them to know that it was for a reason and I want them to see that it was because their mom loved the planet so much.

Graphic by Zoe Fruchter.

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