Visiting writer talks poetry, animals, and life advice

By Abby Wargo


If Aimee Nezhukumatathil wasn’t giving a reading at Washington College on Feb. 25, she would have wanted to be a student here.  

“This was such an exquisite visit from start to finish. I’m not sure why anyone would want to be an English major anywhere else,” she said. 

Students, faculty, and community members came together on the Rose O’Neill Literary House porch to hear Nezhukumatathil read from her poetry and nonfiction essays. 

“[Nezhukumatathil] is so passionate about what she does, and her excitement spread to everyone at the reading. She was genuinely happy to be at WC and it’s refreshing to meet writers who are as excited about their reading as the attendees are,” said senior Madi Bendistis. 

Nezhukumatathil’s introduction praised her poetic skill and relayed her accolades. 

“One of her gifts as a poet is to create layers and shades of metaphor so that the sky in this poem first becomes oceanic, then glacial, and so we can see the layers of how one thing becomes steadily, surely, something else it has always been waiting for us to discover, or, waiting  for a poet of Nezhukumatathil’s power to reveal,” said Dr. James Hall, director of the Literary House and associate professor of English. 

Dr. Hall said this gift helps her imbue her poems with a kind of pulse embodied by an amicable voice dishing out uncanny wisdom. He said there is an “incandescent quality” to her poems. 

Nezhukumatathil is currently a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature. She is the author of the forthcoming book of illustrated nature essays, “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, & Other Astonishments,” which Milkweed will publish in August, and four previous poetry collections: “Oceanic” from Copper Canyon Press, and “Lucky Fish,” “At the Drive-in Volcano,” and “Miracle Fruit,” all from Tupelo Press.  She collaborated with Ross Gay on a chapbook, “Lace & Pyrite,” which contains nature poetry. 

Nezhukumatathil is the poetry editor of “Orion Magazine.” Her poems have been included in “Best American Poetry” in 2015 and 2018, “The American Poetry Review,” “New England Review,” “Poetry Magazine,” “Ploughshares,” and “Tin House,” to name a few. She is also the recipient of a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize. 

She read seven poems and an excerpt from her upcoming essay collection about the potoo bird. 

Nezhukumatathil introduced each poem with some context. Before reading “In Praise of My Manicure,” she talked about how she was ashamed of her culture growing up, although she enjoyed Kathakali dancing. The poem begins, “Because I was taught all my life to blend in, I want / my fingernails to blend out.” While she read the poem, Nezhukumatathil performed Kathakali hand gestures to accompany the reading, displaying her royal blue manicure. 

Animals and nature are another theme in Nezhukumatathil’s work. She read “Mosquitoes,” which is an apology poem to her father, who used to teach her about the planets and constellations. Another poem, “The Cockroach Response,” is a response to Anne Sexton’s bestiary poem about the titular insect. Nezhukumatathil described Sexton’s poem as mean-spirited towards cockroaches, arguing that they are magical and worthy of praise. She showed the audience a video of a Madagascar hissing cockroach giving birth to its young, which inspired the poem’s opening lines: “But of course you didn’t stick around for the bloom / of babies.” 

After the reading, Nezhukumatathil took questions. She revealed that she was a chemistry major in college until finding a copy of “Mint Snowball,” a prose poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, at which point she fell in love with poetry — a life-changing decision. She sat in on a single poetry workshop, and the next week she switched her major to English. 

“All I knew is I wanted to study poetry,” Nezhukumatathil said. 

Her last piece of advice to the audience was to read and be curious about the world. 

“If you are curious and have a hunger to learn more about whatever subject…when you get excited about learning the origins, the history, the folklore of it, you will never be bored, and you will never be reliant on electricity,” Nezhukumatathil said. 

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