An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, a 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival Headliner

by Lauren McCormick | April 2017

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry. Her fourth collection, Oceanic, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon and her collection of nature essays, WORLD OF WONDER, is forthcoming from Milkweed, both in 2018. With Ross Gay, she co-authored the epistolary chapbook, Lace & Pyrite. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is poetry editor of Orion magazine and is the 2016-17 Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi's MFA program, where this fall she will permanently join the faculty as professor of English. 

I've recently been reading your last collection, Lucky Fish, and your epistolary collaborative chapbook with Ross Gay, Lace & Pyrite, and I've been loving both. Your poetry is so tactile, lush, and influenced by interactions; it explores the nature of relationships as it delves into nature itself. What about animals and nature inspires you? Since you experiment with form quite often, does nature also influence your poems in that way?

I think there is an alphabet and language of the outdoors that helps me develop my own language in observance of human relationships that never ceases to delight and astonish me. In other words, I believe poetry about and from the natural world can make you feel like you’ve traveled, can give you a rush of understanding of less familiar landscapes, and a thunderstorm in your heart or brain. It can make you hear music all day even if the world around you seems music-less.

Could you recommend any up-and-coming poets and/or collections that you've been enjoying? Any old favorites that started your love of poetry?

Donika Kelly, BESTIARY
Tomas Q. Morin, PATIENT ZERO
Chen Chen, WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A LIST OF FURTHER POSSIBILITIES
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, THE HOUR OF THE OX
and I can't wait for Kaveh Akbar's first full collection (CALLING A WOLF A WOLF) this fall!

Favorites that I return to again and again:
(an ever-revolving incomplete list)--
Louise Gluck, MEADOWLANDS
Rita Dove, MOTHER LOVE
Sharon Olds, THE DEAD AND THE LIVING

As I mentioned in the first question, your poetry is so tangible and approachable. What do you think makes a poem accessible to a particular audience and how can we get young people more involved in creating and reading poetry?

Thank you so much! I never know how audiences will respond to my poems, but I can say that I put a good deal of attention on how the poem sounds out loud and if I'm being as clear and surprising as possible, and that's worked well for audiences of 6-year-olds to 96! I've been so pleased in my travels to see that the teaching of poetry in elementary through high schools is becoming more and more interactive than it was, but I think we still have much more room for bringing in the sheer delights and mixtures of hearing classical, canonical poetry combined with contemporary living poets. I think we do children a disservice when we ask them to dissect a poem until nothing is left but a pile of poem-guts. A poem is not a frog, after all! But when we ask them to pay attention to images, metaphors, the music of the line--AND show them how they can experiment too with these tools, AND give them a place and time for their poems to be heard out loud, you have at least the solid foundations of what could very well be a lifelong attention and admiration for poetry.

Both poets and writers have become notorious for their unique and treasured places to write. Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you have a set location or do you like traveling around?

This year is unique in that I have a larger than usual home office as a result of being the University of Mississippi's Grisham-Writer-in-Residence, but that incredible set-up ends less than a month after the festival. I've been working on nature essays so it's been especially fantastic to write about the wide array of songbirds on the giant back porch in the sunshine--something I'm not usually able to do until summer when I lived in NY. But by necessity, I've trained myself to write without a computer, in just about any space. I travel quite a bit and love writing in hotels, on planes, etc. I try to gently challenge my students to also not be dependent on a specific place to draft a poem--what happens if you forget your notebook or you forget your power cord?

What do you anticipate most about poetry festivals and what advice would you give first time festival-goers?

I love the surprise and contagious excitement about poems--it's like a mini-rock festival but with word-lovers. I'd especially recommend spending some time browsing the eclectic assortment of poetry and literary goods at any literary festival--there's just so much stuff that isn't usually available online or in bookstores. Nothing beats the tactile feel of books! And I'd also leave some room to just wander and attend panels and readings that you normally wouldn't be exposed to in your regular, non-festival life!


Lauren McCormick hails from a small town in North Carolina with more rolling hills than people. She holds an MA in English/Creative Writing - Poetry from SNHU and a BA in Ancient Greek Language and Literature  from UNCG. While she is obsessed with ancient poetry, she has recently made an effort to move her focus to contemporary. Her current favorite reads are Jelly Roll: A Blues by Kevin Young and Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. She talks about the books she’s reading and other bookish things on her YouTube channel, Burnt Fiction.