(Copper Canyon Press, 2018)
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s recent collection of poetry, Oceanic, can be described in many ways, as a book about nature, about living in the world, about a sense of places, or places, but rereading the book, I can’t help but feel that most of the poems are love poems. From considering this to exploring that to writing found poetry about one star reviews of the Great Wall of China and The Taj Mahal, it is a book that is fully aware of the complications and problems of the world, but tries to find joy, seek connection, and explore wonder. When we spoke, Nezhukumatathil called the book “a celebration” and she demonstrates an oceanic expansiveness when she turns her eye towards the natural world, the people around her, and herself. For those who have been reading her for years, it’s her finest book to date.
Alex Dueben (Rail): Oceanic is your fourth collection of poetry. Do you tend to write a lot of poems and then figure out how some might fit together? Are you writing towards an idea?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: For this collection, definitely the former. I’ve always been appreciative of project books, but I tend to write and write and write and take stock about every fifty or so poems with no general trend or map towards a cohesive collection. Which is to say, to get to a collection of about sixty poems that I’m proud of, hundreds of poems are written that—gratefully—haven’t seen the light of day.
Rail: How do you typically work? Is there a way that most poems begin for you?
Nezhukumatathil: I always start with an image or snip of a line filled with music and/or motion. Juggling the goings-on of my family, and the happy intricacies of my teaching, and my own life and interests means my brain always has dozens of “browser windows open,” to use an awkward metaphor. So for an image or part of a line to stick with me is my signal to get that recorded down in a notebook so that when I do have a couple of hours to write, I’m not starting from scratch. I’m always looking, really noticing the world around me but my trusty notebook just helps on a practical level. And I’m a notebook addict—I have a problem with school supplies in general—how I love them so.
Rail: You’ve always been interested in exploring life through the lens of nature and myth and that’s something that continues in this book. Were you always interested in and thinking about nature in these ways?
Nezhukumatathil: I think that particular attention and interest and curiosity was always there since I was a child. I mean, those were the contents of most of the books I checked out from libraries since I was in elementary schools: The Life of a Ladybug, Bullfinch’s Mythology, etc. But as my reading interests veered to poetry and I eventually became a professor, I began to notice what kinds of authors were missing from most workshop syllabi, if books were even listed at all. I never found books—nor was I ever taught books—that featured characters, situations, personas, anything that looked remotely like me. I mean, as a kid, I can clearly remember wondering if there were ANY Asian American women who even went outside for crying out loud, because there were simply no books, TV shows, or movies that I could find that showed an Asian American enjoying the outdoors with any sense of actual knowledge about nature. That absence is still a kind of wound to me—a violence that I still try to sometimes address in poems.
Rail: I’ve been intrigued to read reviews that argue that this is your most autobiographical or revealing book to date. I didn’t think Oceanic was more or less revealing than your other books. I always hesitate to read autobiography in poems, but do you have a theory as to why people read it that way?
Nezhukumatathil: Yes, I’m not quite sure either. I believe as long as a book is shelved under “poetry” and not, say, “memoir,” there is always a speaker on each page, and even if the speaker resembles the author photo, it’s still a speaker, no? I mean, I’m genuinely happy that reviewers feel an intimacy here in Oceanic perhaps they didn’t sense as much in my other books, but other than that, I’ll happily leave it to readers to decide.
Rail: Where did the one star review poems come from?
Nezhukumatathil: In researching a family trip to visit the Taj Mahal, I was appalled and bemused all at the same time to encounter sites where you can “rate” these wonders of the world. So there are people all over this planet reviewing the Great Pyramids—complaining there aren’t any water fountains, for example—and just general foolishness that I couldn’t not share the ridiculousness in a found poem. The effort some of them took to spew pettiness and trash over these incredible architectural achievements is truly a wonder.
Rail: In one of the last poems in the book, “My South,” you reference Whitman who had a kind of “oceanic” expansiveness when he talked about the world—pun intended—and that idea seems to animate so much of the poetry you’ve written.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you! This book was re-organized and revitalized by my family’s move from Western, New York—a place where I faced micro-aggressions on the daily and being one of the only brown people in a stifling town and campus—to Oxford, Mississippi, a place of much delight and complexity, where my family can love and breathe and have friendships with a wide variety of people from various backgrounds. In hindsight, I think and hope you can see that energy in these poems.
Rail: I’ve always thought of so much of your work is about a sense of place—or many places, really—and Oceanic feels like a statement about this time and place of your life and our culture—getting older, being a parent and having parents, being brown in America, being brown and expressing joy. It felt like a book about being a certain age and being in this moment.
Nezhukumatathil: Oh you are so kind to say that! Thank you! I am all too aware that my kids will hear how messed up and cruel the government is, how damaged the planet is, and the hate so many people have for each other. I won’t be able to hide them from those darknesses, and nor do I really want to. But what I feel like I do have some control over is showing them all the wonders that nature holds and that there are still beautiful and good people in the world too. My boys are still young and still care what their mother has to offer them and I don’t take that lightly. It’s the most magnificent privilege of my life and I hope with all of my books, they can read them later and say something like, “Geez, our mom loved us so much. And wow, she loved this planet so much too.”
Rail: I know that you’re writing a nonfiction book, a book of illustrated nature essays. What were you able to convey in prose in that book that you couldn’t through poetry?
Nezhukumatathil: I think one of the great joys of writing essays is the ability to stretch metaphor and music as wide and far as you want without the exuberant tyranny of the line break. I very much think in poems in some ways, but my knowledge of plants and animals helps me expand that lyrical way of processing this world with a scientific knowledge to back it up. I can’t wait to be finished with it. It’s absolutely a celebration of being present in this complex and scary and gorgeous world.