In Oceanic, Aimee Nezhukumatathil plumbs the imagery of nature to break down barriers between humans and the world around us. We asked Nezhukumatathil a few questions about her interest and research into the natural world.
Oceanic conceptually is a book about nature, marine life and its place in our own lives. Was this your plan from the outset, or did you discover this conceptual framework along the way to its completion?
My parents made sure that I knew the names of most plants/animals/trees/constellations wherever we lived (we moved around a lot when I was young), so I grew up with that vocabulary and always have been fascinated by the small and large dramas in, say, a garden or an edge of shoreline. So many of these poems are love poems in various forms, I think—and using the diction and specifics of the outdoors just made sense to me. I don’t know how to make sense of a world without using its inhabitants to draw metaphors and find a sonic joy when I draft a poem.
These poems feel like they’re powered by a backdrop of research, like they’re drawing their weight from the actual facts of the natural world. Can you talk a bit about your research process behind this book?
So much of my earlier poetry is explaining my entrance into subject matter that is “worthy” of being in a poem. It’s not that long ago when I was so very starved to find any experience or any writers that looked remotely like me in the “best of” anthologies or journals. It was as if we didn’t exist, which is of course not true, but now (thankfully) I feel like there is an exciting embrace of poems from all backgrounds and cultures, so my focus on “explaining” doesn’t feel as urgent to me as it once did, when I was struggling to just say, “Hello! I exist!” But yes, to get back to that sense of urgency, I feel like what is urgent for me now is to write and record a slowing down or a tenderness towards the outdoors—in all its complications. Kind of like my own way of following environmentalist Rachel Carson’s belief that the more attention we pay to the natural world around us, the less appetite we have for destruction. And honestly, I’m so exhausted from the voracious appetites of destroying the gorgeous natural resources around us all.
What role do objective facts play in your poetry in general? Is it an essential grounding element, or do you feel safe in blurring the lines?
Oh, it would definitely be a mistake to read any of my poetry books as autobiography. But all the science and nature elements I include in my poems have been triple checked and/or extensively researched to be as accurate as possible. I’m not at all interested in fudging something just for the sake of music or sound, for example. I want very much for people to learn about plants and animals they might normally not have expected to learn about from a book of poems.
I was surprised by the specific subjects you chose to contemplate. The opening poem, for example, finds you identifying with the scallop. Another pair of poems draw language from one-star reviews of famous landmarks. How do you know when you’ve stumbled across a subject worth writing about?
I hardly ever (as in less than 3 percent of the time) draft with a specific subject in mind—rather, I start with an image and write around/through/about it and see what happens from there. No surprise for the writer/No surprise for the reader is a mantra from Frost, but I absolutely find that so applicable to my drafting. I need the image to be surprising and a little heartbreaking and delightful all at once, and when I can’t stop thinking about it, that’s how I know I need to get to my drafting journals—I still draft almost everything by hand first.
Finally, what’s your favorite animal?
That seriously changes on the hour for me, for real. Right now, I’d have to say the ribbon eel for its moxie and audaciousness, but at any given time it could be a royal fly catcher, a narwhal or a mantis shrimp.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Oceanic.