Interview conducted by Anna Zarra Aldrich, Blog Editor
Award-winning poet, NEA poetry fellow, and Orion magazine poetry editor Aimee Nezhukumatathil visited the University of Connecticut last month to give a reading of her work. Nezhukumatathil is a renowned nature writer who has published four full collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including Best American Poetry series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry, Ploughshares,and Tin House. Shortly after her visit to UConn, Nezhukumatathil agreed to answered a few questions via email for the Long River Review reflecting on her experiences as a writer, editor, and creative writing professor at the University of Mississippi.
Interview has been edited for typos and formatting.
How has being an editor for a literary magazine impacted your own writing and self-editing process?
On a practical note, I know to be patient and, dare I say it, kind and professional when dealing with editors. I’d like to think I knew how to do that before becoming an editor, but being on the other side of the table, I have a new appreciation for professionalism. As far as my own writing goes, making sure [it] has a sense of immediacy and surprise is something I’m very conscientious of for my own writing that I submit out into the world–two characteristics that I myself look for in a potential poem for Orion.
Orion has a very clear theme and point of view with its focus on nature writing. Do you think this is necessary for a literary journal’s success and ability to attract an audience?
Not necessarily in need of a theme or focus, but I think there needs to be a distinct editor’s vision or manifesto–it doesn’t need to be spelled out per se for the public, but I think having one in mind for the editor can only help when facing a giant pile of submissions.
As an editor do you feel you have a responsibility to search for different kinds of voices to represent in the magazine, or do you focus more on the quality of the work divorced from its author and their point of view?
I believe you absolutely can focus on quality of work AND make sure a wide variety of voices are being heard. Those things have never been exclusionary for me as a reader, writer, or editor. I was championing a wide variety of voices from varied backgrounds when I was a slush reader for _The Journal_ (the national lit mag out of The Ohio State University) as a grad student in the 90s, and it’s something I’m happy to be a part of now too. I think if a journal publishes mostly one kind of writer, that is a huge failing of the editorship and vision of the entire magazine, as that in no way represents the American population. Mainly, I want to make sure the magazine I work for represents the world that I want to be a part of and for me, that means publishing writers with a wide array of backgrounds.
As someone from a mixed ethnic background, with a Filipina mother and South Indian father, how important is this identity to your work?
1000% necessary. As in, I would never even consider working for a magazine that didn’t share and encourage this vision. It goes hand-in-hand with who I am as an editor and as a human being. Growing up, I hardly saw any images of nature writers who even remotely looked like me–and I certainly wasn’t taught any women nature writers until grad school. And I consider that a shame and a violence against all the kids who grew up not seeing themselves represented in books, movies, TV, etc.
“…never forget the joy and play [and] experimentation alongside the hard and frustrating days of writing.”
Your work often goes beyond conventional natural images and explores the unusual or even ugly. Many of your poems also lie more in the realm of the autobiographical. How do you combine various sources of inspiration to form a cohesive aesthetic for your collections and, more broadly, your own aesthetic as a poet?
I always start with an image, never a topic or theme–and I try to read widely: recipes, natural histories, biographies, science books, pop culture, and of course plenty of literature, so part of the surprise and delight of writing poetry for me is the not knowing when or how I pull other images together to connect/argue with inside of a single poem.
For your forthcoming book World of Wonder you are combining nature essays with illustrations. Why did you choose to mix media in this way for this project?
Simply put–I’m in love with each of the 50 or so plants and animals I chose to write about–and though ultimately it is my hope that my words alone can provide a picture in the reader’s mind, these unusual plants and animals were just begging to also be *seen*–it’s very exciting–it’s quite literally the book I have been waiting all my life to make: about 70% natural history and 30% memoir.
The Long River Review draws a lot of our content and readership from students. As a professor, what are the most important lessons you hope your students learn about writing?
I hope they never forget the joy and play/experimentation alongside the hard and frustrating days of writing. Too often we hear about the latter, but the former is going to be what keeps them coming back to a desk or laptop for more. The word poem comes from the Greek word for MAKE so I’m hoping the craft of building something with 26 letters is not lost on them–it’s one of the most exhilarating art forms there is: and all you need is a pencil and paper (or computer). Resilience. Being a good citizen who practices the Golden Rule. And to never forget that reading is integral/necessary to making your own writing push into new and uncharted waters.