Writer-in-residence speaks on poetry and conservancy


Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer

Poet-in-residence Aimee Nezhukumatathil has a deep affinity with the late marine biologist Rachel Carson, who once wrote “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

That philosophy of awe and respect is how Nezhukumatathil operates in life and in her teaching, she said.

Returning for her second stay as poet-in-residence, Nezhukumatathil will speak about writing for the earth in her lecture, “Caught Between the Net and the Tree: Making Room for Nature Writing,” at 12:15 p.m. today on the front porch of Alumni Hall.

Nezhukumatathil has authored three collections of poetry — At the Drive-In Volcano, Miracle Fruit and, most recently, Lucky Fish. In 2009, she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in poetry, and she also has won a Balcones Prize, a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award and the Global Filipino Literary Award.

Now an associate professor of English at SUNY Fredonia in Fredonia, N.Y., Nezhukumatathil first started her education as a chemistry student but said she found herself drifting toward poetry.

“I was falling I love with the sounds of words and formulas and compounds instead of paying attention to how to solve this molecular problem,” she said. “In biology class, I would do extra research, but not on the problems at hand. I would be reading on such-and-such an animal or plant. It didn’t have anything directly to do with what we were doing in lab or class.”

Since her childhood, flora and fauna have followed Nezhukumatathil. She and her father used to take nature walks, where he would show her the difference between a sugar maple and a silver maple or identify any plant or rock in front of them, she said.

“It’s funny, now I can rattle those things off, too,” she said. “I’m so grateful for him reinforcing that — things that a junior high kid was rolling her eyes about.”

The language of the natural world became her toolbox when she wrote poetry, and she began to see the connection between nature writing and conservation.

Reading about nature, she said, inspires wonder, curiosity and even an instinctual protectiveness.

“It makes you want to learn more, makes you want to see this glacier in my lifetime before it all melts away,” she said.

A big part of writing nature poetry, she said, is recording the natural world for future generations and therefore awakening a desire to preserve.

Like Carson, the author of The Sea Around Us, Nezhukumatathil’s newest manuscript draws inspiration from the ocean. She writes about ancient deep-sea creatures, some that have only recently been discovered, like the vampire squid, her new favorite animal.

Living at a lightless depth more than 2,000 feet under water, the vampire squid has eight arms lined with fangs instead of suction cups, all connected in a color-changing cloak of skin. When the creature is attacked, the tips of its arms emit bioluminescent blue orbs to confuse predators.

“The connotations are so magical and resonant; there’s a beautiful language in the world of animals and plants,” she said. “If I feel my language is flat, I’ll draw upon Mother Nature, because she’s the best poet of all, so I just try to record it.”