UM English professor to present fourth poetry collection at Off Square Books

Posted on Apr 2 2018 - 5:36am by Trenton Scaife

Award-winning authors Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay are teaming up in Oxford this Tuesday for the release of Nezhukumatathil’s fourth poetry collection, “Oceanic.”  

Coming to Off Square Books on April 3, “Oceanic” will be the first book Nezhukumatathil launches in Mississippi.  She’ll spend the evening reading aloud from her book, along with new poems featured nowhere else. Later, she’ll be interviewed by Gay, fellow poet and co-author of “Lace and Pyrite.”

This will be Nezhukumatathil’s second event at Square Books since moving from Buffalo, New York to Mississippi in 2016. During her first visit, she signed and read from her 2011 collection, “Lucky Fish.”

Turnout was high according to Square Books general manager, Lyn Roberts, who expects this event will draw more fanfare.

“She’s a really good poet, as well as a really good presenter,” Roberts said. “It should be really entertaining and interesting.”

Nezhukumatathil’s poems typically start when an object catches her attention, whether natural or man-made. She first follows the subject through quick drafts, exploring possibilities and finding the story she wants to tell through rewrites and revisions.

“For me, it’s only upon a much later reflection that I make specific choices with regard to the line and diction of a poem,” Nezhukumatathil said. “Sometimes I only recognize the tone or mood of a poem when the poem is long done. The ‘what is this poem really about?’ usually doesn’t get answered until I’m done revising.”

On rare occasions, such as with “Oceanic,” Nezhukumatathil starts with a title, building up the work around the feelings attached to the discovery. The idea for “Oceanic” came to her while teaching a summer workshop to writers for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center in western New York.

“There was such a clear moment of gratitude for their brave hearts that they split wide open,” she said. “And though I was at the lake, flipping through my manuscript, waiting for my sons and husband to join me for lunch, the word I rested on was ‘oceanic.’”

The bulk of writing “Oceanic” wouldn’t take place in her home state, however. In 2016, Nezhukumatathil, her husband Dustin Parsons and their sons were all headed for Mississippi. Nezhukumatathil had been selected for Ole Miss’s John and Renee Grisham fellowship, a $75,000 scholarship requiring her to live in Oxford for the the academic year. Parsons, then a university professor on a year-long sabbatical, came along.

“When we got here, it meant that there was a lot of discovery, and part of that was looking at new trees and new birds and, also, new culture, the new world around her – new food, new relationships, new music,”  Parsons said. “In pursuit of a poem or essay, she’ll kind of absorb all this knowledge of the world around her, and that’s kind of what’s changed about her writing, and you know, maybe mine too.”

Six months into her stay at Ole Miss, the university offered Nezhukumatathil the chance to work as a professor with the Master of Arts in English program.  Shortly after, Parsons would be hired as Senior Lecturer of English.

Along with her growing teaching portfolio at Ole Miss, Nezhukumatathil edits poetry for “Orion,” a bi-monthly nature magazine. She also mentors with the nonprofit Asian American writers’ association, “Kundiman.”

“It makes it unfathomable that she’s as successful and prolific as she is with her writing,” Parsons said.

With this latest launch, Nezhukumatathil hopes to instill in readers the passion for the natural world she bases so much of her work around, not only in discussion, but in action as well.

“I hope to get people thrilled and excited about the urgency and loveliness of nature writing,” she said. “And that at any age, they could possibly be part of that conversation or at the very least introduce them to writers who ignite a sense of protection of their planet.”