In Oceanic, Aimee Nezhukumatathil envisions a world that recalls Ariel’s “rich and strange” fathoms in The Tempest—depths of water or being brimming with strangeness, with life. Sea creatures and human subjects are interchangeable, sometimes via metaphor, sometimes beyond metaphor’s comparative distances. Nezhukumatathil mines the title for its many meanings: in these poems, “oceanic” by turns indicates vastness, depth, profundity, inclusiveness. It is also a narrative of immense love.
Reading Oceanic, I felt renewed wonder at nature’s immensities—not an expected feeling, I later reflected, in our ecological and political moment. Yet “wonder,” a term so often found in responses to Nezhukumatahil’s work, aptly describes her poetry’s unique relationship to the natural world. Expressing awe, fear, and joy are political acts in Oceanic, particularly in a canon of nature writing that so often erases the voices of people of color. These poems invite us—sometimes literally—to return to the joy of observation, of presence. “Listen,” the speaker of “Invitation” reminds us, “how this planet spins with so much fin, wing, and fur.”
Also the author of a forthcoming collection of essays, World of Wonder, and poetry collections Lucky Fish (2011), At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), and Miracle Fruit (2003), Nezhukumatathil is poetry editor at Orion magazine and professor of English at the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Nezhukumatathil and I corresponded via email from early March to early April.
The Rumpus: I’d like to ask you about the title, Oceanic. Language of the sea and all its varied, strange creatures informs many of these poems. The word “oceanic” can also suggest vastness and enormity or, as you write in “Invitation,” a “boundless, limitless” being. Does the title have other meanings for you and your work?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: So many of the poems collected here can be read as love poems at their core, and for me, “oceanic” also means the way I myself love: the earth, my family, my friends—it’s complex and dark and rippling over with light too. And also so much of what and who I love is yet still mysterious, unexplored. Which makes sense when I compare it with the ocean—something like humans have only seen about five percent of the world’s oceans. Five percent! There’s still so much about the ocean to understand and witness and yet, I kind of hope we never do in this lifetime.
Rumpus: Yes, and a kind of oceanic expansiveness and inclusion is also apparent in these poems. Their subjects range widely but communicate a connectivity that reminds me at times of Whitman, who you reference at the beginning of the penultimate poem, “My South.” Can you talk about how you perceive relationships between “disparate” beings—a starfish and a pining lover, say—and the role they play in your writing?
Nezhukumatathil: Actually, I grew up reading mostly science and natural history books—studying field guides and various oceanographer’s history books. I didn’t even know who Dr. Seuss was—I just thought he was one of my parents’ friends! But as I was reading these nature and science books, I found myself accidentally (?) placing narratives on these creatures and plants, anthropomorphizing them entirely—so that when I did start to read literature, the way I knew to make sense of human interactions was indeed through the vocabulary of the natural world by default. In other words, my language for metaphor and making connections to the natural world with human relationships is not really anything I have to work at, but rather, how I’ve always seen the world since I was a little girl.
Rumpus: That seems in some ways related to a universal impulse—to make sense of the world via metaphor—but here specifically through the language of the natural world.
I noticed that in many of these poems, there is slippage between what is human and what is animal. A classroom assumes the eyes of a scallop, while a pregnant swimmer imagines herself as a whale shark. Do you see “human” and “animal” as separate categories?
Nezhukumatathil: One result of me growing up and being a huge reader and never finding anyone who even remotely resembled me physically—especially in the nature and history books I was reading—is that honestly, I think I began to try and find myself in the animal/plant world. In some ways those worlds felt more “at home” to me than say, being the only Asian-American family in a tiny town in the Midwest. But yes, imagine being a child in the 70s/80s—Asian-Americans were barely represented and shown in any television, movies, music videos at all, let alone a near absence from what I could find in libraries. And if they were depicted, it was to be a punch line. So in some very real (and sad) ways, I looked elsewhere, to the animal and plant kingdoms, for a feeling of kinship.
Rumpus: And lack of representation, or harmful representation, so often invites new—and wonderfully new—modes of self-imagining.
In addition to creatures and beings, there are so many places in these poems. Their geographies range widely: the Great Wall of China, a wintry Niagara Falls, the “silver ribs” of a farm silo. Do you think of Oceanic as a travel narrative? What is the significance of these sometimes highly-traveled spaces in a text that elsewhere focuses on the unexplored and unknown?
Nezhukumatathil: Going back to when I was assembling this as a manuscript, I discovered I wanted to make this a collection of love poems—some more loose than others, of course. And for those poems that touch on what is “known”—let’s face it, by mainly white travelers who never cease to amaze me with their audacity and confidence of voice in having ‘authority’ over places where they are just visiting—I wanted to highlight the ignorance and gall of people who view difference as something to complain about. Conversely, I included poems like “In Praise of My Manicure,” that showcase a speaker who is sick of apologizing for being different and in fact, wants to double down on standing out in a crowd now. Especially when we have governmental leaders who try to show us that differences or the unknown should be feared or hated, I found myself casting and shaping this manuscript into one that sings the praises of other cultures, being your own golden love and champion, and to marvel at the unknown instead of fearing it.
Rumpus: I love that as an impulse for new love poems: finding ways to celebrate and write lovingly of difference, and not resorting, as many white writers do, to a narrative of othering when writing about travel.
There are also more familiar, intimate places in some of these poems. In an article on Haibun, you wrote that because you have moved often, you “are like clover… easy to remove and attach again in any given space.” The idea of home seems important here and even longed for, as in “Travel Mommy Ghazal” and the end of “My South.” Does the process of making homes in new places inform your writing?
Nezhukumatathil: Place has always figured prominently in my work for precisely that reason—of having to be uprooted for most of my childhood and into my twenties when I felt so unmoored. But I remain fascinated and in awe of immigrants like my parents who willingly left India and the Philippines and all that they knew of home and family to explore the unknown, to create a new sense of home together. Now that my own family (my husband, the writer Dustin Parsons and our two sons) is here in Oxford, Mississippi—this is our first full year here after being in a tiny town in western New York for sixteen years—I finally feel it in my bones that this is a place where my whole family can thrive and be active members of making a community beautiful. I feel more comfortable here and seen with my brown skin than perhaps anywhere else I’ve lived in America and feel so lucky to be part of a dynamic literary community.
Rumpus: So, in a sense, your writing includes both searching through the unknown and a kind of arrival—a sense of home.
One of the things I find most striking about your work, both in Oceanic and elsewhere, is its warmth and joyfulness. When I search for articles about your writing, I often encounter the word “wonder”—wonder for language, for the natural world, for places, for familial intimacy. There is also an environmentalist reading of Oceanic, as the epigraph suggests, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” You are poetry editor at Orion and have taught courses on environmental writing. Can you talk about the balance of wonder and fear in environmental writing? Is it ever difficult to maintain that wonder, that brightness, in the current political and environmental landscape?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, it is definitely difficult to keep a mind of wonder and awe after I turn on the news and get a taste of whatever horrible hatred is on display any given day. But then I remember I have two young sons who are quietly (sometimes not so quietly) observing how their father and I move in this world and I want them to have empathy for others who don’t look like them, who come from different walks of life… I want them to look upon the world—and each other—with tenderness because they saw their parents do the same.
It’s easy to be jaded (and believe me I have my days), but not for long when I have these three bright and golden hearts around me who believe in such goodness in the world around them. Honestly, they are the ones who inspire and who also serve as a catalyst for me turning back to my early first loves in reading: being so hungry and curious and excited about the natural world.
Admitting a love or joy, or yes, wonder for the natural world is, especially as a woman of color, one of the most vulnerable things we can do. It’s also very political. Again, growing up, I simply had never seen a single Asian-American girl/teen/woman depicted in pop culture or literature as having hopes/ fears/ dreams/ crushes/ desires/ joys/ sadnesses, so when I do it now in my writing in both poetry and essays, I include “myself” as a way of saying I exist, and have a heartbeat, and I am three-dimensional—that’s definitely a political and purposeful choice. Imagine how radical that notion is—still!—for some people: that a brown woman can love and want to protect and feel angry and lament and be in awe of AND also sing the praises of the natural world. How audacious and beautiful is that?
Author photo @ Kellie Szkatulski.