Academics

Westminster Poets

Visiting Poet Series

At the very end of the last century, in 1999 to be exact, the English Department decided to enhance its already robust contemporary poetry curriculum by creating the Westminster Poetry Series. Every year, the department invites a major poet to visit Westminster for two or three days, either in the winter or the spring. The entire school studies books of poems by the visiting poet, guaranteeing an especially knowledgeable audience, something all of the visiting poets have appreciated. A generous grant from former trustee Maureen Ford-Goldfarb and her daughter Kirsten Ford ’00 funds the series. 


 
Because of the enormous success of Ross Gay’s visit in March 2020, the English Department turned to his good friend and collaborator Aimee Nezhukumatathil as its choice for 2020-2021’s visiting poet. (Gay and Nezhukumatathil coauthored an epistolary nature chapbook called “Lace & Pyrite” in 2014.) It was actually a pretty easy choice to make since Ms. Nezhukumatathil had previously been the Westminster Poet for 2011-2012, and the department knew how good her poetry is and what a charismatic reader and teacher she is.
 
Nezhukumatathil remembered her visit to Westminster fondly, too, and quickly agreed to be the 21st Westminster Poet in early March of 2021. As luck would have it, the poet was in the process of completing a book of short essays, part nature writing, part memoir, which the school chose as an all-school reading selection for 2020-2021. The book, “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” which will be released in early fall of 2020, will be taught in every English class prior to Nezhukumatathil’s visit to campus.  
 
Nezhukumatathil is the author of four books of poems: “Miracle Fruit” (2003), “At the Drive-In Volcano” (2007), “Lucky Fish” (2011), and “Oceanic” (2018), as well as two chapbooks. “Miracle Fruit” won the Tupelo Press Prize and the Global Filipino Literary Award in Poetry, “At the Drive-In Volcano” won the Balcones Poetry Prize, and “Oceanic” won the 2019 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Prize for Poetry. Nezhukumatathil is currently a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s M.F.A. program.

All four Forms will study the poems in “Oceanic” before Nezhukumatathil comes to campus in March. Teachers will augment poems from that book with selections from Nezhukumatathil’s earlier books of poetry. Shannon Nakai writes in her Tupelo Press review of “Oceanic”: “In ‘Oceanic,’ her fourth collection of poetry, Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes a series of love letters to the world and its inhabitants. From intimate psalms of love to her husband — whose love wields electricity as they descend the Swiss Alps — to poems addressed to starfish, turtles and the Northern Lights, the ‘you’ in each poem is as fluid and varied as the structures she uses to encapsulate all subjects.”
 
Crystal Stone writes in “Flyway”: “Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s ‘Oceanic’ creates a sometimes coastal, sometimes aquatic world where she and the nature she preserves converge. . . . She’s opened the sky, the ocean, the sun, the land and the heart. . . . We’re standing there with her ready to hear the ocean’s ethereal and earthy sounds from the seashell of words she offers.”
 
And Nick Ripatrazone in his review of “Oceanic” in “The Millions” states: “There are so many reasons to return to Nezhukumatathil’s poems — her affinity for the natural world, her ability to write a love poem that truly works, her humor that surprises and salves — and ‘Oceanic’ reminds me of yet another: how she can offer readers so many routes within a single poem . . . . Nezhukumatathil’s poems will remind you (as did Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop) that wonder is a gift, and great words can get us there.”
 
Below are a few of Nezhukumatathils poems and some links to relevant websites for more information about Nezhukumatathil.

List of 3 items.

  • INVITATION

    Come in, come in. The water’s fine! You can’t get lost
    here. Even if you want to hide behind a clutch
               of spiny oysters — I’ll find you. If you ever leave me
               at night, by boat, you’ll see the arrangement
     
    of red-gold sun stars in a sea of milk. And though
    it’s tempting to visit them — stay. I’ve been trained
              to gaze up all my life, no matter the rumble
              on earth, but I learned it’s okay to glance down
     
    into the sea. So many lessons bubble up if you know
    where to look. Clouds of plankton churning
               in open whale mouths might send you east
               and chewy urchins will slide you west. Squid know
     
    how to be rich when you have ten empty arms.
    Can you believe there are humans who don’t value
              the feel of a good bite and embrace at least once a day?
              Underneath you, narwhals spin upside down
     
    while their singular tooth needles you
    like a compass pointed towards home. If you dive
                deep enough where imperial volutes and hatchetfish
                swim, you will find all the colors humans have not yet
     
    named, and wide caves of black coral and clamshell.
    A giant squid finally let itself be captured
               in a photograph, and the paper nautilus ripple-flashes
               scarlet and two kinds of violet when it silvers you near.
     
    Who knows what will happen next? And if you still want
    to look up, I hope you see the dark sky as oceanic — 
              boundless, limitless — like all the shades of blue in a glacier.
              Listen how this planet spins with so much fin, wing, and fur.
     
    (from “Oceanic”)
  • ON LISTENING TO YOUR TEACHER TAKE ATTENDANCE

    Breathe deep even if it means you wrinkle
    your nose from the fake-lemon antiseptic
     
    of the mopped floors and wiped-down
    doorknobs. The freshly soaped necks
     
    and armpits. Your teacher means well,
    even if he butchers your name like
     
    he has a bloody sausage casing stuck
    between his teeth, handprints
     
    on his white, sloppy apron. And when
    everyone turns around to check out
     
    your face, no need to flush red and warm.
    Just picture all the eyes as if your classroom
     
    is one big scallop with its dozens of icy blues
    and you will remember that winter your family
     
    took you to the China Sea and you sank
    your face in it to gaze at baby clams and sea stars
     
    the size of your outstretched hand. And when
    all those necks start to crane, try not to forget
     
    someone once lathered their bodies, once patted them
    dry with a fluffy towel after a bath, set out their clothes
     
    for the first day of school. Think of their pencil cases
    from third grade, full of sharp pencils, a pink pearl eraser.
     
    Think of their handheld pencil sharpener and its tiny blade.
     
    (from “Oceanic”)
  • NAMING THE HEARTBEATS

    I've become the person who says Darling, who says Sugarpie,
    Honeybunch, Snugglebear—and that’s just for my children.
    What I call my husband is unprintable. You’re welcome. I am
    his sweetheart, and finally, finally—I answer to his call and his
    alone. Animals are named for people, places, or perhaps a little
    Latin. Plants invite names for colors or plant-parts. When you
    get a group of heartbeats together you get names that call out
    into the evening’s first radiance of planets: a quiver of cobras,
    a maelstrom of salamanders, an audience of squid, or an ostentation
    of peacocks. But what is it called when creatures on this earth curl
    and sleep, when shadows of moons we don’t yet know brush across
    our faces? And what is the name for the movement we make when
    we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying
    to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams.
     
    (from “Oceanic”) 

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