Award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil shared her sense of wonder during her March 30-31 visit as this year’s Westminster Poet. She gave an all-school reading and visited English classes, all virtually from Oxford, Miss. She had previously served as the Westminster Poet for 2011-2012.
A professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s M.F.A. program, Nezhukumatathil is the author of The New York Times bestselling illustrated collection of nature essays and Kirkus Prize finalist “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments,” which was published last year and chosen as Barnes and Noble’s Book of the Year for 2020. She has also published four poetry collections: “Oceanic,” “Lucky Fish,” “At the Drive-In Volcano” and “Miracle Fruit.” Her most recent chapbook, “Lace & Pyrite,” is a collaboration of epistolary garden poems with the poet Ross Gay, who was last year’s Westminster Poet.
“World of Wonders” has been taught in every Westminster English class this year and is an all-school faculty read. Students also studied poems in “Oceanic” and from her other collections.
Nezhukumatathil began her reading by saying, “I hope to bring wonder back into your lives today.” She spoke about difficult experiences growing up and shared a favorite video of a frog giving birth. While reading an essay from “World of Wonders,” she asked students to draw a narwhal. She then read four of her poems from “Oceanic” and spoke about their origins.
During one of her class visits, she asked students to recall moments of learning that brought a smile to their face. “In college, I want you to explore those things you are interested in because you will never feel bored,” she said.
When asked what prompted her to start writing poetry, she credited studying living poets for the first time in college and reading poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, who has twice served as the Westminster Poet. Nezhukumatathil recounted how the experience prompted her to switch from studying honors chemistry to English at Ohio State University. “I wanted to be a writer because I had so many questions,” she said.
In response to other questions, she shared that she writes with a pencil and paper, and that she tries to evoke a certain mood in a poem rather than meaning. “I enjoy writing essays the most, but my first love is writing poetry,” she added. “I love the revision process. Revising is where the magic happens.”
“If we had to have a Westminster Poet do a virtual visit, Aimee Nezhukumatathil was the perfect poet to have,” said former Westminster English teacher Michael Cervas who directs the Westminster Poet series. “Both in her all-school reading and in her visits with English classes, she was engaging and full of energy. I especially liked her choices of poems to read in the various English classes, poems that were in turn funny and wise and very moving.”