A professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, Aimee Nezhukumatathil received the 2021 College of Liberal Arts Award in the Humanities.
She is the author of the New York Times best-selling illustrated collection of nature essays and Kirkus Prize finalist, WORLD OF WONDERS: IN PRAISE OF FIREFLIES, WHALE SHARKS, & OTHER ASTONISHMENTS (2020, Milkweed Editions), which was chosen as Barnes and Noble’s Book of the Year. She has four previous poetry collections: OCEANIC (Copper Canyon Press, 2018), LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003), the last three from Tupelo Press. Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of epistolary garden poems with the poet Ross Gay. Her writing appears twice in the Best American Poetry Series, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Tin House.
Honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pushcart Prize, a Mississippi Arts Council grant, and being named a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. In 2021, she became the first-ever poetry editor for SIERRA magazine, the story-telling arm of The Sierra Club.
Briefly describe your teaching philosophy/work. What should people know about it?
I adore my students here at the University of Mississippi and consider teaching one of the greatest privileges and honors of my life. The students here constantly surprise me with their generosity and warmth and willingness to write outside of their comfort zones. Last fall, I conducted classes over Zoom, and while nothing replaces the dynamic face to face interactions, I’ve been so pleased to see how hard they work and show up in spite of a dreadful, historical time to learn how to conjure up memories and created worlds. In all of my classes, we work on making clear and surprising metaphors and crystalline imagery to make scenes and stanzas come alive.
To be a poet means “to make” in Greek, and I’ve been pleased to find during this time of isolation that students have said that having a space to be creative and to make poems has been absolutely vital for them during this pandemic. It’s honestly exhilarating to work alongside them.
As someone who teaches nature writing, I can tell you when I set my students to a writing task, I ask them (in so many words) to start with and from a place of love (for the body of water, the animal, the forest, the flower—whatever it is they are writing about), they write into that and THEN once you have done that, the audience is usually on board and it’s easier to convince your reader to listen to solutions or to open their eyes that not everyone has had the same experiences outside, etc. My students in my nature writing classes are particularly struck by the varied reactions and responses when we visit the campus Tree Trail and they share their experience (or lack thereof) of knowing the names of trees from their childhood and how that affects them now with a look towards their future post-college.
Do you have advice or thoughts to share with students?
For people just figuring out how to write about the outdoors, I’d offer up this suggestion for any piece of writing: Start with the five senses. Knock us back to that time you first smelled a dried sand dollar when you were nine. Let us feel the bits of sand tap out of the lunules and into the palm of your hand. When I set up a moment of trust and advocacy in my classes—I think my students feel like they can take risks in their writing, and dive deep into critical thinking after that. Their commitment to the craft, and willingness to try new things, and quite simply their bravery is absolutely inspiring.
Are there specific examples of support—fellowships, mentoring, other—that helped advance your academic and professional goals?
I’ve had the good fortune of having stellar colleagues like Beth Ann Fennelly and Kiese Laymon who have looked out for me as I ventured out into the (new to me) worlds of prose writing and a department (including Derrick Harriell, former chair Ivo Kamps and now chair Caroline Wigginton) and College of Liberal Arts leadership who cheers on my successes in a way that I’ve never quite had before. Most importantly, they recognize that I am a multi-faceted human–with a family, and other interests outside of campus life. They recognize that a well-rounded professor is a happy professor. With a support system like that in place, it wasn’t hard to choose this university as a place to further build one of the greatest writing programs in the country.