Something in the water: Poet regales preps

Aimee Nezhukumatathil recites from and fields questions about her collection Oceanic.

Patrick Garrity
April 23, 2021


In her poetry collection Oceanic, Aimee Nezhukumatathil uses the rich ecosystem of the sea to serve as her courier. The messages these starfish and pelicans and crustaceans carry are of love, courage, perseverance, gratitude — all of the feelings that have peppered the poet’s life as she has discovered herself as a writer and a person.

Exeter’s ninth-graders are reading the collection this term and recently were given the opportunity to meet the author over Zoom and hear who the muse for “Penguin Valentine” was and how she intended “One-Star Reviews of the Taj Mahal” to sound.

The sea is the recurring theme of Oceanic, but not to the point of over-saturation. Nezhukumatathil turns phrases nimbly (“I am like a man who prefers the taste of his own tongue instead of the lips of summer.”) and her poems ooze color (“My mother waters the tomato & pepper plants. I steal drinks from the penny-taste of the garden hose. It is my favorite drink.”). The writing goes down easily.

Nezhukumatathil spent an engaging hour with the students, exuding the joy she has for her craft as she recited poems from and fielded questions about Oceanic. She beguiled her audience with personal tales of becoming the beaver mascot at her Dayton, Ohio, high school and her life-altering decision to quit a pre-med course study and switch her college major to English. “I’m sure my parents thought I’d be homeless writing haiku on the streets,” she said. “Now they’re my biggest fans.”

Instructor in English Tyler Caldwell asked his students to write about Nezhukumatathil’s virtual visit and what they took away from the experience. Here are excerpts from some of his ninth-graders’ impressions:


“Nehhukumatathil told us that what often helps her write her poems is using nature as a way to understand and process things. For example, she told us that writing ‘The Body,’ about her ex-boyfriend was not her first intention; the idea had come from learning from a marine biologist about the poisons affecting starfishes. I saw the poem differently after learning this, which gave me a better sense of her writing process and how her ideas flow.” — Sadie Shang


“By seeing her speak and explain the background of her poems, she answered one of my biggest questions: ‘Why would she wrote these kinds of poems and what led her to those thought processes?’” — Corinne Blaise


“As a child of immigrants, she talked a lot about the pressure to become a doctor, and how initially, her parents were disappointed because she instead chose to focus on English and writing. As someone who is also the daughter of Indian immigrant parents, I understood what she was saying because there has also been a very strong emphasis on education and STEM in my life.” — Sophia Lala


“I appreciated her part when she talked about living in the present, and taking a second to look around you, because I think as students we sometimes tend to just get consumed in our work, and hearing that was pretty nice. … I have started to notice the things around me more after listening to the webinar, just little things.” Baron Masopust


“How much life she breathed into her writing resonated with me. When we read in class, it can be a little bit of a monotone at times! Her readings of poems resonated with me because it told us how the poem should sound, a meaning that I couldn't get from reading the poems alone. For example, when she read One-Star Reviews of the Taj Majal, she used a very chipper and borderline sarcastic tone that gave the poem new life.” — William Newby


“I left with a much clearer idea of the background ideas surrounding her poems, and some poetic inspiration of my own. Compared to the way we interpreted poems in class, I found that it was plausible that the author herself could've viewed the poems in a different way than us. She put emphasis on certain phrases that we didn't, and she read some passages faster than others. Her pauses and her dynamics also revealed what sections she found more relevant in a poem. I appreciated that she took the time to speak to us, and I think it was a good way to remind us that behind every book, every story, there is an author.” Lauren Kim


“I loved how she subtly rephrased lines of the poems, which made it seem like she was speaking it directly to us, rather than just reading it from a page. After reading ‘Mr. Cass and the Crustaceans,’ Nezhukumatathil invited us to put the names of our most memorable teachers in the chat, which sparked a connection with the poem. It was great to hear the ideas that we discussed in class being validated.” Jamie Reidy