Aimee Nezhukumatathil Reflects on Five Years as Poetry Editor

“The land knows you, even when you are lost.” I’ve lost track of the times I’ve thought of this sentence from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass since I first became Orion’s poetry editor in 2015.

After five years gathering bouquets of poems for each issue, I’m stepping aside. In reading hundreds and hundreds of poems for Orion over the years, I can truthfully say that reading such a wide array has helped ground me, even during these tumultuous political times when I’ve felt lost.

I’m so grateful to former editor-in-chief Chip Blake and my predecessor Hannah Fries for reaching out to me in the first place—I got the text while I was boarding a plane. O, travel! Seems almost quaint now in the midst of a pandemic! I said yes immediately, for Orion has always been a magazine that I’d greedily read from cover to cover when it arrived in my mailbox.

More than that, it promised to be a place where I could help shape and collect a different vision of environmental poetry than what had previously been offered from any place else. This meant plucking unknowns from the slush pile and nervously asking my poetry heroes and superstars to consider sharing their poems, while I also fielded wonderful recommendations from nature writers across the country. Just look at this gathering of writers (published in Orion from 2015 to June 2020), re-defining what is written about the environment:

Joseph O. Legaspi, Paisley Rekdal, John Poch, Michelle Bonczek, Fatimah Asghar, C. Dale Young, Jennifer Chang, Teddy Macker, Brian Doyle, Michelle Gillette, Kathryn Hunt, Phil Metres, Rita Dove, Deborah Cummins, Jim Daniels, David Roderick, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Dave Lucas, Janice N. Harrington…

Erica Dawson, Anne Haven, Sierra Golden, Kimiko Hahn, Joan Naviyuk Kane, James Thomas Stevens, Christopher Cokinos, Natalie Diaz, Chloe Honum, Rigoberto González, Katherine Riegel, Ellen Bass, Layli Long Soldier, Ilyse Kusnetz, Amanda Hawkins, Todd Davis…

Deborah A. Miranda, Toni Jensen, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Heid Erdrich, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Keetje Kuipers, Traci Brimhall, David Tomas Martinez, Sean Hill, Catherine Pierce, Liz Kicak, Robert Wrigley, Jessica Jacobs, Duy Doan, Kazim Ali, Tess Taylor, Jessica Gigot, Urvashi Bahuguna…

Rebecca Morgan Frank, Susan Elbe, Martin Jude Farawell, Kelli Russell Agodon, Zoe Brigley, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Oliver de la Paz, Brandi George, Donika Kelly, Javier Zamora, Jane Wong, Christopher Bakken, Jenny George, Jane Hirshfield, Noah Davis, Roger Reeves, Lisa Russ Spaar, Tyree Daye, Adrian Matejka, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Camille T. Dungy, Sally Wen Mao…

Dorianne Laux, Major Jackson, Catherine Pierce, Eloisa Amezcua, Rajiv Mohabir, Kevin Young, Stuart Dybek, Cecily Parks, Ilya Kaminsky, Paige Quiñones, José Olivarez, Ada Limón, Luisa A. Igloria, David Baker, John Freeman, Brenda Hillman, W. Todd Kaneko, Tina Chang, Craig Santos Perez, Janine Joseph, Sandra Meek, Su Cho, and Kwame Dawes.

During this time we’ve had several of these poems anthologized, selected for the Academy of American Poetry’s “Teach This Poem” series, included in prize-winning books, and, just last month, we found out that Ilya Kaminsky’s broadside insert, “Letters of Recommendation” (Winter 2019) won a Pushcart Prize!

But we’re not done yet.

When I thought of passing the torch to someone who could guide and celebrate new pathways into environmental poetry, I had only one name in mind, and I’m grateful she accepted: Camille Dungy will be taking over as poetry editor starting with the Autumn 2020 issue, and I am so excited to watch her unique vision unfold in this position.

As for me, I’ll be joyfully transitioning to being a contributing editor of Orion with a brand-new column called “A Taste of Wonder,” that I envision will bring environmentalists to the table. Like sharing a meal with a good friend, we will nibble a bit of wonder around the world. Look for it in an upcoming issue.

For now, I’m going to try and see if my first attempts at growing blackberries in Mississippi’s famously hot summers will succeed, or if the mockingbirds will snatch them all in the next few weeks, and I’ll try to prepare to teach online classes this fall.

But first, there are walks to be had (with masks on), and fireflies to catch (and release!) with my sons. My collection of nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments will be ushered into the world in September (via Milkweed Editions) and I’m all kinds of nervous and excited about that.

This isn’t a goodbye, but a wish: I hope you find yourself a little less lost, or a little less lonely when you read the upcoming issues of Orion. Thank you for your support over the past five years. It’s been so lovely to make this a more inclusive space for environmental writing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next on the horizon.

 

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. Her newest collection of poems is Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). With Ross Gay, she co-wrote the chapbook, Lace & Pyrite, a collaboration of nature poems. She is also the author of a forthcoming book of illustrated nature essays, World of Wonders, from Milkweed Editions in 2020. She is the poetry editor of Orion and her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry 2015 & 2018 series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Her honors include a 2020 Guggenheim fellowship, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pushcart Prize.