Naomi Shihab Nye’s gift for connection & a shared world at Missouri Writers Guild Conference, Columbia, Missouri

Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye (Image Credit: Stephen Barclay Agency—Photo by James Evans)

As the beauteous Ibtisam Barakat (author of “Taste the Sky”—see post below as well) laid out a table filled with books overflowing with tabbed pages and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wisecracks began to flow alongside her wisdom, we knew we were in for something besides just another luncheon speech.

Ibtisam Barakat

Let’s back up. I knew it when I saw her greeting some folks from the conference as we stood in the buffet line. I knew it when my eyes couldn’t leave her compelling slender form during Walter Bargen’s (Missouri’s first Poet Laureate) heartfelt introduction. As he praised her, at moments she seemed embarrassed. Walter acknowledged they had a deal and that he’d strayed off-script and then went to his prepared remarks, which nearly brought her to tears as her hand flew to her heart, clearly honored by his appreciation of her work.

That’s the essence I felt from her during our time with her: appreciation, encouragement, hospitality, generosity…all the qualities of character and value that lend to a shared world of connection rather than barrier.

Whenever I encounter someone in person—even from the distance as a listening audience member or the brief engagement afterwards—and find this person as genuine and worthy of admiration as she has seemed before in her work on the page or on the Lannan Literary Video Series—then, that’s saying something. That’s reassuring to me, that our world is redeeming itself at every moment through our acts and words.

Naomi currently lives in San Antonio, Texas, but spends a good deal of her time on the road. She’d just come from a conference on Long Island in which ancestral connections and memory was key. Naomi told us about her father’s book: Does the Land Remember Me? (see post below for link)

“We all have so much more than we know,” she said, and took as her theme the importance of slow time and solitude in nurturing our writing lives...harkening back to a time when we were “interested in texts, but not texting all the time.” Did I mention she is funny and witty in a natural, unforced rhythm of her storytelling?

Naomi spoke movingly of her girlhood in St. Louis and her second grade teacher, Mrs. Lane who believed that poetry is our lifeline. Mrs. Lane set aside space on the blackboard for each student. This was, in a sense, their poetry locker for the week. They were to bring in a poem by someone else or write one of their own to fill the space. At the end of the week, before the board was cleared, each child picked the poem that had worked into their life that week…and, not the poem they’d brought themselves. At intervals, the class stitched handmade books (some of which Naomi still has) with poems by great poets on one page followed by second graders on the next. The Democracy of Poetry, shall we say?

Naomi said she felt that in our over-filled lives that writing helps us regain that calm we had in a slower world. She quoted William Stafford as saying, “In life, I don’t like too much to happen.”

Since Missouri is known as the Show Me State, Naomi mentioned that “Poetry tries to show us things.” She gave us these five guidelines:

1) Write a lot and often so our writing doesn’t feel too set apart and we don’t strive for perfection when we sit down to write. Regular, short sessions are good practice.

2) Praise and blame isn’t what counts.

3) Share your work. You are not alone.

4) Hoard good things to read.

Remember: April 17th is Poem in Your Pocket Day

5) Claim your time and solitude.

Like myself, Naomi finds the current buzzword BUSY offensive and has rejected it from her vocabulary—another lesson learned from her second-grade teacher Mrs. Lane.

She quoted the late John O’Donahue of Ireland on the subjects of home, belonging, and rest…and childhood as a forest of first feelings and events. “Writers are always revisiting” earlier territory, no matter how much we’ve previously written about these forests of feeling.

“There are so many voices for you to fall in love with,” Mrs. Lane told her students. Naomi is still falling in love. That is the basis of her lovlieness.

“We must regain and reclaim time for rumination,” Naomi urged us, and I loved being in her class, imagining myself back in second grade, at the foot of a nurturing teacher. Just to think of how Mrs. Lane shaped her young poet self!

“Think about what you need to write? Not for the glory or the glamor, but as a tool…as something useful for the people who will read it.”

In the question period, in considering how to bring that sense of slow time back to our children today, Naomi recalled that the Stafford family had NO CORD DAYS. Their own family had OLD-FASHIONED DAYS in which they did things as if it were, say, 100 years ago.

She also told us how she used to wake up her son with several poems in the morning, sifting these into his consciousness, up until the age of 19. He’s now earned a scholarship based on his writing, and that’s not his major.

In closing, Naomi read us a prose piece titled “Gate A-4” in which a dicey situation was turned around at an airport gate when she was able to speak with an older Palestinian woman who thought the plane was cancelled rather than delayed…and by dint of her creative intervention, a shared world of cookies and care emerged. “This is the world I want to live in,” the piece concludes. “Not everything is lost.”

No indeed. This is the world I want to live in as well—this shared world of connection spun around us like an enveloping soft shawl today.

Naomi Shihab Nye didn’t just give us a talk at lunch today. She gave us herself. She gave us a shared world.

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  1. Hi Janet
    What a refreshing post to read on Monday morning. I loved everything about it, especially the part of writing not for the glamour. Over the past several weeks I have felt a little bone dry when it comes to my writing, I believe this posting has perked up my creative spirit.
    Thanks again

  2. I loved her keynote speech. I left “covered with powdered sugar” and realizing that I lived in that shared universe! What an uplifting talk for the weekend. I felt energized and renewed and ready to approach life with a different outlook!

    Thanks for posting this….Christine TB

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