This writer’s job: Get young people to see poetry everywhere

Why We Wrote This

Who are the cultivators of contemplation in U.S. society? One of them is Naomi Shihab Nye, the latest young people’s poet laureate. She encourages slowing down as a way to see the extraordinary in every life.

Peter Wynn Thompson/AP Images for Poetry Foundation
Naomi Shihab Nye is recognized as the new young people’s poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago in June. Based in Texas, she is responsible for promoting poetry to children and their families, teachers, and librarians across the U.S.

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John Phillip Santos had just started at Churchill High School in San Antonio when Naomi Shihab Nye rolled into his class as a visiting teacher. He and his fellow students were studying the works of Melville and Whitman. She brought in Joni Mitchell’s Blue album.

“She always had not only a sense of how to invite the spark of poetic ambition in young people, but was willing to work to make that real,” says Mr. Santos, now an author and mentor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Ms. Shihab Nye was recently named young people’s poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Young people need more exposure to poetry, she says, not just for when they’re children, but for when they’re not. Politics, justice, and identity are recurring themes in her work, and she doesn’t shy away from politics in conversation either. Avoiding politics only hardens divisions, she says, and poetry can help break down some of those divisions.

“If you’re a person living in a city and you read a rural book that moves you, you just got bigger,” she says. “That’s one of the biggest jobs of literature, making that bridge and inviting people to cross it.”

The world according to Naomi Shihab Nye is all about the quiet moments, all about the small details. Like the small cut on her arm.

The sleeves of her green plaid shirt are rolled up her forearms, revealing the cut, as she speaks to a group of teachers at Humanities Texas – her voice deep and raspy from decades of speaking in classrooms.

It’s mid-June and she’s been away from Texas for a few days. Socks, her cat, did not like it, so when she returned “a little cat love” was waiting for her. She’s driven up from San Antonio with her mother to speak to the teachers. Her thick gray-brown hair is tied into a big ponytail bundled over her left shoulder, making space for her wide brown eyes.

Children and young people “need more exposure to poetry,” she says, not just for when they’re children, but for when they’re not. “How does poetry help us live our lives?” she asks. “How can it help us? How can it serve us?” 

She has made a career writing about small things that can so often go unnoticed. In one poem, a caterpillar inches across the kitchen floor. In one novel, a little girl is “stunned into observation” after a car accident. Another poem celebrates the “quiet minute between two noisy minutes.”

In a fast-paced world that only seems to be picking up speed, Ms. Shihab Nye – recently named the young people’s poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation – asks that we slow down, stop, and look around. She asks that we travel, be it on a plane or on the page. Making time for that can help people, she thinks, especially children.

This focus on the seemingly minor, mundane details of everyday life – coming from a woman who has had far from an ordinary life – forms the soul of both her writing and teaching. Every life is extraordinary, she tells you, and by slowing down to see the details you can see how. To write, you don’t need a big idea, she often tells classrooms. 

“You don’t even have to have a little idea. Just look around,” she tells them. “You’re living in a poem.”

“Every day is filled with poems, it’s just whether you want to turn your head and look at them, or give them a little time on the page or in your mind,” she says in an interview. “I think it helps us to know that.”

Igniting poetic ambition

There isn’t much that is stereotypically Texan about Naomi Shihab Nye. She wasn’t born in Texas (though she has that in common with many of the heroes of the Alamo). Before Texas she lived in the St. Louis area and in Jerusalem. Her father was a Palestinian refugee. She is unabashedly liberal, and she doesn’t eat barbecue (though she likes the smell).

But she loves the spaciousness. She loves the multiculturalism, and she loves the artistic communities. Texas, she says, “is the most stereotyped state.” She moved to San Antonio for her last two years of high school and she’s never left, graduating from Trinity University in the city before becoming one of the most successful writers in the state.

You can’t be a successful writer in Texas and not have known Bill Wittliff – the screenwriter, photographer, and author known for adapting Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove” into a television miniseries – who had passed away days before the interview. He was “this consummate creative being,” she says.

“How do we help kids feel that kind of enthusiastic creativity that a person like Bill Wittliff embodied all his life?” she continues. “How do we help kids realize you’re part of an amazing place and you’re part of a complicated time? How can poetry help us look at it?”

The laureateship is two years long, and the first she has accepted. She’s never had much desire to be a laureate, but the focus on young people here appealed to her. 

Virginia Duncan was a junior editor at Macmillan Publishers in 1989 when she sent Ms. Shihab Nye a letter suggesting she write more poetry for children.

“She could do anything [with the laureateship], and I’m really excited to see what she will do,” says Ms. Duncan.

“There are many, many people who will say Naomi changed their lives because she came into their classroom when they were in third grade and she told this kid that he or she could be a writer,” she adds. 

John Phillip Santos is one of them. He had just started at Churchill High School in San Antonio when Ms. Shihab Nye, just graduated from Trinity University, rolled into his class as a visiting teacher. They had been reading the American classics – “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman’s poetry. She brought in Joni Mitchell’s Blue album.

“She always had not only a sense of how to invite the spark of poetic ambition in young people, but was willing to work to make that real,” says Mr. Santos, now an author and mentor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Over the years they became friends and “poetic allies,” he says. Not only did she encourage him to pursue poetry and writing as a career, he adds, but she showed him it was possible to do so while writing about his own Chicano culture and experiences.

“We were at the margins of the social order as well as the margins of the geographical world, but Naomi’s poetry always put us at the center of everything,” he says.

“And through it all she’s been able to be an amazingly prolific poet, and someone who’s work has only gotten deeper and more intense,” he adds. “She has never lost that sense of wonder and possibility about poetry as a force for change.”

“Making that bridge”

As a kid, Ms. Shihab Nye “felt like a grown-up,” and she saw a lot that she wanted to change.

When she was first learning about poetry – her mother reading her Emily Dickinson before bed – she was also often thinking about the stark racial segregation that surrounded her in Ferguson, Missouri, in the 1950s.

Her father, Aziz, was the only Arab in Ferguson. A Palestinian refugee who grew up in pre-war Jerusalem surrounded by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Armenian Turks, and more, he forecast how racial tension in the St. Louis suburb would explode decades later to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

“You can’t do this, this division,” he would tell her. “Someday this place is going to blow up.” 

Politics, justice, and identity are recurring themes in her work, and she doesn’t shy away from politics in conversation either. Avoiding politics only hardens divisions, she says, and poetry can help break down some of those divisions.

 “If you’re a person living in a city and you read a rural book that moves you, you just got bigger,” she says. “That’s one of the biggest jobs of literature, making that bridge and inviting people to cross it.”

The kid who felt like a grown-up has changed into a grown-up who feels like a kid, she says. She’s still figuring out what she would like to do during the two year laureateship, but it will surely invite children to cross those bridges. She wants to visit schools in rural areas, and to hold programs that bring Arab- and Jewish-American children together. She wants to continue what she’s been doing for decades in children’s classrooms, like exposing them to foreign poetry and music they may not have thought of as poetry. She wants to do something in Ferguson.

The Palestinian-American Texan knows full well the benefits of opening yourself up to new cultures and perspectives. Moving to San Antonio, a majority Hispanic city, “made me really think about the preciousness of mixed cultures in this nation,” she says. In today’s political moment, with President Donald Trump’s stoking fear of immigrants in particular, living in a city like San Antonio is “helpful to our souls.”

“It’s easy to turn an eye away from the people who don’t match us and try to find just the ones who do,” she says. “But when you do that I think you’re destined, in true America, for heartbreak and loneliness.” 

“I think as we grow we become honorary citizens ... of so many cultures that aren’t our own,” she adds. “To be part of other people’s cultures, it’s like our birthright as Americans.”

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