Earlier this month, the National Book Critics Circle announced that poet, novelist, and songwriter Naomi Shihab Nye, a stalwart figure in San Antonio’s literary scene for more than 40 years, will be presented with the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

The award is given to “a person or institution … who has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture” and will be presented to Nye, along with the other National Book Critics Circle awards for 2019, in a ceremony on March 12 at the New School in New York City. Past recipients include Arte Público Press, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

Nye, who was named Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2019 and received the Texas Institute of Letters Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018, was “surprised, shocked, stunned – all of the above” when she first got news of the award.

“As a poet you never expect to be recognized,” she said. “As a poet you just feel lucky to be a poet and write poetry and then connect to a circle, however large or small, of people who care about poetry and find it meaningful in their lives.”

Carmen Tafolla, a former poet laureate of both Texas and San Antonio, was quick to praise Nye on the honor, which she said was well-deserved.

“One of the amazing things about Naomi’s work is that it’s always fresh but profound, confronting all the contradictions of this modern world and bringing sanity and resolution to this puzzle,” Tafolla said.

In Tafolla’s estimation, Nye’s work is powerful for it ability to bring “wholeness, joy, and human connection to a world so hungry for connection.”

Current Poet Laureate of San Antonio Octavio Quintanilla was happy about Nye’s work being recognized, noting that “it’s a lifetime achievement award, but I suspect Naomi still has a lot left to give us.”

“When I first arrived to San Antonio from the Rio Grande Valley,” Quintanilla said, “she was one of the first writers I met in the city, and she immediately made me feel at home. I felt her kind spirit. She writes about this, about how kindness is the only thing that makes sense.”

Naomi Shihab Nye with Kaimana, 4, during a poetry workshop in Honolulu, Hawaii. Credit: Courtesy / Michael Nye

Quick to spread praise around rather than dwell on her own merits, Nye, who relocated to San Antonio from Jerusalem with her parents when she was 16, said she feels lucky that her parents “kind of randomly” picked San Antonio as the family’s new home.

“San Antonio just has such a gracious spirit for so many people in creative fields,” she said. “There’s a spirit in our city, a mood warmth that is very conducive to ongoing creative life.”

Seeing her role as an “encourager,” Nye hopes the Ivan Sandrof Award can, through bringing attention to her work, inspire others to tell their own stories.

“I am not here to be the final word in anything. I’m here to encourage other people to find a way, a practice, a story, a set of metaphors that are meaningful to them and to have the confidence to write them and to share them,” she said.

Nye has spent much of her life as a teacher, mentor, and outspoken advocate of the power of literature to enrich and transform lives. To Nye, who feels she still has plenty of work to do, “poetry is a way to see through all the chatter, excess and trouble of your day, all the headlines and disasters, to find some essence of something worth remembering that shines through.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.