Naomi Shihab Nye.
Naomi Shihab Nye is the 2019-2021 Young People’s Poet Laureate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye was so depressed on her twentieth birthday that she refused to celebrate. She thought her childhood was now behind her (wrong.)

So begins the brief Nye biography on the dust jacket of Time You Let Me In, a 2010 book of young people’s poetry edited by Nye.

“I just didn’t want to grow up!” Nye exclaimed when asked about the reason she had been so down. “I was very attached to childhood,” she said, further explaining that “I had a phobia that one would age and become compartmentalized. You’d become a servant to making a living and paying your bills, and what would happen to all your dreams?”

Fortunately, Nye’s obstinacy about staying on her idealistic course as a young poet held, leading her on a lifelong path of writing and teaching poetry. On May 7, the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation named Nye the 2019-2021 Young People’s Poet Laureate, with the charge of helping to “instill a lifelong love of poetry among the nation’s developing readers,” according to its website.

Nye has been doing that her entire career, beginning with youth poetry workshops around Texas just after graduating from Trinity University in 1974. She started writing at age 6, sending out her first poems for publication a year later. “I’ve stayed connected to youth because I started doing this in my youth,” said Nye, who read a selection of poems from her newest book, The Tiny Journalist, at The Twig Book Shop on Tuesday.

Driving to the smaller towns and cities of Texas like Kingsville, Abilene, Longview, Comanche, Temple, and Comstock taught her several things: that she could learn to love the snakes of West Texas (at least for metaphorical imagery), that even these far-flung places can be “hotbeds of creative energy,” and that anyone can love poetry even in they’re not familiar with it. “Sometimes people just need to be invited in,” she said.

Her new role is to do just that. Over her two-year term as laureate, Nye will travel to destinations like New York City but will also suggest locations she’d like to visit. Nye mentioned wanting to visit the vibrant Arab-American community in Houston and to revisit locales of her past like Shelbyville, Illinois, where her grandparents lived and she spent summers, and Ferguson, Missouri, near her childhood home of St. Louis. Ferguson would be “a really important place to go back to, and do some togetherness poetry events,” she said, believing in the power of poetry to help heal civic wounds.

Nye will also engage her hometown of San Antonio. She plans to revisit events she once hosted with alternative energy advocate William “Bill” Sinkin at the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Mexican Cultural Institute that brought Arab-American and Jewish communities together. “This is the best dream of the world, these two communities that people imagine to be in conflict, but they’re not,” she said.

Nye dedicated Honeybee, her 2008 book of poems for children, to her Palestinian father Aziz Shihab. In it, she doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. The poem Culture of Life begins:

George W. Bush believes
in a “culture of life.”

This is very interesting to those
who have died recently
because of his decisions.

They discuss it regularly.
What could they have done
to be alive?

In Texas schools during the first Iraq war of the early 1990s, Nye brought Iraqi poems into classrooms. The poems were not about war and violence, she said, “but about human life – by a mom about her child, a father about his childhood. It was an important time to be expressing to kids that people in Iraq have voices, families, grandmas.”

Though friends warned her that her strategy might be unpopular, she knew better. Nye had already brought this same fervor to her first anthology of international poetry, titled This Same Sky, published in 1996. Since then, the book has been used in elementary, middle, and high schools as well as colleges, throughout Texas and beyond, she said.

“To me it was a successful book because it crossed the lines of reader, age, borders. I think a good poem is a good poem,” Nye said. “I do write for young people, but also hope there would be a blend, a crossover” with writing for adults, she said.

Her latest book addresses adult readers while honoring Janna Jihad Ayyad, a Palestinian teen who began documenting protests in Gaza as a 7-year-old, using her mother’s smartphone.

In the 2019 book, Nye draws direct inferences between two political situations that might at first seem distant. A poem titled A Palestinian Might Say reads:

Yes, a wall. Ours came later but. . .
who talks about how sad the land looks,
marked by a massive wall?
That’s not a normal shadow.
It’s something else looming over your lives.

As Nye accrues such awards and honors as a Guggenheim Fellowship, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and membership in the International Poetry Forum, she threatens to embody the subject of her 1995 poem Famous, which casts a humble light on the idea of fame. “The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so,” she wrote in 1995. Since then, the poem has been adapted to multiple formats, including a children’s book and a video.

In keeping with the new Young People’s Poet Laureate’s lifelong pursuit of encouraging youth to experience and write poetry, Famous ends with inspiring instructions:

You, too, can write a poem
about being who you are –
and who you want to be.
Your poem is your life. Your
life is your poem. Just begin!

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...