Buried somewhere in the eaves of my house back in New Jersey is a poster board that I made in fifth grade. It’s a collage of scrapbook paper, glossy magazine cutouts, sticker letters and dust in response to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?”
I first read the poem in 2012, just before Nye came to speak at my school as part of our visiting author program. Though eight years have passed since then, this poem is always somewhere in the back of my mind, glued to my brain like I glued images onto that poster board.
Nye is a Palestinian-American poet, author, songwriter, and educator. She is a self-described “wandering poet,” and her poetry reflects the breadth and depth of her life experiences. When I learned that Nye would be speaking virtually at Vassar for this year’s Elizabeth Bishop Poetry Lecture, I was thrilled; in fact, I audibly squealed when she responded to my email request for an interview following the reading.
Nye’s talk on Oct. 14 was my first time attending a poetry reading on Zoom. While the other audience members were invisible to me, there’s something about the intimacy of a poetry reading that is unaffected by solitariness. Nye read a selection of her own poems, as well as poems by authors who have inspired her; she emphasized the importance of finding a mentor and letting their work guide you.
The next day, sitting under a tree on a beautiful, blustery fall afternoon, I waited a few seconds after the clock on my phone showed 3 p.m., to avoid seeming too eager, before calling Nye. While we were separated by many miles (from Poughkeepsie, NY to San Antonio, TX), when she answered the phone I instantly felt as if I was there with her in her studio, perhaps drinking tea and soaking up as much of her energy and wisdom as possible.
Nye commented on the feeling of presence she felt during her reading, saying, “It was really nice to have you all in this little studio for an hour. It felt happy… I just felt like the people at Vassar were warm and embracing and welcoming and people I would really want to be with.”
Nye’s studio, visible in the background on the Zoom webinar, was colorful, filled with art and books, and bright, with light pouring in from the skylights above. “It’s my little tiny studio,” Nye explained. “It’s right off the kitchen—we have an old 116-year-old house. But this studio is probably only like 25 years old, and we built it onto our kitchen many years ago… [I]t has the washing machine and the dryer in it, which I really, really like because I like their humming. I like the sounds they make—to me, they’re very conducive to typing.”
This is where Nye writes in the early mornings with her cup of coffee. She said, “If I’m working on a particular project, then I often go to that project, but if I’m just writing, you know, I could go anywhere. And I still really like to write on paper with a pencil or write in many notebooks.” Ritual is important to Nye and she emphasized the simplicity of adding writing to your routine—the amount of time is far less important than the regularity of your practice. The value Nye places in the writing process was also evident in a motto she shared with me: “Each thing gives us something else.” These words are simple but powerful: “Each thing that you try to write, even if it doesn’t turn out great or you never share it or publish it or anything, I promise—it’s giving you something else. It’s giving you a stepping stone to get to another thought. And that’s like to me the most creative realization there is,” Nye explained.
While I was hesitant to bring up COVID-19 and isolation, not wanting to crack the bubble of warmth and coziness I was living in during our phone call, it’s impossible these days not to bring up the subject, as it is often at the forefront of our lives and minds. Nye shared that quarantine has given her much more time to write, as she can no longer travel. She noted, “My suitcase hasn’t come out of the closet for six months, so it’s been in some ways a more focused time.” This lack of novel stimuli could prove frustrating for many writers, but Nye instead expressed gratitude for the forced permanence: “It’s like we know our intimate space in a different way.”
Quarantine has also allowed Nye to spend more time with her four-year-old grandson. Nye gushed, “He’s the most amazing, wondrous little boy who loves details, loves gardening, loves everything, loves everything around him, really pays attention to the tangible world and says magical things all the time.” Many of his words have, in fact, wound up in Nye’s poems. This is a practice she began with her own son when he was a child. She kept notebooks filled with lines he said, many of which found their way into her writing.
This act of listening and recording is at the soul of Nye’s work. She commented, “I’ve always been a believer in the found poem, you know like headlines or signs or voices around us—you’re standing in a public space and you hear someone say something. I think all those little bits and tidbits of possible found poem material are rich around us, and as a writer I just get into the… habit of copying things down.”
During her reading, Nye shared a story about a boy who asked her if it were possible to fall in love with a word. While his word was “lyrical,” I wanted to know what word Nye had fallen in love with recently. She responded, “I think right now it might be the word ‘shined’ because I think when you’re in the same space, a lot of time you start noticing how different things shine, different corners of the room shine, the light falls through and shines through something else you hadn’t even noticed that for a while.”
I also learned about another one of Nye’s rituals: each New Year’s Day she chooses a word and hangs it up on her wall, keeping it in her mind and letting it guide her. Nye’s word for 2020 was “elusive.” She added, “I didn’t quite start realizing what it meant till the end of March, or mid-March, that, you know, our regular lives would start feeling elusive to us.”
As I reach the end of this article, I (ironically?) find myself struggling to close the piece. The question has now become: How do I know when this article is finished? There is so much more to say about Nye. There is her boundless generosity— when I mention that I had met her eight years back, she eloquates: “Then we have a history together, you and I.” There is the way her words, even in normal conversation, flow like a carefully crafted poem. There is her thoughtfulness, as she compliments my name in her email response back to me. I do have a word count limit though, one that I have likely exceeded, so I’ll end with the last stanza of the poem I began with: “I think you could keep doing this/forever. But the blue chair looks best/with the red pillow. So you might as well/leave it that way.”