Reflections on a Visit with Naomi Shihab Nye

Reflections on a Visit with Naomi Shihab Nye
Reflections on a Visit with Naomi Shihab Nye

Recently, thanks to a generous grant from the PTSA, renowned author and poet Naomi Shihab Nye visited YIS to share her love of poetry with our community. Over the course of a few days, Naomi met with numerous classes giving poetry and writing workshops. Her visit was culminated by a community wide poetry reading with participants ranging from 1st grade to veteran staff. It was clear that her visit had a deep impact on both the students and faculty. One of those in particular was our high school English teacher Ms. Barbour.

The Poetry of Your Own Life:

Reflections on a Visit with Naomi Shihab Nye

Some people dream about meeting famous athletes, movie stars, musicians. Me? I dream of meandering conversations about poetry and words, about how language can quiet the mind and bring people together.

When Naomi Shihab Nye came into my classroom on a Wednesday afternoon and the sky was like a painting, she marvelled at the view. In the distance, Fuji loomed, becoming an iconic outline as the light changed, second by second. One student said he'd been looking out the same window for six years and hardly noticed the view anymore.

Perhaps this is what poetry is. Looking out the same window but seeing something new. It's finding the smallest detail: a leaf's journey toward the pavement, the way a crow tries every single day to fly into a corner triangular-shaped window off to the right, the rustle of paper before the bell rings. The scenes may be familiar, but Nye reflected that 'to have fresh eyes is the challenge.'

In Grade 10, students have spent the last month reading poems on war and conflict. When writing about unmanageable subjects like war, Nye says we must find a 'handle that is human-shaped' in order to write about the 'abstraction of horror': a girl, a photograph, a single story. Only then can we begin to dive into the depths of these topics. When confronted with these topics, she also reminded us as readers to always question 'What was left out? What voices are not quoted?'

One of the poems that Nye shared with the group was 'Listening to Poetry in a Language I Do Not Understand.' In this particular poem, she writes of attending a reading in Japanese, a language that she does not speak. At all. As a result, the speaker pays attention not so much to the words themselves, but to everything else that is going on inside of the room where the reading is taking place. While she was reading this to the students, I thought about how, for so many, all poetry seems like language that cannot be understood. Simply its existence is a page full of beautiful characters that they cannot read. I aim to offer my students some sort of Rosetta Stone, a code-breaking device that will allow them to reflect on the wonders of language, if nothing else.

The students also had the chance to write. Some took part in an exercise in which Nye asked them to write down words that they loved the sound of or words they were drawn to. These are words we turn around in our minds like stones in the palm; they are the words we're drawn to for no explicable reason. Mine: estuary, luminous, balloon, aviary. The vowels are like sirens.

This idea of the words we come back to made me think of an essay I love by Mark Doty, in which he reflects on his own poem, 'A Display of Mackerel.' In this essay, ''Souls on Ice' Mark Doty writes about these sorts of experiences:

'Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do. And thank goodness for that, for if I were dependent on other ways of coming to knowledge I think I'd be a very slow study. I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea, a vessel that can hold what's too slippery or charged or difficult to touch. Will doesn't have much to do with this; I can't choose what's going to serve as a compelling image for me. But I've learned to trust that part of my imagination that gropes forward, feeling its way toward what it needs; to watch for the signs of fascination, the sense of compelled attention (Look at me, something seems to say, closely) that indicates that there's something I need to attend to. Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.'

As a writer (or one who longs to be so), I often feel overwhelmed by the vast blankness of the page. There are those ideas that I'm drawn to, words I love, snippets of conversation that I carry around with me in my mind or in a notebook. But beginning sometimes seems impossible. When Nye shared Williams Stafford's approach to writing, the way he methodically and without fail, woke up each morning at 4:30 and went through his process: date, details, launching off and pulling together–this seemed like something I could do. Nye called these her '3 little bouquets before breakfast.' I want to be part of this ritual. Like Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser who wrote tiny poems back and forth to each other in Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, I want to offer a small gift of words to the morning and ask nothing in return.

One idea that I particularly loved was Nye's comment that we are all 'living in a poem.' If you had told me that I'd be able to title mine 'Eating tempura and talking about words with a poet rock star (featuring Van Morrison) on a cold January evening in Japan', I'd never have believed you. We can mine our own lives and experiences for material and the smallest moments can become an opportunity for connection.

There is a quietness that lives in the moment when the words come together. Perhaps we need only to listen–for the syllables, the images, the memories that pull us back. There is much to be learned if we sit still, if we pay attention. If we read between the lines.

-Cari Barbour

During their session with Naomi, Ms. Barbour's students had a poetry exercise that required each student to write one line in a poem resulting in a single collective voice. Below are a few examples:


A blend of violence and peace, blue for bruises

Blue of tie-dyed tongues and stuffiness

The sea is your friend, the ocean your adversary.

Do not fear the quiet dead of night

It is a comfort, speak into the abyss and hear your altered echo

A distant language of my home

The bruise, now a patch of forgotten green-yellow

to be bandaged by the words you gifted me.


I want to hear each joke that pressed a crease into your cheeks.

Cracked-open smiles, heads thrown back in laughter

I want to have been there when you became who you are

When your cocoon split open and you emerged

but you were no butterfly

the powders of your fluttering wings dissolved into the open air,

and beaded the petals like tapestry.

I want to be there when you're tired, uncertain.

When you're not sure where to go

or when you think it is the end of your journey.

I want to watch the lines multiply

and mirror on both of our smiles.


When you grow, you can feel your mind surrounded by conflicts

Slowly at first then swiftly, drowning in them

A cold glass panel, pressing into baby-fat cheeks,

silly until you realize you're trapped.

Trapped? Or are you free? Free to choose your

own fights?

Freedom is a luxury you've never been allowed to hold.

A general never truly wants to end the war

comfortable in the battlefield of his mind.

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