An Interview With Naomi Shihab Nye

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

In a 50 cent handmade shirt from my favorite Honolulu Goodwill
Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi (in center) with great librarians at Kaneohe Public Library, O’ahu, after a wildly successful community poetry workshop this past summer

Name: Naomi Shihab Nye
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Profession: Poet, Anthologist, Educator

You’ve written three novels, about a dozen volumes of poetry, and you’ve won a number of wonderful awards, including the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Millions of people dream about building a career as a professional writer—but you’ve actually done it! Were you always certain that you’d become a writer? Was that always your plan, even when you were very young? Or was writing a career ambition that materialized later in life? Walk us through the sequence of events.

During first grade at Central School in Ferguson, Missouri, I had an experience which marked me, and which stayed with me to this day. My first grade teacher (who did not like me much) allowed me to post my first poem on a bulletin board in the hallway outside our classroom. An older girl, perhaps a third-grader, came up to me on the way to recess and asked, “Did you write that poem?”

“Yes,” I said proudly. The poem was about Chicago. She said, “I went there too. I know what you mean!” and ran off.

An electrical happiness rippled through me. My four simple lines were understood by someone older, whose name I didn’t even know. What a joy! Till that moment first grade had felt somewhat dull and slow. But now I knew I could keep writing poems in the margins everywhere, and I felt like a writer from that moment on.

In second grade, my school librarian urged me to start sending poems to children’s magazines. She said, “You’ll have to be patient. You might have to send out 20 poems before one gets accepted.” I said, “That’s okay. I have 28.” I think I sent out seven or so, before one about my cat Cricket was accepted by a children’s magazine called Wee Wisdom from Unity Village in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

My beautiful, interesting parents were always supportive, but they never pushed me to do anything. They also did not make a big deal out of my writing. No pressure. No inquiries. No corrections, although they were both grammar and spelling hounds—so was I. They read to me all the time before I could read—this was crucial and gave me a strong sense of how many voices were out there. And my Palestinian father told me so many stories about his childhood and homeland, so in my family we developed a sense of “living in story” very early on. Officially he was a refugee and came from a refugee family, but I think he felt more at home in the wide world than many people ever do. He made a home in languages too, as a journalist, he was hungry to tell other people’s stories as well as his own.

Writing was never my career ambition. To this day, I don’t even like the word “career.” Or “ambition” either, though I know ambition is important. Writing felt more like a devotion, a practice, a necessary habit.

By the time I was in college, I knew for sure I was a writer and would continue to be, no matter what other jobs (working in restaurants?) I might have.

The publishing industry can be fraught with so much rejection. I’ve heard stories about writers pitching their work to 20, 30, even 40 different publishers and hearing “No thanks” every single time.It sounds like you’ve dealt with plenty of rejection, too. What’s your advice on dealing with that type of discouragement?

Sure, I get rejected all the time and always have. It’s not a big deal. I reject myself, too! You just keep working on your writing and sending it out again and again. Or, writing something else.

I think when you start sending work out very young, as I did, rejection just becomes part of the process. Don’t give rejections (or acceptances either) too much power over what you do. The main thing to remember is that it’s so important to get your work out there—pitch publishers, post it online, share it somehow, even with a circle of writing friends. “Each thing gives us something else” is my motto. After all, publishers rarely go prowling in anyone’s desk drawers to find their manuscripts. It’s up to you to send them out.

I’ve worked with the same amazing editor, Virginia Duncan, in the field of books for young readers and children for more than 25 years. She still rejects some of my ideas, though! She has to. It’s her job.

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi with son, Madison, at Kailua Beach, O’ahu
You’re such a prolific writer. Do you ever experience writer’s block? Do you have low-energy, distracted, slumpy days? What helps you get out of a creative slump?

I think I heard Kim Stafford, one of my favorite writers, talk about having a lot of little pans and pots going on the stove at the same time. When you make a dinner, you don’t just cook one thing exclusively, then start the next thing. Simultaneous action! Baking and chopping and prepping and stirring…

Sure, I have slumpy days. Distraction is now the hardest thing—thank you, Internet. To get focused again… Take a short walk. Dig in the dirt. Do some weeding or trimming outside. Clean your kitchen. Answer a real letter in a real envelope. Read something you love. Write to someone who’s not expecting to hear from you. These simple activities, or any others you dream up, can be very helpful in terms of getting refocused. Don’t give the slump too much power, either.

Expect that the slumpy days will come, and trust that you can work your way out of them. Listening to good music and ironing for 30 minutes can also help. Sweeping is good, too.

I mentioned earlier that you’ve won several literary awards—four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize, just for starters. How does someone become an “award-winning writer”? Do you apply for those types of awards? Does someone nominate you? Does a judging panel select you and then notify you out of blue? What’s the process? How does it happen?

No, you don’t apply. Someone else (an editor, for example) applies for you, or submits your work for consideration. Many times you are notified out of the blue, yes.

I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer to think about it much. We don’t do what we do so we might win an award later. If our work manages to be cited in this way, it’s a nice, encouraging surprise. My book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East was a National Book Award finalist. I guess that’s the biggest citation any book of mine has ever had. And it didn’t even win!

What was one of the scariest, most stressful, or most humiliating moments of your career, and how did you get through it?

Once I gave a poetry reading to a dog. This was not scary or stressful, however. No one else had shown up for the reading in a Portland, Maine bookstore, which surprised me, since the person I was reading with, Paul Janeczko, was FROM Maine, so where were his friends? (Just kidding, Paul.)

When a woman approached our stricken little vacant reading area before we were supposed to begin, and asked us to “watch her dog” after looping his leash to a chair, I insisted we read to the dog. Paul was dubious, if I recall. We read some dog poems from a new anthology we had co-edited, I FEEL A LITTLE JUMPY AROUND YOU. The dog was not very interested. He certainly did not buy a book.

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a professional poet like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Read all the time.

Read poems both like and unlike the ones you might write. Read widely, voraciously, open-heartedly. Read work by “others”—however you might define them.

If you are a young poet, read work by older poets and vice versa. If you are urban, read poems by rural writers. Obviously, read poems by writers of other ethnicities, religions, etc. Read writers from other countries—that’s one of my obsessions.

My editor Virginia Duncan and I made an anthology together 25 years ago—our first of eight—of international poetry in translation, THIS SAME SKY. It’s still in print and may be more important now than ever. It has a poem from Iraq on the back cover.

Read someone you once read and thought you didn’t like—try that person again. Subscribe to and American Life in Poetry curated by Ted Kooser, and any such international poetry sites you can find. Banipal is a good one. Stay awake.

2. Develop a regular writing practice.

Tiny increments of writing time add up.

3. Speak your mind, your truth, as many ways as you can.

Find ways to share your work. We are currently living in a deluge of national delusion and discriminatory foolishness. We need everyone to talk about true, honest, simple, respectful things, to tell meaningful connecting human stories, everywhere possible—things you might have thought were obvious. Apparently to many people, they still are not. As I wrote a long time ago, “there are no days off.”

My father always said mutual respect would be the key to solving the Palestinian/Israeli ongoing conflict. A little genuine justice would help too. I love imagining what my father would say about the United States now, if he were still alive. One good thing about being a writer is that you can imagine more voices than your own, and what they might say. What a relief.

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – a rare and ancient book I was recently gifted by one of his descendants – used to read him aloud as a child – dramatically!
Woven by Air, Texture of Air

(In memory, William Stafford)

Some birds hide in leaves so effectively
you don’t see they’re all around you.
Brown tilted heads, observing human moves
on a sidewalk. Was that a crumb you threw?
Picking and poking, no fanfare,
gray huddle on a branch, blending in.
Who says, I’ll be an observant bird when I arrive?
Stay humble, belong to all directions.
Fly low, love a shadow.  And sing, sing freely, never let anything
get in the way of your singing, not darkness, winter,
not the cries of flashier birds, or silence that finds your
pen ready, at the edge of four a.m.
Your day is so wide it will outlive everyone.
It has no roof, no sides.

—Naomi Shihab Nye


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