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Naomi Shihab Nye

naomi shihab nye

Naomi Shihab Nye 

By Anastasia Cisneros-Lunsford

Internationally acclaimed poet leads creative writing workshops

A family trip to Chicago inspired internationally acclaimed poet Naomi Shihab Nye to write down what she was feeling for the very first time. The skyscrapers huddled around then 6-year-old Naomi, compelling her to express feelings about being overwhelmed by a big city. 

Titled “Chicago,” the simple four-line poem captured that childlike sense of wonder and awe. “It just struck me that first night in Chicago that I had these feelings about the experience and it was possible to write them down,” Nye says. “What I remember feeling, which would stay with me, is just a real sense of satisfaction. You feel like you’ve accomplished something; you’ve done something with your thought.” 

When an 8-year-old schoolmate read her illustrated poem displayed on the hall bulletin board, she told Nye she knew exactly what she meant when she wrote: “The buildings seem so very tall compared to little me.”

Nye described this brief interaction, which is a vivid memory for her, as an exhilarating experience. “I remember thinking, I want to do this forever. I want to write things down.” 

Nye began seeing her world as a poem. She believes all of living contains poems. Her idea materialized one day as she took a walk in her downtown San Antonio neighborhood where she saw three lines scrawled into cement, beckoning: “You are here.” She considered the brief phrase as a commitment to attention, to pay “attention to where you are because that’s part of the writing life.” 

As the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye has roots in Jerusalem; St. Louis, Missouri; and San Antonio. Poet, author, and editor of more than 30 volumes, including her latest book of poetry, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners, Nye is conducting multigenre workshops for graduate creative writing students at Texas State University as a permanent faculty member and professor of creative writing. 

But all titles aside, Nye sees herself as an addition to Texas State. “I’m sort of a sidekick,” she says. “Texas State’s distinguished faculty is already there, so I see myself as a consultant. I was very excited when (university officials) said I would do workshops that would be open to all writing students.” She conducted similar workshops at the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin for 23 years until she decided to end her commute to Austin.

Dr. Daniel Lochman, chair of the Department of English, says Nye brings her wide experience as a writer and world traveler to Texas State’s M.F.A. program in creative writing. “She will lead writing workshops during fall and spring semesters,” he says. “Each year she will offer a public reading or a similar event for the benefit of all Texas State students.”

Nye says Texas State feels like a natural place to be. Her association with the university began 20 years ago when she became one of the readers of student manuscripts.  

Lochman says Nye, acting as a mentor, has already worked with creative writers from Texas State. As a member of the faculty, she will engage students in structured workshops that will help them develop solid manuscripts, with the aim of publication. 

“Her writing exudes compassion and fascination with the world and its peoples,” Lochman says. “Naomi not only explains the craft of writing and ways to approach publishers; she also models how a writer can engage with others — readers and writers, children and adults, beginning and advanced writers — and do so with expertise and joy.” 

Named a National Book Award finalist, Nye has been honored with a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, the I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, and four Pushcart Prizes as well as numerous honors for her books for younger readers, including two Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards. The Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) named Nye as the 2018 winner of the Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement, the highest award given by the TIL. 

Nye’s literary papers joined The Wittliff Collections at Texas State last spring. Her archive contains hundreds of handwritten drafts of later poems, journals from her extensive worldwide travels, numerous photographs, rare publications, publicity materials, and correspondence with other major writers. The papers are being processed and will be available for research and exhibition. A portion of her archive is on display now at The Wittliff.

Nye may see herself as a sidekick, but she has much to share about her writing experience. As a writer, it’s important to listen and observe. “Poems and stories are available to us all of the time,” she explains. “When I was a child, I’d listen to conversations, stare out the window, walk around the neighborhood. Poems exist in the atmosphere. Poems exist in human speech, an affection for a phrase. You hear a phrase and you love it.”

Like: “You are here.”