“A Space in Which to Listen: Naomi Shihab Nye on Joining the Texas State Faculty”
At three p.m. on a Friday afternoon in February, the Katherine Anne Porter House, a creative epicenter for the MFA program at Texas State, buzzes with students who are waiting for the day’s workshop to begin. While students fill their mugs with steaming coffee, others unfold chairs around a circle of conference tables. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in afternoon light. Outside, two cats bask in the sun. Inside, bookshelves filled with the works of previous visiting writers line the walls, and beside them, framed event posters announce this year’s slate of writers: names such as Ocean Vuong, Karen Russell, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Impressive names no doubt, but today, the students have come to participate in the long-anticipated workshop of one of the most celebrated poets in this country and the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Texas State University.
While the last few students trickle in, Naomi Shihab Nye quietly transcribes a Mary Ruefle poem into her notebook. Once everyone is settled, Nye closes her notebook and begins.
“Most often, we can’t change things,” she says, “but as poets, we can notice.”
To start the day’s discussion, Nye asks students to consider the value of poetry in the age of breaking news. The conversation leads into a recognition that in recent years the world seems to be growing more chaotic, a result perhaps of the 24-hour news cycle. Nye nods in affirmation. As the daughter of a Palestinian refugee journalist, Nye inherently understands how quickly things can change and the necessity for writers to monitor current events.
Born in the U.S., Nye spent much of her adolescence in Jerusalem and San Antonio. This multicultural upbringing taught her the value of accepting people from different belief systems. As one graduate student, Katharine Kistler, said after the workshop, Nye brings “a special focus on family and heritage” to the poetry world. This understanding of international relationships and their effects on current events heavily influence how Nye writes and how she leads her workshops.
For her, she tells students, one of the few things that can withstand the tumult of modern life is poetry, and poetry workshops in particular, she says, help us to “find [a] deeper meaning for why we are writers and why we need writers.” Now, Nye has come to Texas State to instruct the next generation of poets.
Her three-hour workshops, held six times a year, are voluntary, so students come and go as they please. After wrapping up the current events discussion, students with new poems distribute them to the group and take turns reading aloud and discussing them afterward. Even people who didn’t bring work are encouraged to speak, because for Nye, one of the key values of a workshop is to help writers obtain as many different perspectives as possible.
This process, Nye says, not only builds “a sturdy resilience of spirit,” but also helps students “find ways to inquire about [their] own pieces, so [they] can identify elements that don’t work.”
In addition to gaining multiple perspectives, Nye also finds it important for a poet to share his or her work in whatever ways possible. Nye began sending her own poems to magazines at seven years old and so, from an early age, built a tenacious capacity to publish an astounding thirty-four books, all without an agent. Among these are Hugging the Jukebox (1981), which won the National Poetry Series, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002), which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.
During the discussion of the students’ pieces, those writers being talked about furiously scribble notes and suggestions from their peers. Engaging and listening to this type of constructive criticism helps students strengthen their own perseverance in overcoming the challenges that writing poetry presents. More importantly, this also helps students recognize that “writing is fluid and it’s changing, and sometimes… it wants to guide us to something else entirely,” Nye tells the class.
Throughout the workshop and in our interview, Nye emphasizes her “profound allegiance” to the process of revision. For her, revision connects to the necessity of viewing one’s work with a sense of flexibility. As she says, “In three days [the poem] might be different,” but hopes that through these workshops, students will have “new ways of thinking about revision.” Despite the critique, Nye’s workshops never become a negative experience, and she reminds the workshop participants to note the positive comments they receive as well.
Nye also encourages her students—and any young writer—to read as much as possible from as many diverse voices as possible to find those texts that serve as “nourishment” to the poet. In addition to reading widely, Nye urges her students to establish a writing routine, even if it’s only for ten minutes a day.
Maintaining a regular writing schedule, Nye believes, helps poets uncover their voice. As a guide for budding poets, Nye aims to help students figure out where they fit in terms of poetic style and determine what their voice will be and how it will sound. As she says, “there’s a satisfaction when you feel your voice is really authentic.”
Teaching students in this manner, Nye hopes to impart a far greater idea to young artists than simple revision: the act of slowing down time. Before our interview, Nye woke up at five a.m., as she usually does, and revised a poem for two hours before sending it off. “Between five to seven,” she says, “I had a full day because it helped my sense of time for the rest of the day—no sense of rushing or distractedness or forgetfulness, all those things that come up when we’re overwhelmed by time.” Poetry, she argues, helps the mind hold onto thoughts and be held by thoughts, providing sustenance to reader and poet alike.
After the workshop, graduate students mill around and discuss the value of having the opportunity to work with a poet like Nye. As one student, Wade Martin says of Nye, “She provides a much-needed down-to-earth element for young poets.”
Ultimately, Nye hopes that these workshops and the practice of writing poetry will help students tune into their own work and budding voices. If successful, students will learn valuable skills that will serve them later, even if, as Nye says, they “can’t say how at this moment.” For now though, Nye’s happy to help students unpack their lives and provide them with a space in which to listen to one another.
By Gloria Russell and Eric Blankenburg