Poet Naomi Shihab Nye discusses childhood, writing for different age groups and her new projects

Rajya Atluri

Since starting to write at 6 years old, award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye has published over 30 books of poetry and prose, traveled the world and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Nye will be reading from her work for the 2016 Burnshaw Lecture on Sept. 29 at the Harry Ransom Center. The Daily Texan spoke with Naomi Shihab Nye about her past experiences and upcoming projects.

The Daily Texan: You started writing at a very young age. What drew you to poetry as a form of self-expression versus other forms of writing? 

Naomi Nye: Well I think I was lucky to be exposed to poetry through hearing people read it — my mother, teachers, librarians — and it was just very appealing to me to hear it. When I started reading poems on the page, they were very compact and concise, and they also had a little bit of a mysterious quality. I was sort of magnetically attracted to these little nuggets, to these little gems of language on the page, and they felt inviting to me. 


DT: A lot of your work focuses on the nuances of daily life. What really helps you stay in tune with your surroundings?

NN: When you walk around Austin for example, you notice lots of little details, like a plant. I’m very aware of the plants up against the campus and the restaurants, the enterprises on Guadalupe Street, the ones that endure and the ones that change every year or have a new name. You just have a fascination with details. Having an appetite for local daily details can be served by just doing slow things like taking a walk or going back to a place that you know from years before and trying to pay better attention to it. 


DT: Do you have any distinct memories as you moved into your adolescence that you feel really shaped your work? 

NN: When I started out writing, it was probably more observational as a little child, and there was a linkage of the external world and the internal world. When I was a freshman in high school my family moved to Jerusalem. When my family moved and I became a teenager I think writing became more of a line to hold on to like a steadying factor like a rutter on the ship. You start seeing how important voice is to speak, to speak up, describe what you see. I would definitely say as a teenager I started thinking about how language can be very important in terms of justice and injustice. I think teenagers are by nature very idealistic, they’re often very dramatic and so there’s that sense of life opening up, expanding, idealism, witnessing of things that don’t seem quite right to you and wanting to change them and wanting to speak up. 


DT: What’s next for you?

NN: I’m working on three books right now. One is prose, one is poetry, and I’m also working on a children’s book. I’m going to a Palestinian film festival in London and then later in the month, I’m going to a book fair in the United Arab Emirates. This past summer [my husband and I] were artists in residence at this incredible place in Hawaii called Shangri La. I’m working on a series of poems relating to Islamic art and Doris Duke and that place and I’ve turned in about half of them. I’m one of those people who has a lot of things on different burners at the same time. 


Naomi Nye will visit the Harry Ransom Center on Sept. 29 for the 2016 Burnshaw Lecture series.