In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Naomi Shihab Nye discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A hosted by the Academy of American Poets. My name is Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy. I’m here with April’s Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day, Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi is the author of numerous books of poems for adults and children, most recently, Cast Away: Poems of Our Time. Naomi, welcome. Thank you for joining me.

Naomi Shihab Nye: Thank you, Mary. I’m thrilled to be with you. Let’s please get right into it. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?

Nye: Well, as a longtime reader, I asked myself who are some of my favorite poets I would like to share with the marvelously wide Poem-a-Day reading audience. It was a great honor to be able to invite these poets to send unpublished work for consideration. I was so happy the featured poets were not required to be residents of the United States. Yes, I think that’s a nice feature that the Academy offers. Even before I started working here, I thought that our selections tended to be limited to American poets. But, any visitor to our website would see that we curate from around the world, which is a benefit for which I’m also grateful. 

If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

Nye: Oh, this one is hard. I love a million poems that you have featured and often print them up to keep them right next to me in a very inspiring basket. But, let’s go with Samiya Bashir’s poem, “i traveled the world. it was fine,” which was originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 2, 2021, perhaps because I missed traveling the world, and the title made me laugh and feel wistful, but also because this is a poem of lists. I often encourage adults and kids who are having trouble writing to make a lot of lists as an opener. I loved this poem’s format, and also its understatement, the way it talks to itself, too. How are we all so busy now, again? And the fact that it contains gin. A gin drinker, are you?

Nye: I'm allergic to wine. Gin is high on my list. Interesting. Incidentally, I'm an oenophile. The Samiya Bashir poem, which I also like... It has a certain spareness.

Nye: Yes, very spare. I could have said that word as well. Very spare, very minimalist, and clean. Yes. Yes. Clean, I think, is also a very good word. It’s a poem that really reconsiders boundaries: those between our physical and cyber selves, especially now, boundaries caused by the pandemic. The cessation of travel, I think, for the past two years, has reinforced these boundaries. Now, you’ve described yourself as a “wandering poet.” How has that sensibility, coupled with the requirements imposed by the pandemic, impacted what you write and what you read?

Nye: Well, I could certainly say that reading something regularly, like Poem-a-Day, has been an enormous ritual, like a pivotal spot in the day. It became different because we felt that we were longing for voices who would surprise us. Sometimes, when you stay in your house all day, every day, for days on end, you don’t have that same experience with meeting new people, making new friends on the spot, seeing new groups of kids in different countries, and so forth. I felt many of the reader / writer rituals became more precious. Of course, thanks to Zoom, I continued to visit with kids all over the world. But, having the daily gift of a poem coming into the inbox was enhanced, and helped to blur those boundaries and enable us to feel more at home, at home. Speaking of things that people are reading, what are you reading right now?

Nye: Well, I’m reading so much right now. I’m reading, actually, André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches because I know nothing about fashion, but I was so fascinated by him. But, I also have, lately, been reading two of my featured poets, Gaza poet Mosab Abu Toha. His first book, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, will be published in April 2022 by City Lights Press. I’ve also been reading the Odessa, Texas poet Loretta Diane Walker’s 2021 book from Blue Light Press called Day Begins When Darkness Is in Full Bloom. I admire both of these poets so much. I’m happy their work will be featured in April. They are living through very difficult circumstances and managed to write poems of great beauty and wonder, nonetheless. I’m so happy that you mentioned The Chiffon Trenches. Of course, we lost Talley, I think—

Nye: I know. ...just a month ago.

Nye: I can’t stand it. I know. I know. There’s a very interesting essay that Hilton Als wrote about him in White Girls. I think it was first featured in The New Yorker, but then he reprinted it in that second essay collection of his. I think you might enjoy that one. And I think our readers who are fans of Mr. Talley will enjoy that as well.

Nye: I will look it up. That’s very good to know about. Sure. The Abu Toha collection, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, for those who don’t know, is basically his personal account of a lifetime under siege in Gaza. I think it’s important to mention that he created the Edward Said Library after rescuing The Norton Anthology of American Literature from the rubble of the Islamic University of Gaza after the 2014 Israeli bombing. You mentioned the work, too, of Walker, who has described kindness as its own language, particularly when we speak to children. You have a poem on our website entitled “Kindness” from your 1995 collection, Words Under the Words. Is the act of writing poetry, for you, a demonstration of kindness?

Nye: Well, I think language is very kind to us because it allows us to play with it, work with it... Well, I think the page wants to be kind to us. Writing is a reciprocal act. We invest a little time and focus energy with our words on a page. Many things are given to us in an exchange. I think that the attention to the paper creates a certain kindness, ambiance, of its own that doesn’t exist if we don't give it that time and space. What are you currently working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?

Nye: Well, teaching is a lot of fun right now because one can be with elementary school students in Chicago in the morning and university students in California in the afternoon and evening. Somehow, that all feels natural now. But, in terms of productions, I’m very excited about a collaborative international anthology I participated in with David Hassler and Tyler Meyer, called Dear Vaccine, coming out this spring from Kent State University Press. Also, my novel for kids, The Turtle of Michigan, Greenwillow Books, is forthcoming in March. It is the stand-alone companion to The Turtle of Oman, which was published in 2014. 

I feel so lucky to have worked with my editor at Greenwillow, Virginia Duncan, for more than thirty years. Now, that seems impossible, almost as if we’ve become relatives. Peter Conners of BOA Editions, Ltd., and I have also been working together for a very long time. Recently, I produced five audiobooks for my BOA poetry collections. 

Then, my active daily project right now relates to my mother, Miriam. She was a wonderful, fascinating, complex person. She died on Thanksgiving evening at the age of ninety-four after staying with us for seven months. I’m sketching out lots of notes and poems for a book of poems about moms, not just my mom, but moms in general, moms of my friends, other moms I have known, and, perhaps, even the mom I have been. I’m already so glad I took so many notes all these years because they really come in handy with a project like this. Keeping notes will always be my favorite poetry activity. 

I'm also honored to meet, ongoingly, with the wonderful students in the Texas State University MFA creative writing program. They are inspiring, as inspiring on Zoom as in person. I still get to be the Young People’s Poet Laureate for the Poetry Foundation until this summer. They granted me an extended tenure because of COVID. But, we have still been getting a lot of things done. We’ll be cooking up a few more projects. I’ll be reading poems all spring everywhere I can. Sounds lovely. Thank you so much for joining me, Naomi.

Nye: Thank you so much, Mary. It’s wonderful to be with you. I really appreciate the care and attention you give to Poem-a-Day. Thank you. Thank you.


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