A letter from Luisa Banchoff, National Student Poet for the Southeastern region of the United States:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dear Ms. Shihab Nye,

My name is Luisa Banchoff. I am one of five inaugural National Student Poets and am representing the Southeast region of the United States. As someone who is constantly looking for new ways to connect with others through writing, I want to thank you for opening your mailbox to my letter and the letters of many other young poets and writers across the country.

I had the opportunity to read several of your poems, including "Famous" and "Shoulders." For me, these two poems capture the essence of what I try to create in my own poetry—a focus on both an individual struggle and a wider collage of images that encompass a variety of subjects (something I really enjoyed in "Famous). I felt a profound connection to the images, especially in the last stanzas of the poem—as if I've known the "shuffling men / who smile while crossing streets" all my life. I was wondering whether or not the images in your poetry come from your own experience—did you witness them in your own life or did they spring out of other ideas or sources of inspiration? Personally, I find it difficult to incorporate elements of my own life into my writing. Do you ever find yourself surprised by how much or how little of your own life is reflected in your poetry?

I am curious to know your thoughts on the role of poetry in today's society. I cannot help but think there is a decline of public interest in poetry today. Most people I talk to tell me they do not read poetry because it requires a great deal of time and effort to understand; they tell me they are not "a poetry person." Yet I truly believe the power of our craft lies in its ability to reach all people by making the very emotions that make us human relatable, oftentimes in surprising and provocative ways. How do you respond to people who do not seem open to the idea of reading poetry? I would love to hear your thoughts on this, since I hope to be in the business for years to come!

Once again, thank you for welcoming my letter and taking the time to read my questions. The sense of encouragement that comes with reaching out to other writers usually leads me to writing another poem, so on behalf of that yet-to-be-written poem and the many others that young writers will pen this April, thank you for giving me this exciting opportunity.

Luisa Banchoff

Naomi Shihab Nye responds:

March 25, 2013

Dear Luisa Banchoff,

Congratulations on representing the southeastern region of the U.S. as inaugural student poet! Thanks for your very good letter. I really loved how you closed it, saying "the sense of encouragement that comes with reaching out to other writers usually leads me to writing another poem…" you've tapped a real truth here! I always feel that one act of writing leads to others, positive contagion—so, may that sense of abundance stay with you!

Also, reading poems you love often leads to more desire to write—

You asked, referring to my poem "Famous," whether the images come from my own life—yes. They do. They always have. But imagining other lives is also a part of my life, so—they might or might not be literally in front of me. Or ever have been.

You asked about incorporating them—regular note-taking is the best habit many of us find, for this. Scribbling phrases + details—on a regular basis — not requiring they be spectacular—very helpful.

You realize, over + over again, how rich you are. I have done this all my life—kept little notebooks. You also asked about the role of poetry in today's society—of course, we poets feel it is HUGE—to humanize us all—keep our minds alive, alert, attuned—help us imagine others' experiences + understand our own—for people who say they have "no time" (very popular excuse in the world), we might suggest that reading a poem takes less time than reading a novel or watching a TV show.

It may sometimes be helpful to suggest they have not yet read enough poems to find the poems THEY LOVE—which could befriend them all their lives.

Poems are also so helpful for slowing us down, reminding us to focus on individual phrases and images—crucial for current sensibilities!

It's so nice to "meet" you—

Cheers + Thanks!
Naomi Shihab Nye