Thursday, August 30, 2018

Spotlight on Naomi Shihab Nye + DMC Challenge

Photo Credit: Ha Lam

Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a "wandering poet." For much of her life she's traveled the world sharing her words, listening to and collecting others in notebooks, exploring, learning, and teaching students of all ages.

Most often, we can't change things, but as poets, we can notice.
                    – Naomi Shihab Nye

Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, Naomi grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio is home base still, where she is Professor of Creative Writing – Poetry at Texas State University. Drawing from her heritage, travels, and life experiences, her writing is strongly influenced by place and culture, and attests to our shared humanity—her poetry carries us into a larger human experience.

19 Varieties of Gazelle (Greenwillow Books)
was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Author and anthologist of more than 30 volumes, Naomi Shihab Nye has written award-winning collections of poetry for children and adults, as well as essays, novels, picture books, and short stories.

Her many accolades include a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, four Pushcart Prizes, the Robert Creeley Prize, the "Betty Prize" from Poets House for service to poetry, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, and several other honors for her poetry and children’s literature, including two Jane Addams Children's Book Awards. She has also been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow (Library of Congress), and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2015.

Following are some recommendations for young readers at home or in the classroom. (You'll find a more extensive list of titles HERE.)

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winners (all three from Greenwillow Books): What Have You Lost?
A Maze Me: Poems for Girls (Honor) and Is This Forever, or What?: Poems & Paintings from Texas (Honor)

Sitti's Secrets (picture book: Simon & Schuster), The Turtle of Oman (middle grade novel: Greenwillow Books)
Habibi (young adult novel: Simon Pulse) and Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets (Greenwillow Books)

"Famous" is one of Naomi Shihab Nye's
most beloved poems, beautifully illustrated 
in this 2015 picture book by Wings Press.
When I reached out to Naomi for an interview and to discuss her latest poetry collection, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners (Greenwillow Books), I wasn't convinced she would be interested... or have the time. If you google her, you won't find a lot of blog interviews, but you will find videos and transcripts of interviews she's done for national media outlets (I especially enjoyed NOW with Bill Moyers, PBS NewsHour, Dialogue with Marcia Franklin, and On Being with Krista Tippett), as well as absorbing presentations of her speaking and reading her own work. (This reading from her 2017 keynote at the Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival includes three poems from Voices in the Air; she talks about the art of teaching poetry in this clip; or, for something longer, check out this presentation at Boston College.) I confess, it's been difficult to write this introduction because every time I sit down to do so, I distract myself with more and more "research"!

Not only did Naomi accept my invitation (lucky us!), but in corresponding with her for this interview, I discovered that she shares many of the same qualities found in her poems—she is kind, gracious, generous, warmhearted, thoughtful, appreciative.... If you're already familiar with her work, this probably won't come as a surprise. Naomi Shihab Nye is the kind of person who makes friends of strangers and reassures us that we are never alone. Her latest collection illustrates that point beautifully.

Greenwillow Books (February 13, 2018)
ISBN: 978-0062691842
Available for purchase at an independent bookstore near you.

One thing I love about Naomi's poetry collections is that her introductions are as nourishing as the poetry itself. In Voices, she talks about the need to listen better—how to reclaim a quiet, slower pace in our lives in order to become more receptive.
Reminding ourselves of what we love feels helpful. Walking outside—it's as quiet as it ever was. The birds still communicate without any help from us. In that deep quietude, doesn't the air, and the memory, feel more full of voices? If we slow down and intentionally practice listening, calming our own clatter, maybe we hear those voices better. They live on in us.

The 95 poems that follow are organized into three sections: Messages, Voices in the Air, and More Worlds. While I've read several of her collections, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners is special to me. Judging by reviews, I'm not the only one who feels that way. I love the range of poems included—the breadth of tone, style, and subject matter—but perhaps most of all, I strongly connect with the book's purpose—
[to] honor the artists, writers, poets, historical figures, ordinary people, and diverse luminaries from past and present who have inspired her. Full of words of encouragement, solace, and hope, this collection offers a message of peace and empathy.

This is a book that celebrates inspiration, yes; but for me, Voices in the Air also is also a book of love poems. Not the romantic sort, but poems that honor the deep connection and heartfelt respect for the subjects of these poems. Sometimes grateful, other times searching, Naomi's poems are, at all times, mindful conversations with people, places, and events that have accompanied her on her journey thus far. You'll also find biographical notes at the back of the book for each person referenced, as well as recommendations for where you might turn for further exploration.

As I read through these poems again and again, I find myself connecting with Voices on a profoundly personal level. I discovered sources of inspiration that Naomi and I have in common, as well as stories and relationships that echo my own. Listening for the wisdom of these voices, Naomi asks questions, seeks understanding, uncovers beauty, comes to terms, and, through her poems, we, too, are strengthened and motivated to open our hearts and live more connected and fulfilling lives.

The poem is not a closed experience, it remains open. It invites you in, hopefully.
                    – Naomi Shihab Nye

Now I invite you to make yourself comfortable, silence your phone and other distractions, and enjoy my interview with Naomi Shihab Nye. But first I'd like to share one of my favorite poems from Voices in the Air. It's called "Reserved for Poets" and, in my mind, it speaks to the reason Today's Little Ditty exists, and why our community of practicing poets is so important to me.

© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.
(Click image to enlarge.)

There's always room. And speaking of making room, we usually begin spotlight interviews with five favorites, but Naomi gave me six. Think of them like birthday candles—we get an extra one to grow on.

William E. Stafford (1914-1993)
Read some of his work HERE.
Favorite Poet:  

Forever and ever, William Stafford. If you have never read him, start now. If you read him a long time ago, reread. I find his poems have more to give us at any moment of our lives than anyone else's. And I knew that instantly when I was 17. 

Favorite music:  

Tom Waits – this is for the last 43 years at least.

Favorite children's author right now:

Visit Kevin Henkes's website

Kevin Henkes. Every day I spend with our little grandson, age 2, we read Egg and A Good Day (both from Greenwillow) at least 3 times each. But I love ALL his books, YA and picture books alike. I have always been fascinated by Kevin's exacting perfection.

Second grade poet, Naomi Shihab


Favorite teacher in school:

The legendary Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane, Central School, second grade, Ferguson, Missouri. I just found a letter Mrs. Lane wrote to my mom about my brother. She said to go easy on him about practicing a certain song. "He's just a small boy." 

In her class we read and wrote poetry every day. She thought poetry was at the center of the universe. Nothing was above our heads. Emily Dickinson was our friend.

Favorite pastime: Puttering.

Favorite quote: "It's really fun if you can stand it." Dorothy Stafford

You began your poetry practice early on, writing your first lines at age six and sending poems off to be published a year later. Do you recall any of those early works? Have you ever considered a different career path?

Yes, I recall quite a lot of them. I wrote about simple things—our cat, the crickets in the evening, my friend moving away, the creek we played around. No, I never considered doing something else. I always knew I could keep working in restaurants, as I did early on, as a back-up cook in various kitchens! —and keep writing poems.

Like your journalist father, you have great respect for the power of language and believe that writing comes with the responsibility of sharing your voice with others. As an Arab-American, you voluntarily entered the spotlight after 9/11 and continue to be politically vocal today. Was there ever a time when you questioned your desire to be so public with your thoughts?

Never. We have voices – we use them as we can.

Invitation to the NSA

Feel free to scrutinize my messages. Welcome. Have
fun fanning through my private thoughts on drones,
the Israeli Army chopping down olive trees, endless
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, horrific from the get-
go, and we told you so, but no one listened because
there was a lot of money and oomph in it, so feel free
to listen now. Bombs have no mothers. That is an
insult to mothers. See what I think about Bashar
al-Assad vs. the children of Syria, pass it on, please,
or weapons in general, the George W. Bush library in
Dallas which I refused to drive my mother past. I like
the sense of you looking over our shoulders, lifting
up the skirts of our pages, peering under my fury
at how you forget Palestine again and again, forget
the humble people there, never calling them the
victimized innocents as you call others. You forget
your promises, forget religion, Thou Shalt Not Kill,
and yet you kill, in so any ways, so what do we
care? You might as well see what we say.
© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

On PBS NewsHour you said that absorbing too many “breaking news” headlines, it’s easy to feel broken—assaulted by all the tragedy in the world. In our current political climate, I know of a number of poets who have been finding it difficult to write, especially for children, for precisely that reason. How do you walk the line of being present with today’s current events while at the same time protecting and nurturing your creative muse?

I try to spend a significant amount of time outside, and with small children.  Also, I read writers whose voices nourish me, and try to stay in touch with people in encouraging ways.


"The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it
gets dark."
                           —John Muir

Lyda Rose asked, "Are you a grown-up?"
The most flattering question of my adult life.
She darted around me like a hummingbird,
knotted in gauzy pink scarves,
braiding thyme into my hair.

There, on the brink of summer,
all summers blurred.
"No," I said.
"I don't think so.
I don't want to be."

"What are you then?"
Her dog snored by the couch,
little sister dozed on a pillow.
When her mom came home, we'd drink hot tea,
talk about our dead fathers, and cry.

"I think I'm a turtle," I said. "Hibernating."
"And a mouse in the moss.
And sometimes a hummingbird like you."

She jumped on my stomach then.
Asked if I'd ever worn a tutu
like the frayed pink one
she favored the whole spring.

No, not that.

"I have a shovel though," I said.
"For digging in the garden every night
before dark. And a small piano like yours
that pretends to be a harpsichord.
And I really love my broom."
© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

In your introduction to Voices in the Air, you recommend that we take time to unplug from our devices, from “that sense of being nibbled up—as if message minnows surround us at all moments, nipping, nipping at our edges.” You introduce the Japanese word Yutori, “life-space,” as “a place to stand back to contemplate what we are living and experiencing. More spaciousness in being, more room in which to listen.”

I wonder, in your four decades of visiting schools and working with students, have you found that young people’s increased dependence on multitasking has made deeper listening more difficult to come by? Is writing poetry somehow less interesting or achievable for them because of a lack of calm and focus?

I don't think so. Everyone is writing! Everyone is reading! Perhaps our attention spans have changed—I think mine has—to more blip-blip-quick-change energy—and we need the oasis of calm available while working on single poems or pages more than ever—but we just have different tools now. Everything is at our fingertips. That's pretty amazing. Perhaps we need to work a little harder to find our quiet times? Or make a clearer intention about times when we DON'T stay connected through any device. Take breaks. We need more breaks. Someone told me we check our phones—was it 70 or 80 times a day? I'd prefer it to be 7 or 8.

Please share a favorite poem from VOICES IN THE AIR and tell us why it's a favorite.

I actually like a section divider best.

© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

I was driving up to my parents' old house in Dallas after my father died when that popped into my mind. Very comforting.

If you could have a conversation with anyone from history, who would it be?

Aziz Shihab (1927-2007)

My dad. Aziz Shihab. His last book was Does the Land Remember Me? A Memoir of Palestine (Syracuse University Press). I recommend it.

Aziz Shihab with daughter Naomi in 1953
For Aziz

I had not noticed
the delicate yellow flower
strikingly thin petals
like a man with many hopes
or a woman with many dreams
the center almost a tiny hive
ants could crawl in and out of
if they wished

Had not noticed the profusion
of flowers on the path
Had not stooped
to absorb the silent glory
of many-petaled yellow
or remembered the freshness
of my father's collar
for some years now
the rush of anticipation
circling his morning self
despite so much hard history
and searing news

Who can help us?
     Yellow beam
          sprial sunshine
© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

What's coming up next for you?

A beautiful hot summer day babysitting with a 2 year old and writing some notes in my notebook before he gets here.

If you had all the world's children in one room, what would you tell them?

Have fun. You matter. Stay true to yourself.

Stuart School, Princeton, New Jersey

Finally, what have you chosen as this month's ditty challenge?

Write a letter to yourself in which you ask some questions that you don't have to answer.

Any questions, poets? 

          Save them for your poems! [wink]

Seriously, though, I will offer one clarification for the ditty challenge. We've had letter poem challenges here before. This time you don't need to focus on a specific letter poem structure, complete with salutation and sign off. You can use one if you like, but I don't want you to get hung up on form. What we're looking for are introspective poems that ask questions. (Answers are optional.)

I look forward to hearing and sharing your voices throughout September!

In the meantime, please help me thank Naomi for being here today—for sharing her thoughts and poetry with us, as well as her encouragement and heart.

AND for offering a personalized copy of Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners to one lucky DMC participant!   

(Winner to be chosen randomly at the end of the month.)


Post your poem about what you see out your window on our September 2018 padlet. Stop by any time during the month to add your work or to check out what others are contributing.

By posting on the padlet, you are granting me permission to share your poem on Today's Little Ditty.  Some poems will be featured as daily ditties, though authors may not be given advanced notice. Subscribe to the blog if you'd like to keep tabs. You can do that in the sidebar to the right where it says "Follow TLD by Email." As always, all of the poems will be included in a wrap-up celebration on the last Friday of the month—September 28th for our current challenge.

TEACHERS, it's great when students get involved! Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities to learn about working poets and authors while having fun with poetry prompts. Thank you for spreading the word! For children under 13, please read my COPPA compliance statement in the sidebar to the right.

FIRST-TIMERS (those who have never contributed to a ditty challenge before), in addition to posting your work on the padlet, please send your name and email address to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com. That way I'll be able to contact you for possible inclusion in future Best of Today's Little Ditty anthologies.

BLOGGERS, thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please let me know about it, so I can share your post! Also remember to include your poem (or a direct link to your post) on the padlet in order to be included in the wrap-up celebration and end-of-month giveaway.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The winners of last week's giveaway for a copy of GREAT MORNING! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Books, 2018) are:

Joy Acey
Linda H.
and Penny Parker Klostermann


Please send me your address at TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com.

Children's Author, poet, and artist Robyn Hood Black is hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Life on the Deckle Edge. 


  1. Naomi Shihab Nye! How exciting! So many of her poems have been food for my spirit, it's lovely to come to TLD and have her interview feed my spirit too.

  2. Thank you for this nourishing time with Naomi's words. Her poems so gently remind me of how we are all connected, even when we do not realize it. Many hugs to both of you! xxxx

  3. "Reminding ourselves of what we love feels helpful. Walking outside—it's as quiet as it ever was. The birds still communicate without any help from us. In that deep quietude, doesn't the air, and the memory, feel more full of voices?" Sigh.

    Thanks for more thoughtful thoughts on poeming/life, Michelle and Naomi. I totally understand "the most flattering question." Maybe the best question for writers for children (or maybe for writers for all).

  4. Such generosity from both of you... I never get through an interview with you, Naomi - and usually never get through a poem - without a tear or two or twenty forming in my eyes. Our old world is so much richer for your presence, for your words.

  5. Your interview made my morning brighter, Michelle. Having Naomi's words gift us with thoughts to make our world better is the nicest thing. Thanks to you both for this today. I have Naomi's book & love it, read some every day.

  6. What a wonderful start to a day. What a wonderful reminder of the good in our world! Thanks!

  7. Naomi Shihab Nye is at the top of my long list of favorite poets. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to be in a workshop with her and watch her magically nurture my young student. Her poems fill me up. Thanks for this interview and invitation.

  8. Such a thought provoking interview and collection of poems. I look forward to diving into this collection. Thank you both.

  9. So much wisdom in this interview. Thanks, Michelle and Naomi. (My mom's name is Naomi :-)

    Very excited to have won a copy of GREAT MORNING! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud!! Thanks!

  10. What a beautiful interview! I attended the 2017 Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival and had the pleasure of listening to Naomi Shihab Nye's keynote speech in person. I delighted in listening to it again today. The lines that Rebakah quoted from the interview also resonated with me. Thank you both!

  11. Michelle, what a stunning post for this Poetry Friday. I am amazed at the quality and quantity of background information and interview material. Well done, you! And, what a treat to spend time with this particular poet. She is such an inspiration and joy to read. Thank you so very much Naomi Shihab Nye for sharing yourself here. And, I love the challenge. I definitely need to put my thinking cap on for this one.

  12. Wow! It's going to take days to get through all the resources you listed in today's post. Many thanks to you and Naomi for sharing.

    I love this:
    We forgot to make a reservation.
    But there's room.

  13. Wonderful interview. And I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the poem Hummingbird. Made my day. Thanks for this post.

  14. Oh Michelle. This interview is a gift. Thank you so so much for it! I love Naomi Shihab Nye's work, and I share it often with my Haitian/American/Other students, who can relate to much of what she writes about straddling cultures. My favorite part is where she says, everyone is reading, everyone is writing. It's true! Not time to despair yet.

  15. This is one of the best poet interviews I've had the pleasure of reading. Such good questions and thoughtful answers and amazing its of poetry! Thanks to you both!

  16. Thank you Naomi Shihab Nye for your words and poems, and especially for encouraging us us to slow down and remember
    "the delicate yellow flower
    strikingly thin petals"

    and to take in life before us. I look forward to spending time with "Voices in the Air."
    Thanks Michelle for this rich and probing interview!

  17. There is so much to love about this post! I will be rereading it often to soak up the wisdom of these rich, nourishing words. Thank you, Michelle and Naomi, for sharing them!

  18. I love, love, love all of this. VOICES IN THE AIR was one of my favorite reads this summer. I took it on vacation with me and shared frequently from it. I also love WHAT HAVE YOU LOST? I'm looking forward to slowing down and listening as I ponder this month's challenge.

  19. I love Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry, the fragrance and flowering of it. I look forward to VOICES IN THE AIR as to birthday cake with its magical wish. What fun to have a ditty challenge from her. Thanks for this, Michelle. A boon for all of us PF'ers.

  20. Thank you Naomi and Michelle. Much to think about in this post and questions to contemplate. =)

  21. Thank you for a terrific interview! I am a huge Naomi Shihab Nye fan (was fortunate to hear and speak with her when she came to Kalamazoo recently.) I did not know of Voices in the Air, but will be looking for it soon.

  22. Also a fan--thanks for bringing Naomi up close and personal. And thanks for the special invitation to post on the Padlet. You were right that I had not one but several ?-type poems to choose from.

  23. This is just so lovely. I want to come back and read it on other days too.

  24. Whew. What a month! I'm finally getting here to read the interview and start the challenge soaking in the back of my brain. Hopefully I'll have an offering for Poetry Friday next week, when I plan to be back to the usual routines!

  25. Nye is an inspiring poet whose simple nature attracts all her fans and her words touch our needs exactly. thanks for the interview.