Naomi Shihab Nye’s campus poetry reading

UWEC’s Robert Frost poetry collection celebration

Ella Freeman

More stories from Ella Freeman

Across the Pond
February 7, 2024

Photo by Ella Freeman

Naomi Shihab Nye on stage during her reading.

Naomi Shihab Nye was invited to the UW-Eau Claire campus to do a poetry reading. This reading was hosted by the Frederick and Joan Christopherson Schmidt Robert Frost Celebration of American Poetry to celebrate the Robert Frost collection on campus. 

This reading took place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 6. 

Kate Hinnant, an UW-Eau Claire professor, is part of the Robert Frost Celebration of the American Poetry committee. According to Hinnant, this year was the first year they decided to reach for talent outside of Eau Claire. 

“Originally the event started when the university received the Robert Frost collection that we have, and we wanted to take that collection but build around that to a larger celebration of American poetry,” Hinnant said.

According to Hinnant, Naomi is a very generous poet who spends a lot of time with adults and children alike. 

“Naomi is a fantastic and approachable poet, so we thought she would appeal not just to people who are already really invested in poetry, but to people who might not be that familiar, or feel intimidated by the genre,” Hinnant said. 

Nye was introduced by professor and poet Max Garland. According to Garland, he had introduced Nye in the past, and because of their friendship, he was called to do it again. 

“I am friends with her, we both had a mentor and friend in common, and I’ve loved her poetry and she’s been generous to my poetry over the years and so, I guess people remembered that we have an association,” Garland said. 

Garland said he is inspired by Nye’s prolificness and generosity. He said she is very willing to take on writing and commuting with children and adults alike. 

“In a dark time where it’s easy to talk about everything that is wrong, even in her personal life, in her sorrow, to be able to bring a little light and hope and encouragement is inspiring,” Garland said. 

Nye was invited to this event and said she feels very lucky to be invited to celebrate the Robert Frost collection. 

According to Nye, she planned to read entries from some of her published works such as The Tiny Journalist, along with some unpublished poems and some poems by others, including Robert Frost, and she was excited to open the event with poems by children. 

“I always like to start with poems by children because I am a big advocate of children writing creatively, and have worked with children for half a century,” Nye said.

For Nye, writing happens often and regularly. She said she loves to revise and likes a poem to have a sparing quality about it, where it’s not heavily ornate and embellished. 

“I like a poem to feel like a simple room that you have entered where you know where to sit and you know what window to look out of,” Nye said. 

According to Nye, young and aspiring writers should write about things they care about. She said to not be stingy with writing and do it as regularly as possible. She also said to try and get your work out there and persist even when it’s hard.  

“I think oftentimes, we try to prove even to ourselves that we have something worthy to say but I feel everybody has something worthy to say and something worth listening to so we need to release ourselves from the burden of being exceptional,” Nye said. 

Nye said she is very inspired to write by other poets such as Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Coatsworth. Nye also said she is inspired by Wisconsin natives Mona Simpson and David Kherdian. 

“Kherdian wrote a lot about Armenian American experiences which makes me think about my Palestinian American experience,” Nye said. “I think it’s really important to be a fan, I think it’s important to find writers who move you and touch you and inspire you to write your own work.”

According to Nye, it’s important to share art because you gain a larger awareness of things when you look at others’ interpretations of life and when you share your own work. 

Nye said part of her career is traveling to different parts of the world to teach poetry and hopefully inspire more children and adults alike to be active in creative writing. 

“One thing that travel shows you is that poetry lives everywhere and wants to live everywhere. I think people who are hungry for it don’t experience it enough,” Nye said. 

According to Nye, many seasoned poets have been pushed to speak against people who did spoken-word poetry, and she refused to do it. 

“Everybody can find a way of using voice with rhythm with description with style and there is room for all of us,” Nye said.

Nye said she has always enjoyed writing and her love of the medium keeps her going. 

“I like the feeling of calm that writing gives you, even if you are writing something very sad or very difficult you still feel calmer when you do it,” Nye said. 

According to Nye some of the coolest moments from her career have been when her books were turned into plays, whether on a professional level or little children acting out poems, she feels very honored every time. 

“Seeing how work can carry on and translate into another genre is very exciting, but it’s all been wonderful, seeing kids and adults light up to read their own poems has been a special joy to me,” Nye said. 

Nye said she hopes everyone will continue to write and experience life creatively. 

“I know you have a lot going on but always believe in your own voice and believe that you have important things to say, and the experiences that you have are rich material for you to write from,” Nye said. “And your imagination is a vast wonderland that when combined with experiences will offer you whatever you need for your creative work.” Freeman can be reached at [email protected].