In 2011, I was fortunate to hear the poet Naomi Shihab Nye speak at Earlham College in Indiana. She said two things I still remember: everyone needs to read Every War has Two Losers, a collection of William Stafford’s writings on peace (Stafford is a major influence for me, and I second Shihab Nye’s recommendation), and to write three lines in a notebook everyday.
It just so happens that the college posted on YouTube the portion of her talk where she mentions writing three lines. You can hear her describe it here.
I was fortunate to share a brief conversation with her afterward and have her sign a book. And then I went outside and followed her advice. I wrote this immediately afterward in my journal:
Naomi Shihab Nye has stricken the word “busy” from her vocabulary. “It doesn’t help us do anything. It’s just a word we use when we’re doing everything else.” Her kind host is speaking words of hurry, things to do at her. “Five minutes.” And then, “other people are waiting.” “It’s time to go.” Naomi’s face says “busy” although she does not. The book signing line is dwindling, but not complete. “Tell them I will be five minutes late.” I am at the front of the line, waiting, still, while the poet explains that she is busy. She reaches for my book of her poetry I bought over ten years ago, and signing it says, “It looks like I misspelled ‘gratitude,’” and “Oh, I am so happy to see you have that.” I am holding my well worn book from her favorite poet and mine, William Stafford. “I have a request,” I say. “This is a paper I wrote. Would you like to read it?” I hand her my essay on Stafford. “I’m excited to read it, and she folds it, slips it into her coat. “Thank you.” We shake hands. As I head for the door she is already talking to someone else. I am too busy to go to the reception, still I take the time to write this down.
She didn’t refer to Stafford when talking about her daily writing practice. She didn’t pick it up from him, but it started organically for her as a child. But she became friends with Stafford later in life, and it no doubt helped that they shared this impulse.
Stafford is well known for his daily writing. As Philip Metres says in the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast episode “The Seeker,” that is Stafford’s true legacy, far more than his contribution to the art of poetry itself:
“I think in terms of his contributions to extending or experimenting the art, he doesn’t rank very high. But in terms of art as a practice, a social conscience, art as a way of living, to me he’s very important.”
Stafford is very important to me as I study the art and form of poetry. I think with him, one can learn much about both art and practice. But his practice does stand out from other poets, and this message is carried forth by his poetic allies, especially Naomi Shihab Nye.
Recently I went back and listened again to an interview with Shihab Nye on the radio program On Being. She talked at some length about daily practices that anyone, poet or non-poet, can do to sustain that which is poetic in our lives. But these are also practices that come from her life, and that sustain her life as one who writes poems and talks about poetry. She says to read poetry every day, to always carry a notebook, and to write three lines in a notebook everyday. Here’s the transcript of that part of the interview:
MS. SHIHAB NYE: One thing I’ve tried to say to groups over the years, groups of all ages, is that writing things down, whatever you’re writing down, even if you’re writing something sad or hard, usually you feel better after you do it. Somehow, you’re given a sense of, “OK, this mood, this sorrow I’m feeling, this trouble I’m in, I’ve given it shape. It’s got a shape on the page now. So I can stand back, I can look at it, I can think about it a little differently. What do I do now?” And very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse.
They always say, “I wrote things down. This isn’t quite finished. I need to work on it.” But they agree that it helped them sort of see their experience, see what they were living. And that’s definitely a gift of writing that is above and beyond any sort of vocational — how much somebody publishes. It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.
MS. TIPPETT: And actually, I interviewed Mary Oliver last year. And she said…she always carries a notebook, right? I mean, that’s one of her trademarks. And she said to me, “If you don’t have a notebook, you don’t get it again. You have to write things down as they come to you.”
MS. SHIHAB NYE: That’s right. Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: And so I’ve started carrying a notebook again after 20 years.
MS. SHIHAB NYE: Well, I think that’s great. And you can carry one at any age, and you’re never too too old to start.
MS. TIPPETT: To start carrying a notebook.
MS. SHIHAB NYE: Yeah. Last week, I was in a classroom in Austin, Texas, where a girl, who was apparently going through a really rough spell at home, wrote a poem that was definitely tragic and comic, both, about kind of — everybody was yelling at her in the poem, like, from all directions. She was just kind of suffering in her home place and trying to find peace, trying to find a place to do her homework.
But she wrote this in such a compelling way that when she read it, and read it with gusto and joy — there was such joyousness in her voice even though she was describing something that sounded awful. When she finished, the girls in her classroom just broke into wild applause, and I saw her face. She lit up. And she said, “Man, I feel better.”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MS. SHIHAB NYE: [laughs] And I thought, yeah, this is such a graphic example of putting words on the page. That feeling of being connected to someone else when you allow yourself to be very particular is another mystery of writing.
… MS. TIPPETT: Oh, here’s something. I was just looking at A Maze Me, this book that you did, Poems for Girls, which actually echoes what you just said. You say, “If you have many voices and let them speak to one another in a friendly fashion, if you’re not too proud to talk to yourself out loud, if you will ask the questions pressing against your forehead from the inside, you’ll be OK. If you write three lines down in a notebook every day,” and then in parentheses, “(they don’t have to be great or important, they don’t have to relate to one another, you don’t have to show them to anyone) you will find out what you notice. Uncanny connections will be made visible to you. That’s what I started learning when I was 12, and I never stopped learning it.”
MS. SHIHAB NYE: Right. And I think many people are encouraged to think you could write that little and still gain something from it. That you don’t have to be spending an hour and a half to three hours to five hours a day writing to have a meaningful experience with it. It’s a very immediate experience. You can sit down and write three sentences. How long does that take? Three minutes. Five minutes. And be giving yourself a very rare gift of listening to yourself, just finding out when you go back and look at what you wrote. And how many times we think, “Oh, I would never have remembered that if I hadn’t written it down.”
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, that’s right.
MS. SHIHAB NYE: “When and how did that even occur to me? I sort of like it this week.”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] That’s right.
MS. SHIHAB NYE: “And it could help me. And now I want to connect it to something else.” Everybody finds that out, and just to encourage others to do it without a big massive goal in front of them at all times.
When I heard this advice again, it worked in me like a spell. I can write three lines. It doesn’t have to be lines of poetry, just anything. I’ve been doing this for about a week now. I always write more than three lines, and I’ve gotten a couple poems from it so far. The poems aren’t any good, but they don’t all have to be. They just have to be written. Nye’s advice isn’t to write a poem everyday like Stafford was known for. Maybe it will evolve into that through the years. But just to keep writing is the important thing. Nye said she learned this lesson at age twelve and hasn’t stopped learning it since.
Here’s a poem I wrote this week after I took down my copy of Nye’s collection The Words Under the Words. It was the book I had her sign back in 2011.
Trying to Read Naomi Shihab Nye
This book by the poet who tells everyone to start each day by reading a poem
is losing part of its cover; the plastic coating is curling away from the top edge.
But the spine is still strong, and her autograph on the title page,
below her scribbled word “gratitude,” is brilliant as ever.
I bought the book twenty years ago and I still haven’t read all of the poems.
I’m terrible at finishing books. But the poet’s portrait on the back speaks to me:
“Forget how many books you’ve read. This is not a competition.
Just try and remember to pick up something every day
and consider it for a few moments. Make time for poetry
and it will invite you in slowly, daily
until you’ve mastered the words under the words
which we all know, for most of us, will never happen.”