Shining the light of poetry: Naomi Shihab Nye

Meeting Your Favorite Poet: Naomi Shihab Nye

There she is.
I know that voice.
I’ve heard it through a tiny, rectangular box.
But now it’s here,
flowing at me
in duality as a stranger and a dear friend.

Her poems changed me.
The idea of life as a poem,
finding brilliance in the everyday.
My eyes are awakened.

An approachable celebrity – 
now I have spoken with her,
looked into her eyes,
a tiny arrival in the vastness of existence.

Carry on, she says.
Create beauty.
Shine the tiny nightlight of poetry.
The world needs poems:
poems to link us,
poems to empathize,
poems to say sorry.

[Meeting Your Favorite Poet, E. Fondell]


Last week was a big week. I met my favorite poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, who was in Minnesota as part of a week-long writing residency, alongside singer/songwriter Sara Thomsen, at the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. In an unlikely set of circumstances, I came across an ad for this event and signed up immediately. The idea of this happening only three hours away from me and potentially missing it was unthinkable.

 As a person who always struggles to identify or claim “favorites,” I can confidently declare that Naomi Shihab Nye holds favored status among my shelves of poets. Naomi Shihab Nye brought poetry to life for me after a lingering dry spell. It’s not that I didn’t read poetry – I appreciated lines here and there – but overall it was something different than me, something I didn’t always comprehend in fullness. Then one day I listened to the On Being conversation with Krista Tippett and Naomi Shihab Nye while driving back to Chicago from my grandmother’s funeral. Listening to Naomi read and discuss her poem, Kindness, captivated me wholly and stands as one of the more powerful listening experiences in my life of almost thirty years. I can’t describe it other than saying that time stood still, and I understood, in that instant, the strength of poetry as a way to observe and interact with life.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to capture moments, freezing them in eternal time so I can come back to them and relive them, reimagine them. I used to think to myself, “I know I’ll remember this feeling I’m having about the freshly-mowed grass,” or “Surely, I won’t forget this celebratory event!” But the reality is, our memories lapse, we think occurrences will remain eternally important and molded into our consciousness but it isn’t true. In an epiphany, arguably a late one, I realized that this is poetry. Poetry is what holds the present. Poetry is what keeps a record of life, of time. Poetry is the way to record and immortalize these human experiences.

Naomi Shihab NyeFresh

To move
Needing to be
nowhere else.
Wanting nothing
from any store.
To lift something
you already had
and set it down in
a new place.
Awakened eye
seeing freshly.
What does that do to
the old blood moving through
its channels?

[Fresh, Naomi Shihab Nye]

In addition to attending a beautiful night of poetry and song with Naomi Shihab Nye and Sara Thomsen, I was lucky enough to get into a workshop the next day titled The Work of Words in Troubled Times. Sitting in that room filled with people and hearing this iconic figure, this beloved voice speak words of encouragement and perseverance brought a comfort I’ve struggled to find elsewhere. Listening to Sara Thomsen sing, and talking to her afterwards, cemented my admiration for her work of deep words and song that engage in and fight for human dignity. The two together, Naomi and Sara, brought a welcoming tone to the gathering, weaving poetry and music into a rich tapestry of shared space and time.

Naomi focused on the idea of poetry as a light. We don’t require poems to solve problems, but poetry needs to shine a little light, even a light as tiny as a nightlight, into the darkness around us. When our lives overflow with tension and times are indeed troubled, may we look to poetry. Poetry is the light glimmering beyond us – a place to lead and be led.

As Gary Snyder says in his poem, How Poetry Comes to Me*, we must keep seeking the edge of the light.

Naomi Shihab Nye


*How Poetry Comes to Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

[Gary Snyder]
My name is Elisabeth Fondell. I quit my corporate retail job in May of 2016 and have been on a self-appointed sabbatical ever since. In the pursuit of reclaiming my life, I’ve spent this sabbatical filling my days with travel to illuminating places, thought provoking words, poems, pottery, and the pursuit of wholeness.
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