During the last presidential campaign, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye had the daunting task of introducing Caroline Kennedy at an Obama campaign event in San Antonio, Texas. The honor was made particularly formidable because Ms. Kennedy’s plane had been significantly delayed.
“When I introduced Caroline for two hours, I talked very, very slowly, which people commented on later. They said, ‘It was like you were on a different speed entirely,’” said Ms. Nye, who used this anecdote to segue into her opening thoughts about poetry. “I do think that speaking and living slowly is one of the gifts that poetry gives us. I try never to feel in a rush. I try to reject the word busy whenever it comes up.”
On Thursday evening, Ms. Kennedy returned the favor by introducing Ms. Nye, the final speaker at Featherstone Center for the Arts Festival of Poetry. “Naomi is a wonderful and joyful and exuberant example of somebody who uses poetry to enlarge the world of others,” said Ms. Kennedy.
Under a tent filled with more than a hundred people, the occasional helicopter heard overhead served as a reminder that President Obama had recently arrived on the Island. Ms. Nye, whose last visit to the Island two summers ago also coincided with the President’s visit, quipped, “I think it’s safe to assume that this is the real capital of the country.”
Ms. Nye is the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother. Her books of poetry include 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, and Hugging the Jukebox. In addition to her own poetry, Ms. Nye has anthologized books of poetry, including several for children. A recipient of an impressive list of awards and fellowships, her incisive writing, keen eye, advocacy for social justice, and comic timing have earned her a devoted following.
Her newest book, Transfer, will be published in September. “Many of the poems in this book have some connection to my father, and his life and death,” said Ms. Nye. “He and his mother, who lived to be 106, were great storytellers. They not only sat by our beds, they would have sat by any bed, even if they didn’t know the person in it, and told a story.”
The tradition clearly continues. Ms. Nye elicited much laughter from a rapt audience, as well as congenial coos. “Thank you for laughing,” she said early in the evening. “I remember that Martha’s Vineyard people laugh. They laugh generously.” Later in her talk, she commented on the audience response again, “You all make nice sounds too. Not only laughing, but a kindly murmuring that I’m deeply grateful for.”
Ms. Nye’s father, a journalist, encouraged her to remain skeptical and think about what isn’t written. “We grew up with lots of newspapers and lots of questions,” said Ms. Nye, before reading from her poem Mystery, a poem that, through simple statements, encourages the reader to think about the untold story. Were the made-for-TV moments of the Chilean mine disaster the real news? “The men emerge from the mine in a cartridge with wheels and everyone cheers.”
“Newspapers have been getting thinner everywhere except Martha’s Vineyard,” noted Ms. Nye to a round of laughter.
“As many things were being cut out of my local newspaper, I noticed that they started adding more advice columns. Like people were more in trouble about their lives.”
These multiplying advice columns inspired her to write the poem Alive, which begins: “Dear Abby, said someone from Oregon. I am having trouble with my boyfriend’s attachment to an ancient gallon of milk. Still full in his refrigerator. I told him it’s me or the milk. Does this seem reasonable?”
Her own advice, for poets, is to send out their work.
“It seems to me that if you don’t send your work to people, people will have a hard time finding it in your drawer,” said Ms. Nye.
Before the fast-paced event came to a close, Ms. Nye invited Ms. Kennedy back onto the makeshift stage to discuss anthologies. Ms. Kennedy’s most recent anthology of poetry is She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey through Poems.
Ms. Kennedy spoke of her family’s tradition of giving each other poetry for holidays and birthdays. “That was a wonderful gift that my mother also gave to us. It gave us the freedom to explore poems and pick the ones we like,” said Ms. Kennedy.
Ms. Nye and Ms. Kennedy talked about the power of anthologies and the process of creating them. Ms. Kennedy recalled that she wanted to put together an anthology about friendship. “I couldn’t find anything and I thought, this is unbelievable. Poets don’t have friends.” So she wrote to Ms. Nye to see if she could think of any poems about friendship. Ms. Nye immediately responded, “Of course, there are millions.” A few days later she wrote back. “I actually can’t find any either.” This inspired her to reach out to her poet friends; slowly a new anthology is born.
This summer’s Festival of Poetry, which celebrated the Featherstone Center for the Arts 15th anniversary, had an impressive roster of nationally celebrated poets that included Tina Chang, Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky and Stan Strickland. The poetry series was cofounded by Fan Ogilvie and Justen Ahren.