New Canaan Country School welcomed Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab for two days of writer’s workshops, assemblies, poetry readings and activities for student writers and poetry enthusiasts of all ages, Nov. 4 and 5. Organized by the school’s Parents’ Association and Upper School English and History Teacher Will McDonough, Ms. Nye’s visit kicked off the pre-K through grade 9 school’s annual Festival of Books, a week-long event which celebrates literacy.
During her visit, Ms. Nye, met with students in the Lower School (Grades 1-4) and Middle School (Grades 5 & 6), for mini-assemblies in which she read selections of her work and offered anecdotes and age-appropriate tips on the craft of writing poetry. One such trade secret that she shared with the novice writers was her use of descriptive language to re-create specific moments-in-time, real or imaginary.
“I try to capture the whole scene, the people, the mood, and of course the actual thing that is happening. As I’m writing, I look at it and decide ‘how do I want to share this moment with others? Which words will I use and which will I edit away to make it as clear as possible to the reader?” said Ms. Nye.
Ninth grade English students from the Upper School division experienced a more intensive writer’s workshop with the author, having spent the prior week studying the author’s poetry and discussing it in class. They showed particular interest in her sources for inspiration.
“Are your poems based on real events? Did this all really happen?” asked Maren Frey of New Canaan during a discussion of “Gate 4-A,” a poem about a traveler experiencing a moment of distress.
“Are you ever a character in your writing? Are you the person who helped the woman in this poem?” asked Jackson Alpaugh of Darien.
“This event happened one regular day, when I was flying out of the Albuquerque Airport and yes, I am the character who helped her. Life is filled with small, but extraordinary moments, my goal as a writer is to notice them, isolate them, polish and edit them for clarity, and then share them; said Ms. Nye.”
“It’s a lot like a slowing down of time; like pressing a pause button. I like to step outside of a moment and look at it,” the author explained to the students. “But not all of my poems are based on real events. Many are imaginary events, like my poem “300 Goats.” The writing process, however, is the same for both.”
For her hour-long evening presentation held in the school’s auditorium, Ms. Nye shared selections from her recent works including Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners and The Tiny Journalist as well as some of her older poems. Her readings were animated, at times theatrically delivered; her side-comments intimate, and the predominantly adult audience responded with laughter and frequent applause.
Following her remarks, she answered questions and signed copies of her books.
“There are moments in our life where time slows down – where the present moment seems to swell in size and we find ourselves overwhelmed by our mere existence. Spending time with Naomi feels like that. Her words, her insights are timeless,” said Mr. McDonough who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Nye to the school. “As she explained to our students, ‘poetry is backroads and taking time.’ This adage reminds us that we spend too much time on the metaphorical highways and interstate of our lives. Slowing down might never feel urgent, but nothing is more important.”