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Keynote poet shares advice with writers

Posted: June 19, 2013 - 3:09pm
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  Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

One of the treats of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference comes the opening Friday of the five-day event when the keynote writer or poet does a post-banquet speech. In the 12 years of the conference, talks have ranged from treatises on the meaning of literature to stand up comedy. Often, writers offer practical advice.

This year’s keynote speaker, poet and writer Naomi Shihab Nye, combined the best of those approaches.

The meaning of literature?

“You are part of the family of everyone who ever wrote,” Nye said. “All the teachers we ever knew transported us to this place where we are together. All the grandparents who read us stories, who gave us books of Tennyson in a very tiny font, they are with us tonight.”

Comedy?

“We get in trouble for hearing voices,” Nye said a group of schizophrenics told her in a writing workshop she did with them. “You writers, you’re trying to hear voices … You writers are trying to figure this out, how you can be in charge of the voices.”

Practical advice?

“Everyone feels they don’t have enough time, but that’s an excuse. Wonderful things get written under pressure,” Nye said. “Small increments matter. If you can only write 10 minutes, do it.”

Introducing Nye, Kachemak Bay Campus Director Carol Swartz said she has been one of the most requested poets or writers since the conference started. Self-deprecating, kind and generous, Nye doesn’t act the prima donna. With her trademark auburn brown ponytail tossed over one shoulder, Nye looks like the cool aunt who always took you off on adventures.

Born to a German-American mother and a Palestinian father, Nye grew up in St. Louis, Mo., Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas. She calls herself a “wandering poet” and has led writing workshops around the world, including prior visits to rural Alaska. 

She is the author or editor of more than 30 books of poetry, short stories, essays and novels, including “19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East,” “Amaze Me: Poems for Girls,” the young adult novels “Habibi” and “Going Going,” and picture books “Baby Radar” and “Sitti’s Secrets.” 

Nye also has won the Pushcart Prize and the Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems have been featured on the “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Writer’s Almanac” and in Bill Moyer’s “The Language of Life” and “The United States of Poetry.” She has taught as a visiting writer for the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

Nye first came to Homer 24 years ago with her husband, son and parents, a visit where the Kenai Mountains were socked in and she never saw them. Her parents were the age she is now, in their early 60s, “and now I know how young they were,” she said.

On another Alaska visit, based out of Fairbanks she went to Bush Alaska villages like Nome, Bethel and Dutch Harbor and did writing projects. 

“We met so many Alaskans of all ages in so many towns and backgrounds,” Nye said. “So many times I’ve thought of Alaska when people say ‘education is like peace building.’ It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.”

The meat of her talk came when Nye offered this advice, both affirmation and revelation.

• Writers should be assured in their abilities.

“I don’t think anyone in this room needs to worry about how good we are, if we deserve to be writing,” she said.

Nye mentioned a friend in her 70s, an amazing poet and painter who asked once, “But am I really good enough?”

“Why are you asking this?” Nye said back to her. “You are a Buddhist.”

The poet William Stafford had a good idea: “If you’re having problems with your writing, lower your standards,” she said, quoting him. “Be a little kinder to yourself.”

• Don’t worry about money. People are generous, she said.

One time a famous, successful writer came to her class and brazenly told her students they should never accept anything less than a million dollars for their manuscripts.

“They looked very anxious,” Nye said. “When he left the room we had to have a little conversation, a little therapy, even though I reminded him some of them were poets.”

It’s good to get the taboo subject of money out on the table, she said.

“We do what we do because we love writing, not because we’re going to sell more than the guy next to us sells or we’re going to get a bigger advance, but because we need and love to do it,” Nye said.

• Don’t be lonely as a writer.

Based on how friendly the conference participants were with each other, that didn’t seem to be a problem, Nye said.

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation,” she said.

Nye recalled as a girl of 7 how she sent out poems to far away magazines.

“I did it because somebody in some state where I had never been, some kid would read my poem about the squirrel in a box, and we would be connected,” she said.

• Make time to write, even if it’s just a few minutes.

“We do have enough time. Everywhere we go, we make excuses about not having enough time,” Nye said. “We can’t let anyone tell us we don’t have that time — talk us out of our writing, talk us out of our increments.”

• Be diligent in your writing.

One time at a literary salon, Nye met the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. A teacher there kept introducing students as “beginning writers.” 

“I too have always been a beginning writer,” Nye said Borges said in response. “Every day of my life I have been a beginning writer. I don’t expect perfection.”

Writers should be persistent and write every day, she said. Nye mentioned the advice of the poet David Ignatow.

“How would his thoughts know when to line up in the hall outside his room?” Nye said Ignatow wondered. “If they know I go to my table every day, they are there waiting.”

• Finally, take risks.

One of Nye’s editors kept encouraging her to write a young adult novel, but she said she couldn’t write 100 pages. The editor was at a talk where some students wondered if they should try to write some plays.

“I said, it’s always good to take a risk,” Nye said. Later, her editor said, “You’re a liar.”

Caught out, Nye signed a proposal on a napkin for “Habibi,” her first novel.

“I took the risk, I wrote six drafts,” she said. 

Write. Take the time to write. Take risks. And share your work, Nye said.

“It’s up to us to get it out there. You’re doing that. You’re doing it here,” she told the conference participants. “Not to get it on your neighbor’s doorstep, but to find your own way to share.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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