Trash has long been treasure for poet Naomi Shihab Nye

Mary Quattlebaum

“I’ve been thinking of trash for so long,” said Naomi Shihab Nye when asked about the inspiration for her new book of poems, Cast Away.

Clearly for Nye, the trash of others has become her poetic treasure. These 81 short verses explore what she’s picked up over the years as she walks: The rim of a pizza box, plastic tops, three soggy, old report cards.

The objects have their own odd beauty, she told KidsPost by phone from her home in San Antonio. She tries to pay attention to this even as she places the litter in her sack to be discarded later in a garbage can.

One bit of trash – a child’s blue mitten – became a gift to her editor. The mitten cleaned up nicely, as shown in the illustration on the book’s back cover.

As she began to write the poems, Nye drew from notebooks she’s kept for decades. In them, she has jotted ideas, snippets of dialogue and descriptions of things around her, from the birds and pecan trees in her yard to the straws and chip bags on the sidewalk.

Author Naomi Shihab Nye poses with Kaimana McOuat at a bookstore in Honolulu, Hawaii; and her new book of poems, Cast Away. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Her poems include lines that make the reader stop and think. Pine Cones mentions how comforting it is to “hold a little beauty during difficult times.” Not My Problem ends by suggesting that trash reveals, “who you are,/how you spend your days.”

Nye became aware of trash and poetry at about the same time and from the same person, her mother. Good-natured, intelligent and untidy, Nye’s mother never paid much attention to stacks of catalogues, junk mail and crumbs, said Nye.

So, as the oldest of two children, “I tried to create order,” she explained.

Nye also has early memories of her mother reading aloud poems by Emily Dickinson. favourite lines were “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you – Nobody – too?”

“Poetry language was more delicious than conversation language,” said Nye, about her childhood love of poems by Christina Rossetti and Langston Hughes.

This love was kindled into passion in second grade. Her teacher, Harriet B Lane, had each child find and bring in a published poem every Monday. favourite lines were written on the board, and the students read and talked about the poems during the week. Ms Lane encouraged the kids to write their own poems.

“There was such a buzz of excitement about poetry in that class,” said Nye, with a laugh. “We became aware of the beauty and power of words.”

As a grown-up, Nye is much like her second-grade teacher. She loves to share poetry with others. Nye has written many books of poems for children and adults, and she has travelled to numerous places around the world to teach poetry.

Last year, Nye was named the nation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. As part of her duties for the two-year position, she has visited and shared poetry in remote places that rarely had literary events. Now she is staying at home during the coronavirus outbreak. But she has continued to do events virtually, she said in a recent email.

Poetry seems especially important during challenging times.

It has a unique power, Nye said. Poems can express feelings. They can explore our families and identity, as do those that reflect Nye’s Palestinian American heritage.

Poems can encourage us to notice what’s around us, both indoors and outside. You might look closely at that tassel on the lampshade or listen to the sound of your own breath.

Many of the poems in Cast Away focus on small, seemingly ordinary details.

Like her teacher Ms Lane, Nye encourages everyone to write about what interests them. Whether that’s bikes or moss (her young grandson’s current passion) or a piece of trash, surely there’s a poem in there.