The poet Naomi Shihab Nye was the guest reader at Gannon University‘s (where I teach) English Awards night recently. Like most poets, she shared anecdotes between each poem. But she didn’t change her posture or the tone of her voice to ready herself or establish a boundary between her life and her poetry. What pause there was seemed natural, like the pause your uncle takes before telling another story at your family reunion. One hardly knew where her storytelling stopped and her poetry reading began. She extended her personality through her creative work, both through her products (her poems) and the process of reading them.
I approached her afterwards at the book table and shared my observations. She said, “You know, I’ve been criticized for that.” I said, “You don’t adopt a different persona to read like so many poets do. How you read pulled me into the poem because you’ve established a personal relationship with me.” She put her hand out, “That means we’re friends.” I took it and replied, “That could be dangerous, you know.” We laughed.
I’m sure Naomi Shihab Nye, throughout her illustrious career and worldwide travels, has shaken lots of hands and laughed with many fans. But in that brief drop of time, both during her reading and our chat afterwards, I learned about a means of self expression that isn’t narrowly narcissistic. Naomi’s self expression extended a hand to touch an audience. She extended her artist’s personality into and through her creative work. The highest form of “self expression” focuses on the craft, not the artist, because the artist is lost in her love of the craft.
Naomi Shihab Nye loved her craft more than she loved herself.
That’s the kind of “self expression” I can emulate.