The 2019 Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement has been awarded to Texas State Professor of Creative Writing, Naomi Shihab Nye. This prestigious honor is awarded each year by the National Book Critics’ Circle (NBCC) and is named after the NBCC’s first president. Nye joins the ranks of previous winners such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and PEN America. Nye will receive the award at a ceremony in New York on March 12, 2020.
Nye’s expansive body of work comprises over thirty-five projects and spans a variety of literary modes, including poetry, young-adult fiction, essays, and novels. Many of Nye’s works reflect her upbringing as a Palestine-American splitting time between Jerusalem and the American South, allowing her to explore themes of heritage and culture in her work. A student studying fiction in the MFA Creative Writing program at Texas State, Caleb Ajinomoho, says that Nye’s poetry “workshops are ritualistic,” and feature Nye’s “genuine, warm, and accessible” presence. Although he writes fiction, Ajinomoho returns to Nye’s workshops regularly, seeking inspiration and “[encouragement] to tap deeper into what’s happening around [him],” and to achieve the same awareness and presence featured in Nye’s celebrated publications. Among these publications are her first collection of poems, titled Different Ways to Pray (1980), which describes the experience of and tensions between cultures in the American South and Mexico; and a children’s book titled Habibi (1997), for which she won the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award (1998).
A writer since her early childhood, Nye continued practicing her craft while she attended Trinity University in San Antonio, where in 1974 she earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and World Religions. Her long experience with writing and studying her craft informs the calm leadership described by current MFA poetry student Katie Kistler, who notes that Nye’s workshops “cultivate an intensely helpful workshopping group each semester.” Kistler describes Nye as the type of mentor and leader that will remind young poets to note all criticisms, including both positive and negative comments made about their work. Kistler continues, “[Nye] has taken her lifetime of writing and revising and turned around to be a mentor for us MFA students — not comparing us to writers who have practiced for decades, but showcasing the practiced empathy of someone who cares deeply about the success of her peers and poetic successors.”
Nye’s work is featured in major online and print poetry anthologies, from ThePoetryFoundation.org to Poets.org. Of her work, the Poetry Foundation states that “Nye is a fluid poet, and her poems are also full of the urgency of spoken language.” In many of Nye’s poems, she offers her observations on humanity gained during her world travels. Of her Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature (2013), World Literature Today describes how “[Nye’s] incandescent humanity and voice can change the world, or someone’s world, by taking a position not one word less beautiful than an exquisite poem.”
Named a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for her exploration of Middle Eastern culture and heritage in 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Nye has two new books set for publication this year: Cast Away: Poems for Our Time (February 2020) and Everything Comes Next: New and Collected Poems (September 2020). Last year she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. A world-renowned poet and teacher, Nye uses her rich personal history and experiences to compose the perceptive and engaging works that earn her so much acclaim, and to mentor young writers at Texas State with compassion and profound insight.
– Kennedy Farrell, English Major