Inkpop Blog

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How to “own” your voice in poetry

Posted by inkpop on April 2, 2010

inktip #23: Naomi Shihab Nye, editor of Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25, shares advice for young poets

“I felt every single poem in this book was about me. How is this possible?”

That’s how one reader felt after diving into Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25.

Written by dozens of teens and twentysomethings, the compilation project covers the essence of young life: new experiences, relationships, major life events, politics, you name it. “The writers have the great poetic gift of connecting their poems to a larger shared collective experience—allowing their own lives to blur upward or outward to all of our lives,” says Naomi Shihab Nye, the book’s editor. “One of the great gifts of poetry is it helps us feel connected to one another, even people whose experience in the world has been quite different from our own.”

So how exactly did Shihab Nye find the poets for Time You Let Me In?

By keeping her eyes wide open, says the editor-author, who’s also written Going Going and What Have You Lost? She began asking around for young talents and following up on a few great young poets she’d heard reading at the Split This Rock poetry Festival in Washington, D.C. “Just the general, everyday detective work of the curious mind,” she says.

Just in time for Poetry Month, Shihab Nye shares her tips for “owning” your voice as a young poet.


“We all want to be bigger and wiser than we are. But sometimes being smaller is the best way to be bigger.”

What does Shihab Nye  mean by this? There are several ways to interpret the advice—one of those ways is to realize that you don’t have to be anyone but yourself. In writing poetry, you don’t necessarily have to set out to be the Next Big Thing in Poetry since, well, The Last Big Thing in Poetry. Instead, keep it real. Don’t try to outdo yourself.


Don’t know where to get started with a topic? Sometimes just giving yourself freedom of expression brings out the most original poetry.

“Don’t be mean to yourself. Be kind. Give yourself a lot of room to write whatever you want,” Shihab Nye  says.


Don’t want to get too deep or write about yourself?

Why not write about the things you see around you? You could write about the little things in daily life—say, the patterns in the sidewalk cracks you count on the way to school or the annoying sound of your alarm clock. Or, you might find poetic inspiration in your favorite musician or author.  

One of Shihab Nye’s favorite poems in Time You Let Me In is a question:

do you think…

By Chase Berggrun

do you think

if you left your house

emily dickinson

your poems would have titles?


Haven’t quite figured out this Big Crazy World? That’s okay … not many people have. In a way, that’s the poetry of life—you get to figure out what you think this world is about, or at least your place within it. Your view is unique to you, and you should write about it.


You’ve probably heard it a million times before, but sometimes a “writing moment” comes to you when you least expect it. Be armed and ready. “Find a nice little notebook that feels good in your hand, and sharpen some pencils,” she says.


Do you prefer a routine and structure over the “when the mood strikes” approach to writing? Every writer is different—go with whatever works for you.

“Get in habit of writing at least seven minutes a day,” Shihab Nye says. “Regular timing helps—like, always first thing in morning, last thing at night, etc.”

Going along with the writing schedule, Naomi recommends coming back to random thoughts, spurts of creative thought, and poems you thought were finished. “Go back and find some lines, scenes, and images you might like to stay with longer,” she says. Plus, a poem could turn into a full-on story.


Shihab Nye recommends sharing poetry with writer friends, in the school literary journal or newspaper, Web sites like, open-mike nights, etc.

“Just read and write poetry, regularly, so it becomes more comfortable to you—read it out loud!” Shihab Nye says. She also recommends entering poetry contests, events, and writing groups, such as the Poetry Out Loud recitation contest at your school (if your school has it).

“Show up for poetry events in your town, or make them—and have fun!” she says.

inkpop Forums Topic: What are your poetry-writing tips?

This post was written by Amy Schroeder (aka inkpopAmy)

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