I was 15 years old and sitting in high school creative writing class when I first heard Naomi Shihab Nye read her poem "Valentine for Ernest Mann." My teacher played us a video (yes, on an actual VHS) of her reading the poem at a book festival, and even today I can picture it on the screen. The poem and its iconic first line "You can't order a poem like you order a taco" became a sort of rallying cry among my classmates and me. We loved poetry, and we loved tacos, and now we loved Naomi Shihab Nye.
"Valentine for Ernest Mann" begins:
"You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate."
In a video produced by the Academy of American Poets, she explains that she wrote the poem after an eighth grade boy walked up to her, handed her his address, and requested that she write him a poem. She was struck by the bravado of such a request.
In the poem, Nye describes how poetry is found and created organically — not ordered. She writes:
"So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them."
"Valentine for Ernest Mann" reached me at an important time in my life. After years of writing strictly fiction, I had just begun to dip my toes into poetry. I had fallen madly in love with the art form. Now, over 10 years later, Nye's words still ring in my mind each time I sit down to create a poem or write anything at all.
For me, the poem is a lesson: I can't expect my writing to come immediately and I need to be patient with my art and myself. I often find myself trying to order a poem from my own mind like I would order a taco from a restaurant. I yearn for the satisfaction of sitting down at my desk and, in just a few moments, creating something finished and delicious and delectable to others.
But that's just not how it works. Writing poetry — writing anything — takes time, hard work, and patience. Sometimes, the work happens when you want it to. Many times, it doesn't. Sometimes, you will edit a poem so many times that it is unrecognizable from how it began. Sometimes, you'll be walking down the street or slicing an avocado, and you'll find a spark of inspiration that eventually turns into a poem.
That's the magic of it. You can't order a poem like you would order a taco. A poem can't be manufactured on an assembly line or summoned into existence. Instead, a poem finds you, often when you least expect it and when you most need it.