Getting To Know Nadia Colburn And Her New Book: The High Shelf

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

I grew up in a house full of poetry. My parents read poetry to me as a child, and as a child, I sometimes used to write poems. But I began to take my poetry writing seriously for the first time when I was pregnant with my first child, 20 years ago. The largeness of that experience, the ways in which it evaded my logical understanding, made me want to turn to poetry. 

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

I wrote many of these poems when I was a young mother. I had limited time; so I’d guard my time very carefully. I’d often write in the mornings when I had childcare or my husband and I would switch off taking care of the children and we’d write.

Now I have a lot more free time, and my writing is more erratic. Sometimes I write in the middle of the night if I can’t sleep. Sometimes I write after meditating. I think that I’m always building up for the next poems on some unconscious level, and then at certain times, I turn the spigot on and the poem comes out. 


Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

These poems came from a feeling. I was trying to match an image with a feeling or an idea with a feeling. I have a poem called “The Feeling of Trying to Express the Feeling I can’t even Name.” That’s a kind of extreme example of a poem reaching into silence. But most of my poems interact in one way or another with silence–sometimes a difficult and traumatic silence, and sometimes a more sacred, grace-filled silence. These days my poems tend to come out of a more peaceful silence, but the poems in the The High Shelf are interacting, often, with a more difficult silence, trying to find where it intersects with grace–because I believe there’s a place where all the different silences meet. 

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

Celan, Whitman, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, Rumi, Mary Oliver, Rilke, W H Auden, Lucille Clifton—in no particular order these writers have all had a huge impact on me.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.

The book is called The High Shelf. The image comes from a poem called “Explanation of the World” 

here’s the poem:

Explanation of the World

It was a shelf—

a high shelf—

and the boxes, spaced: just         so

each one apart from the other. 

Where was the wall? 

Above: firmaments
firmaments: below

Where were the supports? 

The shelf decorated with little shells 
and trees and an orange circle 

and from far, from far off, 
the sound of the sea.

The poem tries to give an image to a feeling of emptiness. 

My son was two at the time, and a friend’s teenage son had ODed and was in a coma. 

I had this horrible fear: what if something happened to my son? What would keep us safe? What would support us? And my poems started to change. I’d been writing long, dense poems, and I pared the language way back and tried to listen into the silence, tried to get under the surface to see the fundamental shape of things.

I didn’t have a formal meditation practice at the time, but the poems did the work of meditation–and led the way, in part, to my coming to meditation.

I was really asking big existential questions. And I didn’t have a spiritual tradition or faith to fall back on. Here was the potential death of someone’s beloved child. I looked around the world and I saw so much vulnerability and destruction–in myself, in humans everywhere, and also to the whole natural world itself. 

How do we go on in the face of that? 

As a child, though I was supported in many ways, in other crucial ways, I also wasn’t given the supports I needed. So I carried in me a deep feeling of personal uncertainty as well. 

The poems explore emptiness, not having boundaries or supports —and juxtaposes that against the kinds of supports that we as humans make. 

Some of those supports are helpful–we build houses, for example, to keep ourselves contained, protected from the elements. We make art. 

But some of the things we make to try to keep ourselves safe also box us in. That’s also a traumatic response. 

The book explores this sense of ungrounded openness and the limitations of boxes. And it tries to come to some comfortable space, some way to rest in both the uncertainty and the stories that we tell, in both the lack of support and the supports we do have. 

Though the book doesn’t provide an “answer,” my hope is that it takes readers on a journey to more inner resilience and connection. 

I didn’t write the book as a “project” book per se–I allowed the poems to lead me. It’s  only after I wrote the poems that I really understood fully what they were doing–or what they had to teach me—about myself, about the world, and about the wisdom and answers that can lie in poetry if we allow ourselves to listen. 

Purchase The High Shelf

Watch Nadia Colburn read from The High Shelf

Nadia Colburn’s poetry and prose has been published widely in such places as The New Yorker, TruthOut, Spirituality & Health, The Boston Globe Magazine, American Poetry Review, The LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection The High Shelf came out in the fall of 2019. The poet Chase Twichell wrote: “The High Shelf is an intimate record of hard spiritual and intellectual work. Spare, brilliant, and open-hearted, these poems do what we most need art to do in this perilous age: they show how the mind invents both itself and its world, and thus where our responsibility lies. This is a book that will reward both readers of poetry and those seeking insight into suffering and resilience. An exhilarating read.” Nadia holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, a BA from Harvard, is a kundalini yoga teacher, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, an activist, mother, and wife. Nadia is also the founder of Align Your Story classes and coaching for women, which offers poetry and creative nonfiction classes online and in Cambridge, MA. See more at: