A Poet’s Humble Answers: Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye
BY Michael Nye

When approached for a biography, NAOMI SHIHAB NYE mentioned “the shorter the better,” a refreshing yet humble remark for a writer and educator who perceives herself as a “wandering poet.” Born in 1952 to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she grew up in Texas, St. Louis and Jerusalem. Her debut collection, Different Ways to Pray (Breitenbush) appeared in 1980. For the past thirty-five years, Nye has established her reputation as an inspiring educator, committing herself to teaching cultural tolerance, diversity and a common humanity through writing.

She has authored books in various genres for adults and young children: You & Yours (BOA Editions, 2005), A Maze Me: Poems for Girls (Greenwillow, 2005), 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (HarperCollins, 2002), Red Suitcase (BOA Editions, 1994), and Words Under the Words (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1995). Volumes of essays include Mint Snowball (Anhinga Press 2001), Never in a Hurry (University of South Carolina Press, 1996), and I’ll Ask You Three Times, Are you Okay? (HarperTeen, 2007), among others. Her book of poems for young adults, Honeybee, garnered the Arab American Book Award (Children’s/Young Adult) in 2008.

Recipient of numerous accolades in the United States, Nye is a regular columnist for Organica and serves as a poetry editor for The Texas Observer. She currently resides in San Antonio, Texas with her husband and son.

Yannis Ritsos: “A poet is the first citizen of his country and for this very reason it is the duty of the poet to be concerned about the politics of his country.” Why do you think the political voice of poetry in American is relatively “weak”?

I don’t think of the political voice of our poetry as being weak. Consider the Sam Hamill “Poets Against the War” project and the brave, clear work of so many poets from Robert Bly to W.S. Merwin to Alice Walker to Chana Bloch to Fady Joudah — weak? The listeners may be weak in their willingness to imagine where poetry can take us. The politicians might be weak in their response or imaginative linkage, to all that’s going on. But I don’t think the poetry is weak.

What can poetry do, then, to help engage listeners and politicians to be stronger in their listening, willingness, response or imaginative linkage?

Well, we need to keep extending imaginations, pressing, repeating, invoking, suggesting what other realities might exist, instead of the nightmares of war and hatred and conflict. Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” project has given us all a strong awareness that we’re not just isolated beings, calling into the dark, which is a good thing, because sometimes it does feel that way. No child votes for war. No child votes for further heartbreaking chaos. If we are to be honorable, we must continue to invoke the best dreams of childhood and not be talked out of them by powermongers and weapons-producers and righteous fundamentalists of every stripe. People often ask me about the fundamentalists I’ve known — most of them have been Christian. I met a man the other night who said he used to work in an weapons factory in Israel. I said, Oh, very regrettable, my Palestinian father would have loved to have a chat with you. The man, who was very kind in behaviour, and neither Jewish nor Arab nor Middle Eastern at all, said he had loved the hospitality of the Arabs and always liked to be with them as much as possible. He also said, “I would much prefer peace in the world, you know.” Yet he made weapons, for a whole decade. It was a job. Too much money in war.

No child votes for war. No child votes for further heartbreaking chaos. If we are to be honorable, we must continue to invoke the best dreams of childhood…

Would you agree that the American poetry scene today resists more, as compared to other cultures, in reminding us of specific things we are forbidden to see, for fear of “politicizing,” yet ironically “idealizing” the image of poetry as a form of art?

Not really. I don’t know. I keep mentioning the time I flew on a plane a few years ago and was the only person on the plane with all my limbs. The rest were soldiers, en route to a conference “with other people like us” — said my seatmate. “To learn how to live again.” I wished all Americans who were buying into Bush’s bullying tactics could be on that plane, see the sadness on those faces. We need to see more than we see, that’s for sure. When Americans really see how Palestinian people are treated, they change in their feelings about Israel, the so-called democracy.

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