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.


Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose
BY Naomi Shihab Nye
(Green Willow Books, 2008)

You and Yours

You and Yours
BY Naomi Shihab Nye
(BOA Editions Ltd., 2005)

Never in a Hurry

Never in a Hurry: Essays
on People and Places

BY Naomi Shihab Nye
(University of South Carolina
Press, 1996)

Words Under the Words

The Words Under the Words:
Selected Poems

BY Naomi Shihab Nye
(The Eighth Mountain Press, 1994)

A significant part of your work consists of keen contributions to children’s literature. How can poetry and its metaphoric density work towards not ostracizing children? Is there really a so-called “children’s literature” after all?

More of childhood is poetry than adulthood will ever be. For children, the land of metaphor is still very close, very rich and available. Too much analysis of the dry kind ostracized generations of readers. No one listens to a jazz concert and goes out into the parking lot to analyze it. We bask. More basking in poetry has always been needed. The world of “children’s literature” and yes, I do think there is one, but adults are also invited, is one of the best worlds going. My son, age 23, and I just read Allan Ahlberg’s My Brother’s Ghost and adored it. But, I might also read it to the 5 year old down the block and feel right at home.

Empathy and accessibility are two of the most appealing facets of your work. How do you finetune your poignant naturalness in writing?

Years of practice. Thanks for saying that. I don’t know. I am a simpleton in many ways and always was, and that helps.

Do you believe in a woman’s voice coloring a poem (or any other form of literature)? Has the role of women writers truly evolved in contemporary American poetry?

No, I really don’t. I’m more interested in how we all contain everything. Surely the role has evolved. There are more of us, we are everywhere, and we know it! Everyone knows it!

Many writers conceive their ideas in terms of one or the other genre. You write both fiction and poetry. In your experience, how does the creative process and energy differ?

They are entirely different animals but they bend to dine in the same field. And it’s an instinctive impulse, which gets written at which moment. I have very rarely switched from one to the other with a particular text. The energies, when writing longer prose works, require more focus for longer periods of time — difficult for us short-form addicts. A short-short doesn’t require a different focus. But a long and deliberate crafting of a poem also takes a certain ability to re-integrate into the original moments of impulse and linkage. It’s all hard, it’s all easy, it invites us into our lives. I strongly encourage people to “go for” even seven minutes of writing a day, to stay tuned. Even when you don’t have larger blocks of time — small blocks can help keep your focus clarified and exercised. You retain the ability to jump right into a page without too much hesitation or reservation.

Is there any agenda that orientates your current and/or new writings?

Fascination with narrative movement, characters being revealed so quickly through conversation.

Also, weaving my precious father’s voice (using his notebooks and unpublished writings and old letters to editors, etc.) through a series of poems to him — the ongoing conversation after a most-beloved person dies.

Speaking of your father, he figures often in your poems and interviews. Could you talk about his experience upon arriving in America as a student in 1951? And his view on your writing poetry?

Does the Land Remember Me

Does the Land Remember Me?
A Memoir of Palestine

BY Aziz Shihab
(Syracuse University Press, 2007)

My father loved writing of all kinds, so he was a most encouraging dad for a poet to have. He loved language, words, journalism, and investigative reporting, and worked as a radio news broadcaster for the BBC when he was still in his teens. I just found his scrapbook from his first years in the United States, which I never saw before in my life. He was actively writing letters to many U.S. newspapers as a brand-new immigrant — about balance in reporting, about how the story of Israel and Palestine was being told in various skewed ways, about the troubling involvement of other countries which was not respecting people equally. He felt very concerned that more people weren’t seeing the larger story, or people were neglecting his own community when they told the sweetened stories of Israel’s founding etc. He was always wounded by phrases like “the Israelis made the desert bloom.” He’d say, we made it bloom too! But they wanted to erase our blooms! He said so many things. I urge any readers who are interested to find his book Does the Land Remember Me? A Memoir of Palestine by Aziz Shihab (Syracuse University Press) which came out only months before his death in 2007. In his scrapbook he even had a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt because he kept writing to her. She said she didn’t know if there could ever be an independent Palestine side-by-side with an independent Israel, or if Jerusalem could ever be an international city — the same things being struggled over today, 50+ years later. She also said, wrongly, that all Palestinian homes had been destroyed, so why would they want to go back there? Many homes were destroyed but certainly not all of them.

Your poem, “The Indian in the Kitchen” reveals a wonderful ability to cut through many cultural/social lines simultaneously. It suggests an openness and humanity that everyone should practice. How did it came about? What would you advise someone who wished to become more open and tolerant?

Spend more time with people not your own age. With people from backgrounds which do not mirror your own. With anyone you might consider an “other” — even urban people need to spend more time with small-town or rural people, etc.

We were always travelers in my family and being bicultural gave me an appetite for mixtures and for the world behind any given scene — it is always so large and there is always so much we have not imagined. I wrote that poem in Guatemala. But in so many countries, there has been some kind of Indian in the kitchen. Even our own. In high school in Texas, working on the school newspaper, I remember wanting to feature interviews with the behind-the-scenes cafeteria crew on the “Features” page and some of my young colleagues were less than enthusiastic. We did it — they had so much to say. Also, I have always been in the kitchen myself!

What awaits you now on your reading table?

Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster (a novel for young adults) and Joe Sacco’s Palestine — I’ve been a little slow to get this one, but have always felt grateful for what he does.

Thank you for listening.

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