Naomi Shihab Nye,

Interviewed by Tania De Rozario

NaomiShihabNye

“It’s nice to find Indian naan in Tokyo!” Photo Credit: Lin Hayakawa

Naomi Shihab Nye, known largely as a poet, has written and edited work across poetry, fiction and academia. Her literary accolades include four Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Arab American Book Award, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she has taught writing for over 40 years. Her most recent collection, Voices in the Air, was published earlier this year with Greenwillow Books.  

I first learned of Nye through her poem, Kindness. It brought me to tears, and as great poems often do, came to me at a point when I needed it most.

Let’s start with early beginnings in poetry and place. You grew up in San Antonio, Jerusalem and St Louis, Missouri, and much of your work focuses on place – domestic settings, country, State, the spaces between people. Where did poetry first find you, and how?

I was lucky to be “found” early – because my mother read poems to me at bedtime and our father told us Palestinian folktales that were very poetic in nature, full of images and rhythm and invocation and conversation, bedtime was surely the most peaceful and captivating time of the day. Also, we had our parents’ full attention then. I wrote my first poem at age 6 and felt a kind of satisfaction I’d never felt before – a glossy shine to the words when I returned to those simple four lines, a comforting “click” in the brain as if saying “You did something with that thought. You connected it.”  When I shared my first poem at school and had an older girl say to me, “I know what you mean” – I was hooked. So simply. Writing was a power within our grasp, whatever age we were. Writing belonged to anyone. It was portable and cheap. I wrote my first poem on the back of a white laundry bag in a hotel room.

Libraries, children’s anthologies, new and old collections of poems, offered all the stockpiled voices I needed to launch me into my magical new world. By age 7 in public school, Ferguson, Missouri, I had a teacher who believed poetry was at the centre of the universe and encouraged everyone in her classes to read and write it regularly. It was the heart of her curriculum – Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane. She was an elegant, old-world advocate of language and expanded vocabulary. She never suggested anything was above our heads. Lucky me! To have such a teacher at a young, formative age. I was able to thank her much later for all she had given us, when I continued on in my poetry practice, and only recently found two notes she wrote to my mother, in her compelling script. They felt like treasure maps, at this point.

And treasure itself, I’m sure!

You’re so right, compared to many art-forms, poetry is portable, cheap. That has never occurred to me. Singapore’s first and most famous Prime Minister once declared that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”

I feel sorry for anyone who says poetry is a luxury because poets consider it essential, like breath, like thinking. It’s not costly, so why is it a luxury?

In the U.S. I have often noticed that when a politician includes a scrap of poetry in a political speech – suddenly there’s something worth listening to. Poetry is a way of seeing the world, a sphere of connective suggestions, metaphor is a healing grace for all thinkers, it helps us put our mind-bits together, it helps us see what we think, then helps us convey that.

If we are to have empathy, we need poetry. If we are to expand our perceptions or imaginings about one another, poetry can be very helpful.

Yes –  in 2002, you said in an interview with Bill Moyer that “every time you care about something, or somebody that relates to a different place in the world, your empathy grows”, that loving somebody means having to “extend yourself”. Today, I feel these words urgently. Does poetry really have a place in fostering empathy?

Without a doubt. And this is the thing we need most in our world. And because, as American poet and scholar Rita Dove reminded, poetry is “immediate” – it doesn’t take as long to enter the world of a poem as reading a novel for example – so we need it all the time and everywhere and every day. Sometimes, we may only need a stanza. But to feel another perception or viewpoint through a poem is a vast and gracious thing – extending our own humanity toward wider care, which is what empathy is. The great Palestinian anthologist, translator and scholar, Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said, “If we read one another, we might be less likely to kill one another.”

Yes, reading poetry has always enabled me to connect things – it’s a means of mapping, searching, uncovering, discovering. And speaking of mapping, there is a lot of conversation these days about writers’ career trajectories. I am always interested in is how becoming a published author changes one’s practice. Did Tattooed Feet chart your writing life in ways you had not expected?

I have always had a very simple philosophy about “getting one’s work out there”: Each thing gives us something else. If I had not published poems in regional journals during my college years, small-press publisher Dwight Fullingim, who brought out Tattooed Feet and Eye-to-Eye, my first two chapbooks, from his Texas Portfolio Press, would never have heard of me. If he had not published those books, my first full-length publisher (James Anderson, Breitenbush books, Oregon) would never have heard of me. One thing always led to something else. I am grateful to all those people.

This is why I urge writers to publish their work as they go along.  I started sending poems to children’s magazines when I was seven. I have never had an agent.

Wow, seven -years -old! And have you faced any obstacles in your writing journey since then?

I don’t know if I faced any particular obstacles. Somehow I always just slid along from one thing to the next quite happily. Someone recently told me my books may have received unfair criticism from people who find it hard to accept that Palestinians are human beings too. If that’s true, it’s okay with me. I’ll take the criticism.

Right. A lot of your work responds so relevantly and succinctly to what is going on in the world. Do you respond poetically to events as they unfold, or do you have daily routines or processes that help you focus on, and develop, your writing?

Thank you for this comment. I write in a notebook every day and often find myself responding to what is happening in the atmosphere.  As human beings we are all part of a grand (and sometimes frustrating) conversation which hopefully belongs to all of us and writing helps us feel as if we are contributing our own ideas – even if no one else reads what we write. I use my notebooks as the wellspring for other writing – I write first thing every morning, rising at 5 or before; a cup of coffee is my other sacred spring. Going back to the notebooks and finding excerpts we wish to work on is another ongoing practice. I don’t wait for big ideas but try to engage tiny bits of ideas as they flow through. I love taking notes. I even take notes at the movies. It’s the best thing I’ve found to do and has served me at all my ages and for all my books.

Great advice. Also, speaking of books! Your most recent collection, Voices in the Air came out this year. It is strikingly beautiful, and pays tribute to wide range of writers and historical figures. It is also subtitled “Poems for Listeners”. For me, this speaks to poetry’s beginnings as oral traditions. Could you tell us a little bit about how this collection came about?

I am so deeply grateful to you for mentioning this book. We all hear a lot of voices every day – in our surroundings, in our heads, memories. These days in the U.S. we are swarmed by breaking news – every hour it seems – and have a chance to hear many voices we might prefer not to hear, along the way. I often find myself referring to a poem first read long ago, remembering what a beloved writer once said which might prove helpful for this particular moment, and those sources and memories are how this book of mine got started. I love thinking about people like Peter Matthiessen or Grace Paley or William Stafford who were truly inspiring in their daily lives as well as writings. They save my soul! The poet Robert Bly once wrote a beautiful series of poems called Gratitude to Old Teachers. We could add to our own compendiums every day. And the teachers don’t have to have been writers. They might have been kids or neighbours or hairdressers or grandmas.

And on the subject of teachers – any advice for emerging writers?     

Read as much as you can, find voices you love, keep them near you.

Write regularly – even if you only have five or ten minutes a day to write in, take it. Do it, You’ll feel a different gravity in your own voice.

And find a way to share your work.

Tania De Rozario is the author of And The Walls Come Crumbling Down and Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press, 2013/2016). Born in Singapore, she is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: