Making Larger Sense of Our Little Lives: An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

by Tara Shea Burke

Naomi Shihab Nye is an award-wining Palestinian-American poet, writer, anthologist, and educator. Her books of poetry include , Red Suitcase, and You & Yours. Her novel Habibi was published in 1999, and she’s well-known as the editor of the poetry anthology This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World. She wears many hats and writes in many genres, but most importantly she has made a voice for herself, successfully, by writing poems that test our comfort zones, whether that be by use of politics, war, the natural world, or our bodies. Naomi Shihab Nye was one of the first woman poets I read who taught me to say what is important, and to speak from what I know. I’m constantly struggling with how to do this well as a poet, how to test boundaries and write, as Neruda begged, of the impure and bad tastes, and still reach wide audiences. Nye has done this, and as soon as we were asked to do interviews this year, my hand shot up like a five-year-old know-it-all in kindergarten. “I’ll interview Naomi Shihab Nye!” I said. And that was that.

As the time came closer, I started to get nervous. She’s been interviewed over and over again, and I wanted to be unique, but still ask the questions most writers want to know. This is my first time interviewing someone so successful, as well as my first year teaching college students. As an MFA candidate, I was lucky enough to get an intro to literature course. Because poetry is my heart, I made sure to pack it full of current poetry they might better connect with. This is where my mind was the day I sent my questions via email to Nye; I was feeling a bit discouraged that I couldn’t get 34 twenty-somethings to spark any interest in poetry, even with my most daring selections.

TSB:I was trying to get my students today to wrap their brains around poetry of witness. I read them several kinds of political poems about abortion, sexuality, current events, and many political poems about past and current wars that give me chills every single time. They were not only notmoved, but unsure that poetry is the right vessel for politics. They were still trying to beat meanings out of the poems that weren’t on the page, no matter how much I told them, “It’s all right here. There are no codes to crack.” I also struggled to explain that the personal and seemingly mundane aspects of their lives are just as political as current debates on war, human rights in the world, and whether or not Americans should carry guns or vote for certain politicians. You’ve explored these ideas many times in your own poems, in ways that address war directly, and also in poems about your personal life, your relationship with your father, death, human connections and honeybees, and spirituality. Could you reflect for a moment on how you see yourself as a poet of witness?

NSN: It is impossible to separate entirely from the worlds which surround us – as much as we might like NOT to think about – all the wars, inequities, injustices, catastrophes, environmental disarray – we are part of everything, implicitly, by our very being on earth, being taxpayers, etc. How we experience our personal lives in such a context, how we consider the delicate maneuvers which sustain us but are denied so many citizens, is necessary context for writing and thinking and considering, every minute. How could we neglect it? Who would we be? It is easy for me to go outside and water my yard with a hose, any morning, before dawn. For how many people would this simplest act be impossible? How many don’t have water, a hose, or a yard? Everything is connected. Years ago the phrase occurred to me “Each thing gives us something else” – and often, that “else” is a wider apprehension. Writing may not solve things but it shines light on them, helps us think about them, calls them out [and] places us in a wider fabric of being.

TSB: Then how, specifically, do you address a more heated political topic of debate in your poems? If there is something you want to say about a current event, or any of our world’s wars or fallacies, how do you keep yourself from stepping up to a soapbox and ranting, therefore, shutting people out, like many new poets (myself included) tend to do?

NSN: Do it through story, imagery, detail. Ranting tends to provoke opposition – naysayers, denial – but who will say, “I’m sorry, that is not your story or anyone else’s story.” I’m sorry, that’s not what it looked like to you. Be as particular as possible. Find an avenue that feels tangible to you. Walk down it in words.

TSB: And then to expand again, how can poetry keep doing this act of witnessing in today’s technological age, where most young, otherwise bright students think poets and writers are of an elite minority that spend too much time thinking about the world in an emotional context? As a writer, I see poetry as something that will never die, and is always changing and growing in its own ways; the huge amount of poets in MFA programs is testament to that. But then I’m reminded by my students that it’s all very interesting to them when they make a connection, but in the end a waste of time. They are afraid to delve into the realm of emotions for fear of being too sentimental, or because the emotional aspects of our lives are no longer valued because there is no immediate reward for feeling deeply. How do you feel poetry can keep its momentum and instill connection and change?

NSN: I’m not sure what you mean by “there is no immediate reward for feeling deeply.” I think there is. I mean, what else would there be? Feeling shallowly? Being numbed? But I also have trouble with a phrase like “elite minority” – who are these people? Never met ‘em yet. I just think we need to read as much as possible, find voices that nourish us, find voices inside us that feel genuine, and try to speak and write in them. I definitely think people are always too worried about “what someone else is going to say about this.” Tom Waits, my hero, said, “You must risk something which matters.” Underscored.

TSB: I feel like many poets originally came to the page, whether it was when we were 6, 12, or 32, because there was something about their lives or the world directly outside of them that they felt needed to be said and defined. Something was missing. Maybe that is the unique space in all of us that society ignores: the space between worlds, the soul, the heart, the God, the place where good metaphors make connections between mind and body, whatever you want to call it, that poets have been trying to put into words for centuries. Why did you begin writing? Did expressing your world through language create a kind of new space? Why do you keep coming back to the page?

NSN: I love this question. I love how you say, “Something was missing.” I came to the page before I could even read it. I wanted to listen to those words which had more space around them – poems, floating islands of words, elegant, brief lines which had the power to transport a listener far, far from the directive, argumentative language of every day.

They suggested – words can do something else too. Words can hint, link, glisten. At age 6, having learned how to write a few simple things, a deep experience (entering the great city of Chicago for the first time and feeling overwhelmed by all I did not know) caused me to NEED to write a poem – immediately. I still remember the palpable excitement, gripping a pencil, shaping giant crooked letters on a white laundry bag – only paper available in the hotel room where we were staying – and the feeling of satisfaction that settled over me afterwards. I remember thinking, “This is what we do. We live and then we try to describe something about it.” It is such a pleasure to be in love with the cheapest art.

TSB: I was reading another interview with you and in it you mentioned the Middle Eastern (and many other cultures of our world) tendency to slow down and pause for a moment in the day. This kind of rest and reflection to have a cup of tea or coffee, from a real mug with a real friend, during a usually busy hour, just to be alive in the body and look around at the world as we pass through it, is akin to what poetry asks of us. Even in your poems that sometimes highlight the darker aspects of the human condition or of the societies that oppress, you are brilliant in reminding your readers of the light in the darkness, or on the next page offer a poem that makes us smile and celebrate our small life on this earth. I struggle with this, but am reminded by skilled poets like you to slow down. Is this something you consciously work towards, or does it come naturally after practice?

NSN: Again, I love your question. Let’s just bask in it. I definitely think people need to pause more, absorb what they are experiencing, accept “slowness” as a very precious way of being. This whole jazzed-up distracted delusion of “busy-ness” which some people think is a necessary way of behavior is a very unattractive aspect of our culture, our times. We can make a concerted effort not to live that way. It doesn’t benefit us much. I like the “slow food” movement. I like walking. I like simplicity, and often poems, with their manageable lengths and carefully selected phrasings, can contribute to our daily efforts for simple clarity.

TSB: You have published countless books of poems, but have also published in all kinds of genres, including poems and stories particularly aimed towards young girls. Can you talk a bit about your process and drive to write poems that speak specifically to our youth, particularly young women at turning points in their lives? Would you recommend other poets to get out of their comfort zone and try on other purposes for their poems, or other genres?

NSN: Well, I wouldn’t say countless. I’d say 33. I feel closer to youth than to most or many adults – perhaps it is a case of arrested development. Close to their idealism – their high hopes – their melodrama – their sense of the world as a fluid, evolving experience. I have no understanding of their attraction to vampires, however. Certainly it might be good for all of us to get out of our “comfort zones” regularly – we learn more. Young women, in transition from childhood to young adulthood, have always fascinated me – what stays, what gets left behind. As writers, we are lucky to feel a sense of “audience” at all – a “younger audience” has always intrigued me but this would be a matter of general taste more than intellectual selection. I love a young audience’s energy and confusion. I respect the questions of kids. Actually, I revel in them.

TSB: I thank you for getting to this point after many wordy, excited questions. What are you working on now? Will you write until you can’t write anymore? What advice do you have for all the MFA poetry graduates in our country? Why should we all keep on trucking with words in lines and lovely alliterations?

NSN: You are generous! I am working on a chapter book for seven-year-olds. I’m in the ninth draft. The book is set in the country of Oman. One wouldn’t think it would take so long. I wrote draft one before I ever went there. Muscat – magic place.

I can’t imagine giving up writing. It gives us a much larger life. Or, a larger sense of our little life. How lonely would we be without it?
Advice for MFA graduates: keep reading, keep sending out work, keep believing in your own voice and the voices which move you, find friends. I do think people need to read more widely. All the time. We each have great gaps in our reading realms – never too late to fill them in.

I always recommend Wiliiam Stafford and W.S. Merwin to everyone. Here too.
A toast to you!

Yes, a toast to all of us that don’t let go, even when the young minds discourage us. Words must find a way to reach them, and who better to remind us that it’s possible, then an established poet and writer like Naomi Shihab Nye. She reminded me to use my words carefully (no more countless when I can count the amount) and to teach people how to recognize the immediate, more profound rewards and outcomes, of feeling deeply.

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Tara Shea Burke is just a few months and thesis formatting sessions away from completing her MFA at Old Dominion University. She is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, which has taken her to South Africa for service learning and will take her to Senegal in May 2012. She is a poetry editor for Barely South Reviewand has an essay in this summer’s forthcoming book, Loving the L Word. She lives with her partner and their three dogs in Chesapeake, Virginia.