Resonant Vagabond:
An Interview with
Naomi Shihab Nye
by Solana d’ Lámant

Naomi Shihab Nye, poetNaomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” She has spent the last thirty years crossing the country—and the world—to lead writing workshops and inspire students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in many parts of the world, including Asia and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity.

Nye is the author and/or editor of more than twenty volumes. Her books of poetry include 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Red Suitcase, Words under Words, Fuel, and You & Yours. She is also the author of Mint Snowball (paragraphs); Never in a Hurry (a collection of essays); Habibi (a novel for young readers); and Sitti’s Secrets (a picture book). Other works include a picture book, Baby Radar, and eight prize-winning poetry anthologies for young readers, including Is This Forever, Or What?: Poems & Paintings from Texas and A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, as well as a novel for teens, Going Going.

For more information about Nye and her work, go to: www.barclayagency.com/nye.html.

Solana d’ Lámant: In Is This Forever, or What: Poems & Paintings from Texas (Greenwillow Books, 2004), you’ve included both poems and visual art. How do other arts influence your poetry?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I’d like to imagine we live in a world of connected arts and linked cultures, there’s no way to separate things. Actually, war separates, arts bind and resonate together. It’s impossible to appreciate or respond only to one kind of art, I’d think. They nurture one another. Our aesthetic sensibilities have many channels, but responding strongly to one kind of art makes us more sensitive to others.

Sd’L: You’ve been involved with some work in translation, and your anthologies were, in part, an effort to gather works from around the world. What is your philosophy of translation? Do you see the translation of language as synonymous with the translation of cultures?

NSN: Some people complain about what is “lost” in translation, idioms, intricacies of language, sound. But I prefer to think about what is “found”: a whole new audience. I have only worked as a modifying translator myself, being a pathetically monolingual person. And yes, I have featured translations in my anthologies because the world is wide and we need to read more voices from many lands, always.

Sd’L: Your poetry and the poetry you’ve collected in anthologies deal with the roles of multiculturalism and dual nationality in identity construction. The complexity of border identity (in this case, Mexican/ American) is reflected in Is This Forever? As a Palestinian-American, how do you find yourself facing similar issues regarding identity?

NSN: I am a very simple person. We work with what we have. I do believe our sense of cultures grows, or should grow, as we live longer lives, by way of exposure, empathy, care. Justice, or a lack of justice, seems to stimulate certain needs for creative expression as well.

Sd’L: You write a lot about your grandmother and her role in your life. You also encourage girls to write. On the other hand, your father is also clearly influential in your work. How do you identify yourself as a poet?

NSN: A wanderer. A vagabond with many influences, yes. Women, men, children, animals, a nut.

Sd’L: Given the current global political climate, do you feel it is more important than ever for writers and artists to deal with the political?

NSN: Yes, I do, because the current political scene is a disaster. A (Middle East expert) diplomat said to me, at the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “We need to keep two words in mind, arrogance (ours) and humiliation (theirs).” I haven’t been able to forget that.

Sd’L: Your book Mint Snowball (Anhinga, 2001) is a collection of prose poetry. Do you feel there is a difference between writing in stanza form and writing prose poetry? What is your interest in formal verse, rhyme and meter?

NSN: Answer to last question first: minor interest in formal verse. Very minor. Glad there is room for all kinds of taste in this world. I have always been interested in the blur between prose and poetry, and the writing of both. Simultaneous nourishment. They feed one another.

Sd’L: Whose poetry do you remember first entering your life? How did that poetry come to you, and how does that first poet play into your work?

NSN: Carl Sandburg. His face was on the television screen saying poems the first time I turned on a tiny black and white television in our old living room in St. Louis. It marked me. I have never stopped hearing him in my head.

Sd’L: Also among your own influences, you’ve mentioned W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, and Lucille Clifton. How do other writers influence your work? Who are you reading now (or most recently) who has influenced your work or way of thinking about poetry?

NSN: Other writers are the greatest gift a poet can have. They stretch my ear, my mind, my sense of language, they open up the universe. I do not trust a writer who says he or she does not read voraciously. That would be a kind of self-centered universe I have no interest in. Right now I’m reading twenty books simultaneously, as ever. Prose and poetry both. In the last few years I really loved books by Kate Barnes (whose mother Elizabeth Coatsworth was a great joy-of-reading to my childhood) and Jane Mayhall. Wow. There are so many great people to read, and I think everyone needs to read more.

Sd’L: Can you discuss the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?

NSN: You use a slightly different part of your mind or interior time-frame. You dip the bucket into a well with words or ideas that have a slightly different tinge of time to them. I don’t think the difference is huge. At least, not for me.

Sd’L: At a recent Dallas reading, Seamus Heaney compared the process of writing to scoring a goal in a game of soccer. What metaphor would you use to describe your writing process?

NSN: Sticking twigs into dirt. Water in a bucket. Wind in a bucket.

Sd’L: Some writers say that the silences between words are as important as what is printed on the page. Do you allow silences to create meaning in your work?

NSN: I would certainly hope so. The hinting is crucial. We need to respect it, always, especially when we have doubt. No, always. The silences will always be bigger than the words. One who doesn’t treasure the silences and the margins could not be a writer, I would think.

Sd’L: Do you believe writing can be taught? How do you approach teaching? How do you encourage students to take risks in their poetry?

NSN: We may guide and inspire one another. I’m not sure about “taught,” we may give hints, keep waking one another up. We may jar one another’s sensibilities or stretch one another’s perceptions. I’m not a real teacher, by the way. I’ve always just been a visiting writer. We may always ask questions.

Sd’L: What is good work, good poetry? What are the clues that tell you when a poem works?

NSN: When it sizzles inside and makes an electrical connection.

Sd’L: How do you see technology changing the way we read and write poetry?

NSN: I like the access which technology provides, the quicker connection to one another, to far places, to troves of information, it’s incredible. It should give us wider souls and deeper empathy, I’d think. I love blogs, reading them, not writing them. Fascinating and intimate. One could get lost in technology, though we also need to keep a relationship with basic simple acts like writing on a little piece of paper and folding it into an envelope.

Thanks for listening!

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