Naomi Shihab Nye Interview

Winter 2004

Harbour Winn: I think all of us are aware of your incredible energy. It’s almost like your energy is your bliss. But how are you able to be a poet and a writer, to be a mother and a wife, to be here with us now, and how are you able to be for yourself with all that energy

Naomi Shihab Nye: I think poetry gives us energy, because in many ways it gives us a deep breath. It gives us a respect for solitude—not that poetry is completely solitude, because I think it is community based as well. I think poetry is a way to connect with each other. But solitude is a source, a sense of the presence of time—not the kind of time that is always toppling forwards, “Quick we’ve got to get somewhere else! What’s the next thing we’re up to? What do we have to do for tomorrow?” That is a very exhausting perception of time and we’re all part of it, because we live in a world where we have many duties, responsibilities on our daily calendars. To be able to respond to all those calls, I think we need to be very aware of what the sources of energy are for ourselves. Reading has always been one, or just being with poems is another source of energy for me. Not always writing one, even just reading one.

There’s a new Jane Hirschfield poem I’ve been carrying around in my bag and just read for the first time. I find that every time I read it, and I read it if I’m feeling tired, I feel better. That sense of support through language, I would say that’s where it comes from—not being afraid to be quiet, especially in a world where we are called to speak and want to speak, but loving quietude and being very happy in it as well. From five or ten minutes of deep quiet, you can get enough energy to go. I think it’s that sense of balance between solitude and activity and also the sense of arrival in every moment; that is what poetry gives us to counteract the sense of always toppling forward and needing to do the next thing.

When I named the book of essays I wrote Never in a Hurry, some people said, “Oh, were you describing yourself?” I wish! That would be what I aspire to. Because I’m a human being, many times I get in a hurry, and I know it doesn’t feel good, you don’t give your best attention to things when you’re in a hurry. Poetry slows us down, suggests we pay better attention, and honors each moment for what it is.

John McBryde: I’ve noticed that with every poem I’ve listened to, when a poem is read the voice changes. It is not conversational, it is a different level of speaking. I notice that with you and Mark Doty and any time I’ve seen poetry read, especially by the writer of the poem, it is a different voice that you are going into. What is that “poetry” way of reading a poem?

NN: I’ve actually been at poetry readings where people in the audience complained that they had a very hard time telling when the poet was reading the poem [from] the talk in between. What is it that sets the poems aside from the talk? One thing is, when I read a poem I feel a little more comfortable stretching a syllable or holding a note; whereas, when you are talking you feel that you should be moving forward. You don’t feel as comfortable using a tiny bit of exaggeration. I often tell students when they are having a hard time reading their poems without mumbling, “Please exaggerate! You need to read at a pace which feels almost shockingly slow to you so that we can hear. You can let the syllables in each word stretch a little bit and have more intimation.” And people, of course, do it in all different ways—some people being more dramatic readers than others.

I think the poetry voice has more of a sense of cadence or rhythm or pause or emphasis. My husband taped Ashley Bryan reading some Langston Hughes poems last week. Ashley Bryan is one of the great speakers of other people’s poetry, I think, in the world and Langston Hughes is one of his favorite poets. Listening to him say these poems so dramatically was phenomenal. Even though I knew the poems really well and had read them to myself many times, it was as if I had a completely new experience just hearing him say them dramatically.

I think that language has inherent within it all of these different experiences. It has the visual experience. It is fun for students to experiment with their reading styles, to tape themselves reading and listen to it, to listen to different poets.

Elaine Smokewood: You talked this morning about the blankness and whiteness on the page and words being surrounded by that. I wondered if you would talk a little bit about how you see that relationship of nothingness, blankness, silence, whiteness, and words in the creative process.

NN: Sometimes I find when you’re really struggling with lines in a poem, simply to rearrange them spatially can be so helpful, to do wild things with them, scatter them, open them up, write on a very large paper so the space changes. To do something where you are able to feel the word itself as an entity can help, but the space is a part of the chord of music. I always loved the way poems ended. Carl Sandburg said if [it is] successful, something keeps happening in the air after the poem. It’s the end of the word, but there’s still action in the air. Space is acting upon you or the blank is acting upon you. Also, where you choose to break the line or go to another stanza is very, very useful in terms of what the poem is trying to do. So you respect the space.

Sometimes if I have a phrase, I’ll just keep saying it over and over, and then I’ll go do something else. I’ll go wash some dishes or take a walk or dig in the garden. When I say the line, the line will begin interacting with the space that’s just around us in the silence. It will attract almost magnetically where it wants to go. I like to think of the space as a walk, the words are walking across the paper. When you take a walk you have many options. You could keep going straight; you could take a turn, like when the poem suddenly turns a corner; you could go back over the ground you’ve covered; you could stop and just stare at things right where you are. So if I’m having trouble grooving with the language, I try to actually see it as a sidewalk or see it as movement in space.

When I read a poem back to myself, when I’m working with it and rearranging it, often it’s simply that placement that helps my mind find what isn’t necessary or where it might go. There’s nothing intellectual about the connotation as much as the placement, physically. I once took a very interesting class with Jimmy Santiago Baca. We had to give Jimmy, in advance, three of our poems that we felt fairly good about so he could have a sense of each person in the class. On the first night he gave us each an individual assignment that we were to do for the week; all the poems we wrote, we were supposed to keep this thing in mind. He didn’t want me to have a straight left margin. He said, “I noticed in your poems, though some of them have long narrative lines and some are shorter, you have a straight left margin in all of them. You can’t do that this week. The poem has to be more scattered across the page. Indent lines differently.” The things that I wrote or that I was given to write were very affected by the fact that I was trying out this thing that I didn’t feel so comfortable with, that he was challenging me to scatter my words more. I think sometimes we become comfortable with a shape and it’s good to try something else.

ES: You have talked about getting a sense of what the poem wants, what your lines want, what your words want. How do you see the relationship between the poet’s conscious will and the will of the poem?

NN: I do feel that the poem quickly develops a will of its own and is very stubborn and has certain ideas about itself. I feel that, living with poems, they work upon us. One thing that I love about living with poetry is that the longer you live, the more lines are given to [you] from other people’s poems. Lines will come out of the ether and I will think, where did that come from? Was that in a Merwin poem? It’s amazing how your mind becomes this rich reservoir of images and lines as life goes on.

Poems even know when to give themselves to you. Sometimes it’ll be a line from one of my own poems coming back to me, as if the poem is giving me a gift at the moment when I need it. It’s not a conscious thing at all. I think that poems want us to stop being so busy. I’ve said that for years, and the poem nods its head inside of me when I say that, because poems are offended by this human obsession with jittery activity. A poem demands and deserves another kind of consciousness. There is a poem that Gary Snyder wrote called “This Moment Only.” It’s about walking outside and just looking at a certain configuration of stars and moon, the way the air smells at that moment where he’s standing on the earth. He describes in a very tiny poem that this moment will not happen again. I think that’s the kind of consciousness that poetry has always wanted us to be aware of.

I remember when our son started high school people started asking him where he wanted to go to college. He came to me and said, “Did people do that to you too?” It’s not wrong to [look] ahead in your life and think, what am I interested in? But for someone to start asking you, as if these next four years are going to mean nothing, people are already pushing you beyond this time. I think it’s a disservice we do in our culture, I think it’s a way of dishonoring the moment. And I think that [is] part of the reason there has been such an attraction to humanities projects around the nation in recent years, projects that relate to the past— oral histories, lost history, history of our cities, history of our music, history of our ancestors. We are such a forward looking people there is something in our souls that cries out for a root and gravity and needing to know more of the past. I think that obsession with our past is a good one. We need it to balance our obsession with the future.

ES: You seem to be such a profound poet of loss. In your poetry I get this sense of a chemical process happening where loss becomes transformed into some kind of palpitating presence. Do you get a sense of that?

NN: I’ve always had a very sharp, acute awareness of loss. I remember at early ages feeling how quickly everything moved past us and feeling stricken by that. I was very attached to the twilight hour or half hour, depending upon what season it is. It wasn’t something I could articulate. I didn’t even know the word twilight probably. But I remember being drawn outside at that time or being drawn to the front door to look out at the grass, at the willow right in between day and night. I remember that time being so swiftly gone and feeling like, I have to wait till tomorrow to see everything look that way again. My father and I would go out on the Admiral, the old river boat, on the Mississippi river and ride around and I would feel like weeping when we had to get off because I would think, I won’t be on this boat now. I loved the sense of being on the river. There was always this feeling of life pushing us forward. So, yes, a sense of loss is everywhere. And I think loss is a basic human experience that we are grappling with all the time. It does not get easier, we just have more experiences with it to go by.

HW: What do you listen for, and how do you respond?

NN: I listen for a moment that listens out of all other moments. I listen for a voice which stretches out beyond where it might have been at a certain moment. Those moments always stop me, when someone speaks. I am very attracted to the human voice and the casual remark and what someone says to someone else, where it’s not too precious a moment but it’s just a little stretch, a little stretch.

Listening in this time has felt so difficult with the war going on and with so much language in the media that feels manipulated and distorted to me, no matter what you think about the war. There was a great article in the New York Times a few weeks ago about how wartime distorts language. The scholar linguist went back to all the wars of the twentieth century, to phrases that had never been popular or used before that particular war, why they came into popularity, which ones vanished forever in our common language and which ones stuck around. There were phrases that I had no idea had war connection in the past. In times like this, when I feel a certain abuse of language or language manipulated for particular responses, I listen for a true note in language and in the world itself, a true note whatever it is, if it’s just the sound when you walk outside. There’s the great Stafford poem called “Evening News.” He can’t stand the evening news; he turns it off. He goes to the sink to wash his hands; he goes to the back door, touches a plant outside the door and says, “I pray to the grasses, oh please make everything go deep again!” I listen for that little moment. And it’s very available. It’s all around.

JM: You have traveled widely around the world and have met people everywhere and engaged them. I think that you have found and brought back to us a sense that there are very little differences between us. What do you think, in terms of the human condition, why do we behave the way we behave versus the way we all apparently are?

NN: That is the question that confounds me, John. That is the question that makes something like war seem such a failure of imagination. If human beings are able to connect and communicate across their differences and through their cultural differences why can’t we put that to use when we really need it? I’m sure that people who’ve worked in different cultures, different countries have experiences of strong resonance with one another. That’s the abiding power. I feel every use of weapons is a failure. I feel that none of us would send our beloved children to school saying, “Now you’re going to have to get along with a lot of people, and they’re not all going to be like you. They may not want to share. They may not have the same ideas. And if you find you’re just not getting along at all, just kill them.” None of us would tell our kids that! So why can our country tell us that’s okay? That confounds me! This does not say that I don’t support my troops or support Americans who are willing to die.

A girl said at a campus in San Antonio recently, “I support my troops so much that I want them home in their beds! I don’t want them dying for me.” She said, “I am very troubled by the fact that people have gone to die for me and I don’t want them to die! People on my campus are telling me that I am a traitor because I am not pro this war. I was brought up to communicate. When the going got rough, that’s when you communicate—not when it’s easy and we’re all on the same page.”

Anyone who spends time with level-headed, calm-hearted Palestinians and Israelis knows they feel the same way on the issue. It involves a kind of mutual respect. I think when we look at history and how much cultural history there is, in all fields—in religious history, artistic history, educational history—we should keep relying on the wisdom gained in those other places.

I [feel that] politics is the problem. I mean, you’re not going to see librarians going to war with each other, even if this librarian loves a certain kind of book and that librarian loves a certain kind of book. They have invested themselves in a certain kind of behavior, a certain kind of relationship and a belief. They think of something very creative to do. I think about politics being the problem and the impulses and motivations that are behind politics being the problem. I wrote an op–ed piece in San Antonio not long ago that I just thought, what about a year where we put everything in the hands of librarians and school teachers and see if things are better or worse. I bet they could work it out.

Nobody can be a politician by nature, by desire, by past. And this is not to say that I completely disrespect politicians, I don’t. I think many times that politicians are working with their better natures in tow and they are working on our behalf. But then things come up. If you are in any other area of life, that would not be appropriate, you would not resort to killing!

Someone said to me in New Jersey a few weeks ago, “I know about your city, San Antonio, isn’t that a city that used to have a really bad gang problem?” And I said, “Actually, we did have real gang issues in San Antonio, especially in the ‘80’s. So many people worked on those problems, like what was creating the gangs. Whether they were priests or sociologists or psychologists, people went into these schools where there were lots of issues with gangs and really worked.” I said, “You know, we didn’t go bomb them. There was no moment when we said, ‘You know if you guys don’t behave, if you keep having gangs we’re bombing your school out of existence.’” We would never do that!

I’m getting off the subject, but I do think that, for example, I know a lot of retired diplomats, many of whom work in Washington, D.C. and they are brilliant about the Middle East. They are completely fluent in Arabic and English. They have devoted themselves to bringing people together, bringing different consciousnesses together. I have asked them, “Does anyone ever ask for your advice now in the government? Does anyone call you in?” They said, “No. When we retire, it’s like we don’t exist.” That is a wealth in this country; we should be using those people to the maximum, people who have devoted their lives to diplomacy and to working out problematic issues in countries where we as a country are having a problem. Those are the people we should be calling on. I think that’s a humanities question, because these are people who are educated in a wide realm and they have no political gain for themselves anymore. They are retired. These are people we can use. Why don’t we use them? We have so many resources.

HW: What about your experience now working with the National Endowment for the Humanities? What’s that like? What hopes do you have?

NN: I am very honored to be connected to the great work that is done by humanities councils in all states and the National Endowment. To me, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is not political. Although it is related to politics and funded through politics, I think of it as being related to the soul of humanity and the kind of work that goes on with education and research and discovery and articulation of our history and our heritage in this land. I have been very heartened to know what great projects go on, all over the place, that unless you are right there you might not have heard of them. Humanities councils around the country have operated in so many different ways appropriate to their own population and their own needs. Everything related to the NEH is uplifting to me, because humanities itself is an uplifting subject. If we really believe in the humanities between countries too, we would find some ways to get past the most difficult times and spend resources in better ways. When you think about humanities councils and the NEH in general, great things are done with what seems like a small amount of seed money. That’s very inspiring. How many people are brought into projects or suddenly see their own lives as part of the larger story of humanities? None of us are existing in a vacuum. We are all part of this national community. So, it has been very heartening for me to be part of this wonderful group of people.

One good thing to think about—you know sometimes when we feel sad about money and we feel wasted in certain ways by our country or government— there is so much money being spent in good ways that we often don’t hear about because it doesn’t get a lot of fanfare, really beautiful projects that would lift all our spirits. Just to travel from state to state and go to one humanities event in each state would be amazing because they’re so different, such different scales.

HW: This is a different direction, but I think that often a poet can be identified or known by a poem or a couple of poems that are often anthologized. For example, you might be known as the poet who wrote “Making a Fist.” How do you feel as a poet when you see certain poems recur in many anthologies? Or, if you were an editor, which poems of Naomi would you include?

NN: Well I don’t know what poems of my own I would [choose], but it is intriguing how a certain poem will get reprinted so many times. And it’s never, never the poem you would have imagined. When somebody writes and says, “We’d like to use a certain poem,” if it’s an odd poem, a poem that no one has ever used before, asked to reprint, I always write them a special thank you message saying, “I really appreciate that you listened to that slightly odd poem for whatever reason.” It’s all very mysterious and idiosyncratic.

You know, I don’t mind niches. Sometimes people say, “Do you mind labels? Are you offended if someone calls you a Texas poet?” Not at all. “What if they call you a Palestinian-American poet?” Fine with me. “What if they say you are a woman poet?” That’s okay, I am. I don’t feel that labels diminish human beings. I feel they give someone a handle on who we are. One thing funny to me is when that poem [“Making a Fist”] first appeared, my mother sort of said, “What? I said that? I would never say that!” As the years went on and the poem started appearing in more anthologies, she would give a little talk when she was with me about how she remembered the scene. And I’d say, “Hey mom, I thought you didn’t remember that!” And she’d say, “Well, now I do. It came back to me, I remember it all.” She doesn’t remember doing that.

It’s all a surprise and I think that is something young poets can feel good about when they send their poems out. They just don’t know which ones—even the ones they might have real doubts about sending out or sharing—might be the ones that get accepted. I read this quote in college, Gertrude Stein saying every masterpiece in the world came into the world with a measure of ugliness in it. She said masterpieces don’t come perfectly honed, they come where people read them and go, “What is that? That is so weird.” You think back to the things that we consider great now and maybe how they were seen in their own time.

ES: Do you have a sense when you’re working with kids in schools that you’re giving them something that can potentially save them?

NN: Oh, I hope so, because I do feel that poetry is a saving grace and a saving genre. Students tell me years later that poetry did help them in significant ways or gave them a kind of confidence. In Texas we were having a movement some years ago, talking to Texas educators, and there was always this “back to basics” theme. I would say, “What is more basic than the sense of your own voice? If you have confidence in your own voice you can do anything.” Creative writing becomes very important because that is the way a student tunes into his or her own material and voice. You don’t get it out of a multiple choice question. We need to keep that an essential part of curriculum, where students are able to exercise their own voices and find the power in that. That will help them in whatever they do, not just if they want to become poets or writers but in anything.

Transcribed by Ashly Boyles | Originally Published in Humanities Interview, Winter 2004