Naomi Shihab Nye is a celebrated poet, anthologist, and novelist. S&H speaks with her about her life, her work, and her faith.
“All human beings need to have poems at the ready for all the days on which they are going to need them,” says Naomi Shihab Nye. “Once you get hooked, you need them every day. I think people who give themselves the possibility of reading a poem or a few poems every day are giving themselves a gift.”
Nye has a distinct memory of writing her first stanza. She was six. She had accompanied her parents on a trip from St. Louis to Chicago. “I had seen so many astonishing things: the glittering buildings, the beautiful water, the bridges that would crack open and rise up in the air for boats to go under—I never even dreamed something like that could happen in the world—elevated railways. All of these magical things suddenly presented themselves to me.” That night in the hotel she asked her father for paper. Because her nascent handwriting was so large, she composed her first poem on a huge paper laundry bag pulled from the closet.
“I just wanted to praise the city of Chicago. I wanted to write a thank you note—a gleaming poem to my experience of the day. And I remember, after writing my little four-line poem, feeling so relieved, so peaceful that you could do that. That you could put words down on paper and go to bed, and in the morning they would still be there, and you could remember how you felt.”
“I hung it in the hallway at my school and a slightly older child asked, ‘Did you write that? I went there too. I know what you mean.’” Nye describes “having that momentary joy of connection with a person through four lines. There was a feeling of electricity, of me thinking, ‘I want to always do this.’”
Now Nye can look back on a life of writing that has brought her acclaim as a poet, anthologist, and novelist. “I have never thought of poetry or writing as a career. I don’t like the word career. I’ve thought of it as a devotion. ... It serves me, balances me, helps me see, and gives me back that sense of care that I think—hopefully—is at the heart of all faiths.”
Nye’s own faith journey started before her birth with twofold rejections. Her father, a Palestinian refugee, was raised a Muslim but rejected the faith. His parents accepted his choice. Nye explains, “They just said, ‘Be a good person, love human beings, love the earth, love god, love each other, and that’s okay.’” Her mother was raised in a narrow sect of Lutheranism and also left her childhood faith behind. But her parents “were horrified,” explains Nye. “They believed that other faiths, even other Lutherans, were wrong.” Nye herself has spent the last 15 years closely connected to the Zen Buddhist community through Tassajara and the San Francisco Zen Center.
Among Nye’s career highlights is the volume 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. It is an effort to bring understanding between Americans and Arabs and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a theme to which she often returns. In her recent poem “Morning Song,” she writes:
The tiny journalist
will tell us what she sees.
Document the moves, the dust,
soldiers blocking the road.
Yes, she knows how to take a picture
with her phone. Holds it high
like a balloon.
“Did They Function as Tools?”
Nye once thanked Romanian poet Nina Cassian for her poetry. Cassian responded: “That’s all well and good, but did my poems ever really serve you when you needed help? Were they of use to you? Did they function as tools when you needed to pry something open?”
Nye recalls: “I just wanted to fall at her feet and hug her knees. Her poems are so precise and exquisite and mysterious. Let’s have poems that are tools that help us do things, help us open things.”