Naomi Shihab Nye on Poetry, Humanity, and WiFi

The job of poetry, Nye says, is to serve humanity on the ground


Back when I was in middle school, there was a group called JOY Poetry, which stood for Joining Old and Young. We used to visit nursing homes in Northern New Jersey, and share our poems with the residents, who in turn read their poems to us. It was an even trade between two parties on either side of a lifetime, bypassing the ego of active adulthood in the name of self-expression.

I recently asked Naomi Shihab Nye, who is currently the country’s Young People Poet’s Laureate, why it is that adolescents and elderly connect so well through poetry.

“They’re both frank and forthright people,” she replies without missing a beat. “The young ones don’t yet see any reason to masquerade their essential selves and the older ones have long since given it up.”

Nye, who lives in San Antonio and teaches at Texas State University, has been writing poetry since she was six years old. By seven, she was submitting her work to literary magazines. “I always had that instinct,” she recalls, describing herself as resilient from a young age and forever wanting to be a part of a larger conversation.

Born to an American mother and Palestinian father, Nye was raised in St. Louis, Missouri until the age of 14, at which point the family moved to the West Bank, where her father’s side lived. They returned to the U.S. a year later and settled in San Antonio.

Nye attended Trinity University where, perhaps unsurprisingly, she studied world religions. Upon graduation, the Texas Commission on the Arts hired her as a creative writing instructor for the school system: “I saw early on that poetry could make other people feel better about having their own voice.”

How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?
When you quietly close

the door to a room
the room is not finished.
It is resting. Temporarily.
Glad to be without you
for a while.
Now it has time to gather
its balls of gray dust,
to pitch them from corner to corner.
Now it seeps back into itself,
unruffled and proud.
Outlines grow firmer.
When you return,
you might move the stack of books,
freshen the water for the roses.
I think you could keep doing this
forever. But the blue chair looks best
with the red pillow. So you might as well
leave it that way. 

For decades Nye has worked with students throughout the country and internationally, regularly traveling overseas to teach and conduct workshops in numerous school settings. The Poetry Foundation named her the Young People’s Poet Laureate for 2019 to 2021. Her position has recently been extended to summer 2022 in light of the pandemic.

“I always shunned the idea of any kind of laureate role, but a dear friend — who was the poet laureate of his state — said I had a bad attitude,” Nye laughs. “He told me it’s not an ego thing, but a way to be of bigger service.”

As laureate, Nye is committed to bringing poetry to “geographically underserved or rural communities,” a slightly different aim than most poetry initiatives, which often have an urban bent. Despite her own extensive cross-cultural experiences growing up, she has always felt a connection to tiny towns, particularly in Texas thanks to those early days with the Texas Commission on the Arts.

“I’d stay on a remote farm or some family ranch because they didn’t pay any expenses,” she recalls. What sometimes felt like a wildcard — Nye never quite knew who she would be living with for weeks at a time — led to a lifetime of friendships. There is such a sweetness, such a rightness, she explains, when visiting these places.

“My initiative has always been: take poetry anywhere that it’s invited. Never say no.”

As Young People’s Poet Laureate, Nye has fulfilled two longtime “fanciful dreams” of hers. The first involved the school district of Nacogdoches, a small city in East Texas, and one of the few places she had yet to visit in the state. The second was a workshop in Portland, Oregon, designed to bring Muslim and Jewish adolescents together. Both took place earlier this year, before everything shut down.

Nye’s laureateship hasn’t been put on hold by the pandemic, but it has gone virtual. “In some ways it’s so much more cost effective and easier on the presenter,” she says. “And I think we’ve learned it’s not that weird.”

Burning the Old Year
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

Recently, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, invited her to conduct an online workshop for middle schoolers across nine states. She describes to me an excited group which included Pakistani adolescents from Florida, a Lebanese girl living in small town Indiana, and a Palestinian girl in Virginia: “They were so charmed to meet other kids, who also happened to like poetry.”

Nye also just worked with the entire senior class of a high school in Maine. Half the students were in classrooms — masked and spread out — while the other half participated virtually. They all took turns reading their poems, as the ones with shaky internet were encouraged by their high-speed WiFi counterparts. “We had these crackly voices coming in,” Nye marvels. “It was so moving — better than if I’d been there!”

There is something so fantastically low overhead about poetry. It’s portable, impactful, and immediate, she says. “Poetry always made me feel rich — I had words, I had a blank page, so I was rich.”

Growing up, Nye’s parents struggled financially, much of which she attributes to just plain bad luck. They started a small business at one point and while on vacation, the space where they stored their inventory caught on fire. And the insurance had lapsed. “No one can take poetry away from you,” she tells me. “You can’t lose it in the stock market.” Or a fire.

I ask Nye where her sense of ebullience comes from; she points to her father and grandmother, a woman who lived to be 106 years old. She and her family were displaced from their home in Jerusalem in 1948, and were forced to move to the West Bank. “Despite what they suffered, they always insisted that things could improve. So in memory of their spirits there’s no way else to be for me.”

Separation Wall
When the milk is sour,

it separates.
The next time you stop speaking,
ask yourself why you were born.
They say they are scared of us.
The nuclear bomb is scared of the cucumber.
When my mother asks me to slice cucumbers,
I feel like a normal person with fantastic dilemmas:
Do I make rounds or sticks? Shall I trim the seeds?
I ask my grandmother if there was ever a time
she felt like a normal person every day,
not in danger, and she thinks for as long
as it takes a sun to set and says, Yes.
I always feel like a normal person.
They just don’t see me as one.
We would like the babies not to find out about
the failures waiting for them. I would like
them to believe on the other side of the wall
is a circus that just hasn’t opened yet. Our friends,
learning how to juggle, to walk on tall poles. 

Nye tells me the job of poetry is to serve humanity on the ground. The entrenched divisions in the Middle East, she points out, are not the children’s fault, and they’re not the fault of the elderly, such as her late grandmother. “So many people not in power would prefer not to be involved in such political grievances,” she remarks. “It’s poetry, not politics.”

Nye giddily tells me she’ll be Skyping with kids in the West Bank the day after we speak. “The school is in the town of Nablus,” she says, before adding, “I am very excited because I love that town.”

All poems courtesy the Poetry Foundation.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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