By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from all over the world. This week, we interview Naomi Shihab Nye and feature three of her poems.
Palestinian-American writer, editor, and educator Naomi Shihab Nye grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she continues to live. Her late father, Aziz Shihab, was a journalist and author of Does the Land Remember Me? She has been a visiting writer in hundreds of schools and communities all over the world and has written or edited around 35 books, including collections of poetry, novels for teens, picture books, essays, very short fictional stories, anthologies of poetry, etc. Her books Sitti’s Secrets, Habibi, This Same Sky, and The Tree Is Older than You Are have been in print more than 20 years. Her 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East was a finalist for the National Book Award. More recent collections of poems include The Tiny Journalist, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners, Transfer, Everything Comes Next, and Cast Away (poems about trash). The Turtle of Oman, a novel for children set in Muscat, was recently released in paperback and was followed by The Turtle of Michigan. She is working on a book of poems about her mother now.
To read more about the poet, visit barclayagency.com.
Please Meet Naomi Shihab Nye!
AN: Welcome, Naomi. Thank you for joining us in the Flapper Press Poetry Café as we prepare to honor Youth Poetry in the month of December. While you have a distinguished career and are a beloved poet and teacher, I am captivated with the notion that you held the position of the "United States Young People's Poet Laureate." Might you share with our readers how you navigated this position and what you learned with your involvement with youth?
NSN: As Young People's Poet Laureate from 2019 till September 2022, I did what I have done my whole adult life: worked with poetry with kids, teens, and adults, encouraging them to love it more, think about it easily, find the poems in their own lives! Because I was working during the unlovely Covid heyday, I did a lot of my sessions on Zoom. But guess what? Poetry adapted to Zoom so wonderfully that it didn't even feel strange.
We were all fine on Zoom. It still seemed very intimate. I was able to "work with" people in Singapore, Palestine, Dubai, Ireland, Scotland, etc. with a click of the button! A laureate's job is service to community. I just tried to encourage—wider reading, thinking, writing, exploring, playing, practicing.
AN: In what ways does poetry help students to think?
NSN: Poetry is focus—on a thought, an image, a memory, a tiny detail. We calm down when we focus better. Calm thinking is better than rattled thinking. Also, poetry helps us think because it encourages connections and metaphor making; this is energetic awakening of mind. Also, it reminds a student that we all know more than we think we do.
AN: Where does a poem start? For example, does it start with the idea? Does it begin with a melody in one's head? Does it come to a poet in a dream or an unexpected moment, or does a writer have to go out and search for it?
NSN: Poems start everywhere; there is not only one source. For me, poems often start with lines or phrases that pop up—overheard, from memory, or just from inside. A poem could start with an astonishing tree you see. A longing. A missing of someone. A surprise. A quiet stroll through a museum with a 6-year-old.
Our job is to be awake to those possible beginnings and to take notes. It's harder for poems to pop out when a person's mind is frenzied, distracted, or overwhelmed. Quiet time is important. You can meditate. You can take a walk.
AN: How did your parents encourage your writing?
NSN: My parents would read my poems and smile. They never once said, "You should write something." They never corrected me. They never once suggested sending anything out. They were neutral ground.
Because they were both big readers, our homes were always filled with newspapers, magazines, books. My mom loved crossword puzzles. I hate them. But we all loved Scrabble. Our library pilgrimages marked my childhood weekends. It's very important to read a lot if you have interest in being a writer.
Surprise yourself. Read different kinds of things. These days I really like reading, not only literature, poems, memoirs, stories, essays, etc. but also articles about fashion and design, architecture, style. This would probably surprise people who know me. I barely even shop. I trade clothes with my girlfriends, for about 25 years now. If you have something you don't want to wear anymore, you can send it to me. Ha ha. Yet reading the late Andre Leon Talley's memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, all about the fashion world, captivated me. I think he was a terrific writer and human and a poet of another medium.
For more poetry & books by Naomi Shihab Nye, click here!
AN: I love finding good titles, words, and naming. Your name—Naomi Shihab Nye—is so poetic. When researching for this piece, I noticed that you named your son Madison Cloudfeather Nye, which is beautiful. I think that a child's name is the first poem that they hear. Might you share a little about how you chose his name?
NSN: First off, my second name is SHIHAB, which means "shooting star" in Arabic. And NYE is my husband's name, from Denmark, meaning "new" or "newcomer—like YOUR name!!!! I liked it, so I took it on. Naomi, which means "pleasant" (ugh), is "I moan" backwards, which I adored when I was 12.
And our child, we gave him the name Madison before it became a popular name for girls. Too bad for him! We told him he could change it, but he didn't want to.
Cloudfeather was my husband's thought; he's a photographer and loves it, out at Big Bend National Park, Texas, or anywhere, when the clouds break into little feathery wisps. We had met a bunch of Lakota kids in Wyoming who were grieving that the "totemic name" idea was not in strongest usage anymore: Little River, Big Bear, etc. It may be revived more now than it was 36 years ago. So we asked them what they would think if non-native people took a name like that as a middle name. They said it would be nice, as if in honor to our land and who used to live here, everywhere.
AN: Knowing what you know now about a poetic life after being ensconced in the literary world, what advice might you give to a young poet who wants to enter this world?
NSN: Advice to young writers: enjoy yourselves. Magic will happen! Steady labor on a path you love is truly a gift of life. Each thing leads to something else. Let your work go out and find friends. Don't criticize yourselves too harshly. Stand back. Repeat: enjoy! It's easy to revise. It's not a burden.
AN: Now it is time for me to thank you for visiting our poetry café. Please know that you are welcome back any time in the future. Before you leave, though, Naomi, will you share 3 poems and your backstories on them?
NSN: Yes, of course. Thank you, Annie, and thank you, Elizabeth, and all best to your readers of Flapper Press.
This was a real boy with a great name who approached me in a hallway at Page Middle School, San Antonio, and asked me to write him a poem on Valentine's Day. How could I say no?
Valentine for Ernest Mann
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco. Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two” and expect it to be handed back to you on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit. Anyone who says, “Here’s my address, write me a poem,” deserves something in reply. So I’ll tell a secret instead: poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes, they are sleeping. They are the shadows drifting across our ceilings the moment before we wake up. What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife two skunks for a valentine. He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.” And he was serious. He was a serious man who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly just because the world said so. He really liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them as valentines and they became beautiful. At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding in the eyes of skunks for centuries crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite. And let me know.
This is my most popular poem, which came out of the worst moments of my life. I did not feel I wrote it, only heard it in the air, spoken by a woman's calm voice, and copied down what she said. This was a strange and calming experience, not spooky or scary at all. I was in a state of high anxiety, sitting on a bench in Popayan, Colombia, after being robbed, with my brand-new husband, of everything we had on a night bus heading toward Ecuador. THAT was spooky and creepy. But the poem came to me later the next day as a kind of calm-down balm. If you are a person willing to take notes on experience, all kinds of things can happen.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say it is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you every where like a shadow or a friend.
I don't like either the concept or the word. Sometimes it's fun to write in resistance to something. I wrote this poem for kids who kept asking me if I were famous. When I was young, I looked much younger than I was. So I think what they were really asking was why do we have to listen to you, another kid, in our library, for a whole hour? I could have had no idea at all that people would later really seem to like this poem.
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who
and not at all famous to the one who is
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything
but because it never forgot what it could do.
Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit , that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community.
Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!
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