portrait Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

interviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 27 ~ August, 1999

Naomi Shihab Nye has been one of my favorite poets for as long as I can remember. My first acquaintance with her came when I was a child, enrolled in a poetry class that she was teaching; she was exciting, invigorating, encouraging. My second acquaintance with her came through her poems, once I reached adulthood and started reading and writing poetry myself. If you read my review of FUEL (Pif – January, 1999), her most recent book of poems, you know how fabulous I think she is; if not, I can recap it in one sentence: FUEL is an amazing, strong, surprising, fantastic book of poems – and Nye is an amazing, strong, surprising, fantastic poet.

I have had the recent pleasure of interviewing Nye about her writing. And here is what she said:

Rachel Barenblat: When did you start writing? Were you writing poems from the start?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I started writing when I was 6, immediately after learning HOW to write. Yes, I was writing poems from the start. Somehow – from hearing my mother read to me? from looking at books? from watching Carl Sandburg on 1950’s black and white TV? – I knew what a poem was. I liked the portable, comfortable shape of poems. I liked the space around them and the way you could hold your words at arm’s length and look at them. And especially the way they took you to a deeper, quieter place, almost immediately.

RB: What did you write about, in the beginning? What provided your first inspiration?

NSN: I wrote about all the little stuff a kid would write about: amazement over things, cats, wounded squirrels found in the street, my friend who moved away, trees, teachers, my funny grandma. At that time I wrote about my German grandma – I wouldn’t meet my Palestinian grandma till I was 14.

RB: How did you first get published? I’m curious about the “nuts and bolts” of becoming published for you.

NSN: “Nuts and bolts of becoming published” – well, I have this theory. You start anywhere you can, anyplace that seems inviting or possible to you. For me, it was magazines for kids, since I read them at the library and subscribed to a few. They often had pages that invited their readers to send work. So, I sent it. I had no delusion that everything I wrote would or should get published. This has served me well. There was never any great “mystique” about publishing to me, since I started when I was 7.

As a teenager I published in places like Seventeen. As a college student, I started reading literary journals, publishing in places like Modern Poetry Studies and Ironwood. One little thing always led to another. No way around that. All of my books since have been invited by various publishers or editors. I never have had an agent to this day. To publish, one needs to read widely, and find what’s out there, then send one’s own work to places you feel particular links with – that is my philosophy of publishing.

RB: Place plays an important role in your writing, especially the places you have lived and the places that hold your roots. Tell me about the places that have been important to you.

NSN: The 3 main places I have lived – St. Louis, Jerusalem, San Antonio – are each deeply precious to me indeed, and I often find them weaving in and out of my writing. Each place has such distinctive neighborhoods and flavors. Gravity interests me – where we feel it, how we feel it.

RB: What about travel? How is writing about travel different from writing about home?

NSN: Sometimes while traveling in Mexico or India or any elsewhere, I feel that luminous sense of being invisible as a traveler, having no long, historical ties, simply being a drifting eye…but after awhile, I grow tired of that feeling and want to be somewhere where the trees are my personal friends again.

RB: Where is your favorite place to travel?

NSN: My heart will probably always belong to the Middle East, travel-wise, but I have never been anywhere I disliked.

RB: If you were leaving here today and could only take one thing with you, what would it be?

NSN: If I could take only one thing with me? Our son!!!!!

RB: How do teaching and writing intersect for you? Are they separate activities, or are they connected?

NSN: Teaching and writing are separate, but serve/feed one another in so many ways. Writing travels the road inward, teaching, the road out – helping OTHERS move inward – it is an honor to be with others in the spirit of writing and encouragement. I never wanted to be a full-time teacher for a minute, though, only an itinerant visitor. It’s that nomad in my blood.

RB: Do you consider yourself a storyteller?

NSN: No, I don’t consider myself a storyteller, per se. I think of storytellers as being those fabulous people sitting on bales of hay at folk festivals. Truth is, I guess, we are all storytellers in different ways.

RB: Do you think of yourself/your poetry as political?

NSN: Yes, I do think of myself as political, alas, because politics is about people, and I am interested in the personal ramifications of everything, for everybody. How can we get away from it?

RB: Who are your favorite poets to read? Are there books you return to again and again, and if so, what are they?

NSN: William Stafford will always be my favorite poet. I read LOTS of poets, constantly. Recently read & loved Hettie Jones & Koon Woon, always read W.S. Merwin, Molly Peacock, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Lucille Clifton, on and on and on. I never stop reading. I’m reading manuscripts for a contest now. Very exciting.

RB: Tell me a little bit about the anthologies for young readers that you have edited.

NSN: My anthologies have been acts of love and secretarial madness (I have no secretary, and each book involves ENORMOUS amounts of correspondence!) I think of them as being for teenagers and for adults, both. My editor, Virginia Duncan, of Greenwillow Books, is my brilliant guiding light. It seemed to me in the beginning there was room for more anthologies on the shelves of schools and in young people’s bedrooms, for international voices, for intriguing, odder twists and true poetic journeying without that “cutesey” flair that has characterized the ways many people think of poetry. I was challenged to make my first anthology This Same Sky by teachers who said they wanted more international poetry for their students and did not have access to it. Each book has been warmly received beyond my dreams. I am so happy people like these anthologies. Personally, of course, I love them. I am their choreographer – that’s what editing them feels like.

RB: Where do you usually write? Do you have a desk, an office, a favorite chair, a favorite tree?

NSN: I have a long wooden table where I write. Not a desk, really, as it doesn’t have drawers. I wish it had drawers. I can write anywhere. Outside, of course, is always great. I am one of the few people I know who LOVES being in airports. Good thing. I can write and read well in them.

RB: What is your advice to writers, especially young writers who are just starting out?

NSN: Number one: Read, Read, and then Read some more. Always Read. Find the voices that speak most to YOU. This is your pleasure and blessing, as well as responsibility!

It is crucial to make one’s own writing circle – friends, either close or far, with whom you trade work and discuss it – as a kind of support system, place-of-conversation and energy. Find those people, even a few, with whom you can share and discuss your works – then do it. Keep the papers flowing among you. Work does not get into the world by itself. We must help it. Share the names of books that have nourished you. I love Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard, for example. William Stafford’s three books of essays on the subject of writing – Crossing Unmarked Snow is the most recent – all from the Poets on Poetry series of the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor – are invaluable. I love so many of these new anthologies that keep popping up. Let that circle be sustenance.

There is so much goodness happening in the world of writing today. And there is plenty of ROOM and appetite for new writers. I think there always was. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Attend all the readings you can, and get involved in giving some, if you like to do that. Be part of your own writing community. Often the first step in doing this is simply to let yourself become identified as One Who Cares About Writing!

My motto early on was “Rest and be kind, you don’t have to prove anything” – Jack Kerouac’s advice about writing – I still think it’s true. But working always felt like resting to me.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at www.rachelbarenblat.com