“Poetry flourishes in the margins”
Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye
BY REWA ZEINATI
In the world of poetry and writing, the name needs no introduction. In the world of art and photography, Nye has been an active participant, offering image after image, using the tools she uses best: words. Currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she is author or editor of 33 books, including Transfer,A Maze Me, Honeybee, Different Ways to Pray, Yellow Glove, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she regards herself as a “wandering poet,” which is probably the very best kind a poet, an artist, could hope to be.
RZ: In one of your earlier poems you’ve said, “Love means you breathe in two countries.” How does your background affect who you are as an artist?
Naomi Shihab Nye: It seems it would be impossible for most artists and poets to separate from background. Background is always the soil, the nourishing, complicated earth, we spring out of. What we do with it? Blossoms have many shapes and colors. Our eyes learn to see, through what they have already seen, what they are given to see. And if we are lucky, we never stop looking for more. Truly, I think love means we breathe in EVERY country. Somehow.
RZ: We find a longing in your poetry, a strong sense of exile. Your first experience with your roots was when you were 14 years old, where you lived in Jerusalem for a year and met, for the first time, your grandmother, who had a huge impact on your writing. How did going back (or forward!) shape your craft?
NSN: Well, that’s not quite accurate. My first experience with my roots was when I began to know my father, so, from the very beginning. To live with a restless person, a beautiful, humble, funny, magnificent person who is always longing for his homeland, for justice for his people, marks someone. You can’t pretend it isn’t there, even if you haven’t been there yourself yet.
RZ: How necessary are words? How necessary is art in a fast moving, zero-attention-span, consumerist existence?
NSN: Words are extremely helpful. Art is immensely necessary. A way to slow down, to hold, to connect, to contain – we are never bored and we don’t need anything we don’t already have. Hardly an advertising tool, but a way to live, for sure…
RZ: What do you think about Arabs adopting languages other than their own, mostly by choice, for their writing?
NSN: They are smarter than I am. I think it’s fine.
RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?
NSN: Extremely important. They have given us so many ways to find one another.
RZ: Ironically enough (considering the history of Arab poets!) in the Arab region, poetry is considered at most, a hobby, a pass time. Not a lot of people take poets seriously. (Who makes a living out of poetry they think!) Especially poems by Arabs written in English. How do you recommend this perception be changed?
NSN: I don’t think you have to make a living out of something for it to be crucial. No one makes a living out of staring at the sky, but what would life be like, if we couldn’t do that? A lot of people make a living out of making war, making and selling weapons, and how great is that? I have never been bothered by the sidelining of poetry – poetry flourishes in the margins. Reading Walt Whitman – will restore all the hope anyone has lost.
RZ: Unfortunately, we live in increasingly hostile times, politically speaking. As writers or artists with Arab roots, and those who’ve lived in the Arab world, but have been influenced by the West, there is a cultural dichotomy, a mass schizophrenia almost. If we adopt anything from the West, be it cultural/social/educational, everyone freaks out that we are “losing our culture.” As a writer how do you think we can remedy this dichotomy?
NSN: I think we need to keep sharing our indelible, beautiful habits, customs, graces, details, foods, music, spirits, and nothing does it better than art. Art has a lot to balance out in our world. We should focus on the positive as much as possible – focusing on the negative only erodes our energy.
RZ: As a prolific writer of poetry, essays and novels, what advice would you give to emerging writers/artists in the Arab region, and/or in general?
NSN: Write more! Write on! Read as much as you can, write regularly, find a way to share your work. Wishing you the best! We need your voices!