Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

“Poetry flourishes in the margins”
Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

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!


By Naomi Shihab Nye

It is not fine to say We are in a time of war
if you started the war.
In Arabic this is called Haki Fawthi – empty talk.
As if war were weather you couldn’t stop.
Snowing this morning, get your cap!
To make it seem you’re doing the right thing.
To justify.

I cannot clap for military people on planes.
Invite us to clap for teachers, now that I’ll do.

A word called “progress” can never be applied to war.
Nor a word called “success.”
These are crimes against language.
You will have to be silent for a year if you commit them.

It is not fine to go to church, mosque, or synagogue,
then go out bombing, because every single religion
it’s not a casual remark.
Not a hopeful suggestion
like when the waiter says,
Anyone interested in dessert?
and everybody says no and he brings the menu anyway
to try to change your minds.
And sometimes peach crumble does.
It’s not like that at all.
You cannot kill, then act religious.
And that’s the full-on truth.

My German-American grandma had a book called
Making Friends and Influencing People.
Who did she want to influence?
The tax collector, the knee doctor?
She could barely open her mouth at the bakery,
she was so shy. I don’t think War had any chapter
in there.

My Palestinian refugee grandmother couldn’t read.
But her heart held one word in high relief, Peace.
She placed her hand over it. Told us it was in there.
Ran her fingers over it when she couldn’t sleep.
Never let it fall out.

In all the countries I ever visited,
people were hungry, wanted friends,
washed faces, strolled in a park,
stared at waves, paid for a ticket,
carried a sack of bananas,
felt lonesome, wanted more friends.
Not one ever said, I hope there will be
killing around my house. Not one.

Don’t listen to any government that says
killing is okay if you are the one doing it.

First job of a citizen.
Say no it’s not. Shout no. Write it
on the air around your bed.
Proclaim it on your forehead.
No it’s not. It’s not okay.
Everyone else wants to live
as much as we do.
This is a sheep
who has lost its way.

Speaking of sheep, how many
get killed in wars? How many goats,
and cats? They never get a head count.
Birds in war zones are said to be
continuing what they were born to do,
collecting sticks and hay, migrating.
Gathering at the river.
Looking for their trees.


Try this bumper sticker –
even if you don’t have a car.
Find a song with lots of harmonies in it.

A taxi driver in DC asked,
You wanna know the truth?
Sure, I said. Tell me.
We had just met.
He said, It’s the military industrial complex behind everything.
Making wars. It’s the gun factories, the bomb factories.
They want money so they make wars.

You may have something there, I said.

We were passing the Washington Monument
before it cracked from the earthquake.
He said, Of course I have something.
It’s the absolute truth.

What can we do about it?

Say it, he said. Keep saying it.
Say it till everybody
knows it and says it.
Then say it again.


By Naomi Shihab Nye

The old farmer Mohammed Al-Atrash was standing in shock, speechless…

On the first day after the Eid, everyone out and about,
returning to school and work, but Israeli soldiers had a plan.

They brought massive forces starting at dawn, circled an area
over one square mile declaring it a closed military area.
Dozens of olive, almond, za’rur, and pine trees were destroyed.
For pictures of the corpses, see footnote 1 below.

Never mind, we will not include pictures of the corpses. Though stumps,
they are too big for the page. They scorch its edges.
We would like the trees to tell their own stories but
it is hard for trees to speak, once cut. What does the world know
of the tree-tender’s sorrow? How many places, how many years?

Before cutting a tree, anyone might hear
almond shells clicking into a bowl, olive oil sizzling in a skillet.
Leaves in sweet successions of light and shade speckling anyone’s face,
saying yes, you are lucky to be part of the esteemed human race.

(Indented sections from an email by Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Occupied Palestine, 2011)