The daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet whose work resonates with us today. In her poem “Grandfather’s Heaven” a child says, “Grandma liked me even though my daddy was a Moslem.”
Nye will come to Door County on March 23 for an evening reading of her work in the Door Community Auditorium. She will speak to 6th -12th grade Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay students during the day on March 22, and Gibraltar, Sevastopol and Washington Island students on March 23.
After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Nye published 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002), a collection of her verse in which she speaks out against both terrorism and prejudice in an effort to lead to understanding between Arabs and Americans.
But, as one critic noted, this prolific writer of both prose and poetry observes the business of living and the continuity among all the earth’s inhabitants through work that has an international scope and an internal focus.
Born Naomi Shihab in St. Louis, she was raised in San Antonio where she continues to live, now married to photographer Michael Nye.
Artists who are presently involved in a billboard project in San Antonio asked poets to provide tiny poems for them to use, she said. Hers was:
She thinks of the Buddhist mantra “everything changes” and “can’t wait until our government changes away from what we have now. I dislike imperial ruthless behavior and cruelty. I dislike rudeness.
“I love dignity and respect,” she continued. “Immigrants and refugees. My father was one.”
When she was 14 she spent a year visiting her grandmother in the West Bank village of Sinjil, a life-changing experience for her.
But she also has a connection with Wisconsin; her maternal grandparents lived in Phelps, Wisconsin and her aunt, in Eagle River.
Nye is regarded as one of the leading female poets of the American Southwest.
“My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors, mostly Mexican-American, but always inventive and surprising.”
Naomi Shihab Nye comes to Door County as a Write On, Door County visiting artist. Prior to her appearance, three discussion groups facilitated by local poets were arranged, centering on her book of poetry Transfer: Feb. 21 at the Egg Harbor Library; March 8 at the Northern Door YMCA; and March 11 at the Baileys Harbor Library. That work was chosen for its shared humanity, poetry inspired both by the cultural diversity of her home in Texas and her extensive travel experience. A number of the poems included in the collection are written in the voice of her late father, Aziz Shihab.
However, her bibliography includes nearly three-dozen collections of poetry, essays, short fiction, anthologies of poetry, novels for teens, picture books, and more. And as a visiting writer for the past 42 years she has shared her work in hundreds of schools and communities all over the world.
“You are living in a poem every day!” she tells young people. “Slow down, we could all, always, pay better attention, our lives are rich with material.” She encourages them to develop simple habits that will help with their writing and reading.
“Being with students is the greatest privilege,” she added. “I love their humor and idealism and flexibility.”
As a writer she has been lauded with numerous awards, including four Pushcart Prizes, a NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, and election as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Jerod Santek, executive director of Write On, Door County, speaks highly of Nye, calling her “one of the warmest, nicest, most genuine people you can hope to meet.”
While discussion groups have been reading from her book Transfer, Santek also recommends her collected poetry volume The Words Under the Words for an overview of her work.
“Her poetry is very accessible,” he added, “reaching all ages, people who think they don’t get poetry. Everyone loves hearing her read and responds to her work. Everyone who attends [her reading] will have a wonderful time, and those who don’t will regret it!”
Naomi Shihab Nye will read from her work at the Door Community Auditorium, 3926 Hwy. 42 in Fish Creek, on March 23 at 7 pm. A $10 donation is suggested.
Transportation to the Naomi Shihab Nye reading will be provided by Write On, Door County with pick-up/drop-off points in Southern Door, Sturgeon Bay, Sevastopol, Sister Bay, and Ellison Bay. For details on locations, call Write On, Door County at 920.868.1457.
Two poems from Transfer
For Aziz, Who Loved Jerusalem
by Naomi Shihab Nye
A city trades prisoners, erects blockades,
people bulldoze homes and cars, bushes explode,
back and forth, the army’s roaring tanks
are never called terrorists.
Three religions buried inside a city’s walls.
Some kiss the walls.
Some walk beside them, emptied of belief.
My father dies with two languages
tucked inside his head.
Now we will never learn Arabic.
For half a century we lived in mighty proximity
to the resonant underpinnings,
consonants and vowels.
Now, a seven-pound box of ashes.
After many months, we still
have not scattered or buried them.
They are not him, but I kiss the box.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
In the lovely free public library
only library I ever met
that loans out garden tools
as well as books
rakes & long-handled clippers
from large buckets by the counter
I sat in a peaceful room
with citizens I will never know
reading about far-away war
war I am paying for
war I don’t want & never wanted
& put my head down
on the smooth wooden table
wishing to weep loudly or quietly
it did not matter
in the purifying presence of
women & men
shovels & hoes
devoted to growing