Margaret J Siu: It’s been a while since I last spoke with you, but thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.
Naomi Shihab Nye: Oh yeah, my pleasure.
MJS: In much of your poetry you infuse your cultural heritage within your rhetoric. So I was wondering if you could speak about your Palestinian-American heritage growing up and how that has affected you.
NSN: Sure, I think any one of us would be hard pressed to abandon whatever context we grow up in if we become a poet, or if we become a writer. I think the elements of our lives, the savory smells and tastes and terminologies and stories and images that we grow up with, they infuse us as human beings and they would infuse our writing as well. Even if we’re not writing about ourselves or our own experience. But we turn to the things that give us pleasure and meaning and the images that feel genuine to us and so I think every human being has that textural relationship with culture whether or not you’re thinking of it consciously or not.
I’ve met some people that say ‘them writing was an act of trying to grow beyond the cultures they grew up in or change them or alter them because they were tired of them or move a different direction.’ And I think that’s interesting. I think one would be able to do that, to extend your sense of imagery and culture, especially if it was a conscious decision. But I think for many people, most people, there are always those references back to just the fabric of life, the realities that we grew up in. And it’s sort of like having something in your DNA, in yourselves, it’s not something that you choose—brown hair or brown eyes. It’s sort of like having that sense of context and meaning inside you. And then finding different ways to weave it into whatever you say.
I guess I should also say, think of it as a gift. I think that writing is a way we find out more about whatever cultures we grew up in. And I think that people who have a bicultural home, or I’ve met kids recently who’ve said that they’ve grew up with four cultures in their home, I think we’re kind of lucky. We have doubled elements. You have more possibilities.
MJS: Continuing off of that, what are you working on currently?
NSN: I’m working a book about influences, actually, about voices and mentors and messages. It’s called—well the working title, since I’m not sure if it’ll be the final title, of the book is “Voices in the Air”. And the fact that we’re all surrounded by the voices we’ve read, the voices we’ve heard as children, the voices we want to embody ourselves, and the voices we hear from everybody: strangers, culture, anything around us. So I’m working on that and I’m going to turn it in, in about a month, the first draft of the poems, the start of a book of poems.
MJS: Wow. So is this going to be a chapbook?
NSN: No, it’ll be a full length book of poems. And it’ll be from Green Willow Harper Collins, they’ve been one of my publishers for a very long time.
MJS: So how do poems happen for you? Where do stories begin for you?
NSN: Well they happen in kind of a regularity of process. In going to the page, going to the desk, going to the text over and over and over again. I mean, it’s not like a magic potion, where it comes and its fine, its perfect, and it’s the way you want to leave it. You’re always shuffling things around. Listening, and reading it out loud to yourself. Cutting, cutting, I love cutting. Just finding where’s this going? What’s this doing? Also finding what elements are being connected in any given piece, like what is pulling it together. So, I think a regularity of process, doing it a lot, writing often is very helpful.
I think many people have a limited threshold of patience with their own work and they expect things to be just popping out, fully formed, perfectly shaped, and that’s so rare that it happens. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know if people in other arts, you know, like a ballet dancer would expect to just go dance a perfect ballet without a lot of strenuous effort. Yeah, so I’m always surprised when someone says to me, “Oh, I’m working on a book and gee, I have to do a second draft.” I think, “So?” I’m like, “Maybe I’ll do a fifteenth draft. Who cares? That what we do! We’re writers!”
So it’s not only going up to the page and doing a new draft, it’s going to the text you already think you have and working on it. And one thing very enjoyable to me about putting a book together, which I’m working on right now, with poems I’ve been working on in a series of years—not writing all of them for the first time for this moment—I’m pulling in poems that I’ve been working on for a series of years, but also there’s some that are new, or I find a poem wanting to change when they get up against another poem. Just like, you go to a dinner party and you’re sitting with a person you’ve never sat beside before and suddenly you find yourself telling a story you’ve never told and you think, “Well this is weird. Why am I even telling that to this person I don’t know?” Different people bring different things out in one another and I think poems do that too. When you put poems next to each other, I think they bring different things out in each other. So it’s a fun part of the process. It’s very much like putting things on the floor and moving them around and looking at them and suddenly thinking about them.
MJS: I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the book fair that you went to.
NSN: Oh yeah, the Sharjah International Book Fair in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. I’ve been going to the Emirates since 1982 and they were kind of a fresh country established at that point. The Emirates had only been in existence as a nation state, or a nation of these different Emirates, little provinces, little mini-states, for about ten years at that time. So my husband and I first went there in the early 80s. I’ve been going back there over the years to work at different places and I love it there! And the book festival I went to is— well they said it was the third largest in the world, but it may have upgraded its status this year, because this year, in twelve days of the fair they hosted 2.31 million people, which is a lot of people to come to a book fair. You know, in Texas we are very excited if we attract, I don’t know the attendance of the book fairs, maybe one hundred thousand people? Ten thousand people? But the idea of having 2.31 million people pouring in and out for days is astonishing.
It occurred at the big Expo Convention Center, a really beautiful facility. Also there was a lot of outreach. I went to a lot of different schools. I went to the Indian school, the American University of the Emirates, the Australian school. I worked with kids from different schools and also, university students. There was a lot of outreach, a lot of action. All the artists, translators, and writers, they were all going to different schools too. So it was amazing just to think about how much ground was being covered within twelve days. And it was so much fun. So well organized. So beautiful. It was just a great event.
A lot of my friends, here in Texas have asked me, “Did you feel safe there?” And I said, “You know, I actually feel safer there than I do here in the United States, because they don’t have guns. They’re not running around with guns. I don’t feel so safe in a country where there’s so many weapons everywhere, like ours.” And so I think people have really mistaken notions of safety and society and how people engage with one another. The United States does a pretty good job of stereotyping the Middle East as ‘all bad’, which it is not at all. I feel very safe there and also very happy there.
MJS: Recently, I looked back at one of your poems named “Blood” and it spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was wondering if you could speak about that and share your perspective.
NSN: Well, I would say, that was after yet another massacre of Palestinian civilians, by the Israeli armed forces, who use a lot of American weapons we give them as gifts. And I think that’s really bad, because that’s like we’re rewarding bad behavior all the time. There’s heavy public relations on the part of Israel to always be presenting themselves as the ‘good democracy’, which is in my opinion, absolutely a joke. So many, many Palestinians over the years have suffered because of this spin that there was a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’ in the region. And the truth is there were many people who wanted to claim the same homeland. The Palestinians happened to be there, living there, and there were all these manipulations by other foreign countries, government that helped destabilize the region till now. So, a lot of people who know this story from the inside, they were refugees themselves or their parents were refugees, as my father was a refugee, losing his home in 1948 to Israeli armed military people. All of his family were refugees. We’ve spent a lot of our lives talking about injustice in that region.
The poem “Blood” is yet another occurrence for extreme tragedy for a lot of people who did nothing to deserve it. As an American citizen myself, I find our freedom of speech to be one of our greatest powers. We can say this stuff. We can say “Hey, what my country did was wrong, donating a lot of weapons to Israel.” A lot of us think that’s really wrong. As a poet, I’m part of an ongoing cry for justice, I guess, that many stories and poems I make. I’m just one of many Arab American, Arab Canadian, Arab British, Arab ‘anything’ writers who keep calling it out and saying “Hey, wait a minute. Look at this.”
And here, once again, our beloved and wonderful President Obama, who mostly I love completely, you know, just contributed 38 million dollars to the arsenal of Israel, which is a tragedy and a travesty. I just can’t believe that anyone as smart as President Obama just did that. It’s very upsetting to me.
So the poem “Blood” was written many years ago and the story in the poem is true. It happened when I was a child and those days, people didn’t have media, they didn’t see each other as much. So the idea that we had an Arab in the house was exotic to kids in the neighborhood—you know, “we’re coming over”, “can we see him” type of thing. I guess that’s saying too much about it all.
But, the poem ends with questions. But that’s what I’m left with as an older adult now. The same questions you ask all your life. You ask “Wait a minute, how could this possibly be fair? How could anyone see this as fair?” And I think that it was very touching and amazing that Bernie Sanders was calling it out. He was running for the democratic nomination, he was saying, “This is not fair. What’s been going on the Palestine and Israel is just not fair.” And being a Jewish person, he could say that with his own sense of identity at stake. He is speaking up for truth and the reality that many people of his community do acknowledge that this is extremely unfair, of what’s been going on in the region, as well as Arab and other people.
So, President Jimmy Carter who was previous to that, the one American figure who has really talked truth about it. And in his book, “Peace Not Apartheid”, it was a very important book that some very important authorities tried to shut down. They didn’t allow him freedom of speech when they read the book, even though he was writing out of deep conscience and his own religion and his understanding of the inequity of the region and his deep, deep care of wanting to make it better. And anyone who says that it is not an apartheid over there does not know the situation, because it is. And they should go take a look for themselves and find out.
MJS: So given the current events of what’s been happening in the US, and after the election cycle, what do you believe is the civic responsibility of a poet today?
NSN: Well that’s a great question and one that we’re all definitely asking. I think there’s a surge of energy behind this question spilling forth everywhere in all circles of people who write and care about language. Many of us feel that this was an election cycle that was based, an enormous amount, based on lies, fraud, and disgusting representation of everything. So one of the jobs of being a poet is to be a witness. Poetry itself tries to witness life, witness experience. The whole calling of speaking truth becomes ever more important if you are operating in a society, in a culture, in a nation that has chosen fraudulent tactics over otherwise.
So yeah, I think that it’s a very bad and worrisome time for our nation and destined to get worse for the next four year. Goodness knows, I’m an optimist and I would hope that some things get better. I would love to see more factories revived in the United States. I doubt any of us would argue with that. But that doesn’t mean we have to talk ugly about Mexico or China or any of the countries where goods used in this country have been manufactured. They’ve just been fulfilling a need to get things made of wanting to have cheaper labor than other places. Good luck to our country figuring it out of how to get things going again over here. But I think the kind of racism and bigotry and ugliness against women, against whole groups in our society is very, very serious and grievous. So poets are going to have to work over time for the next four years along with all people interested in truthful civic behavior. So it’s a very shady time for truth. I think many American are embarrassed, I think a lot of the world is embarrassed on our behalf.
And being overseas when this was all happening, I heard so many different people talking about that and being sorry for us. That we’re a nation that can make such a bad decision. And I personally am very troubled by the fact that the new president, who’s name I can’t even say, he didn’t get the popular vote. And so it’s like he really wasn’t the choice of the people. It doesn’t seem like democratic practice to me. It seems kind of crazy. I find that very disturbing right now and I hope for something to happen for it to change. I wish that it could change. But it looks like that we may be stuck with four years of more fraudulent chatter.
So I’m just curious to see how this will shape down. Really curious to see how one can live under an umbrella of fakery. We’ll see.
So I do think that poets have their work cut out for them. No days off. And everyone’s going to have to do their best to speak honestly and make their best attempt to make life better in small manageable ways that are around us, like I really care about education and kids and creativity with kids. Culture and community, there being really nice things available for people to attend and participate in if they want to. So I think we do have to work on a small scale as well, expressing our opinions in a wide way.
Poetry is a small scale genre. Poetry is a finite genre. Poetry’s short. You can hold it in one hand. It’s a portable genre and I think, in some ways, that’s good. Because we’re used to working in a manageable close to home way. That’s what we do. We’re not running for office demanding millions and billions of dollars. So poetry works small. So I think we have a lot of opportunities to do as much as we can do in the next four years.
But I hope a lot of people don’t get hurt. Don’t get deported and insulted. And all this white supremacy stuff? It’s just so unbelievable to me, Margaret. What are we living in? Cave days? It’s like, who are these people? Where are they coming from? Are these people in our country really proud to maintain this archaic belief of inequity? And the fact that there can be religious people supporting this? I just don’t see how you put this stuff together.
Doesn’t it seem crazy? How does this all fit together? Who is impressed by this behavior?
I believe that poems are a source of healing and need to be and want to be. That’s a big part of their job. We have to keep working in every venue possible to us, in every venue available, to find words for healing. I don’t use social media. I mean, I do answer emails as you know. I think it’s difficult, when people have instant venues to share their thoughts and words, it’s going to be hard to stay steady. Write things that you’re going to be proud of tomorrow, kind of deal? So yeah, I think particular people have challenges.
But, I do think we need to be trying in every way we can though to make healing. We do. Yes.
MJS: Last question, do you have any advice for any aspiring writers out there?
NSN: Yes, I do. I love some advice that comes from an American poet named Marvin Bell, I’ve liked this poet for many years and he said, well this is his advice to everyone interested in writing, he says, “read something, then write something, then read something else, then write something else yourself. And let what you read, if you liked it and cared about it, thought it was meaningful, let it be reflected somehow in your writing.” It’s not that you’re copying the writing from what you’ve read. But that’s where inspiration flourishes. When you think, “Well that was a very moving, persuasive essay. What’s a topic that I strongly feel about at the moment? I’m going to write my persuasive essay.” You know, where you allow yourself to be continually generating new material and continually be absorbing and reading and contemplating material by other people. And if you do that, then you have a very living, lively relationship with your reading and writing.
And I do urge young writers to write often. You don’t have to spend ten hours a day writing. Maybe just fifteen minutes. Maybe just thirty minutes. But try to do it regularly, you won’t be sorry. Do it every day if possible. Try to find a way to share your work and persevere. So those would be my suggestions as well. And keep discovering new voices that matter to you. We never read everybody. We’ll never get to the end of our reading. There’s always someone new and astonishing to be read for every one of us. We’re different people. We don’t have to like the same people. We don’t all have to turn to the same canon of literature, but make your own canon of voices that are important for you right now.
I would encourage everyone to read people like William Stafford, W. S. Merwin (who’s still alive, living in Maui, wonderful human being, and one of the greatest poets of the 20th and 21st century). Merwin just had a brand new book that came out that’s called “Time”. I urge people to read it. It just came out, so it came out of the moment we’re living in together, but it also has a special awareness of the world of nature that we need to seriously tend to, or we’ll lose it all. And then people like Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, and great world writers like Pablo Neruda, just so many writers around the world. I personally have loved Japanese and Chinese literature all my life, and try to read older poetry and more recent poetry from both places. You just will never run out. We live in a world of words.
So if we’re exhausted from what we’re hearing in the news and things that are being reported, I think that’s a good time to do our homework and find people who are not in the news who will give us more unbreakable news. We all got sick of the ‘breaking news’, ‘breaking news’ all the time. I’m interested in unbreakable news. I’m personally on a news fast right now and that may last four years. Where I’m not reading all this stuff that this horrible character says or does. I don’t want to know. But it’ll give me more time to read meaningful literature and for that I’m grateful.
MSJ: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
NSN: Margaret, thank you so much, I send you very good wishes.
If you wish to visit the poem mentioned in the interview about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Blood, CLICK HERE to read.
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