Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

As someone who has lived in and traveled to a large variety of places in your life, which have obviously shaped your writing, what do you think your poetry would be like if you hadn't traveled? Would you still write?
Yes, I would definitely still write, since writing itself is the most satisfying form of travel. As a child, before I'd traveled much yet, I could feel words winging out into the sky, like the flocks of bats we saw at sundown, circling, disappearing -- to send work out to a magazine was to send it on its own trip.
When and how did you first learn to play with language and write poems?
Very young -- started at 6. Started sending to mags. at 7. Addictive.
What's your opinion on the relationship between poetry and the other fine arts? Are there any particular painters, photographers, musicians, etc. that inspire you greatly?
An endless number! All the arts spring from a mysterious well in the universe which sustains connection, inspiration, should never deny oneself essential refreshment... participation as a viewer or listener, exposure even to things we don't quite "understand" -- critical for life & breath & spark -- I will mention one name among my many-favorites-in-all-categories list -- Tom Waits, favorite songwriter/singer.
As both an Arab-American and a poet, how do you feel about the recent rise in popularity of translations from medieval Arabian poets like Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez? Has your work drawn inspiration from any of these poets?
I feel very happy about their rise in popularity and certainly -- they are deeply, profoundly inspiring.
What simple joys and pains keep you writing?
All of them. The essential rub of existence. The pleasure of every day.
There is a proverbial quality to some of your poems, such as “Kindness” and “The Art of Disappearing.” How do you feel about passing down certain universal truths as part of the role of being a poet?
Intriguing, and thanks for saying that. As poets we often act as vessels and occasionally things pass through us which are not from us, exactly, but simply passing through. It's the act of listening & writing itself which causes this to happen, not any particular wisdom or knowledge on the part of the poet. It's an unexpected gift when it happens.
All of the work of your's that I've read has been free-verse. Have you toyed with many formal structures like villanelles or sestinas?
Not since I was in high school. They are not compelling forms for me. Crafty and all that, but l have little interest in fitting words into them. Respect for others who love them, though.
How do you deal with revising your work? Is the first draft the main draft, or does what you start with look like something completely different when you're done?
Always a different story but I love revision best and work with it all the time. I think one's energy for revision grows much stronger as we grow older.
I once heard the idea that poetry should be taught backwards, starting with contemporary work and moving back to the classics in order for the classics, and poetry as a whole, to be appreciated and understood better. Do you think there has been a disconnect between the poetry taught in schools and the poetry that students want to read?
Yes! And, I agree that teaching it backwards might engage more students.
Many of your poems, like “The Traveling Onion” and “Going for Peaches, Fredericksburg, Texas” contain a certain love and admiration of food. If you could choose any meal you'd like to eat, what would it be?
Mashed potatoes with cheese grated on top and a nice little salad.

Works by Naomi Shihab Nye

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.