Lauren Carlson Interviews Naomi Shihab Nye

Lauren: As a poet who writes both of her own familial folklore and the everyday nature of things, which do you prefer? How do you go about writing a piece that describes the complexities of the obscure, such as, "The Art of Disappearing?"
Naomi: Well, to me the tensions between social and solitary time are not at all obscure. They belong to all people in all places at all ages. I love the endless mixing of elements in writing. It’s the kitchen that never closes/ never a matter of saying – should I write about THIS thing or THIS OTHER thing…it all mixes fluidly together – organically. It’s not a conscious “choice” outside the writing itself.

Lauren: Have you found it difficult to write of the cultural tensions within your family?
Naomi: Not at all. Writing about tension eases tension.

Lauren: Have you always written about such a personal subject matter, or did it take time as a writer to "work up" to this vulnerable and honest writing?
Naomi: You’re right – it took time to “work up to it” – I guess I was 21 or so before I realized elements of my own family could be part of my subject matter. I had started writing at the age of 6 but wrote more about pets, neighborhoods, environment, friends, experiences…

Lauren: You seem to have a swaying, gentle cadence in much of your poetry. Did it take you long to develop what you would consider your own unique tone?  
Naomi: Thanks! I guess it took me some years to begin to feel confident with what one might identify as “one’s own cadence or voice…”

Lauren: Many of your poems include long, descriptive lines. Have you always experimented with line length?
Naomi: Sure, and we all should. I mean, why not?

Lauren: Your piece, "For Mohammed on the Mountain," unfolds in three parts. How did you decide to write the poem in this way, and what subject matters do you feel require multiple poems to do them justice?
Naomi: The poem evolved… beginning as a poem in one part…maybe poems with a wide span of historical basis, even personal history, or a particularly wide horizon, can benefit from this “sections” idea – I don’t do it a lot but it’s interesting to work with it, and I’d recommend it to everyone now and then…

Lauren: Many of your poems, such as "Kansas," are only one stanza. What would you say is an advantage of this structure?
Naomi: More compact movement. Less mysterious leaping for a reader to deal with.

Lauren: The last lines of "Kansas" seem to slowly increase the speed of the piece: "My voice amazes me, / coming out of the silence, / a lit spoon, / here,/ swallow this." Would you say this forces the reader to go back for multiple readings?
Naomi: Well, I guess it would depend on the appetite and patience of the reader!

Lauren: In "The Art of Disappearing," as in many works, the speaker questions the reader or subject. What is your advice for poets using questions within a piece?
Naomi: Try them in all the ways you can imagine – open-ended…with question marks…without… whole or broken…answered or unanswered…they are the most useful  little levers ever.

Lauren: Do you write every day?
Naomi: YES! It’s a habit that helps us!

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.