LITERATURE • Naomi Shihab Nye
Her poetry finds meaning in the “gleam of particulars.”
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“THERE IS A THAI SAYING: Life is so short, we must move very slowly,” says poet Naomi Shihab Nye from her sunlit study in San Antonio’s King William Historic District. “Being busy has become our calling card, our sign of success, our obsession—but poetry doesn’t want us to be busy. When you live in a rapidly moving swirl, you can only view your surroundings with a glance. Poetry requires us to slow down, to take time to pause.”
It is an ironic observation coming from Nye, who is currently one of Texas’ busiest writers. Ever since her first collection of poetry, Different Ways to Pray, was published in 1980, the 46-year-old Palestinian American has assumed many roles—essayist, novelist, anthologist, and educator—all the while producing a body of work that is as diverse as it is consistently astonishing. Her best writing, however, has been her most recent, and in the past year alone she has produced a staggering amount of it: a collection of poetry; her first novel for young adults, Habib; an edited anthology of Middle Eastern verse; a children’s book; and the preface to a forthcoming collection of poetry by her mentor, the late William Stafford. Along the way she has garnered critical acclaim, several book awards for Habibi, and last fall, a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. But Nye’s intensity of purpose is not forbidding; a warm and engaging woman, she has an exuberant laugh that punctuates any conversation about her work, for which she has seemingly limitless energy. Currently serving as the poetry editor for the Texas Observer and an occasional contributor to National Public Radio, Nye has not yet reconciled her passion for her work with her desire to slow down.
“Texas has been a benevolent place for me—you can say things here and be heard,” says Nye, who came to San Antonio as a teenager. “You don’t have the feeling that there are so many convergent echoes that there is no room for your own words.” After graduating from Trinity University in 1974, she spent the next fifteen years working with the Texas Commission on the Arts as a visiting writer, traveling to towns such as Comstock and Kingsville. “The greatest victory was helping students find that desire to write and then showing them the abundance of material around them,” she recalls. “I’d arrive in a town and be at the local auction half an hour later, trying to discover what the world was there, looking for points of reference.” During the eighties she taught with Arts America and the National Endowment for the Arts, roaming around the globe from the West Bank to the Aleutian Islands, sometimes traveling by cargo plane to reach more-remote locales. “No place is exempt from literature,” she says. “Bethel, Alaska, prided itself on being four hundred miles from any paved roads, but the people there had a profound desire to express themselves, to find the right words.”
Nye began devoting herself to writing full-time in the early nineties, and the resulting outpouring of poetry, essays, children’s books, and anthologies quickly established her reputation both nationally and abroad. In 1995 her work received widespread exposure when Bill Moyers—who had discovered her poem “The Art of Disappearing” while recovering from bypass surgery and was moved by its discussion of life’s fragility—created the PBS poetry series The Language of Life, focusing the first episode on Nye. Despite the hectic schedule of speaking engagements and book tours that has followed, her poetry still has the slow, deliberate cadence of a life carefully examined. “I could kneel and praise / all small forgotten miracles,” she wrote in “The Traveling Onion,” a rhapsody on the most seemingly mundane of vegetables, “crackly paper peeling on the drainboard, / pearly layers in smooth agreement, / the way knife enters onion / and onion falls apart on the chopping block, / a history revealed.” Whether she is watching clouds scuttle across a West Texas sky or recalling the black Arabic coffee her father prepared in Jerusalem (“tell again how the years will gather / in small white cups, / how luck lives in a spot of grounds”), she is taking time to pause, finding meaning in the “gleam of particulars.”
With her just published collection of poetry, Fuel, being lauded as some of her finest work to date and five writing projects in the works—including a novel set in San Antonio and a poetry anthology she and her husband, photographer Michael Nye, are collaborating on—her desire to move very slowly is proving to be increasingly difficult. “Long ago, I made an effort to give up the word ‘busy,’” says Nye, surveying her comfortably cluttered study, “but there is so much left to do.”