Aekta Khubchandani [AK]: Dear Naomi, hearty congratulations on receiving the NBCC’s Lifetime Achievement Award! I want you to know that I’m the happiest person there is, on hearing that news. How does winning this award make you feel?
Naomi Shihab Nye [NSN]: Thank you so much for this generous vote of confidence. It makes me feel deeply touched and stunned.
AK: I wanted to talk about your appetite for tenderness. You’ve been brought up in a house where newspapers announced mornings, your father was an immigrant newspaper journalist and despite emotional turmoil, your poems reflect a glint of possibility. How do you find your way to such poems?
NSN: You have such a keen, compassionate reading eye. I think words always felt like a refuge for me. Putting words together, shaping a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph, always felt like making a tiny room on the page one could live in. I felt safer in it. It sustained me. And I think a child often carries an essential, organic beam of possibility and hope — sure, we could do that! — which writing helped me maintain or preserve.
AK: I wonder about the time when you sent your first poem to a magazine, at the age of seven. You’ve spoken about libraries and bookstores being a place where you can wander and discover newness in a book you weren’t looking for. And still in the poem, “Pause,” you write — “Take the word ‘home’/ for example,/ often considered/ to have an address.” You also have a likeness to airports, can you talk about what (or who) home has been/is to you?
NSN: In best times, home can be everywhere. In harder times, nowhere. Readers are lucky to have homes in books, papers — because those are so portable. These days I guess many people feel at home in their phones? A school librarian encouraged me to send out that first poem, my mom, who read to me and took us regularly to the art museum, widened my world, my father, who told stories and believed they were always changing inside us, my second-grade teacher, who believed poetry lived at the heart of the universe and we needed to stay close to it every day. Somehow I felt nomadic all my life — my father used to say that this was an inherited familial trait, inherited from way, way back somewhere… the ancestral tribes.
AK: “Walking Down Blanco Road at Midnight” has been my go-to poem. I keep returning to it. To me, you draw parallels between aloneness and loneliness and its quietness grows like a worm in my belly. How do you approach breath and movement in poems like these? Do you think about it before writing, or is it a part of the editing process?
NSN: I am so touched by your mention of this poem. I wrote it when I was very young and recall reading it aloud over and over again, trying to feel the rhythm right, trying to feel the breath inside the pacing of the lines. No, I don’t think about these things before writing so much, but while writing, and during editing, for sure. I love the fluency and flexible nature of poems, how we may add and subtract without too much pain! Till the lines feel right in their moves and unfolding. You may be the first person who has ever mentioned this poem.
AK: Your poems have always been a part of postcards and letters I’ve written to my friends. They’re welcoming and often insist on openness to approach varied perspectives. I’m reminded of your poem — “To Any Would-be Terrorists,” that you had emailed to a handful of friends after the 9/11 attacks and a part of your conversation with your father when he asks, “What perspectives are we not hearing? Whose story aren’t we listening to?” Do you feel that poetry can pause the terrifying wheel of violence? How do you navigate through conflict and finger-wagging through your words?
NSN: Thank you so much. Well, I hope so. Poetry helps to humanize us again when we are feeling very lost, gives us gravity, pause, calm, a way to be a part of language again, belong to that realm of interactions, I have felt it bring me back a million times, as all poetry readers do. And it sometimes doesn’t take long. There’s a lot of finger-wagging these days. So sometimes you just have to walk away from a television set and curl into a corner with poetry again. Where is my brain, where are our collective hopes? I do feel poetry regularly helping us. No one ever says they read it and feel worse.
AK: Where do you feel poems? Some people say that it starts in their toes, others feel butterflies, even fireflies and many feel it pound in the heart. Where does it begin for you and where all does it go? Do shapes of poems change landscapes in your head?
NSN: Yes yes yes to everything! I want to be in your class!
AK: You spend a lot of time with children while teaching. I’m fascinated by lines like “no has seen / inside this peanut before!” You’ve also spoken about how this poem (a found poem) contains lines your son spoke when he was two or three years old. I wanted to know how these interactions nourish teaching for you, and the dynamics that come into play between the teacher and writer in you. You’re always creating room for writers and readers. What piece of advice would you give to writers who ache to teach?
NSN: Just think of what makes you want to speak. What triggers your own language, what awakens your own metaphors. I always say, spend more time listening to kids or very, very old people. William Stafford believed we were all poets as we came to learn and absorb language and some of us just tried to keep up the habit. Write daily. Little increments of time mean a lot. Phrases, note-taking. Eavesdrop in public places. We live in such a fertile realm of language at all times. Meditate and stay silent too, so things have times to settle in you. Distill. Filter through. Begin writing without having any idea what might come out. Trust in that part of the time, most of the time! Feel close to your essential roots, the give and take of questioning and answering.
AK: It’s hard to forget William Stafford’s lines, which you quote so often — “The question is not about when you became a poet but when did you stop being a poet, because we’re all poets when we’re children.” If you were to create a poetry playlist of contemporary poets, which poets or poems would be on it? And I’d love to know what you’re currently working on, are your writing projects travel-based?
NSN: So many, so many! I can barely begin! I made eight anthologies of poetry with my great editor Virginia Duncan (Greenwillow Books) and selected work for another one from the University of Texas press, so starting with — I love everybody in all those books.
My list might feel like a whole life, starting with Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Edna and Blake to… W.S. Merwin, Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Meena Alexander, Danusha Laméris, Jane Hirshfield, Khaled Mattawa, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Edward Hirsch, Robin Robertson, Toi Derricotte, Sharon Olds, Anne Waldman, William Stafford, C.D. Wright, Harryette Mullen, Kim Stafford, Robert Bly, Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai, Jenny Browne, Bibhu Padhi, Chana Bloch, Mark Doty, Ron Padgett, Jericho Brown, Ilya Kaminsky, Lola Haskins, Sean Sexton, and countless others who are speaking bravely, beautifully, constantly, into the sky, onto the pages, sharing with all of us.
I’m currently working on a novel for elementary school readers, the sequel to The Turtle of Oman, to be called The Turtle of Michigan. I have never lived in Michigan so my desk is covered with brochures as well as old Omani calendars, etc. It’s fun! At least I know many of the characters!
Children told me that the ending of The Turtle of Oman left them dangling so I had to get to work and let them know what happened next. I am now finding out.
Thank you for your immense kindness and respectful interest. I bow to you!
Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American, is the Young People’s Poet Laureate of the Poetry Foundation, Chicago and the poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine.
Aekta Khubchandani is a writer and poet from Bombay and an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.
This interview was first published on February 28, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.