by Krista Walker
Naomi Shihab Nye lives her life inspiring others, if not through her writing then through teaching and spreading poetry in hopes to motivate other artist to follow their dreams. Her writing began after having a conversation with a librarian who taught her how to publish her own work. Nye became a published author at the age of seven. From that moment on, she has continued to spread her work in hopes to inspire others. Thanks to that librarian, as well as supportive parents who instilled in her the need for awareness, an understanding of politics amongst society, and the need to call attention the importance of coexisting.
“I pinned my gaze out the window
on a ripe line of sky.
That’s where I was going.”
—Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Fuel”
Adding to her motif is the reiteration of communal gathering and harmonizing amongst diversity. With the help of her surroundings, she has been able to use to her advantage everyday encounters as part of a blank canvas. Nye pulls from small events and explores the minor moments in life to develop new perspectives. Similar to her poem “Famous,” she delves into this idea that everyone, no matter the person, has an impact on someone, even in a small minute of their day. She has published an abundance of poems, but she has also helped other young artist by publishing their works in a collection of poems called Time You Let Me In.
Most recently, Nye was visiting the Hong Kong International School in which she stood in front of a room full of students eager to listen to Nye’s presentation. HKIS provides students with the opportunity to talk and hear readings from visiting authors to encourage students to write and learn through art. Nye enthusiastically joined in on a lecture to take part in their efforts to spread creative motivation for other writers. Thanks to her generosity, she corresponded with me through email during her visit to Hong Kong for this interview, providing me with some great advice.
Krista Walker: Is there a ritual you have when writing?
Naomi Shihab Nye: I try to write in the mornings when the brain feels fresher. But it is possible to write anywhere, any time. I try to clear a space and focus.
KW: I noticed in one of your works that you thanked [San Antonio Tea Room] Mad Hatters. Is that the type of environment that helps you write?
NSN: Not really. I just revised an entire book there once – Habibi – and felt grateful that they never kicked me out! But I have never worked on any other books there.
KW: When do you normally write or even feel most inspired to write?
NSN: I feel inspired to write on a daily basis. The world does not particularly invite it, but the psyche does – nothing else offers the same level of refreshment or focus, or possibility for connection-making, that writing offers. Also – some people imagine that you need an hour or more to make a worthy dent in a page. I think you need a few deep minutes to get going and then – whammo – even small increments of time may become meaningful.
KW: What is the most challenging thing you have had to hurdle as a writer?
NSN: It’s a tiny issue – all the millions of people who ask writers to write “blurbs” or comments on their own manuscripts. This is extremely tiresome, although flattering, and I hope never to do it again in my life.
KW: One of the first pieces I read of yours was “Famous,” and I recently came across the version that was turned into a child’s illustrated book. Do you prefer to write for the younger generations, in hopes to motivate them on a bright path?
NSN: We all need a bright path, no? Nice words you chose – bright path. Sounds like a book title or a poem title. I like writing for everybody and especially like the way lines between ages blur. There is no difference for me. Some poems which appealed to me as a child still appeal to me today, so many years later. I just like writing. Writing The Turtle of Oman, a simple (not too much happens) novel for elementary age readers, was especially challenging recently, which I find fascinating. I did 13 revisions.
KW: With the growing tensions in American society and specifically, a place with diverse merging cultures and a struggle for coexisting, would you say this has provided more writing material or inspired some recent work?
NSN: Without a doubt. There seems to be no end to it.
KW: Is there a style you prefer to write in? For instance, some of your work appears to be in free form. Is that a style you feel is more understood or simply one in which you enjoy writing in more?
NSN: Free form is my favorite style, yes. I can’t imagine waking up and desiring to write a sonnet or a villanelle. But some people might. At the moment, I especially love Japanese poetry from the past and also contemporary Japanese poetry. Just returned home after two weeks working in three schools in Japan and have been reading a lot of it – brilliant.
KW: I know that your father encouraged you to be aware of the happenings of society by taking clips from newspapers and that you generally had a supportive home environment. Is there any advice you can give to individuals or aspiring artist that lack the parental guidance and social support?
NSN: Read as much as you can – the library is waiting for you – write on a regular basis – find your own methods and habits – and find a way to share your work. Even with one person, or a few persons – sharing your work helps you really “see it” and think about it differently. This is very important. You don’t need to share ALL your work – obviously – you select what you would like to share. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself room and time to make different drafts. Don’t ever expect perfection, especially in early drafts. What is that anyway? The risk is worth taking.
KW: Diversity and equality seem to be present in many, if not all your works. In a way would you say that your writing is a way to be a small activist for coexisting and/or a push for harmony amongst differing individuals?
NSN: I would hope so.
KW: Personally, I find it difficult to write longer pieces and have found that collections of short stories or flash fictional works are easier to finalize. Is there anything you did to help you write your novel Habibi or other longer works than can help writers who struggle but want to write longer things such as novel?
NSN: Writing longer works is harder for me too. The short short stories in There is No Long Distance Now were very easy however. I would say, just stick to the task. Keep coming back. Don’t give up. Try various strategies. Good luck.
We should expect some upcoming works in the near future, but until then Nye has left us with some encouraging words to inspire writers to continue motivating themselves and thrive to discover the deeper artists within: “Sometimes it’s helpful just to answer questions, no? Maybe we should interview our own selves every day. A notebook gives us such space and place to do that.” No matter the person or time of life they are in, we should, according to Nye, keep on searching within to uncover potential material. There is a world’s worth of material waiting in front of each person. It’s whether we choose to take those steps forward to make them happen.
Naomi Shihab Nye is the author and/or editor of more than 30 volumes. Her books of poetry include 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East , A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, Red Suitcase, Words Under the Words, Fuel, and You & Yours (a best-selling poetry book of 2006). She is also the author of Mint Snowball, Never in a Hurry, I’ll Ask You Three Times, Are you Okay? Tales of Driving and Being Driven(essays); Habibi and Going Going (novels for young readers); Baby Radar, Sitti’s Secrets, and Famous(picture books) and There Is No Long Distance Now (a collection of very short stories). Her collection of poems for young adults entitled Honeybee won the 2008 Arab American Book Award in the Children’s/Young Adult category. Her new novel for children, The Turtle of Oman, was chosen both a Best Book of 2014 by The Horn Book and a 2015 Notable Children’s Book by the American Library Association. The Turtle of Oman was also awarded the 2015 Middle East Book Award for Youth Literature.
Nye has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow (Library of Congress). She has received a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, four Pushcart Prizes, the Robert Creeley Prize, and “The Betty Prize” from Poets House, for service to poetry, and numerous honors for her children’s literature, including two Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards. In 2011, Nye won the Golden Rose Award given by the New England Poetry Club, the oldest poetry reading series in the country. Her collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her work has been presented on National Public Radio on A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac.
Nye has been featured on two PBS poetry specials including “The Language of Life with Bill Moyers” and also appeared on NOW with Bill Moyers. She has been affiliated with The Michener Center for writers at the University of Texas at Austin for 20 years and also poetry editor at The Texas Observer for 20 years. In January 2010 Nye was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets.
She currently resides in San Antonio, Texas.
*Photo by Chehalis Hegner.