this photograph is of International Poet Naomi Shihab Nye at a book signing courtesy of Micahd under CC BY-SA 3.0
“Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer on its own.” Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye (نعومي شهاب ناي) (b. 1952) is a poet, novelist, essayist, anthologist and peacemaker. He father was a Palestinian; her mother, an American. She started writing when she was six-years-old. The breadth of her published work encompasses poetry, young-adult fiction, picture books, essays and novels. She calls herself a “wandering poet” but refers to San Antonio, Texas as home.
Habibi [recommended and not just for teens] is her 1997 young adult novel. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of fourteen-year-old Liyana Abboud and her family, her Arab father, American mother, and brother Rafik, who move from their home in St. Louis to Mr. Abboud’s native home of Palestine in the 1970s. It was named an American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Notable Book, a New York Public Library Book for the Teens and a Texas Institute of Letters Best Book for Young Readers. It received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, given annually to a children’s book that advances the causes of peace and social equality. Habibi deals with a range of themes including change, family values, war and peace, and love. “Habibi” is the Arabic for ‘beloved’.
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
Naomi says a visit to her grandmother in the West Bank village of Sinjil was a life-changing experience.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt weakened in a broth.
What you held in your hand,
What you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before your learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
Like a shadow or a friend.
© Naomi Shahib Nye from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
You can listen to Naomi’s interview with Krista Tippet – including some background on this particular poem – HERE.
This year Naomi was named The Young People’s Poet Laureate, the first Arab-American to hold the position. The award is from the Poetry Foundation, among other things the publisher of Poetry. This is a $25,000 prize that celebrates a living writer in recognition of their devotion to writing exceptional poetry for young readers. The two-year-term laureateship promotes poetry to children and their families, teachers, and librarians.
Naomi Shihab Nye will serve from 2019 to 2021, aiming to bring poetry to geographically underserved, or rural communities through readings underwritten by the Poetry Foundation. In addition, every month during her tenure, which begins in August, she will recommend a new poetry book for young readers.
Nye is acclaimed as a children’s writer for her sensitivity and cultural awareness, such as in her book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, published just after September 11, 2001, which invites readers to reflect and explore life as an Arab-American. Also acclaimed for her work for adults, Nye’s writing moves seamlessly between ages in a way that is accessible, warm, and sophisticated even for the youngest of readers. Her poetry collections for young adults include Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners and A Maze Me: Poems for Girls.
Naomi Nye is currently a professor of creative writing at Texas State University. She joins notable past winners of this award including Jack Prelutsky, Jacqueline Woodson, and most recently Margarita Engle.
If you are reading this post from an email subscription, you’ll like have to link through to the site to enjoy the delights of this video reading by Naomi of her poem, “When did you stop being a poet?”
This is charming and serves to remind us of how good we are at poetry when we are spontaneous and open to fancy, when we don’t try to write and edit at the same time. It reminds us too that like children, poets never stop being surprised by life. I love that Naomi’s little boy said, “Just think, no one has ever seen inside this peanut before.” Such is the wonder of childlike sensibility and vision.
This post compiled courtesy of Naomi Shihab Nye (which is not to imply I got permission – I hope sharing her work here falls under Fair Use), Wikipedia, Amazon, and Poetry Foundation.