Teaching was a Lifeline
An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye
by Bryan R. Monte
Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye is the author or editor of more than thirty books. She won the National Poetry Series for Hugging the Jukebox, (E.P. Dutton, 1982), the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for You & Yours, (BOA Editions, 2005) and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for her children’s books, Sitti’s Secrets and Habibi. Her book of poems about the Middle East, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has also won four Pushcart Prizes, received Lannan, Guggenheim and Witter Bryner Fellowships and the American Academy of Poets (AAP) Lavan Award as well as being elected AAP Chancellor in 2009. She has lived in Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, the Michener Center at the University of Texas, and the University of Hawai’i, among other institutions. In June 2017, Nye was interviewed by Amsterdam Quarterly about her teaching philosophy, methods and experience, and the roles storytelling and her students have had on her work.
Bryan R. Monte: What is the role teaching has played in your life as a poet?
Naomi Shihab Nye: Teaching—or at any rate, standing in front of a million classes of all ages and encouraging writing (not sure “teaching” is really the best word here)—has been like a continual blood transfusion. It woke me up. It was a lifeline, yes, because it kept me alive in my art and in my greatest love of other people’s art. I was continually digging for poems that might move other people in various moments and situations.
You lose faith in your own passion or process, your enthusiasm dims, and the sorrowful news of the world pours down around your shoulders like a toxic rain—how do you revive?
You figure out what might inspire other people. You find a door, a knob, a hinge, and you move it. Because I was, continually, a freelancer, I constantly had to stay alert, try to find clues about what might work in the moment, and this helped me as a poet. What one does to lead a group in Albany, Texas, a small west Texas ranching town (which hosts public historic theatre events in a massive outdoor amphitheatre, as well as rattlesnake round-ups) is not the same as one would do in an orphanage in the desert in Jordan (all the little boys wearing white shirts)—you keep improvising. For a poet, this is very good.
BRM: Do you believe being a poet is a gift or a skill or a combination of both?
NSN: I believe we have intuitive pulls or interests from early childhood, which might be classified as gifts, but they can definitely be developed and strengthened, or ignored. I do think all people, especially as children, have “poetry channels” in their brains and these are the tunings into remembrance, figurative thinking, mindful attention, daydreaming, interior savouring of certain images for years and years, etc. Also, it is never too late. This channel gets a clearer beam later on, for some people, even if they have not been tuning in intentionally for years.
BRM: Thom Gunn, for example, wrote me that creative writing courses could only really give students, that initial push, beyond which, they were on their own. Do you agree with this perspective?
NSN: I agree with him, but such courses may also convince us we are never alone—on our own, but never alone. They may also make us sturdier about accepting different responses to our own poems, which can be crucial for a lifetime writer—an essential resilience and neutrality about “what other people think.”
BRM: You’ve taught all over the world. What is the most unusual place you’ve ever taught?
NSN: A rollerskating rink in the Aleutian Islands. It was the biggest place to gather in that community, apparently. There were very good writers there too. And lots of background skating noise. And music.
BRM: What is the farthest you have every travelled to teach a class?
NSN: Up to Nome, Alaska? Muscat, Oman? Cities in China and Japan? It never felt far, though. It always felt close once you shared a poem or two.
BRM: Do you usually have a lesson plan or a set of exercises at the ready when you begin teaching a class?
NSN: I am very free-flowing. I usually have ideas, plans, examples, in my pocket, but am ready to change course if intuition guides. I have been in literally thousands of class settings by now so that helps. I do have a general “flow of things” I try to follow—always ending with sharing of work and perhaps further suggestions ….
BRM: What are some of your favourite techniques and media to teach poetry?
NSN: Modelling on existing poems. Group writings, to get words flowing. Questions and answers. Tiny poems—see a book called Braided Creek by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison. Like tiny modern haiku. Recent observations—within the last 24 hours. Incorporating spoken voices into poems. I encourage a lot of note-taking first—clumps or nuggets of writing—then drawing on those to find a possible poem.
BRM: How have you used and/or adapted these techniques and media to teach poetry in different cultures and in other parts of the world?
NSN: Wherever we travel, there are local concerns, and it’s best to pay attention to some of these and try to incorporate them into writing possibilities. I am always hoping to help other people feel their own lives are as rich, as full of particular details, struggles, glories, essential joys, possibilities than anyone else’s lives. It is startling how many of us feel real life must surely be happening “over there”—somewhere else. I now live in an American state—Texas—for a very long time, actually—with a bad reputation, politically. When I travel to other American states people often roll their eyes and ask me how we can stand to live here. They only know the stereotypes of our state—ignorant politicians, guns, swagger.
By speaking of simple local things—all the richness that makes up daily Texas life—I can touch upon details they all have in their lives too. It’s important as a writer to penetrate stereotypes wherever we can. I’m sure I am carrying plenty of my own about the current American regime, which I find shocking and terrifying. To become human to one another—to find ground we share—to honour the lusciousness of details (which war never has)—all are crucial for connection. In other countries I probably ask more questions than I do at home. We never pay quite enough attention and we never ask enough questions. But a writing workshop is a perfect place to try to do that more.
BRM: What do you see as your primary role as a creative writing teacher? Are you primarily a facilitator, an instructor, a good listener, a mentor, a moderator, a referee, a resource person or a combination of some of these roles and maybe others I haven’t mentioned?
NSN: I feel I am all these things you say. What a terrific and comprehensive list! Perhaps mostly I am an encourager. It’s like a children’s book—if I can do it, you can do it.
BRM: What role does storytelling have in your poems?
NSN: Those of us who favour narrative poems—moments—included dialogue—definitely feel as if we are part of the storytelling family. We are the cousins!
BRM: Do you usually start a poem with a story or does it usually begin with an image that accumulates into a story?
NSN: I start anywhere I can. I start everywhere. Every day is full of beginnings. We need to give ourselves a lot of room to try things out. We need to abandon delusions of perfection.
BRM: Your poetry is definitely a poetry rooted in specific places. Give examples of how living in Missouri, Jerusalem and Texas has influenced your writing differently.
NSN: Thank you for feeling places in my poems. When I think of Missouri, I think of the humid summer heat, the steeping in deep green memory, the cognizance of precious childhood that abides in some of us always, if we have a certain taste for it. I will always be entering my parents’ humble home in Ferguson, imagining them inside there, waiting for me, under the pine trees, next to the cherry trees, interested. I will always be feeling the clash of cultures, the arguing, the depression of my mother that was a very graphic backdrop to childhood years. It was acute. I was deeply concerned. Always trying to make her happy. My father’s endless restlessness…my mother’s frustrations and love for art.
When I think of Jerusalem, I will always be on the high hill outside the city with my father, and he is saying, “This place will change your life forever. Look closely. Do not look away.” He was so right. It was the pivotal time of life, when my world opened up and I became a global citizen—a much stronger feeling than being any particular kind of “patriot”—I think.
And Texas—the long roads—the huge sky—the friendliness—still ongoing. We live near the San Antonio River where egrets and cranes roost in the trees at sundown. I now feel like one of those birds, pushing our baby grandson in his carriage, as he drifts off to sleep. What images will he carry? What sticks? We, who are readers, are very lucky to have lines and phrases, from books we loved, sticking to our minds as well as our own images from experience.
BRM: A teacher once dedicated a book: “To my students, who were my best teachers.” What do you feel are two or three important things you’ve learned from your students about poetry?
NSN: Stay open. Be surprised. Someone else might like something you didn’t even like that much. AQ