As a team who finds a lot of inspiration in art, in fiction, in films, we’ve found ourselves recently asking — what role does art play in a pandemic? Is it self-indulgent to be seeking reflection in this form…or is it perhaps a necessary form of nourishment? To investigate these ideas, we sought out the wisdom of Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet whose accolades range from National Book Critics Lifetime Achievement Awards to Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships to becoming the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, and seemingly every bit of critical acclaim in between.
Born in the early 1950s to a Palestinian father and an American mother, Naomi’s experience of cultural differences has influenced much of her work – which interestingly is largely centered around our shared humanity. Through her writing, much of which addresses ordinary daily life through a lens of observation and earnest wonder, she lends a fresh breath of much-needed perspective.
We visited Naomi at home in San Antonio, Texas, where she generously offered us a glimpse into her world.
Can you tell us about your upbringing? What parts of your history do you see as being foundational in who you are today?
My parents came from two different sides of the world, but both were open-minded, curious, and expressive — [they taught me to] look at the world...and wonder about how much there was to know about, to listen to new ideas, and to meet people who weren't just like us. Above all, they valued having respect for everybody, recognizing that everyone has a story. To always tell the truth.
I was raised with such basic principles of simple ethics and exchange. I could not have dreamed there would be “white supremacists” or people who feared immigrants still existing in 2020. Such obsolete, peculiar concepts. My immigrant Arab father was the most elegant man I ever knew. I was raised with an awareness of art - being taken to museums a lot as a child, and symphonies, and plays in the park. Amid it all, feeling how all these worlds transform and uplift us.
I'm grateful for these experiences now. There was little materialism involved, partly because we didn’t have any money! But we were rich in so many ways.
Have you been able to write this year with everything else in the world vying for your attention?
Yes I have - because of rituals and routines (and also, I had a book deadline!) and I know a day feels better if it begins with writing.
Also a day feels better if it begins in the dark. To be up already, to welcome the light arriving. I try to rise around 5 - 5:30 - sometimes earlier, but during quarantine I’ll admit... sometimes later.
What kinds of routines have you established during quarantine?
I guess poets are lucky: we’re already so used to spending a lot of time alone, just staring. Reading. Scribbling. Arranging our notes. Making new notes! Finding clues.
What responsibility does art have toward current events or political events?
I think a ton. For me anyway. Every artist is different. You don’t have to write about it all, but you surely have to think about it. And what you think about informs what you write. I try to take “news breaks” but they last about three hours.
We’re living in a big crazy "now," right? I try to find little handles, little rooms of thinking to spend time in. Phrases that resonate. Cling to a phrase. Find a way to plant it and see what grows. All these fires in California and Oregon, places I have worked so much and so often through the years, remind us how precious, fragile, delicate, our shared world is. We can’t take enough care.
In the last few years, what has sparked your interest and become a new pursuit or hobby?
Hmmmmm. A new hobby. I still love my old hobbies. We are trying to watch everything the Duplass Brothers ever made. Also I love to listen to music I never heard before...to fall in love with new artists of all kinds.
This Apple Music thing (or all the other platforms too I guess, I’m very old-school, I still love my CD player) where you can just pull up any album right on your desk top, then listen to it all day — wow. Rhiannon Giddens. Burna Boy! Goodness I wish he had lived a little longer, what a talent.
Being a grandmother is more than a hobby but as everyone else has said forever, it’s truly the best. We adore our little guy and feel so lucky we live in the same city.
Is there a passage from a poem or excerpt from a novel that you find yourself thinking about frequently?
William Stafford - "Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be."
It used to feel easier, thinking about this. These days, it’s often such a mystery.
What is a surprising thing about the current stage of life you are in?
To be this old and still feel as young and enthusiastic as I did at 12 is a big surprise.
Can you share a recipe that feels like “home” to you?
Hummus, baby, hummus! Just mix up your own, smash up those chickpeas, drizzle that lemon juice and tahini and salt. The important thing is, grill pine nuts in a little olive oil for the top. Dip in your toasted pita bread or corn chips, hello Texas, and you’re cozy!
The poet Derek Walcott said, “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.” How do you perceive your identity as a poet? Is it something different than a profession?
Yes, it’s a devotion. I stand with Walcott. I do not relate to the word “career.” We are witnesses. We are trying to share little parcels of what we see. We are trying to see. To find out. To weave together. That’s my identity.