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Poet Naomi Shihab Nye: ‘Telling a Story Helped Us Figure Out Who We Were’

April 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
When shaping verse, poet Naomi Shihab Nye reflects on her Palestinian heritage, family and the power of humanity. Nye discusses her most recent compilation of work, "Transfer," and what inspires her to continue crafting thoughtful and expressive poems.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry.

Naomi Shihab Nye is author of more than 25 volumes and winner of numerous awards. She was recently elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, and, as we will hear, regularly conducts writing workshops around the country for young people.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE, poet: My name is Naomi Shihab Nye. I live in San Antonio, Texas.

I have been working with students of all ages for 38 years, encouraging them to write their own poems and stories and discover how much material they have.

I took the title for my recent book, “Transfer,” from an actual airlines baggage tag, but I was thinking about all the different kinds of transfers we make in our lives from one stage of our lives to another. My mother, Miriam Shihab, exposed her children to art and culture as much as she could. And our father, Aziz Shihab, was an immigrant from Palestine, a refugee.

I was lucky to be told stories as a little child. Our father brought tales out of his Palestinian background to our bedsides. And the minute I could write, when I was 6 years old, I wanted to start writing little detailed stories, poems of my own.

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It seemed that telling a story helped us focus, helped us figure out who we were anyway, where were we in the world.

“Storyteller.”

“Where is the door to the story? Is the door left open? When he sat by our beds, the days rushed past like water, driftwood, bricks, heavy cargoes disappearing downstream, no matter, no matter. Even the trees outside our screens tipped their cooling leaves to listen.”

My father was very disappointed by war and fighting. And he thought language could help us out of cycles of revenge and animosity. And so, as a journalist, he always found himself asking lots of questions and trying to gather information. He was always very clear to underscore the fact that Jewish people and Arab people were brother and sister. That was in every story that he told.

He would say, this conflict came about because of political decisions or decisions made by powers in different countries, and it’s not the fault of Jewish people and Arab people. He was convinced all through his life that resolution was possible.

“Many asked me not to forget them. Where do you keep all these people, the shoemaker with his rumpled cough, the man who twisted straws into brooms? My teacher, oh, my teacher. I will always cry when I think of my teacher. The olive farmer who lost every inch of ground, every tree, who sat with head in his hands in his son’s living room for years after.”

In the poem “Many Asked Me Not to Forget Them,” I found the line, that actual line in my father’s notebooks after he died, and then the poem I wrote came out in his voice. And when he died, and I really couldn’t imagine how I would continue to live without this voice, until I realized I would always have that voice in my days. It was in my DNA, it was in my memory.

“I tucked them into my drawer with cufflinks and bow ties, touched them each evening before I slept, wished them happiness and peace, peace in the heart. No wonder we all got heart trouble.”

I do think that all of us think in poems. I think of a poem as being deeper than headline news. You know how they talk about breaking news all the time, that — if too much breaking news, trying to absorb all the breaking news, you start feeling really broken. And you need something that takes you to a place that’s a little more timeless, that kind of gives you a place to stand to look out at all these things. Otherwise, you just feel assaulted by all of the tragedy in the world.

“We swam so easily to the stone village, women in thick dresses, men with smoky breath. We sat around the fire pitching in our own twigs. The world curled around us, sizzled and popped. We dropped our troubles into the lap of the storyteller, and they turned into someone else’s.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Naomi Shihab Nye reading from her book of poems called “Transfer.”

You can watch her read more of her work on our Art Beat page at NewsHour.PBS.org.