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NOW with Bill Moyers

Naomi Shihab Nye: A Bill Moyers Interview


BILL MOYERS: Eight years ago, recovering from heart surgery I found deep comfort in poetry, especially the poems of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems speak of ordinary things -- things we take for granted until it's almost too late. In her new book, 19 VARIETIES OF GAZELLE those are again her subject. Even when war, politics and terrorism put them in jeopardy.

Naomi Shihab Nye, is an American, an Arab, a Poet, a parent, a woman of Texas, a woman of ideas. The daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, she's lived in old Jerusalem, in St. Louis, and now with her own family in San Antonio, Texas.

We first met at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey eight years ago where we talked about the power of the word.

BILL MOYERS: Poetry is a form of conversation is it not?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Absolutely, conversation with the world, conversation with those words on the page allowing them to speak back to you-- conversation with yourself.

BILL MOYERS: We caught up with Naomi Nye at the Poetry Festival again in New Jersey last month.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: "If you place a fern under a stone, the next day it will be nearly invisible as if the stone has swallowed it. If you tuck the name of a loved on under your tongue too long, without speaking it it becomes blood, sigh, the little sucked in breath of air hiding everywhere beneath your words. No one see's the fuel that feeds you."

BILL MOYERS: "The fuel that feeds you." What is it?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I think for many of us it's language in the sense that language can carry us to understanding, and connect us to things that matter in our lives. For those of us who trust poetry and the power of linkage that poetry gives us. It's a way of-- sitting quietly with words and-- letting us-- them lead us somewhere.

BILL MOYERS: So "the fuel that feeds you" is the power of words?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I think so. Those power of words, and a faith in the power of words. That words can give you something back if you trust them, and if you know that you're not trying to proclaim things all the time, but you're trying to discover things.

A little girl said to me, last year, "Poetry has been eating all my problems." And I said, "What do you mean by that?" And she said, "It just makes me feel better when I read it, or when I write it." And I think that's been true for many people in this country.

BILL MOYERS: You dedicate this book to your grandmother. What was her name?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Her name was Hadra, Sitti Khadra. Sitti for Grandmother. Khadra Shihab. And she lived to be 106 years old.

BILL MOYERS: Is s-- is she the one who said she was gonna live until she had outlived all the people she didn't like?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: That's right. Although she seemed to like almost everybody, so we could never figure that out.

BILL MOYERS: But did she succeed? She did--

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: She did succeed. She was the oldest person around when she died.

BILL MOYERS: She was Muslim.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: She was devout Muslim, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Is it true that the only trip she ever took outside of Palestine was to Mecca?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Yes. That's true. She went to Jordan a few times to visit cousins but she never got in an airplane. She only rode in an elevator once.

BILL MOYERS: And she was born in what year?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well, she was born in-- from 1994 minus 106.

BILL MOYERS: And she lived through the turmoil of upheavals in Palestine.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: That's right. She remembered lying down in a ditch when-- fighters on horseback rode by from Turkey when she was a little girl.

BILL MOYERS: World War I.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: Lawrence of Arabia

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: She remembered those days. So her-- her whole life was in a context of upheaval. And yet within herself she maintained this fantastic sense of humor and a great memory and a love for language. That weight of language which she could-- relate to.

BILL MOYERS: She probably would have thought that what happened on 9/11 was a real stain on her religion, right?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Absolutely, I know she would have thought that. And I have felt her in dreams saying that exactly.

BILL MOYERS: Y-- you've actually written and said that-- since 9/11 she has swarmed into your consciousness. Why?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well I had written so much about her, both in poems and in a novel called Habibi (PH) that I thought to myself a couple of years ago, "I probably won't write about her anymore. I've said all there is to say." But after September 11th I felt her poking me again saying, "No there's more you need to say for the women who believe in peace, for the children who want to live together. For all of us who would never, never believe anything like that could be a good-- a good representation of our religion, or our culture."

BILL MOYERS: You have a poem in here dedicated to your grandmother, in fact you call it "My Grandmother in the Stars".

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: "It is possible we will not meet again on earth. To think this fills my throat with dust. Then there is only the sky tying the universe together. Just now the neighbor's horse must be standing patiently, hoof on stone, waiting for his day to open. What you think of him, and the village's one heroic cow, is the knowledge I wish to gather. I bow to your rugged feet, the moth-eaten scarves that knot your hair.

Where we live in the world is never one place, our hearts-- those dogged mirrors-- keep flashing us moons before we are ready for them. You and I on a roof at sunset, our two languages adrift. Hearts saying take this home with you, never again and only memory making us rich."

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever stop to think about how powerful the hold Grandmother's have over us? I mean I wasn't particularly close to my grandmother, but many years ago when I was new in this business a director said to me, "You're too formal, you're too stiff. When you look into that camera, assume you're talking to one person." And ever since then I've imagined talking to my now deceased, 96 year old grandmother, when she died." But the hold in my imagination of that woman-- how do you explain that?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: It's h-- I think it's beyond us to explain, but I think you're v-- i-- it's true what you say. They are an original gravity for us in our lives. And if we're lucky they love us unconditionally, just because we exist, they love us. We don't have to do anything or prove ourselves in anyway.

BILL MOYERS: I gave mum-- my grandmother lots of reasons not to love me, but she never gave up.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Right. And I didn't speak the same language as my grandmother. And still she always seemed happy to see me. So there was that sense of I want to do things to make her proud, I want to speak towards-- to her, I want to-- represent her in some way in the world-- and her culture, and the things she loved.

BILL MOYERS: You've said elsewhere that your grandmother just wanted people to worship in any way that they were comfortable with. She just wanted them to sit and have their tea and smell their lemon blossoms. What was the wisdom that this 106-year old Palestinian woman had that we don't have today?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well maybe the wisdom was one of her final lines she ever spoke to me, Bill. Which was, "I never lost my peace inside." And I think through living very sensibly, calmly, close to home. Paying attention to what was right around her, she was able to maintain an equilibrium. Although she had lost her home and everything she had. She still maintained a sense of humor too. And an interest in other people. She was fascinated by other people's stories.

BILL MOYERS: You write in here about what it means to be half and half, where love means you breath in two countries. Help me to understand that.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well I think whenever you love something or somebody it means that you have to extend yourself, you have to grow-- get a little larger. You can't stay in your little comfortable-- spot. So you have-- it's a challenge it's a risk, and-- whether it's loving another culture far away that suddenly has been represented by an act of violence-- or whether it's loving another person-- and that always involves you know all kinds of growing-- we're challenged.

And so every time you care about something or somebody that relates to a different place in the world, then you're empathy grows. And for example, for all Americans who have friends from Iraq, I'm sure that things that have been going on-- they're thinking about it not only in political terms, but in human terms. You know what will that mean for their friend's families, or what will that mean for all the children of Iraq?

You know during the Gulf War I remember two little third grade girls saying to me-- after I read them some poems by writers in Iraq-- "You know we never thought about there being children in Iraq before." And I thought, "Well those poems did their job, because now they'll think about everything a little bit differently." They'll feel closer to that place in a different way.

BILL MOYERS: One of your poems, the last poem in the book is something you did after 9-11. Would-- would you read this for me?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I call my father. We talk about the news. It is too much for him. Neither of his two languages can reach it. I drive into the country to find sheep, cows. To plead with the air. Who calls anyone civilized? Where can the crying heart graze? What does a true Arab do now?

BILL MOYERS: What does a true Arab do now? Your father wondered about that.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: My father was devastated when he heard.

BILL MOYERS: That these were men from the Middle East?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: It was-- it was doubly heart-breaking to all people from the Middle East who love peace.

BILL MOYERS: As an American of Arab descent do you feel after 9/11 that you have to explain yourself?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well, not explain myself so much because I'm more identifiable as an American. But I certainly understand my cousins when they said their friends grew more supportive but people they didn't know , during the past year, took two steps backward sometimes before they would agree to get to know them.

That life became more difficult in that way. And I think we all needed to work harder to maintain a feeling of openness to anyone we might identify as the "other." Now, that's what interests me. How can we keep bridging the gap that sets someone apart from us and finding a way to know them that will help us all.

BILL MOYERS: You write this one line in which you talk about "The men who have so much pain, there's no place to store it." Who are you writing about?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I was thinking about Palestinian refugees, and the people of my Grandmother's village when I wrote that. And my father in his own life. And-- all the people of different countries in the world who have lost things that many other people can never understand.

You know those of us who leave our homes in the morning and expect to find them there when we go back-- it's hard for us to understand what the experience of a refugee might be like.

BILL MOYERS: But how do people deal with such immeasurable lose in their life?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: How do they maintain any shred of dignity and balance? You know those are the courageous people to me. All the-- simple people of the earth who-- don't lose their sanity in the face of-- constant-- dis-ease in the world they live in. Who keep sending their children to school, who keep combing their children's hair. How do they do that?

BILL MOYERS: Well that's why I assume that so often in your poetry you are taking small and ordinary words. Words about ordinary things and-- and holding them close.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Because they have a weight that I recognize that helps me stay balanced. And I think other people too.

BILL MOYERS: Is that why you write about button-hooks and onions and all kinds of things like that?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Those little things?

BILL MOYERS: The tea that your grandmother drinks?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Yes. That's-- that's why. It keeps me focused on things close to us. The material world that gives us a sense of gravity. And that we'd like-- we'd all like to be free to enjoy in our world.

BILL MOYERS: I remember visiting the Middle East and my favorite scene are seeing the men outside having the-- the-- their coffee every afternoon.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: It's a beautiful scene. And it reminds us sometimes how much we rush. How-- how we don't take that kind of time in this country often enough. And-- and that beautiful scene of pausing in a day. Just to sit in a circle together. It's very common in the Middle East.

BILL MOYERS: I want to come back in closing to-- to what is my favorite poem of yours. The one that-- that helped me most after I was recovering from heart surgery. I actually carry it around. In very tiny print. You can't read that, in my wallet. I read it. I don't know if I can follow it but I-- I am constantly reading it. And I printed it out for you to read. As you know, this is my favorite.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: It's so kind of you Bill. Thank you very much for carrying it.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: The Art of Disappearing.

When they say Don't I know you? say no.
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.
If they say we should get together.
say why? It's not that you don't love them any more.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees.
The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished. When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble any second. Then decide what to do with your time.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you Naomi.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: And thank you for VARIETIES OF GAZELLE.