Naomi Shihab Nye's most recent books are The Turtle of Oman, a novel for elementary readers, & Famous, illustrated by Lisa Desimini. Her new poem "Impeccable Abundance of Morning" appears in the Spring 2016 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by April 29 for special savings and discounts.
"Impeccable Abundance of Morning" brings the entire history of a life - of Whitman's life - to a moment contained by a room. This invitation to pause is recurrent in your poetry. How would you say you reconcile presentness with retrospection in your writing?
It is a continual struggle or, shall we say, challenge. To pay attention, lasso mind meanders, focus, find calm again amidst the bustle of muchness. There is no single ticket. Where is the heart of any poem? We’re all aware of this. But the struggle feeds our gratitude for the conscious spirit poetry nourishes.
Also, you could go to the San Francisco Zen Center website and listen to a Dharma talk by Ryushin Paul Haller. Or meditate anywhere by yourself, take a walk outside, listen to the 15 minute version of “When Heart is Open” by Van Morrison (Common One album).
What is the role of history in your poetry?
So far I have not figured out a way to separate any of our selves from history. If we could, wouldn’t we all write better history? Awareness of context–humility in the light of all others have faced–we are so shockingly quick to complain–about nothing, essentially–but instead, returning over and over again to voices that inspired us when we were very young, finding new need for them, new wisdom…all connected. Reading William Stafford, always recommended by me. If you do not have a copy of Every War Has Two Losers–William Stafford on Peace and War, edited by Kim Stafford–please do find one.
You've spoken a great deal about how poetry can build bridges across cultures. "Impeccable Abundance of Morning" in particular addresses the braveries of Whitman's life and could be read as a call to poetic action. Why is poetry uniquely equipped to bring people together?
As Rita Dove once said, so succinctly, poetry is the most “immediate and intimate” genre. Our brains/souls/hearts/memories/days are desperate for it.
What is Whitman's significance to your poetic perspective?
I fell in love with his voice at age 7, my second year of writing, the year I started sending poems to children’s magazines. Thank you, Mrs. Harriett B. Lane of Central School, Ferguson, Missouri. He gave me courage. To write in long lines, to stay awake, be braver, to step out, observe closely, to mix rich observation and imagination, always, to soar, to hold close what is precious, to give it away. To be a bit strange. That was okay. In fact, that was a good thing. Incredible that we may find a friend so young who stays a best friend a very long time. Read biographies of Whitman, even ones intended for children are fascinating – there is so much information available. Students are both heartened and horrified to learn that he revised Leaves of Grass all his life.
What is your current mantra?
Each thing gives us something else.
Also, from Thailand: Life is so short we must move very slowly. This one has been with me a very long, slow time.