I've read some of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems and essays, her picture book Sitti's Secrets and her novel Habibi. My library owns some of the anthologies she's edited. I've always thought she was a good poet, a good writer, who seemed like a kind and open and smart person. She's Palestinian-American, and writes about that, which might make her books controversial at the Jewish day school where I work, but I've never had any complaints. Maybe because her work is so manifestly about the need to reach out, to cross borders, to connect. (Or maybe it's just that no one's really noticed them.)
Well. She is a fine poet. And a good writer. And a good anthologist. But she is a great speaker. And I mean "great" as in Great Books or Great Horned Owl. After a full day of presentations at the Serendipity conference, and a full dinner, and three introductory after-dinner speakers who got us all warmed up and excited about poetry, this small woman in a green jacket and a bushy sideways ponytail stood up and talked. She was quiet and kind and eloquent and radiant with love of words. And we sat entranced.
I was too entranced to even take many notes, so this will be from memory, and not necessarily in the order I heard it:
She unfolded an article she'd clipped from the newspaper, with the headline: "To be Young, Rich, and In Vancouver." Reading and writing for children keeps us young, she said; and we all know that books and words are the real riches; and here we are, in Vancouver! This sounds corny written down, but she pulled it off in a lovely understated, pleased way.
She read poems about her father's annoying and endearing singing, her childhood love of reading which was so great that she read the car manual from the dashboard, about Paul Robeson singing into Canada when he wasn't allowed to leave the United States, sending his voice across the border. She read about a girl pretending she wasn't herself, she just worked for herself: "she'll be so glad I got that homework done..."
She talked about herself, how nostalgic she was even as a child: she cried at her third birthday because she wasn't done with being two. About how she still feels time is going too fast: "Life is always rushing us along to the next moment." But words can be a way of slowing time down.
She read a poem by a 7-year-old boy from Winnipeg who sent her some of his work along with a letter about the doubts he sometimes has about his writing, and told about what happened when she wrote back to him, which was that some of his classmates also wrote to her with some of their poems, which were, they explained in a cover letter, much better. She told about their classroom, which, when she traveled from Texas to Winnipeg to visit it, was covered in poems everywhere: on the walls, on the ceiling, and about their teacher who had grown up in a small town and who had the world opened up to her through books, and was determined to open it up for her students through poetry.
She urged everyone to make poetry part of children's lives every day, despite the pressures of curriculum and standardized testing: read it aloud, just one poem a day. Make it part of your own life, she said. Sneak it into your day. Write three lines a day, in a notebook. Just that. Just that can make a difference in your life, day after day.
She talked about place, about connection to place even if it's not where you're from: "If you live in a place, you like its stories...you can belong to it."
She talked about her father, whose eightieth birthday was the next day. He is a Palestinian refugee, but as a kid she didn't know he was a refugee because he never spoke of himself that way; how he talked about the Palestine of his youth, which was a less contentious place than other accounts would have it; how he played with Arab Muslim kids and Arab Christian kids and Jewish kids and Greek kids and Armenian kids, all of them together on the same street, and how after dinner they would all come out of their houses and trade desserts.
She talked about her friend who works with kids in Palestinian refugee camps, how he makes "Passports" for the kids to write in, empty booklets for them to fill with the titles of books they read. Because even if you can't cross the checkpoint, you can go anywhere if you can read.
She talked about her hope in the face of war and fear and the loss of recess in the schools. And she read something she'd written recently, that she hadn't meant to be a poem, she said; just something she e-mailed to a few friends, but it seemed to have spread to more people and people were breaking the lines like a poem, so it was turning into one. Here it is: Gate 4-A.
(I've just read over this entry and I'm not sure it captures the quality Nye has as a speaker that led me to lean over to my neighbor at the banquet table about half an hour into her talk and murmur "I think I'm in love with her."
So I found a link to an audio interview she gave several years ago; the subject matter is totally different from what she talked about this weekend, and I'm not crazy about the interviewer, but I hope it gives some sense of how unassuming and yet powerful she can be.
If you want to take the trouble to register, you can also hear this talk she gave last year on the New Letters public radio show, which was similar but not identical to the presentation I heard this weekend. But really the thing to do is to go see her and hear her in person if you ever get the chance.)