Obviously poetry is the most tiny, compact genre of language and I think as a child falling in love with listening to poetry even before I could read it for myself, I felt that transporting magic of an image or a phrase or a lyric or just language that sounded carefully chosen, luscious, precise. I loved the feeling with a poem early on and still do that you could read a few lines and be carried away, be carried away from your current situation, your own preoccupations.

Really poetry was the magic carpet for me and I love stories and novels and essays and journalism, good journalism and everything as well, but usually it’s a little longer and there’s a little more flab in it, I guess, or excess. It’s not as refined and carefully selected as a poem. So I love that miniaturist but huge quality of a poem and the way a poem trusts us as readers, as interpreters to feel it, go with it, understand it, hold it without a lot of didactic explanation.

I have very little tolerance for the sort of piece of writing that keeps pounding us over the head with its message or telling us, “Do you get me, do you understand, did you pick up what I meant?” and that style of writing, that kind of didactic explanatory writing is very popular in the world, very common, exists in all fields. I mean someone recently gave me a cookbook and I gave it away because it was so didactic.

I mean it acted like it had to tell you what “stir” meant. Maybe it was written for children or something but it had a tone and I thought, “I don’t want to eat that food. It’s too bossy.” I like to play around with my recipes. I don’t want a cookbook hanging over me, and poetry is the most respectful genre, I think, for the reader in terms of, you know, go where you will.

Maybe you won’t go exactly where I was when I wrote this poem but it may be somewhere interesting and I love that sense of possibility as a reader, as a listener. And so writing poems, finding connections between images, layers of metaphor, being willing to hint, as the poet William Stafford used to say. He loved poetry because there was a hinting, suggestive quality about it and then a lot of trust.

You know, you’ll be able to take this somewhere that matters for you. Walt Whitman saying, “To have a great poem, you have to have a great audience.” So that mutual interaction. I try to write scenes even in prose books which feel or sound poetic. I’m not sure I always succeed but certainly when I’m rereading the text to myself I hope for that. I try to hear the language, feel the richness of a phrase. You’re still weaving a tapestry even if it’s a prose book.

Naomi Shihab Nye
Interview on AdLit.org

Burning the Old Year

January 29, 2019

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

Naomi Shihab Nye

the writing process

January 27, 2019

For me, the writing process is something related to like exercising your body, taking a walk, stretching. It’s better if you do it on a regular basis. You won’t be as stiff, so all my life I’ve tried to write every day. It doesn’t have to be great. Doesn’t have to be even good. Just keep that pen rolling. Write down you know, whether you’re writing a journal of what’s been happening during the day or signs you saw that day or conversations you overhead.

It really doesn’t matter what you’re writing every day whether you’re working on a project at every given moment or not, but keep the pencil, the pen moving and the more you write, the more you feel writing as a process, as a world that can be shaped and reshaped and re-envisioned. I really love the word “revise,” like a new vision, revision or something and of course when you’re young you don’t realize that that’s the most fun part of writing, going back to something and, you know, throwing parts out, adding parts in, giving another scene, sharpening a conversation.

But the more you write, the more you treasure that part of it. So I still stick to my primitive travel with a pencil sharpener at all times, my primitive tactics and when I was a kid I felt happy to participate in the cheapest art as I saw it. You know, it seemed like kids who wanted to be ballerinas, for example, you know, that cost their parents a lot of money, a lot of tutus, a lot of lessons, a lot of shoes and to be a writer was like a dollar, $1 for a notebook, a pencil, a pencil sharpener.

So I always carry my tools with me and it’s very portable art, so I believe in writing every day and revising frequently and there’s nothing scary or negative about revision. It’s a very positive building, making part of the process.

Naomi Shihab Nye
Interview on AdLit.org

You Have to Be Very Careful

January 24, 2019

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.
What you say will be washed out with the stones.

You look for a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears
they already know.

Naomi Shihab Nye
Words Under the Words: Selected Poems