Saturday, March 29, 2008

more on poetry, and the power of words

Here are some excerpts from a 2002 interview with Naomi Shihab Nye on PBS. She talks about the power of language, and the significance of life's small details -- those everyday activities and objects that remind us of our shared humanity.

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.
* * *

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.
I think for many of us, language [is the fuel that feeds us] 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 them lead us somewhere.

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.

* * *

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well I had written so much about [my Palestinian grandmother], both in poems and in a novel called HABIBI 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 representation of our religion, or our culture."

One of her final lines she ever spoke to me 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 breathe 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. 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 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 your empathy grows. And for example, for all Americans who have friends from Iraq, I'm sure 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.

[After September 11th] 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 loss 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 disease 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: I assume [that's why] that so often in your poetry you are taking small and ordinary words -- words about ordinary things -- 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 why. It keeps me focused on things close to us. The material world that gives us a sense of gravity. And that we'd all like to be free to enjoy in our world.

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