Nye, Naomi Shihab

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NYE, Naomi Shihab

Nationality: American (Palestinian-American). Born: Naomi Shihab, St. Louis, Missouri, 12 March 1952. Education: Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, 1970–74, B.A. 1974. Family: Married Michael Nye in 1978; one son. Career: Visiting writer, University of Hawaii, fall 1991, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, spring 1993, Texas Center for Writers, Austin, 1995. Since 1978 freelance visiting writer in schools around the country. Awards: Texas Institute of Letters Poetry prize, 1980, 1982; Charity Randall prize, International Poetry Forum, 1989; I.B. Lavan award, Academy of American Poets, 1989; Jane Addams Children's Book award, 1995, 1998; John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, 1997–98; Judy Lopez memorial award for children's literature, 1998; Best Book for Young Readers award, Texas Institute of Letters, 1998; Witter Bynner fellow, 2000. Address: 806 South Main Avenue, San Antonio, Texas 78204, U.S.A.



Different Ways to Pray. Portland, Oregon, Breitenbush Books, 1980.

Hugging the Jukebox. Portland, Oregon, Breitenbush Books, 1982.

Yellow Glove. Portland, Oregon, Breitenbush Books, 1986.

Red Suitcase. New York, BOA Editions, 1994.

Words under the Words: Selected Poems. Portland, Oregon, Far Corner Books, Eighth Mountain Press, 1995.

Fuel. New York, BOA Editions, 1998.

Recordings: The Language of Life with Bill Moyers, National Public Broadcasting, 1995; The United States of Poetry, 1996.


Sitti's Secrets (for children). New York, Four Winds Press/Macmillan, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994.

Benito's Dream Bottle, illustrated by Yu Cha Pak. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Never in a Hurry. University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Habibi (for teenagers). New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Lullaby Raft, illustrated by Vivienne Flesher. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Editor, This Same Sky. New York, Four Winds Press/Macmillan, 1992.

Editor, The Tree Is Older Than You Are. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Editor, with Paul B. Janeczko, I Feel a Little Jumpy around You. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Editor, The Space between Our Footsteps: Poems & Paintings from the Middle East. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Editor, What Have You Lost?, photographs by Michael Nye. N.p.,Greenwillow, 1999.


Critical Studies: "Loners Whose Voices Move" by Philip Booth, in Georgia Review (Athens, Georgia), 43(1), spring 1989; "Doomed by Our Blood to Care: The Poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye" by Gregory Orfalea, in Paintbrush (Kirksville, Missouri), 18(35), spring 1991; "Writing to Save Our Lives: An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye" by Bryce Milligan, in Paintbrush (Kirksville, Missouri), 18(35), spring 1991.

Naomi Shihab Nye comments:

We go back and back to where it all begins. The sources, the mysterious wells. Each thing gives us something else.

It was not whether you were rich or poor, but if you had a big life, that was what mattered. A big life could be either a wide one or a deep one. It held countless possible corners and conversations. A big life did not stop at the alley or even the next street. It came from somewhere and was going somewhere, but the word "better" had no relation really. A big life was interested and wore questions easily. A big life never for one second thought it was the only life.

Something was in the closet, besides our clothes, which might or might not be friendly. A branch scratched a curious rhythm on the dark window. Our father came from Palestine, a beloved land far across the sea. Some people called it the Holy Land. Both my parents seemed holy to me. At night our father sat by our beds, curling funny stories into the air. His musical talking stitched us to places we had not been yet. And our mother, who had grown up in St. Louis, where we were growing up, stood by our beds after our father's stories, floating into sleep on a river of songs: "Now rest beneath night's shadow…. " She had been to art school and knew how to paint people the way they looked on the inside, not just the outside. That is what I wanted to know about too. What stories and secrets did people carry with them? What songs did they hold close in their ears?

Reading cracked the universe wide open; suddenly we had the power to understand newspapers, menus, books. I loved old signs, Margaret Wise Brown, Louisa May Alcott, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, the exuberant bounce of sentences across a page. I remember shaping a single word—"city," "head"—with enormous tenderness. In second grade my class memorized William Blake's Songs of Innocence. Reading gave us voices of friends speaking from everywhere, so it followed that one might write down messages too. Already I wrote to find out what I knew and what connected. Sometimes writing felt like a thank-you note, a response to what had already been given.

My German-American grandmother gave me a powder puff that, when tapped thirty years later, still emits a small, mysterious cloud.

My Palestinian grandmother gave me a laugh and a tilt of the head.

My great-uncle Paul gave me a complete sewing kit a hundred years old and one inch tall.

Whenever people have asked, "Where do you get ideas to write about?" I wonder, "Where do you not?"

*  *  *

Poets have long observed that a persona is not merely the poet's mask but also a version of the writer's self from some point in the past where imagination is strongest. For many women poets it is a childhood self, a lively, perhaps sexually neutral creature free to explore the world as a self, not as a gendered person. Naomi Nye is building a reputation in her prolific canon as the voice of childhood in America, the voice of the girl at the age of daring exploration. But more importantly she animates a sense of the American girl as a mysterious priestess of nature, someone whose eyes are full of animistic landscapes crammed with Mexican ghosts, strange voices, paradox, and magic.

To make it all work Nye takes us into the ordinary world as if we were accompanying her to the corner store for sugar or a bag of flour. Instead, we are faced with a pixie with messages like this one from "Eye-to-Eye" in Different Ways to Pray:

We will meet at the corner,
you with your sack lunch,
me with my guitar.
We will be wearing our famous street faces,
anonymous as trees.
Suddenly you will see me,
you will blink, hesitant,
then realize I have not looked away.
For one brave second
we will stare
from borderless skins.
This is my salary.
There are no days off.

Clear, limpid language is Nye's method of luring us away from our notion of the world. We follow her out of conventional reality into the dream world of a new, young Alice. She promises many adventures, some of them quaint, Pollyannaish, and simple, a few even pointless. But what she establishes poem by poem is a rare voice of contentment, pure female happiness with the world as it is. In a land of so much grim confessionalism, so much lyric anger and disillusion, Nye has the field of optimism all to herself. An example is found in "So Much Happiness" from Hugging the Jukebox:

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit,
as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

Nye seems to be rewriting Blake's Book of Thel, the voice of innocence set down in the modern city. She does not avoid the horrors of urban life, but she patches together the vision of simple nature struggling up through the cracks of the city. In the title poem from Hugging the Jukebox she describes a small boy singing with a large voice in front of the jukebox in a Honduran bodega. It may not seem like much to work with, but Nye makes it her personal anthem. The boy is any child with a big voice singing to the world:

His voice carries out to the water where boats are tied
and sings for all of them, a wave.
For the hens, now roosting in trees,
for the mute boy next door, his second-best friend.
And for the hurricane, now brewing near Barbados...

The quiet, insistent argument of Nye's various books is that she can grasp the life of ethnic minorities in America—and elsewhere—by voicing a kind of unassuming gaiety about life. She reaches out in her poems to hug the marginalized and the denied, to put everyone on an equal footing with her. She declares her democratic passions in a trance of rapturous lyricism, the kind that only children know in their giddiest moments. It is an odd logic to spin out in half a dozen well-respected books, but this is Nye's strategy.

Nye later began moving toward an adult vision, but she did so in fits and starts. In Yellow Glove even the title suggests something of her turn to womanly matters, and we also find the new tone in "When the Flag Is Raised":

Today the vein of sadness pumps
its blue wisdom through this room and
you answer with curtains. A curtain lifts
and holds itself aloft.
Somewhere in Texas, a motel advertises
rooms for "A Day, Week, Month, or Forever."
The melancholia of this invitation
dogs me for miles.

But in "Who's Who in 1941" a more familiar persona resumes,

I'm being insulted in a library. The librarian thinks
I'm a high
school student sneaking out of class. "Who do you think
you are?"
she shouts. We are alone. I want to answer enigmatical
ly. I am the
ghost pressing against your window. I am the termite
feasting on the
secret boards of your house. She stands, she glares
at me. She has a
hairdo. The rest of the school is taking a test.

The same is found in "The Brick," which begins with

Each morning in the gray margin
between sleep and rising, I find myself
on Pershing Avenue, St. Louis, examining bricks
in buildings, looking for the one I brushed
with my mitten in 1956.

As she tells us later in the poem, "the center of memory" is "the place where I get off and on."

Nye is important in other ways than as the voice of girlhood and optimism in contemporary life. She has emerged as the leading figure in Southwestern poetry and seems to articulate the female psyche of the region after a long, trying history of pioneering on the plains and prairies and having withstood the cramping stereotype of schoolmarm, rancher's wife, and silent guardian of household realms. Nye brings attention to the female as a humorous, wry creature with brisk, hard intelligence and a sense of personal freedom unheard of in the decades before.

In that sense Nye completes the work begun by her Texas forebears Lexie Dean Robertson and Vassar Miller, both of whom articulated the female imagination in highly disciplined lyrics. Nye goes beyond them in skill and pixieish intelligence, however. She continues to grow in her work and seems now to voice both sides of the female psyche, young and old, as in the moving lyric "New Year," also from Yellow Glove:

Where a street might just as easily have been
a hair ribbon in a girl's ponytail
her first day of dance class, teacher in mauve leotard
rising to say, We have much ahead of us,
and the little girls following, kick, kick, kick,
thinking what a proud sleek person she was,
how they wanted to be like her someday,
while she stared outside the window at the high wires
strung with ice, the voices inside them opening out
to every future which was not hers.

—Paul Christensen