Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Naomi Shihab Nye reading last night

Last night, after a day talking with students, Naomi Shihab Nye read her poems--particularly from her new book, Transfer, and shared her ebullience for poetry. Spending the day with her is to feel her great enthusiasm and curiosity for just about everything--the Cleveland artist who bought 1000 sweaters he found in a closed garment factory, a memoirist who said she hated memoirs, a student's poem about making smoothies, why Philip Roth says he doesn't read poetry (though he writes it), a St. Louis accent, why a Gazan children's art display was canceled in Oakland, a child's gerbil named Butterscotch, etc. She is the rare bird who makes poetry seem possible. For everyone. If only we had a cadre of Naomi's. Naomi for Poet Laureate!

And now, Naomi Shihab Nye. I'll spare her the embarrassment of hearing the catalogue of her numerous accolades and awards, for her thirty books, and just tell you why I love her work, and why I invited her here tonight, just after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

The terrorist attacks struck each one of us in this room, all of us in different ways; a college friend of mine lost his father in the towers, another friend worked the emergency rescue operations, my aunt ministered to rescue workers for weeks after. We felt shock, confusion, fear, grief, and rage, in a toxic confusion of emotion, and the days that followed were like living under water.

Those of us who are Arab American felt all of this, and more, a sense of shame, isolation, and terror, at how people might use this act to attack us, and people we love, people and places where we and our ancestors came from, who had nothing to do with hijacking and murder.

Naomi Shihab Nye was one of a handful of Arab American writers who courageously stepped into the fear, and spoke and wrote with clarity, with authority, and with anger, at those who threatened to make us all targets, and who tried to explode all the work we'd done to bring cultures, and peoples, and faiths together.

In short, she spoke for us, and we were not alone. And though we knew that these attacks would lead to more terror, she reminded us that terror would not be the last word. And through her witness, through her words, that we could and would work again to awaken us to the fact that what we all share is far greater than what separates us. That is her gift, and why I am grateful she is here tonight.

Here's a poem from her new book:
"Problems" (reprinted from Molossus)

They are not yours.

You may observe them without owning them.

Conflict and chaos that wanted to go on a journey.

There was always a way to walk around them.

Often a difficult path.

You couldn’t fix them if you tried. And you did try.

It was presumptuous to think you could fix them.

William Goyen said his writing started with Trouble.
Something you could do with it, that took you out of it,
or let you look at it.

The power of people saying nothing.
You don’t know my problems, I don’t know yours.

I don’t have problems.

I am happy when I have something to sew.

Matisse said, “The moment I had this box of colors in my hands.
I had the feeling my life was there…”

Where is your life without problems leaning?

Will it go somewhere without you?

She would find something not to like, even here.
But that is not yours to heal.

No one healed the fire.
Dormant seeds popped up in its wake.


michael salinger said...

She's definitely one of my favorite working poets out there. Just so sad Sara and I were en-route during her visit.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Michael. Happy travels to Singapore, and I hope we'll be able to complete our "Poets for Peace" mission!