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The poet Naomi Shihab Nye has lived and traveled all over the world, witnessing strife and finding the words to describe it. Reading her poems allows you to do the same thing: see the world.

Wandering Poet

Naomi Shihab Nye opens her poem ‘Blood’ with a quote from her father: ‘A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands.’ To read the poetry of Nye is to read of a life spent wandering. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother was American with German and Swiss heritage.

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Born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri, Nye grew up in two distinct places: Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.Nye, a true poet of place, is known for taking a hard-to-swallow topic, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and whittling it down, making it manageable by allowing us to hear a new voice and a fresh perspective. Nicknamed the ‘wandering poet’ because for 40 years she has journeyed around the world speaking and writing, each poem of Nye’s serves as a bridge, a way to get to a place of understanding. Her writing often includes dialogue, actual voices of her family members, friends, or even someone she met at the airport.

Young Writer

Nye was born just a few years after her father lost his home in Jerusalem, thus, Nye has said, she grew up with a heavy sense of exile. The desire to be a writer and communicate her thoughts has been with her from the beginning.

From the time she was in first grade, Nye started writing poems in the margins of her school work. Soon after she started sending her work out to be published.Even though she was six-years-old, Nye still felt a strong urge for her voice to be heard. In her poem ‘Please Describe How You Became a Writer’ Nye muses that she started writing poetry because she was bored with the simple narratives of the Dick and Jane books.

‘Were there ever duller people in the world?’ Nye writes. ‘You had to tell them to look at things? Why weren’t they looking to begin with?’

Connecting The Human Spirit

Nye graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio with a BA in English and world religions. To this day she continues to call San Antonio her home. Her expansive career includes several dozen books of poetry and prose, including poetry for children, where she expertly shows her capacity for cultural sensitivity. The poet William Stafford has said that ‘her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart.

‘One of Nye’s most acclaimed books, Fuel (1998), speaks to her driving theme of connection. Or, as Nye calls it, linkage. Through Nye’s poems we see an urgent investigation of the many opposing forces at work in the world, and though these poems could be considered political in nature, they never preach, but rather offer a stepping-off point, or a place to begin.Nye has been an outspoken voice for Arab-Americans ever since the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Well-aware of the lack of understanding between Americans and Arabs, Nye continued to speak and write critically. Her book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002) was born during this time, and it was nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.While Nye’s messages and subjects are often complex, her poems aim to be direct and clear using striking imagery and straightforward language.

In her poem ‘My Uncle’s Favorite Coffee Shop,’ Nye writes, ‘My uncle wore a white shirt every day of his life. / He raised his hand against the roaring ocean / and the television full of lies. / He shook his head back and forth / from one country to the other.

Voices

Not all of Nye’s work, however, confronts the severity of global conflict. Some of her most loved poems come from the most common of places. She calls her poem ‘One Boy Told Me’ an example of found poetry because is a collection of actual statements made by her son when he was two and three years old, for example, ‘My tongue is the car wash / for the spoon.’ Nye would argue, though, that there is no such thing as ‘common,’ and insist that everything, even the very act of living is extraordinary. Everything deserves our attention, from war to a flower petal.

Lesson Summary

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet, novelist, and essayist. She is a speaker for our fractured times, giving voice to not just the Arab-American, but also the misunderstood, the oppressed, and the unheard. Her writing is a product of her multi-cultural background, and she continues to travel around the world, earning the nickname of the ‘wandering poet,’ speaking and giving readings. Her poems strive to make deep connections, linking together the past and the present, the east and the west, through beautiful imagery and straightforward language.

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