Naomi Shihab Nye

5 posts

Political Poems Big and, Better Yet, Small

shihab nye.jpg

Political. It’s a big-tent word, all right. And these days most folks focus on the “big” as in bigmouths that crowd the field we should call “government” but instead call “politics” because there’s more politics than government going on by far.

You can write a political poem about this bigness, sure. But it’s a tricky business that walks a thin line between proselytizing in poetry’s chapter and verse and art-for-art’s-waking with a bit of mind-shifting meaning. Me, I prefer the “small politics” strategy, wherein you write about an everyday topic that takes a stand and demands a soap box. One that does not fit into the narrative being writ large on Washington D.C.’s gluttonous stage.

Materialism, for instance. Or raising children. Political acts? In their way, yes. And what better vehicle than poetry to prove the point? Today’s poem is from one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye–her name itself a poem. It’s called “Rebellion Against the North Side” and, like any rebellion, can be considered a “shot heard ’round the world” to its readers.


Rebellion against the North Side 
by Naomi Shihab Nye

There will be no monograms on our skulls.
You who are training your daughters to check for the words
“Calvin Klein” before they look to see if there are pockets
are giving them no hands to put in those pockets.

You are giving them eyes that will find nothing solid in stones.
No comfort in rough land, nameless sheep trails.
No answers from things which do not speak.

Since when do children sketch dreams with price tags attached?
Don’t tell me they were born this way.
We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

Will you remind them there were people
who hemmed their days with thick-spun wool
and wore them till they fell apart?

Think of darkness hugging the houses,
caring nothing for the material of our pajamas.
Think of the delicate mesh of neckbones
when you clasp the golden chains.
These words the world rains back and forth
are temporary as clouds.
Clouds? Tell your children to look up.
The sky is the only store worth shopping in
for anything as long as life.


I don’t know about you, but I smell poetry in the lines “We were all born like empty fields / What we are now shows what has been planted.” Also: “The sky is the only store worth shopping in / for anything as long as life.”

Only a poetic politician could pound her fist on the lectern and say, “The mall? It’s in the sky right above your noses! Look up! Look up!”

Does it preach a bit, like every political poem, to the choir? Yes. But “small-ly,” to coin a word from you-know-who’s “bigly” life. And if it convinces only the already-convinced (read: parents) more than any can’t-be-convinced teens, so be it. The point is that small political poems can be bigger than any two-party, power-grabbing, ego-massaging big ones. Easier to write and read, too.


“Poems Hide”


The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”

One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”

Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.


In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.


Consider a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I once started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!


If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:


“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:


The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.


“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:


From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.


“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:


Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.


I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:


You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.


You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.


Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.

Constructing Some Deconstruction, Derrida-Like

burn lake

Yesterday I sent my message in two bottles to mentors-in-waiting Marie and Naomi (there’s a poem right there!). And, via the comments section, my good virtual friend, Carter, alerted me that I had stumbled upon a winner when I picked up Carrie Fountain’s book, Burn Lake.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the proof is always in the pudding (which we never eat in this household). Carter, a champion of the journal American Poetry Review, let me know that the latest issue offered up three coins, all of them Fountain’s.

A little research, and I discovered one of the three was posted live on the Net. It’s called “The Student”, and requires more than a passing familiarity with Jacques Derrida, some French philosopher or other famous for deconstruction. And although I am no philosopher, I do know a thing or two about deconstruction, having had more than one of my  seaside sand castles destroyed by my older brother—this after hours and hours of construction on my part.

You see? Philosophy is easy. But it might not help you understand “The Student.” My suggestion is that you read it, then read it again. In time, your “ah’s” will begin to construct “hah’s!” and thus are Joycean epiphanies made.

Meanwhile, what started the whole discussion: I started the 2009 National Poetry Series winner Burn Lake last night. Apparently there are a series of Burn Lake poems within it. Here’s the first, which appeared in Poetry:

“Burn Lake” by Carrie Fountain
For Burn Construction Company


When you were building the I-10 bypass,
one of   your dozers, moving earth
at the center of a great pit,
slipped its thick blade beneath
the water table, slicing into the earth’s
wet palm, and the silt moistened
beneath the huge thing’s tires, and the crew
was sent home for the day.
Next morning, water filled the pit.
Nothing anyone could do to stop it coming.
It was a revelation: kidney-shaped, deep
green, there between the interstate
and the sewage treatment plant.
When nothing else worked, you called it
a lake and opened it to the public.
And we were the public.

And here’s “Burn Lake 2,” the sequel, cooler still (if lakes be cool, and they do, at least up north):

“Burn Lake 2” by Carrie Fountain

All afternoon I’ve been swimming out
to the deepest part of the lake
and sinking down as far as I can
because for a long time now
I’ve wanted to feel dead and alive
at the same time
and for whatever reason I believe
this is the way to do it. So far,
it’s impossible to feel dead.
Instead, when I reach the cold sheets
of water toward the bottom of the lake
all the lights go on inside my body
and my legs pump, and before long
I see the determined lines the sun makes
on the surface of the water, and I reach
the living world again, the thin limbs
of the salt cedar wagging at the shoreline,
the wuzz of traffic on the interstate,
and my mother, far off, reading a paperback
on a little shelf of sand, smoking
one of those long , brown cigarettes
she slips in one sublime gesture
from out of a clicking leather case.
There is something that keeps
occurring to me in the moment I break
the water, though by the time I take a breath
I’ve forgotten what it was.

Strong finish, that. Subtle finish, too. A nice mix. A “how did she do that?” mix. Maybe Marie, Naomi, or Carrie herself can comment. Maybe they even will.

Meanwhile, back to swimming my own poetic lakes….

Dear Marie and Naomi: Want to Read Some Poems?

natl poetry

Every year, the National Poetry Series out of Princeton (I hear they have a college) stages an open competition for outstanding poetry manuscripts. To enter, it costs 30 bucks, and the submission period takes place from New Year’s Day to the end of February.

Though I’ve never entered, one thing that I like about the contest is that it is judged blindly. Top poets, the final readers, don’t know who wrote what. Submitting poets are not allowed to provide biographical info, a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, nothing.

St. Billy of Collins says this about the National Poetry Series: “I know of no program more vital to the launching of a poet’s career than The National Poetry Series. For over 30 years, 5 poets annually have enjoyed the immense benefit of having their manuscripts transformed into handsome books by some of the most prestigious publishers in the country. Measured by these hard, practical results alone, the Series deserves the support of every devotee of poetry. My own Questions About Angels, selected by Edward Hirsch in 1990, marked the true beginning of my public life in poetry.”

Which brings me to the reason I am writing this: Yesterday I checked Carrie Fountain’s Burn Lake out of the library and am looking forward to reading it this week. It had a big stamp on the cover that read “WINNER, National Poetry Series, Selected by Natasha Trethewey,” which made me curious (and you already know I’m the curious type).

As is true with every poetry book I read, I first count the number of poems (here it’s 48) and then look at the acknowledgments page for marketing possibilities (here it includes AGNI, Ascent, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Cave Wall, Cimarron Review, Crazy Horse, cream city review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Marlboro Review, The Missouri Review, Southwestern American Review, Swink, and The Texas Observer).

Finally, I look at the “Thanks” entries. In the case of Carrie Fountain’s once-anonymous manuscript, thanks were extended “for help with this manuscript” to Marie Howe (!) and Naomi Shihab Nye (!). In Nye’s case, Fountain wrote, “My deepest gratitude to my teacher and friend Naomi Nye.”

Gulp. This once-anonymous manuscript forwarded into an open competition clearly had some high-octane help! Which makes me wonder, “Outside of signing up for an MFA, which is tough to do when you have a FTJ (full-time job), what can I do to improve my new poetry manuscript’s chances for the big-time?”

Such a rhetorical question! I haven’t signed on for any teachers, is what I can do, and should do if I decide to pony up 30 bucks for the 2019 competition and want to give it a Kentucky Derby’s chance (I’ll take the outside post, even) by having some very cool poets like Marie and/or Naomi give feedback first.

So this is an open letter to you, Marie and Naomi. No, it’s not anonymous, but I know that neither of you will be readers for the 2019 competition, so it’s all good. No worries.

Drop me a line! Take in a poem or two (I know you’re busy, so one or two will do)! Teach me things!



How To Be a Poet


The old joke goes: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” And, of course, any word could be substituted for “doctor”–even “poet.”

Wendell Berry’s poem “How To Be a Poet” got me to thinking: Is there, as with Taoism, a “way”? When my students insist they cannot write poetry, I show them Naomi Shihab Nye’s One Boy Told Me, a found poem consisting of wonder straight from the mouth of her young son.

“We’re all poets when we’re little,” she says. For young writers who all share on their résumés this thing called “childhood,” it’s helpful. Each student can recollect things they said and noticed as a kid, and if they can’t, they need only interview their parents for homework and come back “poets” the next day!

But back to Wendell Berry. His “how-to” is more poetic, as you might expect. Thus, would-be poets thinking in terms of black berets, happening cafés, and certain prescribed ways need not apply. If muses could be bought in a bottle, after all, every alchemist would sell them.


How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
The last two lines are a bit like a koan: “make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came.”
Meditate on that, grasshopper. Then see if you can figure your own way to be a poet, for someone else’s way is never yours. If that comes as some disappointment to you, trust me. You’ll be better for it in the long run.