This Old Poem #91:
Naomi Shihab Nye’s Blood
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/15/04

  Naomi Shihab Nye is about as Arab as I am, which nowadays could be dangerous- but given the blood I have means that both she & I are relatively safe. In truth NSN is 1 of the premier hausfrau poets of our times. Along with the deadly dull Carolyn Forché she is 1 of the leading lights of the hausfrau brigade. So alike are the duo that in the late 1990s they both came to read at the repellant Hungry Mind bookstore, only to both rip bad poetry, yet refuse to name names, claiming that the offenders are known, but they won’t name’em.
  Despite her lack of poetic talent & her terminal PC Elitism I can honestly say that as a poet NSN has a nice ass, especially for a woman pushing 50. That along with the long braided ponytail she wears that sways near her ass is enough for me to, well, take it a little easier on NSN than I would were she bloated beyond recognition like, oh, a certain other poetastress in the hausfrau brigade. Here’s the ubiquitous online bio-cum-blurb:

  Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1952, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She received her B.A. from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where she still resides with her family. She is the author of numerous books of poems, including 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books, 2002), Fuel (1998), Red Suitcase (1994), and Hugging the Jukebox (1982). She has twice traveled to the Middle East and Asia for the United States Information Agency promoting international goodwill through the arts. Nye has received awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Carity Randall prize, and the International Poetry Forum. Her poems and short stories have appeared in various journals and reviews throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle and Far East. Nye has also written books for children, and has edited several anthologies of prose.


  Those of you calling out for euthanasia- be stilled! You know the bad that’s coming, so you are prepared. Here goes:



"A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,"
my father would say. And he'd prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.

In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.

Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn't have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
"Shihab"--"shooting star"--
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, "When we die, we give it back?"
He said that's what a true Arab would say.

Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

  The 1st 3 stanzas all belong to separate poems because they do not connect & they do not relate to the titles, despite an earnest attempt to wedge them in. NSN hopes that by tossing up those stanzas it will distract the reader from her real intention, which is to whine about the Israeli-Palestinian nonsense. In the rewrite I cut to the chase; even though it’s the weakest part of the poem it’s the only 1 the title relates to & the non sequiturs? Well, they’ll have to be reused elsewhere.


A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, what flag can we wave?

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air.

  No music, no real imagery of power, & no real ‘poetry’ of any sort. The original lays like a silent fart & the rewrite is more focused, but lacks the earlier possibilities. That could well describe NSN’s poetry career.
  Here’s some snippets from an online interview published at I will provide translation: 

RB: How did you first get published? I'm curious about the "nuts and bolts" of becoming published for you.
NSN: "Nuts and bolts of becoming published" – well, I have this theory. You start anywhere you can, anyplace that seems inviting or possible to you. For me, it was magazines for kids, since I read them at the library and subscribed to a few. They often had pages that invited their readers to send work. So, I sent it. I had no delusion that everything I wrote would or should get published. This has served me well. There was never any great "mystique" about publishing to me, since I started when I was 7.
As a teenager I published in places like Seventeen. As a college student, I started reading literary journals, publishing in places like Modern Poetry Studies and Ironwood. One little thing always led to another. No way around that. All of my books since have been invited by various publishers or editors. I never have had an agent to this day. To publish, one needs to read widely, and find what's out there, then send one's own work to places you feel particular links with – that is my philosophy of publishing.


  Of course NSN neglects to mention her careerist tendencies, starting with college & worming her way through Academia. Publishing is easy when you’ve played the game as long as NSN!


RB: How do teaching and writing intersect for you? Are they separate activities, or are they connected?
NSN: Teaching and writing are separate, but serve/feed one another in so many ways. Writing travels the road inward, teaching, the road out – helping OTHERS move inward – it is an honor to be with others in the spirit of writing and encouragement. I never wanted to be a full-time teacher for a minute, though, only an itinerant visitor. It's that nomad in my blood.


  Question- if anyone but an Arab claimed that being an Arab was ‘that nomad in my blood’ would they not be assailed as a racist?


RB: Do you think of yourself/your poetry as political?
NSN: Yes, I do think of myself as political, alas, because politics is about people, and I am interested in the personal ramifications of everything, for everybody. How can we get away from it?


  Of course, this is a moot point, since at the Hungry Mind reading NSN aped the familiar & false canard that ‘all poetry is political’. Thus her qualification of her status as a political poet has about as much heft as her radical assertion that she’s a human poet! & I seriously doubt that NSN would like to get away from her fetid brand of political poetry, lest she would have no reason to write, or be.


RB: Who are your favorite poets to read? Are there books you return to again and again, and if so, what are they?
NSN: William Stafford will always be my favorite poet. I read LOTS of poets, constantly. Recently read & loved Hettie Jones & Koon Woon, always read W.S. Merwin, Molly Peacock, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Lucille Clifton, on and on and on. I never stop reading. I’m reading manuscripts for a contest now. Very exciting.


  Is it me or do they just not make interviewers the way they used to? These questions are as off-the-rack as NSN’s answers are. Where would NSN be if she actually had to think & answer a query she had not hear 10,000 times before?


RB: What is your advice to writers, especially young writers who are just starting out?
NSN: Number one: Read, Read, and then Read some more. Always Read. Find the voices that speak most to YOU. This is your pleasure and blessing, as well as responsibility!
It is crucial to make one's own writing circle – friends, either close or far, with whom you trade work and discuss it – as a kind of support system, place-of-conversation and energy. Find those people, even a few, with whom you can share and discuss your works – then do it. Keep the papers flowing among you. Work does not get into the world by itself. We must help it. Share the names of books that have nourished you. I love Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard, for example. William Stafford's three books of essays on the subject of writing – Crossing Unmarked Snow is the most recent – all from the Poets on Poetry series of the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor – are invaluable. I love so many of these new anthologies that keep popping up. Let that circle be sustenance.
There is so much goodness happening in the world of writing today. And there is plenty of ROOM and appetite for new writers. I think there always was. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Attend all the readings you can, and get involved in giving some, if you like to do that. Be part of your own writing community. Often the first step in doing this is simply to let yourself become identified as One Who Cares About Writing!
My motto early on was "Rest and be kind, you don't have to prove anything" – Jack Kerouac's advice about writing – I still think it's true. But working always felt like resting to me.

  Again, off the rack. Then, again, NSN’s rack is pretty nice too! Would that she put as much effort into her poetry as she does that. Pilates can work wonders, eh?

Final Score: (1-100):

Naomi Shihab Nye’s Blood: 45
TOP’s Blood: 50

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