Unplugging and Listening with Naomi Shihab Nye

The acclaimed poet's latest collection is a stunning meditation on place, paying attention, and keeping a "Humanity First" mentality.

The award-winning, acclaimed poet and 2018 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecturer Naomi Shihab Nye investigates the myriad voices, locations, and works of literature that can shape a person’s life in her latest, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners (HarperCollins/Greenwillow, Feb. 2018). We were thrilled to chat with her about this stunning collection.

Photo by Michael Nye

Can you tell us a little bit more about the subtitle?

Hopefully we are all listeners. These days, it seems we may have more to listen to, from more sources. I think young people who still take regular time to listen to literary voices—to actual conversations, face-to-face, and to inner conversations—may have an easier time staying balanced, feeling whole. Since I have worked a long time in classrooms with teenagers, as a visiting writer in many schools around the country and the world, I have noticed that the hope remains—to have meaningful connections with other people, and with one’s own self. Habits of focused listening really help.

We’ve noticed a rise in the number of books for young people that center on mindfulness, a practice that you discuss in the introduction. Why do you think there is a push for teens to unplug?

These days we may have to remind ourselves: scattered attention is not necessarily the best attention. Do we really need to know all these kooky things we’re regularly paying attention to now? Recently a young man told me he sat under a tree reading so long, he felt as if the leaves were still rustling inside his mind when he got up and left. “It was incredibly peaceful,” he said. “Did you ever do anything like that?” I said, “Exactly.” These simple, attentive pleasures, in which we bask in one spot so long that it truly enters us, abides in us for a longer while, may actually be exotic now.

The poems within this collection (and all of your collections!) are masterly. I don’t think I will soon forget the ending lines of “Woven by Air, Texture of Air”: “Your day is so wide it will outlive everyone./It has no roof, no sides.” In your crafting process, where do you begin? With an image? A line?

Wow, that is so nice of you to say—incredibly generous of you. Poems begin with both images and lines, and voices and moments—different ones, different ways. Mysteriously, the more we write, the more we have to say. It’s rather like the old purse of golden coins that keeps replenishing itself in a fairy tale! One of the best surprises is that we may start from so many places and still find ourselves going somewhere in thought. William Stafford’s essays on writing, in the many collections from the “Poets on Poetry” series, will continue to be my favorite guides to the writing process. I feel like one could draw a pretty fine map using all of the places and literary and cultural figures mentioned throughout the collection, which brings me to the question posed in the book’s introduction: “But how do we find our ways home?”

We keep reading and writing poems. That’s one way. I know there are many. But it feels like a fairly economical contribution to sanity.

Many of the locations specified in the text are ones of conflict and/or schism, past and present. Why these particular sites?

They are places that have mattered to me, been real places to me in my own life, and continue to be real. I am simply a witness. The ongoing tragedy of inequity and injustice for Palestinians, the increasing conflicts of hospitality and hostility at the Mexican border—I live in a 63 percent Mexican American city—very real and ongoing issues. It’s so sad and wasteful to see current backsliding in human relations. Most Arab and Jewish people who care about Israel/Palestine would prefer a shared state of collaboration. I believe there are plenty of statistics that demonstrate this. I decided it was time to tell my Yehuda Amichai story—why keep it to myself? I do not believe in “America First.” I believe in “Humanity First,” “World First,” “Kindness First,” “Welcome First,” “Well-being of Children First”—we could go on and on.

The choice of “would” in the final lines of the collection-ending poem, “Small Basket of Happiness,” fascinates me. Did you know you wanted to leave readers at this edge, so to speak?

Yes. Thank you for noticing it. You are a great listener.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing