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Kim Rosen

The Incomparable Naomi Shihab Nye on Kindness

The poems of Naomi Shihab Nye have an uncanny way of showing up at exactly the right moment to summon you below the surface of your life. The child of a Palestinian father and an American mother, her poems speak a language deeper than culture, history or religion. Through the portal of the everyday—a grocery store, an olive press, the headlines—she draws us into the most profound questions and revelations of the soul. In addition to writing poetry, Nye writes fiction, essays and children’s books, and has edited several anthologies. Click here to read her poem "Kindness."

KIM ROSEN : What do you feel is the role of poetry, especially in these times?

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE : Poetry helps us imagine one another's lives. It gives us intimate insights into someone else's experience. To be able to have that kind of insight in thirty seconds or three minutes is a very precious kind of transmission. It's not cluttered with a lot of extraneous, explanatory matter or the kind of chatter that comes so easily on the news these days. We're surrounded by talk and language and reporting and stories of a certain kind, the “breaking news” kind, but I think we hunger for another kind of story, the story that helps us just feel connected with one another, be with one another. A slower kind of empathy. I think we hunger for that now more than ever.

Once we have the experience of absorbing a poem and feeling that appetite satisfied, then we have access to a language that is devoted to transporting the spirit. Just as there is something inside a compass that causes it to always return to true North, so there is something in poetry that can harmonize and refocus us.

You just need one poem and the right attention for that poem. You read that poem, you hold it in you, you reread it, and you feel like a room that is cleansed and freshened and rearranged, where everything is folded and put away in its proper place. Not all poems are this way, of course; certainly some poems are filled with their own kind of clutter. But to find a poem that harmonizes you, to feel that clarity and know it's there, it's available for you and anytime you feel overwhelmed -- wow. What could be better?

KIM: Many of your poems are almost subversively spiritual. They offer the intimacy of becoming one with someone that you never thought you could relate to. So I'm wondering, do you have a spiritual path that you follow yourself? Were you brought up in a spiritual path?

NAOMI: I was brought up on a very ecumenical path. Neither of my parents practiced the religions of their own families. My father hadn't really rejected Islam but he had just never been a practitioner and had known, even as a child, that he didn't intend to be devout in a traditional, official way. My mother had actually rejected the narrowness, as she saw it, of her parents’ Lutheran Christianity. She tried to develop in herself, and instill in her family and friends or anyone who was interested, a much more ecumenical sense of spirituality and possibility. She took me to the Vedanta Society in St. Louis for ten years, between the ages of three and fourteen. That was a very beautiful initiation into a world of spiritual practices. My mother also sent me to Bible School in the summer sometimes, then later to a Unity Sunday School. And so, there was a sense that there's not one right path, one best way. You're open and you find elements that appeal to you from various paths. So I've never felt, in my own life, a desire or an urgency to have one practice to the exclusion of any others.

There is something very comforting about ritual. I have friends who go to church or sit at the Zen center. I respect that. The ritual of writing fills that need for me. Writing has been a kind of spiritual devotion for me. Listening to language, feeling stories unfold and poems arrive, being present to the page – I do not think of it as a career, I think of it as a devotion. That is a big difference to me.

I have respect for all paths that respect one another. I do not have respect for a lot of piety and righteousness or self absorbed, 'this is the best way'