Fall 2008, Volume 25.1
Kathleen M. Herndon
On Life, Art, and Politics—A Conversation with Naomi Shihab Nye
Kathleen M. Herndon is chair of the English Department at Weber State University. She joined the faculty in 1989. Herndon’s fields of interest are English teaching, specifically Young Adult Literature and Teaching Literature, and Middle Eastern Women Writers. She lived in the Middle East for ten years, in Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a "wandering poet." She has spent 33 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity.
Naomi Shihab Nye is the author and/or editor of more than 20 volumes. Her books of poetry include 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, Red Suitcase, Words Under the Words, Fuel, and You & Yours (a best-selling poetry book of 2006). She is also the author of Mint Snowball (paragraphs), Never in a Hurry (essays), Habibi and Going Going (novels for young readers), and Baby Radar and Sitti’s Secrets (picture books). Other works include seven prize-winning poetry anthologies for young readers, including This Same Sky, The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems & Paintings from the Middle East, and What Have You Lost? Her new book of essays is entitled I’ll Ask You Three Times, Are you Okay? Tales of Driving and Being Driven (2007).
Naomi Shihab Nye has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow (Library of Congress). She has received a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, four Pushcart Prizes, and numerous honors for her children’s literature, including two Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards. Her collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her work has been presented on National Public Radio on A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac. She has been featured on two PBS poetry specials, "The Language of Life with Bill Moyers" and "The United States of Poetry," and has also appeared on NOW with Bill Moyers.
Naomi Shihab Nye enters a room with joy and curiosity. She makes friends of strangers. She brings smiles to the faces of those who meet her. She is easy to interview. She finds joy in the unique and the mundane. It was my pleasure to interview Nye during her week as the Dean and Carol Hurst Artist in Residence at Weber State University in October 2007. During her stay she explored the uses and importance of Young Adult literature with English Teaching majors and their instructors.
My interview with Naomi focused on her first discovery of words, her advocacy for the arts, and the influence of her Arab-American heritage on her poetry and fiction. She says she now examines her culture differently than she did when she was younger, when she never imagined the United States would be at war in the Middle East. Her Middle Eastern work presents a different view of that part of the world to those who have never been there.
Read a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye published in this issue of Weber.
I’ll start with an inspiration from one of your books titled Words Under the Words. I chose this one because it’s a collection of poems from other books, but I’m also quite taken by the picture on the cover, which is a picture of your grandmother who only left Palestine once in her life, and that was to do the pilgrimage to Mecca so that she could become hajji. This dear woman lived to the age of one hundred and six. I have a question that was inspired by this and by your grandmother. Where did you first find "the words under the words"? Where did you first find your words?
That is such a beautiful question and I can answer it very specifically. It was before I could read. It was in the time of being read to by others, by my mother especially. She would read simple stories or Aesop’s fables, you know, very basic books that we had in the house or we would get from the library. And after she would go out of my room, or our room, when my brother was there too, I would feel words emerging from the silence in response to the words that I had heard. I had a sense of elation, I guess, and gratification that I could understand words to begin with, I could understand the words that I had just heard. Sometimes they were a bit mysterious. She loved to read Emily Dickinson, for example, so for a four-year-old, there were concepts there that I wasn’t completely positive about, but it sounded good. I think that’s where that whole concept started working in my mind. After I learned to read for myself and that wonderful feeling we get in elementary school when we start getting lost in books on our own, I felt that I was transported into a bigger universe and that I don’t just have one family in the world—maybe I had ten, maybe forty. Maybe they have different traditions. Maybe I have a sister when I don’t really have a sister. All these possibilities keep coming to us in books. I loved Little Women because I had all those sisters in the book but in real life I didn’t. We are filled with words as human beings, and the words that we find in the world invite those words into play, and so it’s an exchange. I always thought of the words that writers create or that they put down on paper as sort of coming through us—or responding to what’s already there. It wasn’t a sense of, "I’ll write of something out of nowhere"—it was never that. It was sort of the sense that there’s so much. We’re carrying so much. And when we hear language that inspires us or challenges us or makes us feel dizzy with its beauty, then sometimes we come back with words. That was when it started for me. So Words Under the Words always felt as if it was a title I was carrying.
When I read your poetry, and certainly when I read your first novel, Habibi, and your picture book, Sitti’s Secrets, I feel almost as if I’m reading your autobiography. Is that true?
There are elements of my autobiography thrown into everything, of course. I think it’s really hard for most of us to write anything that’s purely fictional, even if we try very hard. Still, there will be qualities in some of these characters which we have experienced in people we’ve known. The whole idea of being fictional or non-fictional is kind of mythical because I think everything is both. I always thought of Habibi as a work of fiction. I didn’t think that Lianna was me. I thought she was a person I knew well, and I could understand her. I could imagine what she might do next. But I never thought she was me. She was living a parallel life to the life I had lived, which was a family leaving the United States just as I headed into high school. That’s kind of a nervous time anyway, when you’re entering into high school, but suddenly you’re not only entering into high school but you’re going to the other side of the world as well. It’s like, "Whoa!" So there was that sense of a big gush of amazement. That sensibility is in the book in that I did live that, but the character has some experiences that I didn’t have.
There are a few things in the book which are very accurate. When the missionaries come and knock on the door and want to tell my father about Jesus, that’s a true scene. He grew up in Jerusalem. He always used to say, "Bethlehem was right down the block." People would often greet him, you know, "have you ever heard of Jesus?" It would be like someone greeting you, "Have you ever heard of the Great Salt Lake?" It’s kind of insulting. But he had ways of responding to that with humor, not testiness. So there are elements mixed in.
Now, the new book, Tales of Driving and Being Driven, is all non-fiction. It’s only fiction in the way that I remember the stories. And obviously when you’ve had a conversation with someone, if you go home immediately and write down the conversation, you know there will be parts you leave out, even if you don’t intend to. And you know there will be other parts you emphasize, or you remember maybe slightly different, in the ways they were spoken because of how they caught your ear. So a little fiction enters into the telling of non-fiction, but I did use my notebooks a lot for this book. It all came out of experiences.
What about the phrase, "I’ll Ask You Three Times, Are You Okay?"
That is a phrase that a taxi driver in Syracuse, New York, actually said to me. He came to pick me up in the dark. He said, "because we’re living is such strange times, we should ask each other regularly if we are, you know, okay." Between my hotel and the airport he made it a habit to ask a minimum of three times. So after he told me this, he paused and said, "Are you okay?" And I said, "I was, until I met you." We’re living in this world of stories all the time. It’s impossible to get away from them. Maybe some of you at this moment are part of the story that you’d like to get away from, or you’d like to change the page. That is very present in my mind all my life, that we’re living surrounded by poems and stories. There’s no way to separate ourselves.
You told me in an email conversation that some people say your new book, Going, Going, is a young adult novel and some say it’s actually an adult novel as well. They’re separate essays, a collection of short pieces. What was your motivation in writing it?
This is an obsession I’ve had since childhood. Does anyone here care about independent businesses versus franchises? (Show of hands.) Yes, it is a passionate topic. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I was taken as a child to see the second McDonald’s in the world. I can’t ever quite remember why I was taken there. But I started worrying about it about that time because the person who took me said, "someday you’ll see these everywhere," and I thought, "Well, I don’t want to; I don’t want to see these everywhere." I thought, "One is enough, two is enough." I have always been very concerned about the loss of small businesses and what happens to them and seeing them get erased by bigger powers, powers that are not based in our community. You may never know the person who owns the restaurant. This was something I was obsessed with as a child, as a teen. And so finally, years later, I wrote this book about it. It was hard to write this book because I was too melodramatic on the topic. My editor kept saying to me, "You know, really, it sounds as if this is a teenager standing on soapboxes on many corners giving lectures through a megaphone, so you’re gonna have to have some other characters and give some plot enhancement. You can’t just be lecturing to the world about your topic." So I had to figure out how to make it seem like a story. Some people think I did. Some people think I didn’t. Interestingly, it’s been controversial in my own community because I based it in San Antonio. I used a lot of the real little businesses. In fact, I gave every one of them a copy of the book when it came out, and I had some really nice experiences with the owners. But a lot of the places that I celebrate in the book have closed since the book came out, or have been in jeopardy. I had no idea they were in jeopardy. Ten of the main places in the book are gone now and it has only been two years. So, I think it’s something to think about in all of our communities because, even if we’re minor consumers, it does make a difference if a lot of us are spending our money here or wherever, and pointing it out. I think that’s what I wanted to do with that book, point out what we may be losing.
In some ways it seems that a lot of our public attention is focused more on business, commercialism and corporate development than the arts. We don’t always feel that art is happening in our communities. What do you see as the role of a writer as you are, or an artist? How do you see the role of the arts in our society?
That’s a great question. How many of you in this room feel that your lives have been uplifted or saved by the existence of art? (Show of hands.) Well, look how many, and probably people in very different fields, very different work lives. You know, I think that many of us recognize a hunger we have in whatever field we work in, or whatever place we find ourselves, a hunger we have for experience which uplifts, inspires, connects, asks questions. I think many times there’s more art present in all of our places than we take the time to acknowledge. I live in San Antonio, which some people would consider an arts Mecca—we do. It’s full of all kinds of arts, but I always feel like things happen in the city that I miss. So many things came and went and I never got there; I never got to the show or the concert. I’m sure in Ogden it’s the same. Many things happen here and you can’t do everything, but you know there’s more art out there to see, to hear, to read, to listen to, and to me that’s one of the compelling elements that draws society together, that keeps a community hopeful, that keeps us turned toward everything else we need to do. It’s the awareness of the presence of art, even if we have not been able to exhaust it completely for ourselves. I just cannot imagine what it would be like to be in a place where you had no forthcoming book for your own readership. How many of you in here are looking forward to reading something you haven’t read yet? And so, you know, there’s that sense of futurism and you know we have a future with a text. Sometimes I think we are as guided by the book we’ll read next as the books we have read because they’re giving us hope, and spirit, and something to look toward. I don’t think there’s anything in the world more delicious than just opening books on shelves in a library. Books you hadn’t expected to meet that day, which end up changing you, changing everything. So it’s the velocity of living, that awareness of art. I do think we can find ways to insert it into lives, other people’s lives, and the lives around us, our own lives, in unexpected ways all the time.
There’s a motel in Austin that puts one poem on the wall of every room and there’s a little note, "You may take it if you wish. We’ll put up another one." They’ve found a way, motel owners who like poetry, to put up a poem. I mentioned this morning about principals at schools, who just aren’t experts on poetry but like poetry, and read a poem over the intercom every day before the announcements, or people who read one at lunch time, or Garrison Keillor’s voice coming over public radio to say one poem a day in his resonant voice, or all the airports, which have started doing interesting things with neon as well as art.
In the year 2000, I’d been lobbying for ten years to get one poem every Sunday back into the San Antonio paper. You know, many countries had never given it up. Tokyo’s English newspaper had never given it up. Glasgow, Scotland, had never given it up. So I kept taking those newspapers to my own editor saying, "Look, it’s important enough to do it in Tokyo. Why couldn’t we do it here? One little corner, you could spare one little corner." He would call me the poetry nag, which was not great, but he’d say, "Do you think people are going to care?" I grew up in a newspaper family—my father was a journalist, and you know and I know that we don’t all turn to the business page. We don’t all turn to the sports page, and still you keep it in there. Why couldn’t we have one little corner? It’s been one of the most popular features of our newspaper since. They’re inundated with poems all the time and you can only send three per month. Every Sunday you know where to look, and so many people say that’s where they go to first. Isn’t that nice? To see what the weekly poem is.
And that was just a way to get poetry into circulation. Now I know up here in Ogden, you have all these trails, beautiful trails. One of William Stafford’s dreams toward the end of his life was to have poetry up here on trails because he said when people are out walking, they are in a mood, in a consciousness that could absorb a poem even better than if they’re sitting at a desk. They did it in the state of Washington first, but then of course his own state of Oregon felt a little guilty and they picked it up. Washington started putting poems in state parks and national parks under Plexiglas, a very durable format. They stuck them to the edge of an old stump or something, so you’ll just be walking on a trail and when you don’t expect it, there’s a poem, just quietly over there and well placed so that you read the poem and then you look out and start thinking.
In the Cairo subway, they have "write your own poem" boards. And people write their own poems in English and Arabic, and they have little markers and little erasers. People are standing there composing their poem in a public space on a board that’s erasable. And so that’s nice. I think there are many ways that poetry has come back into the community or has come in to the community in ways that weren’t there when I was a child. There weren’t as many readings in cafés or coffee shops, bars and so forth. In any city you go to, there are huge listings of places. I keep focusing on poetry just because that’s an area I know a little more about. But I do think the presence of art in society helps us do everything else. It encourages us, maybe causes us, to have a conversation that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’m very interested in the art wall in Ogden that is now not going to happen. I saw it in the paper today. I want to go see what’s left of it. I’m just curious. In San Antonio we have huge graffiti issues. Mural projects have come up sponsored by all sorts of people. In fact, ex-graffiti artists run some of the mural projects to try to combat the graffiti by making beautiful murals people will feel proud of on buildings that probably would have become victims to graffiti. I know it’s an issue in many cities. How can we use art to get to a better place together.
I just saw the wall you’re talking about for the first time last week. It’s on the corner of 20th or 21st and Wall Avenue. A sign announced, "free mural wall." There was a lot of graffiti on it as well as some serious pieces, so I asked myself, "Who does this?" I didn’t know exactly what was happening there, and then the article in the paper today reported that the city said, "No, this isn’t really working."
I think that’s part of the process. I think all cities have experiments. We’re engaged in a few experiments in my city right now that are very controversial. How can we let art have artistic destinations? I think we’re lucky to live in a time where these phrases exist and that we can work in that way, but I think it’s a wider acknowledgement that we need art in our lives, that it serves a very meaningful purpose and that even people who don’t call themselves artists feel their lives are deeply enriched by having art around them. I’m not a sports star, but my team is the NBA champ and that matters to me, too. We’re proud to have something in our community that, even if we don’t participate in it other than to watch and cheer, inspires physical fitness in kids. This is something that’s going on in a lot of fields.
A lot of your work, maybe all your work, but certainly some of your more recent pieces, such as 19 Varieties of Gazelle, really taps into the Palestinian side of your heritage. I know that frequently you are categorized as an Arab-American writer, or as a woman writer, or as a young-adult writer, but it seems that in my reading of your work I’ve seen more connections to your Arab heritage more recently than in your earlier work. Is that a misperception?
No, I think you’re a very careful reader.
Is that a function of something that’s happening in our world or perhaps in your own awareness?
I do think that as we get older, sometimes we examine culture in different ways, how it has affected our own lives, how our culture parallels things or our cultures parallel things in other people’s cultures, how those variations can actually bring us together. Certainly the fact that we live in a time I never could have dreamed of when I was a child, that the United States would be at war in Iraq, is part of that. I would not even have been able to fathom such a thing. So we live in a time of great disconnection and conflict and conflicting opinions about it all. A friend of mine looked at a picture on the front page of the New York Times yesterday depicting little girls at the end of Ramadan celebrating on a little makeshift kind of a Ferris wheel. It looked like something you’d construct in a back lot if you had some extra metal, not a fancy, high-end Ferris wheel, but just a little rough one. My friend handed me the paper and said, "Look at that." I said, "Oh they’re so beautiful," looking at the girls’ faces. He said, "But the picture makes me cry." And it was because everything in the background was so torn-up and wrecked. There was this little Ferris wheel and then this wrecked community that you’re trying to live in, and you’re a child and you probably don’t understand that any more than any of us do. I thought that’s so interesting right there—two people having a different reaction to a photograph because there is this tremendous sense of disconnect.
I travel all the time. I see people everywhere, and I think Americans are profoundly open-hearted people, Americans of all backgrounds. Whatever their personal feelings about what’s going on right now, whatever their political convictions, whatever their background, whether they’ve traveled or lived in the Middle East as you and I have, whether they’ve never been there or never want to go there, there’s still a sense of openness and kindness and acceptance that I find. Even in communities that might seem very rural or provincial, that openness is a heartening thing. But the official status quo, the message, is that we are fighting. We’re at war and we could be at more war, and there are all these bad people who don’t like us and we don’t like them either. There’s all this kind of negativity out here brewing, and I think of the quote from the great Texas writer, William Goyen. His most famous book is called House of Breath. It’s a brilliant collection of short stories. He grew up in a small town in southeast Texas and left it at the age of seventeen, but almost all his work was about that community because he felt so much happened in the first seventeen years of his life that he continued to examine it and the elders of the community, and the way he always felt like an outcast even when he was right there with his relatives, this sense of the larger world that he wanted to be part of. I was able to ask him once shortly after I was out of college, "What gets you writing?," and he said, "Conflict and trouble. It always starts with conflict and trouble." And then he smiled and he said, "You don’t think it starts with peace, do you?" And I thought, "I’m dreaming of peace in our world but maybe conflict and trouble is good for something—art." Because you think about how conflict and trouble often creates a little place of friction in your own life, and so you have to really think about it, really examine possibilities to get to another place of thinking or connecting. So if you look at it that way, maybe some of that conflict and trouble that I feel in the world, the Middle East, the United States’ strange understanding or misunderstanding or misapprehensions, maybe that has contributed to the fact that my Arab heritage became more of a subject as I grew older.
But I do think kids don’t really think that much about ethnicity, though, do they? Growing up in St. Louis with a family from Quebec on one side—they spoke French at home and English in school—and on the other side Italian-Americans, we exchanged lots of food and traditions and had a great time together, and I don’t even know if we realized that what we were doing was having kind of a cultural exchange. We didn’t think of it that way. We just thought, "They eat creampuffs. I’m going over there after dinner," or, "their spaghetti sauce smells better." It was just this back and forth, this merging of cultural exchange, but I didn’t think of myself so much as an Arab-American when I was a kid. Just the same, I do think the world leads us into identities, and I don’t think it’s bad to have those, if people try to give you an identity like, "you’re a western writer," "you’re a woman writer." I don’t mind those little niche identities because sometimes they’re just little handles, little titles, the way people come to feel close to you.
I was just at a party where everyone was going around asking, "Are you a dog person? Are you a cat person?," and I hadn’t heard anyone do that in a long time. I’m a turtle person. I do have a cat, but I’m a turtle person. I was the only one there, but just to identify one another, it’s okay. It’s not the only thing anyone will ever be. We’ll always be many things, and we’ll always be attempting to connect.
I took my mother to Guatemala as her birthday present when she turned fifty, years and years ago. It was the first time I had enough money to take my mother on a trip. I was young and working, and so I took her to Guatemala because we’d always been interested in Guatemala. We didn’t have any particular friends there or anything. We’d studied up on it. We liked the textiles. We got to this little village and we walked in, and these women in the center square who were selling something looked up at us and smiled and said, "Welcome home," in Español. And it was just incredible for both of us. And we thought, "Wow, to be welcomed home." We didn’t know them and they didn’t know us, but there was such a sense of acceptance. That is precisely what art tries to do, too. Welcome home to this world that we haven’t seen everything of yet.
I sat in for about half an hour in your session with our students this morning. I came in when you were talking about how to stimulate an appetite for reading or for literature with high school students or junior high school students, or anybody for that matter. And how do you also encourage or convince or teach the importance of literature. Where would you go with that question? You didn’t exactly answer it. I think maybe you’ll answer it tomorrow in the class discussion.
We’ll keep talking about it. I think young readers need to feel comfortable in text. They need to feel there’s a home for them or they identify with something like, "Oh yeah," or, "I’ve felt that way too," so there’s that identity acknowledgement. "I feel comfortable." And then once they do feel at home, I think they’re willing to look at all kinds of fantastic things happening, or odd things happening. But I think one of the things language tries to do is give us things to look at and smell and hear and taste. We talk about imagery in literature. That’s one of the basic elements, one of the things writers use to bring us into the room, to make us part of the story. So once you have places where you feel at home, then the appetite begins growing. I think often through questions we ask, too. Who do we need to know? Who do we know too little about? It always seemed to me that literature could help us get inside a deeper sense of the other, so they’re not an other. So they’re not other—another kind of person.
I’ve heard Tom Waits, one of my favorite song writers, say that when he was a little boy he always wanted to be old. That was his goal in life. When people would say, "what do you want to be?," he’d say, "old!" And people would say, "no, no, that’s not what I mean. Like what profession?" He’d say, "I don’t care about what profession. I just want to be old. I want to be able to look at the world as an old person and have lots of experiences, lots of memories, and be able to put things together in that way." Well, I thought that’s interesting because when I was little I sort of had a great attraction to older people as well and thought it was our job to know them, but found myself especially loving books where the oldest people in the book were the central, important figure that took us somewhere. I felt they now belonged to me too and I got to know part of their experience. So, you know, I didn’t necessarily always feel comfortable with everything that I read or learned, but I felt comfortable with language. You have to feel comfortable with something before you feel ready to take that next step in the story. Well, this story’s a little scary, or odd, or challenging, or difficult, but maybe if I live through it in a text it will help me, or it will interest me. It will give me more to go on.
Working with kids for many, many years, I was trying to find stories that would appeal to them from the beginning, some that they would say "yeah" to, and I would never ask them, "what does this poem mean?," because I think that’s an injustice that’s been done to poetry through the ages. We don’t listen to a piece of jazz and then say, "Now what did that mean?" We listen to it and we revel in it or we feel like, "Wow, I feel better now. I heard that music. I just feel better now." And when we read, we ought to allow ourselves that same kind of absorption and improvement of feeling without always testing ourselves. Has anyone in here read Robert Frost’s journals which have recently come out in a book? Well, in one of the excerpts Frost says something to the effect that the worst injustice we can do to a poem is ask someone to paraphrase it in duller language. Now what we should be asking is, "Where does this take you? What does it remind you of? What do you see?" And if ten people see different things, that enhances the poem. That is a larger relationship with the poem, and we’re bringing ourselves as creative readers to the poem. That makes it a bigger poem, rather than trying to pin it down and say, "Nope, you’re wrong. This is what it really meant." Of course, I’m not suggesting that we can’t talk about poetry a lot; we can, but in all kinds of ways where we’re not just trying to paraphrase it and not just treating it as if it were a riddle or a code.
I remember an anecdote I frequently tell my students. Frost was reading to a group of college students and they were discussing one of his poems. One of the eager students in the audience said, "Well, doesn’t this poem mean this, and this, and this," and Frost’s response was, "Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way. But if you see that, it must be there." The point is that he couldn’t possibly see everything that his poem was communicating to everybody else. I thought it was a nice way of getting away from the correct answer.
That’s right. And I’ve heard great poets like Robert Bly or William Stafford or Galway Kinnell respond to questions about poems by saying, "I want to think about that." The poem is not a closed experience, it remains open. It invites you in, hopefully. Walt Whitman said, "To have a great poem you have to have a great reader." And each reader brings something new to it. I will never forget when I was very young giving one of my first readings in a town where I had no friends, where I’d never been before, and a man really struggling to come up the aisle afterwards on a cane walking very slowly and gently, and he said, "Thank you for all the water in your poems. I really appreciated it." And my first impulse was to say, "What water?" But I didn’t, thank goodness, and I said instead, "Oh, I appreciate your saying that. Tell me what water means to you." And he said—this was a landlocked city where we were, by the way—"I grew up by water and I always feel peaceful near water, and sometimes words wash upon me like water and I feel the peacefulness I felt as a child." And I thought, "Thank goodness I didn’t discount it." Now my poems are watery for me too, or I will understand other people’s poems as having water in them. But the water was in him. And that is something I don’t think anyone would deny, that experience with writing, or with listening to jazz, or with looking at visual art.
I read about how you wake up early in the morning, like many writers do, and you spend an hour writing.
I try to encourage all students or people of all ages to always be in the gathering mode. I think the notion of big ideas does us a disservice. I think most things people create really start with very little ideas or with little, kind of random, kind of unexpected ideas, things you trip over that you weren’t even looking for. Waiting for a big idea to grab you or take hold of you could work against your own creative process.
Most artists I know engage in some sort of process of listening, gathering, writing down lots of little things. So I often start with lots of notes, pages of notes. Some people follow Julia Cameron, who suggests writing three pages a day, or Natalie Goldberg’s Methods of Writing, but I feel that spontaneously writing whatever method you follow is fine. I like listing and have little nuggets on the page, and sometimes I just list questions. Maybe the questions will be about a piece of writing I’m working on, or maybe something I haven’t even thought of working on yet, or some issue I’m living through, but I’m always gathering. Then, in another period of writing, another time of day maybe, I start connecting and shaping, so I revise a lot. Sometimes writing that is in a common, sort of everyday vernacular, as mine is, doesn’t sound as if it’s revised a lot, but it is—I promise it is. I take a lot away. I allow myself to overwrite and then cut back. That is very much part of the excitement of the creative process.
Charles Simic, our new poet laureate, whose work I adore, has been my husband’s favorite poet for many years. Charles Simic says that his poems begin as if he were going out into the world and taking a walk and picking up little bits of things like a stone, a shell, a ribbon, a piece of paper, a scrap. Then he comes back and puts them on his table in his work room, and they sit there a while and then at some point some of them begin having little relationships with one another and that’s the place where the poem begins. So think about your mind. All the things you gather, and at the point where some things start having interesting relationships with one another, the poem may start there. I hesitate to quote William Stafford in beautiful academic communities in this way, but he used to say on his campus, Lewis and Clark in Portland, "Maybe you should lower your standards. What are you expecting from yourself?," whenever students had a hard time getting started. And you know what I used to say to kids? You know why I’m in love with revision? Because then I don’t have to be perfect the first time, then I can write anything. It means you can keep going back to it, so it doesn’t put that pressure on anyone. Not that anyone is perfect; our writing is never perfect. You don’t have to accomplish it the first time. You can begin with all kinds of gibberish, all kinds of meandering, and then find where this piece really is and wants to go. My happiest day on Going, Going was the day I cut off the first eighty-three pages, and it was in the sixth draft.
I’m trying to discover and understand the line and where it ends and where you break it, and the significance of that. How can we say this is a prose-poem, but that is not, and how do you measure your lines, or do you measure them at all?
I think it’s an intuitive sense of breath that you feel around the text or not. Sometimes it has to do with focus, kind of the way you’re seeing it in your eye, and it sometimes emerges as you’re working on it, whether it will be a poem of long lines or a very mini line poem. You know, very few words in the line, I think, has to do with breath and the intuition of what you will be conveying, the way the links are in the piece also. Reading it out loud as you’re working on it helps and can often guide you to whether it wants to be that chunky prose poem—which is a fabulous form because you can do so many things in it and kind of blur the boundaries both ways—or whether you need to have the space, the breath around it.
I start hearing the words with the space around them very early when I’m working on something, even if I only have a couple of phrases. If I’m hearing them with a certain space around them, with more space than words, then it tends to be a very vertical poem where the lines would break and go down, but it is always a question.
I was just reading a question somewhere with a woman who said she’d had in either high school or college a teacher who loved Whitman, and loved really long-lined poets, and she didn’t care for them at all at that time in her life. She felt they were burdensome and bulky, and she was really irritated with long-line poets. Twenty years later, however, she was walking in another country and felt the cadence of those lines start coming through her body, and she suddenly heard lines that she didn’t even realize that she’d memorized, that had gone into her rhythm, the pacing of her skin and bones, and she could say them and was surprised. She went back to wherever she was staying and tried to find some copies of Whitman in English so she could just look at the lines. She said, "Maybe I had to live twenty years longer before I felt my own line, my own walk—my own road was that long. I wanted things to be very short and neat when I was in high school or college. I didn’t want to have this expansive extension off the edge of the page."
I also liked how she kept talking about it as a kind of physical walk too. "My eyes were not ready to walk down the page that much." You know, I think your own hunger for space around the words can often be a guide. You know where you feel the satisfaction, and often the things you’re reading can guide your own work into a certain shape. That’s a very good question that takes a lifetime to answer on the page, I guess.