Naomi Shihab Nye
Watch the Video
Naomi Shihab Nye reads her poem “One Boy Told Me.”
about the author
Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her BA in English and world religions from Trinity University.Nye is the author of numerous books of poems, including Transfer (BOA Editions, 2011); You and Yours (BOA Editions, 2005), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award; 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books, 2002), a collection of new and selected poems about the Middle East; Fuel (BOA Editions, 1998); Red Suitcase (BOA Editions, 1994); and Hugging the Jukebox (Far Corner Books, 1982).She is also the author of several books of poetry and fiction for children, including Habibi (Simon Pulse, 1997), for which she received the Jane Addams Children’s Book award in 1998.Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit. About her work, the poet William Stafford has said, “her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”
Her poems and short stories have appeared in various journals and reviews throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle and Far East. She has traveled to the Middle East and Asia for the United States Information Agency three times, promoting international goodwill through the arts.Nye’s honors include awards from the International Poetry Forum and the Texas Institute of Letters, the Carity Randall Prize, and four Pushcart Prizes. She has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow. In 1988, she received The Academy of American Poets’ Lavan Award, selected by W. S. Merwin. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2009. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas.
The Reading from the Author
Resources & Discussion
Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing.
Readings and Discussion
- Nye is a Palestinian-American poet living in Texas. Do you find evidence of this in these poems?
- How does Nye feel about members of her family? What words and phrases can you find in the poems that support your ideas?
- How does Nye use imagery to enhance your understanding of her feelings and ideas about her family? Which images in the poems are most vivid and effective? Why?
- Nye’s core message as a poet and as a human being is that all of humanity is worthy of respect, deserving of consideration, and in need of kindness. Find evidence in each of the poems to support this statement.
- Nye places special emphasis on the nuances of the “ordinary.” Where do you see this in her poetry?
- Who is the speaker of the poem?
- What is the setting?
- What is the occasion?
- Can you find a fulcrum/turning point?
- What is the poet’s purpose?
- Choose three images you like and explain why.
- Does the poet use effective poetic devices? Why? How?
The following reading is associated with an additional exercise in the “Now You Try” section, as well as additional student writing samples.
Now You Try
Use the following prompt in response to reading “Genetics”
Write a poem about what you did or did not inherit from your parents. Is it something physical? Emotional? A strength? A weakness? A love of something? A distaste for something? Do you thank them for something? Is there something you don’t like that you inherited from them? Use a structure similar to Shihab Nye’s or create your own but think about structure. Use poetic devices: figurative language and sound devices (not end rhyme) such as repetition, alliteration, consonance assonance, internal rhyme, and details.
Use the following prompt in response to “Reading No. 2”
Using Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems as models, students write their own original poetry portrait about a family member. Use ideas about the person who will be the subject of the poem: physical appearance, clothing, setting, likes and dislikes, significant memories. Remind them that a poem will show, not tell, and that imagery is the key to this. A great way to do this is to find a photo and use it for a jumping off point.
Student Models for "Genetics"
My mother gave me her skin
thrown across time
to cradle my bones.
She stitched into my cheek
the dimple that shows
when I smile just so.
My father stuffed in my vocal chords
which stutter, shake
He sewed a question mark
on my brain
and a heart on my sleeve.
They tacked onto my legs
lead heavy feet that
stumble and trip.
And fastened on hair
that will never stay parted
They ingrained in my soul
an unnerving love for strangers
and misfit toys.
In my eyes
he placed the stars,
and the mountains, and the clouds.
With a swipe of her brush
she painted a smile with
an ever present flicker.
But it was me who
ripped off the sleeves of my jacket
and demanded to be bit by the cold.
It was me who slipped out the stitches
just to see
what it would feel like to fall apart.
It was them who put me together
but it is me who can
separate the strings.
Mom and Dad
From my father I learned:
to look inward and forward,
to dice carrots
to roast a turkey
to love the news
to tell a story
and from my mother I learned not to trust my father
You have your grandmother’s eyes,
your mother’s will,
and your grandfather’s pride.
At fourteen you learned to take your coffee
black, so your father would never have to order
extra cream for you at the drive-thru,
late on Thursday nights.
Your hands remind you of your aunt’s
but no one has your hiccup-laugh and no one’s
lip curves up like yours when you smile.
You wonder if anyone in your blood line
had a broken record for a diaphragm,
who could read to you for hours,
but would always trip over the word “that”.
You read somewhere that nail-biting
is genetic, but you’ve never met a family member
without perfect fingers.
Yes, you know where your bone structure
came from, but what about your brain?
You want to know who else never remembers their dreams,
and if anyone else thinks in numbers,
counting letters, syllables, blades of grass, smiles.
Maybe you had a philosopher for a
great-great-grand father but now
your mother will not listen
when you tell her she and you are both gods,
and you are convinced sharing a shoe-size
is not enough.
You have your grandmother’s golden hair,
and your mother’s stare,
but your body is full of more questions
than a mirror can answer.
Student Models for "Reading No. 2"
A family cluttered around a splintered table,
Unaware of the click and flash that froze that moment forever.
The picture now fades, resting in a cheap frame, in the corner of a hospital room.
Birds wings echo through the humid air as she (looks) in the mirror,
Hair styled on top of her head,
Full moon pearls dance around her neck,
The golden waves frame the picture she has painted with eyeshadow and mascara.
A child at heart, aspiring to please her parents.
It is 1960 as she glides through the house with perfect posture,
Her elegant appearance turning heads of those in pictures down the hall,
As a trail of light is left behind her.
Sounds of piano and violin full the air,
The ribbon of notes flooding through her brain.
A German prayer is said and all sit as stone with blank expressions.
She thinks of gardening, music, and family,
While a smile curls on her rose-stained lips.
Daisies from the garden, and her crystal eyes brighten the dimly lit room.
Surrounded by family, her dress is smooth like the pudding placed on the table.
Laughter fills the room, bouncing off the paneled walls,
Bidding farewell to the sun as the evening comes to an end.
Day is stolen by night faster than the rush of wind outside her window,
As birds turn to locusts,
Tables are exchanged with hospital rooms,
The dancing pearls come together to form tubes,
And piano and violin are replaced by the quiet hum of machines.
The celebration has ended, only remembered by those in attendance.
Years have gone by, and he has forgotten people and places.
Her memory slips away, but she turns towards that frame and smiles.
There she sits in 1960,
Daisies from the garden, hair on top of her head,
Perfect posture, and rose-stained lips,
As she waits to see her parents in a different place.
I wonder if he sings to the mountain in the morning,
if his voice echoes and shakes slivers of snow,
still stained with sunrise, if they float down from the clouds
on his fingertips.
I know he’s spent as many days wrapped in high-altitude air,
as he has beneath the bellies of rusting roaring snow-cats,
thick oil staining his face, like new birth marks, new tattoos.
I don’t think he’s ever owned pants that weren’t falling off him,
I don’t think I can picture him without his smile,
I don’t think the oil stains will ever melt off his hands,
I don’t think I’d be surprised if he sings to the world each morning,
if his voice echoes and rattles all our heartstrings
and together we shake the sky and somewhere in
Telluride, it snows.
The Relished and The Relinquished
A photograph, aged but identifiable; a hesitant smile, feathered hair, tan skin, and hidden eyes. The setting is midday – somewhere in Europe. A pond stretches behind them, and the corner of a yellow chateau barely makes the picture.
A shirt, sleeves cut to 3/4, the color of an eggplant, but so faded it appears a soft navy. A shirt I recollect from my perch looking over your life, one from moving boxes and bed time.
This shirt in the picture is unscathed, but things have changed since then, haven’t they?
Now, holes disturb the fabric. How did you get those holes?
Are they from the moths that raided your trunk in the Minnesota spring?
Are they from the late nights out in the dessert, caught on the thorns of cacti as you reveled in your youth and rolled about in your believed invincibility?
Or are they from the times when you realized you weren’t indestructible and the once blurry world was forced into clarity?
Could they be worn from time, moments threading themselves together with the missing fabric? Or did they produce themselves promptly, as if on a tight schedule and already running late?
Were they snagged on the stray wires of fences, the thrill of the unknown rushing through you as you leapt into the abyss of the other side?
How did you get those holes in your shirt?
Were they made from wrestling a scrawny brother on the thick carpet of the living room to occupy the time in which passed so slowly as you waited, waited, waited?
Or were they made from the grip of a man older than you and the need to escape his grasps, panic taking hold of your tempered young mind?
Were these holes stretched by a little girl with wandering fingers, your heart for her too big to stop the innocent destruction?
How did you get those holes in your shirt?
Because I have been watching the wind rush in through these holes, observing how your skin doesn’t quiver when the chill reaches out.
I have seen the way that this shirt never ends up in the trash bag in the garage.
And I think that these holes represent the mistakes that have poked a flippant finger into my life and upturned the years like a stack of papers in the wind.
And I hope they represent the memories too treasured to be discussed, the kinds that swell like an ocean in your chest.
And I wonder, are these holes the good times or the ones wished to be forgotten, the relished or the relinquished?
And maybe, just maybe, the holes are nameless, timeless creatures with no worth to you at all.