October 1, 2022

“Wandering Poet” Naomi Shihab Nye headlines Lowell Memorial poetry reading | UB today

Growing up in Ferguson, Mo., Jerusalem and Ramallah, Palestine, and later, as a teenager, in San Antonio, Texas, poet Naomi Shihab Nye gained an appreciation for the importance of cultural diversity. The daughter of a Palestinian refugee, Nye says living in such different places “has helped me to appreciate the rich cultures, the mixed histories, to be enlarged by the stories, the traditions, the memories and the dreams people”.

In a career that spans more than 40 years and includes nearly a dozen collections of poetry, as well as children’s picture books and songs, novels for young adults and adults, and short stories (she has won four Pushcart Awards), Nye has earned a reputation for work that celebrates both the differences and the shared experiences between different cultures.

Tonight, Nye will read excerpts from his work at this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading in the Alan and Sherry Leventhal Center Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

“Being able to identify and describe the connections and contrasts between cultures is essential for thinking, growing and understanding,” says Nye. “It’s so basic. How do we all hurt? How could we help each other?

She has been writing poems almost since she can hold a pencil. She was in first grade when she wrote her first published poem, about her cat, Cricket.

“I felt close to poetry even before I knew how to read, by listening to it,” she says. “By the time I was in college, I knew it was central to my life and my experience as a human being. I guess I started feeling like a poet very early on.

The nature of much of Nye’s work these days is political, a point of which she is proud. An Arab American, she has written frequently about the need for cooperation and mutual respect between Palestinians and Jews. In collections like 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems from the Middle East and you and yours, it offers a compassionate look at the harsh realities that have divided the region for 70 years. After 9/11, she began speaking on behalf of Arab Americans, calling for racial tolerance. More recently his work has reflected on the plight of refugees and immigrants, in poems like “Big Bend National Parks Say No to All Walls”.

She lives in San Antonio, which is 63% Mexican, and has become a vocal critic of what she describes as “loud voices seeking to reduce the number of immigrants”.

“It’s like people have very short memories and only tiny treasures of empathy,” she says. “Most of us are immigrants and part of a human being’s job is to care about other human beings. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m stunned that there seems to be such a nasty trend among many people over the past few years.

In other poems, like “To Jamyla Boden of Ferguson, Missourishe examines the racial injustices that have rocked communities across the United States. In this poem, Nye compares the idyllic Ferguson of his childhood, when all was “giant meadows of corn, sweet potatoes, laden blackberry bushes” and children could cool off under a sprinkler, to the Ferguson of today. hui, where a girl can be “pulled through a wall”.

But Nye is best known for her poem “Kindness”, which came to her spontaneously, she says, when she and her husband were on their honeymoon in Colombia decades ago. While on a bus trip, they and the other passengers were robbed and a man was killed and left by the roadside. They were wandering around town, trying to get their bearings, when a man approached and kindly asked what had happened to them. After learning of their ordeal, he told them in Spanish how sorry he was for what they had been through.

That evening, sitting alone in the town square (her husband was trying to get new travelers checks), Nye says she heard the voice of an invisible woman, literally “speaking the poem in the air, as if a voice was trying to calm me down. She began to write the poem, which begins:

“Before you know what kindness really is
you have to lose things,
feel the future dissolve in an instant
like salt in a weak broth.
what you held in your hand,
what you have counted and carefully saved,
this all has to go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between regions of goodness.

Since its publication, “Kindness” has been read and taught in classrooms around the world.

“I’m amazed he had such a big and long life,” Nye says. Why does she think the poem resonated in so many cultures? His response: “Everyone needs kindness.”

As a professor of creative writing and poetry at Texas State University and a current member of the Poetry Foundation Youth Poet Laureate, Nye has spent his life encouraging young people to read and write poetry. And creating poetry has never been more important, she says.

“We need it more than ever, because poetry tries to tell the truth, many truths, and tries to look and see deeply. Poetry tries to share the stories and images that give meaning and hope to our lives, that honor memory and imagination,” she says. “We live in a whirlwind of updates and details, many unsavory lies and greedy drama, and I still think our country deserves better. Our children deserve better. We weren’t born to act so ugly.

Katherine Hollander (GRS’06,’15) will read excerpts from her new collection of poems, My German Dictionary; the poems are shaped by her work as a historian. Photo courtesy of Adrianne Mathiowetz

Nye will be joined at Wednesday’s reading by Katherine Hollander (GRS’06,’15), who earned both an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in History from BU. Now a faculty member of Colby College’s history department, Hollander will read excerpts from her new book of poetry, My German Dictionary (Waywiser Press, 2019), which recently received the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Former American Poet Laureate Charles Wright says Hollander’s poems serve as “surprising and radiant imagery that carries the poems to their destinations of discovery and enlightenment”.

“These two poets show in their work the intimate, human scale of poetry and its limitless scope,” says Robert Pinsky, Professor Emeritus William Fairfield Warren, Professor of English at the College of Arts & Sciences and three-time American Poet Laureate. “For example, Naomi Shihab Nye’s famous poem ‘Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal’ is a song of ordinary human help and consideration, with the implicit background of global xenophobic rage. In a later generation, Katherine Hollander’s incredible first book, My German Dictionary, undertakes the horrors and redemptions of history, through poems as intimate and penetrating as folk tales.

Watch Naomi Shihab Nye Read Her Poem ‘Kindness’ here.

The Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture takes place tonight, Wednesday, November 6, at 7:30 p.m., in the auditorium of the Alan and Sherry Leventhal Center, 233 Bay State Rd. The event, co-hosted by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center and BU’s Creative Writing Program is free and open to the public. There will be a book signing and reception immediately after the reading next door at the Dahod Family Alumni Center, 225 Bay State Rd.

The Robert Lowell Memorial Lectures are funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.

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