Poet/Essayist Naomi Shihab Nye

Many Voices

by Phil West

San Antonio's King William neighborhood is an idyllic, comfortable pocket at the foot of the city's downtown. The San Antonio River winds lazily through the middle of it, its multi-racial inhabitants live in old, cared-for houses with lush yards and incredible character. At first glance, it seems too cozy to sustain any kind of frenzy. Naomi Shihab Nye, perhaps the most famous resident of the neighborhood, also seems too calm to generate a whirlwind of activity. If there was a movie of her life, Central Casting would almost demand, at the very least, a few hairs out of place, a powerful gravitation toward caffeine or nicotine, maybe a tendency to talk fast, a stammer, or an inability to sit still. At least, at the very least, there'd be some clutter in her house. After all, she's worn a number of hats through the years as a poet, a visiting writer at schools, a singer-songwriter, and an essayist. Lately, she's been collecting more hats as a children's writer and novelist. Yet she radiates a cool calm and easy friendliness -- it's the first thing you notice about her -- that belies her busy schedule. It's clear that she has worked this writing pace, and bounce from genre to genre, into a grounding, centering rhythm for herself -- it's actually made it easier for her to generate more work.

"I see linkages between my many different voices," Nye explains. "Seeing something in prose helps you to see it in poems as well. Writing prose triggers the writing of poems on the side, that are marginally related, that I might have not seen without writing about them in prose first. It's opening those extra windows into psyches and memories, and it's really helped my productivity." She adds, with a smile, "The energy of writing and gathering and editing just gives you more energy to want to write, I think. You don't feel like `Thank God that's over' so you can rest for a while; 9,000 other things come up that you want to be working on."

Nye's most recent completed projects were released this spring within four weeks of each other: an anthology of poems, I Feel A Little Jumpy Around You, which she co-edited with Maine-based children's poetry editor Paul Janeczko, and Never In A Hurry, a collection of essays spanning 13 years of observation, reflection, and often-poetic interpretation of her experiences. Although the works are different in many ways, such as target audience and Nye's own level of personal presence in each book, she sees the books as more interconnected than a book of essays and poetry anthology might be. Although Jumpy, for instance, is targeted for middle school and high school audiences, Nye's wariness of work that "talks down" to kids makes the anthology resonant for adult readers. Plus, she believes essays are important tools for teens to realize that their own real life experiences might be interesting to others.

The idea behind Jumpy is both funny and necessary: an exploration of gender roles and alignments through the pairing of poems, one by a man, one by a woman, exploring similar or tangentially-related themes. Nye says the book, which includes a unusually large number of Austin poets, as well as established poets such as Rita Dove, Tess Gallagher, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, and William Stafford, came out of a series of discussions between herself and Janeczko over the need for good and pertinent poetry anthologies for teens. Although Nye is no stranger to compiling poetry for younger readers -- her previous edited volume, the Mexican collection The Tree Is Older Than You Are, has been widely lauded and well-received -- this is her first co-editing job, which gave her a little more than she'd bargained for going into the project.

"After it was done, I decided to never co-edit a book again," she laughs. She and Janeczko did much of their work by fax, and they've included some of their faxed communications alongside the contributors' notes in the back. There, Janeczko mock-pleads with Nye to stop faxing new poems to him; at one point, he claims he found his daughter under a pile of fax paper and mourns the trees sacrificed for the sake of their project. With good-natured tenacity, Nye insists the poems she is sending over the wires merit consideration. The playful sparring continued during a joint appearance they made in Maine last month, Nye said, and when Janeczko claims to have "gotten in touch with his feminine side" as a result of the project, Nye shakes her head, grins, and proclaims, "I'm not sure I buy that."

But what Nye found through working the project, a revelation she hopes has carried over to the finalized, Simon & Schuster-published book, is that "gender differences do affect our lives, all aspects of our lives, in more ways than we imagine, but not in a contentious way. Those frozen in their gender roles probably have more difficulties in interacting, but I think it's healthy as long as you have a sense of your own gender and its possibilities for changing and growing. Like with Paul and I fighting -- we weren't really fighting; it was just the spark to give us more energy."

That dynamic also carried over into the pairing of poems. Nye saw a "third poem" emerge from each pairing's similarities and differences; some of these pairings created particularly hot sparks when Nye test-drove the anthology in some San Antonio schools this past May. "There were a few, particularly the pair about who would want to be a man/be a woman, where some students, who hadn't spoken the whole year, got so hot about it that at one point, I had to tell them, `Let's all go out to the hall and stick our heads in the drinking fountain because we're all getting too hot here.' Some of the teachers I was in contact with had struggled to get students to talk about poems, and to me, talking about the issues they bring up, the way they apply to lives, is a much more intriguing way to do it than talking about how the alliteration works or how the puzzle fits together. As an anthology, it's thrilling how this one invites the students to talk about the poems."

Although Nye does have a poem in Jumpy, her presence is felt through her strong aesthetic standards; one of her rules of thumb for editing anthologies is she won't include any pieces she's not in love with. Her presence in Never In A Hurry, however, is much more direct and obvious.

The book covers a broad expanse, both in subject and physical space following Nye from her birthplace of St. Louis to her ancestral homeland of Palestine, vacations in India and Hawaii, and her home in San Antonio. Although the book contains 39 essays spanning 13 years of work, only one of the essays, "One Village," was specifically written for a particular publication. The rest were successfully shopped to a variety of outlets (including The Austin Chronicle). The University of South Carolina Press, which has a long-established series of personal essay collections, contacted Nye in 1994 about publishing her work. The resultant gathering and editing process lasted over a year.

One of the most immediately noticable aspects of the book is its range. The tones of the pieces stretch from the expository, particularly in her pieces on visiting the West Bank and exploring Israeli-Palestinian tensions, to the wildly poetic, including Nye's own favorite piece, a wild urban folklore pastiche called "David Crockett's Other Life." Yet Nye finds that her voice has retained a consistency in her 13 years of growth as an essayist, and one of the most calming factors in preparing the book for publication was, as she puts it, "I felt these essays wanted to be together."

For Nye, the essay form is more freeing than poetry in many ways. "I can digress more and get away with a wider horizon of coverage," she says. "I can develop characters and get away with more." Pablo Tomayo, an ex-neighbor of Nye's who is central to two of the best essays in the book, was a character who Nye struggled to capture in verse for two years. After many attempts, she found he spoke more freely in her essays than her poems.

The essay collection has been rewarding for Nye in another, unexpected way. "I got a lot friendlier reaction to this book from family and friends. It's as if people weren't daunted by a book of essays. Maybe people feel they have to spend more time with poems -- it takes work, it's more demanding, maybe they feel they're not equipped -- but people have been really warm to this book. My neighbors, who never made a big deal about my books of poetry, were immediately and quickly responsive to this book of essays, which has been kind of intriguing. It's almost as if they feel invited in more readily, which I'm thrilled about." Having thought about it, Nye points out that good essays bring readers to a better understanding about their own lives.

Nye is finding that in her current projects, including a teen novel based on her year as a high school student in Jerusalem, she has become more willing to take risks and open up to readers. "Maybe it's Marion's influence," she laughs, refering to friend and Austin-based writer Marion Winik, with whom she's done joint book signings over the last few months. "She's incredibly revelatory, and I'm impressed by her willingness to reveal all. Seeing that gives me a kind of scary freedom, and I can see some taboos, little taboos, starting to be washed away in my own work."

At a projected length of 175 pages, her teen novel is the longest sustained work she's done to date, and that gives her a sort of exhilarated terror. "I feel like a novice," she says of the new avenue, "but that's a good way to feel."

Another current project, which gives her an exhilarated sense of cultural pride, is editing an anthology of Middle Eastern poetry for children along the lines of The Tree Is Older Than You Are. She's also putting the finishing touches on a children's book, Lullaby Raft, based on a song she wrote during her 10-year-old son Madison's early childhood, and is about to start on another volume of poetry "for adults."

One of the reviewers for Never In A Hurry pointed out that wandering emerged as a central theme linking the pieces, a revelation that Nye hadn't arrived at before it was pointed out, yet one which struck her as poignant. That's not surprising, for Nye's oscillations through all her various avenues of writing, in a way, make up a sort of wandering. The difference, however, is that her zigzags through multiple genres are built on purposeful strides in a personal journey, and the beauty of that journey is that she has found the way to bring fellow travelers along for the ride. n