Monday, April 4, 2016

Q&A: "Storyteller" by Naomi Shihab Nye

In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Writer’s Center is spotlighting the work of Poet Lore contributors. This installment includes a brief Q&A between poet Naomi Shihab Nye and Writer's Center intern Sarah Katz about “Storyteller” from Poet Lore Volume 106 3/4.

Photo Credit: Ha Lam


Where is the door to the story?
Is the door left open?

When he sat by our beds,
the day rushed past like water.

Driftwood, bricks,
heavy cargoes disappearing downstream,

no matter, no matter,
even the trees outside our screens

tipped their cooling leaves to listen.
We swam so easily

to the stone village, women in thick dresses,
men with smoky breath,

we sat around the fire pitching in
our own twigs,

the world curled around us,
sizzled and popped.

We dropped our troubles into the lap of the storyteller
and they turned into someone else’s.

Sarah Katz: "Storyteller," with its first-person plural person narration, tells the story of an unspecified, but seemingly large collective's relationship to the "Storyteller." Actually, the first two lines that open the poem—"Where is the door to the story? / Is the door left open?"—remind me of the Jewish holiday, Passover, the four questions asked on that holiday, and the open door to "Elijah," the prophet for whom my family has opened the door each year. As a result, the storyteller and the collective's experience of listening to stories feel holy and prophetic to me. Why did you choose this point of view? Would you consider your poem to be an ars poetica?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Thank you, Sarah. I love what you say about the poem. The fact that “Storyteller” is a remembrance of my Palestinian father's warm gift for telling comfortable tales and transmit precious scenes and details to his children from our youngest days forward, makes me feel touched about your own connection to your own sacred past and traditions. My father would have loved that too, always emphasizing the foolishness of power conflict in his beloved Jerusalem, his endless desire for people to share and get along. His family was Muslim, he was ecumenical, his stories were universal. As a newspaper journalist he was curious and had great appetite for information. So in some cellular way, yes, I guess you could say I inherited my affection for telling and listening from him and this passion is at the heart of all my work both poetry and prose. I feel deeply disgusted by people like Marco Rubio, at present, who claim to know something about Palestinians and their traditions but know nothing, nothing at all. More disturbing since his family, too, were immigrants. My father had great empathy for others and his stories made us feel at home on earth wherever we were. 

Poems have always done that for me. CD Wright had one of the greatest gifts for listening to others in her poems that we will ever know. As for an ars poetica, well, it wasn’t, but now that you suggest it could be, I will happily accept that idea—with gratitude!

Naomi Shihab Nye has received a Lannan Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, and four Pushcart Prizes. Her collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her collection Honeybee was awarded the Arab-American Book Award.  She is currently serving on the Board of Chancellors for the Academy of American Poets. She has also edited several honored and popular poetry anthologies, including Time You Let Me In, What Have You Lost?, Salting the Ocean, and This Same Sky, and she is the author of the novels Habibi and Going, Going, and The Turtle of Oman (Fall 2014).  She lives with her family in San Antonio, Texas.

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