GalleyCat is celebrating National Poetry Month by interviewing poets about working in “this digital age.” Recently, they shared their interview with Naomi Shihab Nye. Her response to the question Has the internet changed the way you interact with readers? tickled me: Interacting with readers is certainly speedier now! It’s a gift, though I still love handwritten letters in the mail too. You can guess what I’ll be doing this weekend!
Nye’s poetry is important to my life. I discovered her work in college and quickly connected with her stories about family, especially those of her grandmother. When I picked up her collection Words Under the Words over a decade ago at a used bookstore, I remember the thrill I felt upon finding she had signed the book I was about to purchase. She inscribed it with the following: May words always befriend you, Naomi Shihab Nye. And now, as I watch my own grandmother inure herself to her accelerating Alzheimer’s, Nye’s poem “The World in Translation” comforts me, these words befriend me:
There was nothing obscure about melons,
nothing involved about yams.
If she were to having anything to do with the world,
these would be her translators,
through these she would learn secrets of dying,
how to do it gracefully as the peach,
softening in silence,
or the mango, finely tuned to its own skin.
In the interview I mention above, Nye is asked if she has any tips for reading poetry out loud, and I believe her response applies to reading poetry in general: Read it slowly, and more than once, if you love the poem…
How many times have I read “The World in Translation” in the past couple of years? I’ve lost count. In Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Jane Hirshfield writes:
A poem is a detour we willingly subject ourselves to, a trick surprising us into the deepened vulnerability we both desire and fear. Its strategies of beauty, delay, and deception smuggle us past the border of our own hesitation. There is reason to fear: a great poem, like a great love, challenges our solitude, our conceptions, the very ground of being. Entering such poem, we tremble a little as we enter its gates. But the end, as in love, is to know and feel what could not be known or felt by any path less demanding.
Life may not always befriend us, but words, poems–yes–they are those friends that hold our head above the water when it comes rushing in.