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Naomi Shihab Nye: Beauty & Empathy

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa



noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
View from the "Playhouse" guest pavilion, up descending pools toward Doris Duke's Shangri La, Diamond Head, O'ahu.

   Award winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye grew up in Palestine, Jerusalem, and San Antonio.  She has traveled the world leading writing workshops and inspiring readers and writers of all ages.  Rooted in her experience as a Palestinian American, Nye addresses international politics, immigration, identity, and other issues with a poet’s particular ability to connect.  HPR’sNoeTanigawa interviewed her at Shangri-La, where Nye is currently Artist in Residence.


Naomi Shihab Nye will present “Wind in a Bucket: The Mystery That is Me” a poetry reading and writing workshop at Kaneohe Public Library on Sunday, August 7 from 2:00-3:30 p.m.

On Monday, August 8, 2016 the Omidyar Fellows Program offers a presentation on the Poetry of Leadershipwith Naomi Shihab Nye.  This presentation will be held at Hawai'i Pacific University at Aloha Tower Marketplace in Multipurpose Room 3 located on the ground floor at 1 Aloha Tower Drive. This presentation is scheduled from 5:30 to 7:30 pm HST. Doors will open at 5:00 pm HST with open seating. Bill Coy, Director of the Omidyar Fellows Program will facilitate a conversation with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Audience questions to follow.  RSVP requested.

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Naomi Shihab Nye preparing iced mint tea in the Shangri La Playhouse.

  Behind her, out the window and through the lush tiare, lacey breaks streak the blue.  Our blessed ocean simply continues.  Naomi Shihab Nye looks beautiful, framed by the kitchen doorway.  She’s pouring mint tea.  In simple gestures we feel at home.

“I think poets, we have to do that, we have to try to create a realm of empathy.”  Nye says she has never thought so much about beauty as now, being here in Hawai‘i, at Shangri La.  She says perhaps beauty opens space inside us, space for receptivity, empathy.

“If you look at the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet. He traveled widely in his life, he was beloved because he was sort of a mouthpiece for people in grief, people in suffering.  Read someone like Mahmoud who spoke out of, a kind of speaking up for humanity.  We are human beings.  We are better than this.  Why are we doing this to one another?  You can read his poems and apply them to Syria, Iraq, Iran, to so many places where people have been forced to flee. “

A recent poem by Nye:

Oh Say Can You See

I’d like to take Donald Trump to Palestine,

set him free in the streets of Ramallah or Nablus

amidst all the winners who never gave up in 68 years.

They’d like to make their country great again too,

if only their hands weren’t tied by the weapons

our country buys. Let’s talk about who belongs where,

how a Jewish immigrant to Israel is treated better than someone

who tended a tree for a hundred years. Who lies?

Let’s talk about lies. Give it a shout, Don! They built a wall

so ugly, kids must dream of flying over,

or burrowing under, and it didn’t solve anything.

I’d wrap a keffiyeh around his orange head,

tuck some warm falafels into his pockets,

let him wander alleyways and streets, rubble and hope

mixing together, nothing oversized, no tall towers,

just beautiful tender life, mint flourishing in a tin can,

schoolgirl in a fresh dress with a ruffle, mom and dad

staring from the windows—Can you see us?

Can you see any of us at all?

“I think it’s a poet’s job.  I don’t’ see how a poet separates from the news, I mean we live in the world.  I think it is our job to be engaged, and also to be able to separate and then find some way to look at those threads, whatever they are, that endure.  Those threads that endure.  How Palestinian people have been able to keep sending their kids to school, keep getting married, keep cooking, keep cleaning up the kitchen.  That takes a lot of stamina.  And as poets we’re always trying to stir some kind of empathy.  You’ve never met these people, but let me tell you, you would really like them.”

“When I read poems by Wing Tek Lum for example, here in Hawai‘i, or the stories, the novels of Lois Ann Yamanaka ,or Juliet Kono or Kathy Song or Eric Chock, I still keep all my copies of Bamboo Ridge.  You know when you read voices, you get to know Hawai‘i in a different way.   If I had come as a tourist, stayed in Waik?k? and never read a poem from here, I wouldn’t have as much of a sense of empathy.  When you read poems you are carried more quickly to a deeper place.  I hope.  That’s what poets hope.”

Asked if there’s a poem she’d like to leave us, Nye said, yes, a welcoming poem, because she and her husband have been welcomed so warmly, in a place of sheer beauty, by the people at Shangri La.  She said, "We're so grateful to Hawai'i for all of your aloha for all of us who come here."

Naomi Shihab Nye reads her poem, Red Brocade.

Red Brocade

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.


Desert hospitality is a miracle.  With all our riches here, I think of the repose that actually sustains hospitality. Naomi Shihab Nye's written work is important because she is able to discern the threads that endure, and use them to help us feel things.  In addition, Nye has traveled widely encouraging writing and its related pursuits, reading, thinking, etc.  In this interview at poets.org, Naomi Shihab Nye with Jane Hirshfield and Jose Felipe Herrera discuss the civic responsibility of poets and the role of beauty, receptivity, and empathy in our lives.

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A bathing nook in Shangri La.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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