Naomi Shihab Nye

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Palestinian journalist Aziz Shihab, an immigrant to the United States after the 1948 nakba expelling Palestinians from their communities, and an American mother, Miriam Naomi (Allwardt) Shihab, who was a teacher. Nye spent her childhood in St. Louis, developing an interest in poetry at an early age partly because of a televised performance by Carl Sandburg and poems her mother read aloud; at the age of seven, she had a poem published in Wee Wisdom, a children’s magazine. Her parents owned stores named World Gifts where Nye occasionally worked. She traveled with her family, including her younger brother Adlai, to Mexico and within the United States. Her father often told his children stories and folktales with Middle Eastern themes.

From St. Louis, fourteen-year-old Nye and her family moved to Jerusalem, where she attended the St. Tarkmanchatz School and absorbed many stories, impressions, and perceptions of the differences in cultures and the similarities among people. Many of her poems draw on her experiences with people she observed and family members she learned about or knew well. These experiences have been incorporated into her poems and her writing for children and young people.

Due to tensions preceding the Six Day War, Nye’s family left Jerusalem in 1967 and settled in San Antonio, Texas. She completed her high school education in that city. Nye read poems by William Stafford and W. S. Merwin, which intensified her interest in poetry. Seventeen printed one of Nye’s poems when she was a teenager. She studied English and world religions at Trinity University and wrote poems that were published in such journals as Ironwood and Modern Poetry Studies while she was in college. She heard Allen Ginsberg at a campus poetry reading and was influenced by Jack Kerouac, whose widow she visited in Florida. Nye earned a B.A. with honors in 1974, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Employed by the Texas Commission on the Arts, Nye traveled to Texas schools to teach creative writing and later conducted similar workshops for students at schools in other states. By 1977, her debut poetry chapbook, Tattooed Feet, was printed, with her second chapbook, Eye-to-Eye, being published the following year. She married Michael Nye, a lawyer and photographer, in 1978. With their son, Madison Cloudfeather Nye, born in 1986, they remained in San Antonio. The city’s Mexican American culture has been important to Nye’s work. She has delighted in observing and describing the daily activities of all the people she encounters.

Nye’s poems often catalog the habits, concerns, and attitudes of various people and cultures. Her affinity for others and appreciation of their individuality are the most outstanding characteristics of her poetry. Nye has traveled widely, gaining experiences that have enabled her to fill her poetic album with snapshots of people worldwide who simultaneously reveal both the unique and the universal qualities of humanity. Academic and literary journals, including Journal of Palestine Studies, Ploughshares, ALAN Review, Prairie Schooner, The Horn Book, and Iowa Review, have printed Nye’s work. Her poetry and prose have also been selected for numerous anthologies, including Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry (1988), edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif S. Elmusa; Texas Poets in Concert: A Quartet (1990), edited by R. S. Gwynn; and The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology (2001), edited by Nathalie Handal.

Nye has been the Holloway Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, a lecturer in poetry at the University of Texas campuses at Austin and San Antonio, and a visiting writer at the University of Hawaii and the University of Alaska. She has traveled to conduct workshops with teachers and students of all ages in the Middle East and Asia with the United States Information Agency’s Arts America Program. Her poems show that she is...

(The entire section is 1,989 words.)