Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
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 at home in all cultures, from Madison Street in St. Louis to the jungle in Guatemala. In all places, she looks for and finds connections between herself and others. Participating in the Project for Translation of Arabic (PROTA), Nye translated literature that was printed in Modern Arabic Poetry (1987), Literature of Modern Arabia (1988), Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature (1992), and Modern Arabic Fiction (2005), all edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, to make it accessible to non-Arabic readers.
Often Nye appears as a spokesperson for poetry. She appeared in the series The Language of Poetry, an eight-part series on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), in 1995 and was featured in another series, The United States of Poetry. She has also been recorded on National Public Radio programs, including The Writer’s Almanac and A Prairie Home Companion. Nye interviewed poet W. S. Merwin for a series of videotapes focusing on modern literary figures distributed by the Lannan Foundation. She read poetry at the Library of Congress and at the White House while Bill Clinton was president. Starting in 1999, Nye participated in National Council on the Humanities activities. She served as poetry editor for Texas Observer. In March, 2008, Nye participated in the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C., reading some of her antiwar poems, including “Letters My Prez Is Not Sending.” Despite her busy schedule filled with reading, speaking, and teaching engagements, she urges readers of her poems and essays to take time to pause and savor their lives.