Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Connie Post Reads “Two Countries” by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Connie, I must tell you how excited I am to be discussing a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. I’m currently working with poet Laurie Byro on a William Stafford Lyric Essentials, who I understand was her mentor. That fact, and a few of her poems I’ve familiar with, is about the extent of my knowledge on Nye. Can you tell us a little more about her?
Connie Post: Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis Missouri in 1952. Her father was a Palestinian Refugee and her mother of European dissent. She grew up in in Texas. Her writing is imbued with the suffering of the Palestinian people and also reaches across cultures to bring deep meaning to our many different worlds. After 9/11, her work became particularly important as a voice, a bridge between the Middle Eastern world and Americans. Her other influences include Wallace Stevens and Gary Snyder. Her poems about heritage are remarkable and have made a deep imprint on the lives of many. She is also the author of several children’s books. Her early books of poems were published in the 1970’s. The book that knocked my socks off was Words Under the Words (1994). After I read Words Under the Words I bought every other book of hers I could get my hands on. Among other things she now serves as Chancellor on the American Academy of Poets (since 2009).
Sundress: This is a poem that almost begs to be read aloud. After listening to the audio you sent in, I looked at the text to get a visual of the characters used. As I expected, “Two Countries” is dominated by hissing sibiliants, but what I didn’t hear at first were the almost opposing nasal consonants. Encountering the poem first in print was likely a very different experience. What made you really take notice of this particular poem from Nye’s collection?
Connie Post: Honestly, the first line stopped my cold in my tracks. The simple starkness and power of “skin remembers” those two words, together, in and of themselves, are enough to make any reader want more. I immediately wanted to know what skin remembers, how, why. I wanted to know the whole meaning and the spaces in between. I admire the hissing sibilants and reading the poem definitely takes one to another level, as the reader must take time to slow down for the lines like “Skin ate, walked slept by itself”.
The opposing nasal consonants of course provide a perfect oppositional texture, and provides yet another layer to help the reader immerse themselves to the exact story of skin, and how it stretches beyond ourselves.
Sundress: It’s a great first line, but it surprised me. It’s not how I expected a poem titled “Two Cities” to begin. And the end isn’t where I expected the poem to wind up at, either. Can you walk us through the poem a bit, and what it means to you, particularly that, “skin… stretches beyond ourselves”?
Connie Post: I believe great poetry provides the unexpected in the most delightful of ways.
The title, “Two Counties” primes the reader to think of one theme and then first two lines take us down a completely different path. Good poems should surprise us immediately and this one does! Towards the end, Nye brings the two concepts of skin and traveling, perfectly interwoven. In the beginning of the poem she gives “skin” a life, a voice and a pathway. I love hearing the voice of skin, and how it adopts all the human qualities we have yet also feels unseen. It hides our most secret selves and yet travels, too.
The expansion of the poem starts when Nye states “it was never seen” then to expand the skin’s life over the hip of a city, a mosque and the layered meaning of “a thousand corridors of cinnamon and rope”. The imagery here brings the poem to a whole new level.
It brings us outside the skin and to the larger world. When Nye states “when skin is not alone” she continues to explore our humanity and then helps us see how we can be larger than ourselves, living beyond our own borders, whatever they may be.
Sundress: When you described her, you said that Nye’s work managed to “reach across countries”. Do her poems often start with an individual subject or personage, such as ‘skin’, and expand to express an inner-connectedness? How does “Two Countries” compare with her body of work?
Connie Post: Many of her poems do indeed start an individual subject and expand in unexpected and meaningful ways.
The two attached poems* “Breaking my Favorite Bowl” and “Dog” exemplify this skill. These two poems are similar to “Two Counties” in the start with one simple concept that grows to a larger universality that stretches across many bridges.
Attached in the link below is another of hers “Making a fist” which truly punches me in stomach. There is a visceral feel to it. By the end I was even making a fist!
Nye has a way of bringing the larger to the smaller and the small to the larger in ways that are connected so intricately that you don’t even know how intricate until the end of the poem and when you re-read it. I think the poem “Two Counties” is very representative of the style of her work. One of her other famous poems “Kindness” changed me as a person, and a poet.
Sundress: How has Naomi Shihab Nye changed you as a person and influenced your work?
Connie Post: Naomi Shihab Nye has changed me probably more than any other contemporary poet. When I first opened her book Words under the Words I was mesmerized. That book changed the way I wrote poetry. Of course now I have all of her books. The more I read her work, the more I realized there were avenues of image and metaphor I had never explored. Nye has a way of noticing the smallest of details in the most perfect way. She also has a way of viewing the world from afar and then also up close at the same time. She links ideas and images together that I never would have thought of before. She selects words and language that that are both exquisite and musical. She gives remarkable beauty to the voice of suffering and her specific use of culture helps a reader step through many unopened doors. I am grateful for her gift of poetry. I think she writes differently than many of the poets today. Her voice is very unique and I carry with me one of her most famous poems “Kindness” and it helps reminds me of how I need to live my life every day. I recite the poem in my car when I am stressed and on walks in our neighborhood.
*These are currently unpublished online. Excerpts from “Breaking my Favorite Bowl”:
and split into four pieces
on the floor.
I’m thinking about apples and histories,
the hands I broke off
the unannounced blur
of something passing
out of a life
Excerpts from “Dog”:
The sky is the belly of a large dog,
The dog who floats over us
has no master.
It is the long fence
of their hoping he would stay
that he has jumped.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Connie Post served as the first Poet Laureate of Livermore, California from 2005 – 2009. Her work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Calyx, Cold Mountain Review, Crab Creek Review, Comstock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Slipstream, Spoon River Poetry Review, and The Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her awards include the Dirty Napkin Cover Prize, The Caesura Poetry Award, and the Montclair Poetry Contest. Her chapbook And When the Sun Drops was the 2012 Fall Aurorean’s Editors Choice Award. Her work has received praise from Al Young, Ursula LeGuin, and Ellen Bass. She has been short listed for the Jack Kerouac Poetry Prize, The Muriel Craft Bailey awards (Comstock Review), Lois Cranston Memorial Awards (Calyx), Blood Root Literary Magazine, and the Gary Gildner Award (I 70 Review). Her first full length book Floodwater was released by Glass Lyre Press in 2014 and won the Lyrebird award.
Naomi Shihab Nye, born 1952 to an American mother and a Palestinian father, is a poet, songwriter, and novelist residing in San Antonio, TX. After 9/11, Nye spoke out against both terrorism and prejudice towards Arab-Americans. Her most acclaimed volume, Fuel (1998), was thus followed by 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002). In 2012 Nye was named laureate of the 2013 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature.