Category Archives: Poetry

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE ON READING AND WRITING

“We read books. We write poems. We belong to ourselves. Does your story have room for me? My story has room for you – ways to enter in, ways to feel our lives reflected or confirmed. Ways of finding greater confidence. We’re all here. We can do it.

“We live on the edges of stories we don’t hear. Every person walking past us on your beautiful Bellingham pier is full of stories…”

Poet, humanist and teacher Naomi Shihab Nye took the stage April 28 at Western Washington University to deliver her Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, REFRESHMENTS WILL BE SERVED – Our Lives of Reading and Writing.

naomiX3It was a luminous presentation, full of stories from her 42 years of working and writing with students from all over the world. Her attitude is ever curious. When a student from Afghanistan asked her why she choses to spend time with kids, she answered, “Because I want to remember what you know.”

She spoke of the importance of asking for stories before they are lost and proposed ways to keep the flow going, like writing on various papers: found papers, round paper placemats, post-its, etc.

She talked about the way writing works: “Nothing is too small to work on.” And “One person’s story encourages another.” And “Each thing gives us something else – another way of thinking, a new thought, more compassion for people who have trouble finishing their work.”

She reminded us that when you feel beleaguered as a writer or a citizen, reading will fortify you.

Near the end, she read her poem KINDNESS. She told us she did not write this poem; it was a gift and she was the scribe. It came to her on her honeymoon, after she and her husband had been robbed. This poem has seen me through hard times and I loved hearing her read it.

KINDNESS

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye, 1995

P.S. Earlier this month, walking around Green Lake, this great heron reminded me of another poem that speaks to us in trying times, from poet, writer, activist and farmer Wendell Berry:

heron

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, 1998

P.P.S. William Stafford, Oregon’s beloved poet and mentor to Naomi Shihab Nye gets the last line here: “If you are having trouble writing, lower your standards.”

 

 

 

The Children’s Poems of Gabriela Mistral

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Gabriela Mistral 1889-1957

The other day I started going through my poetry books looking for The Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Mistral’s longtime friend, Doris Dana.  I couldn’t find it – not unusual in my house, where my organizational skills often fail me. I’m like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the mountain-side. Neither he nor I ever make it to the top.

I needed that book for an essay I’m writing for Numero Cinq magazine, so I ran over to the University of Washington graduate library to see if they had it. Luckily, I found an even better translation of Mistral’s work by the wonderful writer Ursula LeGuin, whose book about writing (Steering the Craft) I’ve recommended to so many of my students. LeGuin, of course is the author of the wonderful Earthsea books for children – I had no idea she also translated work.  As it turns out, she translates beautifully, capturing all the rhythms and music of the original Spanish. The combination of Mistral’s work and LeGuin’s translations gives me everything I look for in poetry – beautiful sound, a certain strangeness to the images, an obvious passion and quiet intelligence.

Mistral_s

Definitely check out Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by LeGuin – it contains many of the children’s poems I mentioned (called lullabies, Tell-a-World poems, “Trickeries,” and “round dances”) as well as a good selection of Mistral’s most famous poems for adults, and an introduction that explains LeGuin’s approach to translating from the Spanish.

LA RATA

Una rata corrió a un venado
y los venados al jaguar,
y los jaguares a los búfalos,
y los búfalos a la mar…

Pillen, pillen a los que se van!
Pillen a la rata, pillen al venado,
pillen a los búfalos y a la mar!

 Miren que la rata de la delantera

se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido
y con el vestido me voy a casar.

Suban y pasen la llanada,
corran sin aliento, sigan sin parar,
vuelan por la novia, y por el cortejo,
y por la carroza y el velo nupcial.

THE RAT

A rat ran after a deer,
deer ran after a jaguar,
jaguars chased buffalo,
and the buffalo chased the sea…

Catch the ones who chase and flee!
Catch the rat, catch the deer,
catch the buffalo and the sea!

Look, look at the rat in front,
in its paws is a woolen thread,
with that thread I sew my gown,
in that gown I will be wed.

Climb up and run, breathless run,
ceaseless chase across the plain
after the carriage, the flying veil,
after the bride and the bridal train!

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Gabriela Mistral – First Communion

***

DAME LA MANO

                          A Tasso de Silveira

Dame la mano y danzaremos;
dame la mano y me amarás.
Como una sola flor seremos,
como una flor, y nada más.

El mismo verso cantaremos,
al mismo paso bailarás.
Como una espiga ondularemos,
como una espiga, y nada mas.

Te llamas Rosa y yo Esperanza;
pero tu nombre olvidarás,
porque seremos una danza
en la colina, y nada mas.

 

GIVE ME YOUR HAND

For Tasso de Silveira

Give me your hand and give me your love,
give me your hand and dance with me.
A single flower, and nothing more,
a single flower is all we’ll be.

Keeping time in the dance together,
singing the tune together with me,
grass in the wind, and nothing more,
grass in the wind is all we’ll be.

I’m called Hope and you’re called Rose;
but losing our names we’ll both go free,
a dance on the hills, and nothing more,
a dance on the hills is all we’ll be.

If you don’t know anything about Gabriela Mistral, here are the basics: She was born in a small farming village in Chile in 1889, and she won the Chilean National Poetry Prize with her first book when she was just 25. Her second book – Ternura [Tenderness]  – contains the wonderful poems for children. Mistral left Chile after the publication of Ternura and never returned to live there, though she represented Chile as a consul in many countries of the world. She was the first South American to win the Nobel Prize (in 1945), and she remains the only South American woman to have done so. She was an educator, a social activist, a diplomat and a poet. She died in New York in 1957.  Hundred s of thousands of people turned out for her funeral in Chile, and the Chilean government declared three days of mourning in her honor. You can read a wonderful essay about her at The Poetry Foundation website.

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