The Citizenship of Grief

A Dialogue Between Naomi Shihab Nye and Robert Bonazzi


Naomi-photosmallNaomi Shihab Nye’s latest book of poems, Transfer (BOA Editions), focuses on her loving relationship with her late father, Aziz Shihab. She has written or edited 32 books in various genres, including 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems from the Middle East, a finalist for the National Book Award. Aziz Shihab’s memoir of Palestine, Does the Land Remember Me?, was published in 2007. Shihab Nye is poetry editor at the Observer.

Author and editor Robert Bonazzi recently talked to her about Transfer.

Robert Bonazzi: The loss of a parent tends to be a primal event and these poems track a deep grieving which—despite the claims of clinicians as to the “ stages of grief” —follow no prescribed pattern. What was your strategy for sequencing? Were the poems placed chronologically as written or were finished texts arranged later? Was your arrangement accomplished by a conscious method or by an intuitive aesthetic?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Definitely intuitive arrangement, on the floor, page-by-page, later. It would have been impossible to structure a sequencing beforehand, and chronological arrangement would be peculiar at best. The poems wanted to move (in the second part of the book) back into the world, which for me was entirely changed by my father’s new absence and deeper presence.

RB: The second section of Transfer (“ Just Call Me Aziz” ) contains 11 poems that take their titles from lines in your father’s notebooks. Unlike your other elegies about him, wherein the first-person narrator usually represents your voice, these seem to actually inhabit his voice, giving the convincing sense that Aziz had written them. We know you wrote the poems, but to what degree do they derive from recollections of his stories and the way he told them?

NSN: His voice inhabits my memory and ear so strongly that simply using his own floating lines as titles invited his voice to take over. This wasn’t planned beforehand, it just happened while writing. Aziz was skeptical of adjectives, as journalists often are, so the poems in his voice have fewer of those than my own might have. He loved short sentences and blunt diction. Writing this section made me laugh. I found things out. It was comforting to feel his own voice emerging so easily—I wouldn’t mind writing more poems of this kind. Guess it’s another way to keep that conversation going—as Alastair Reid mentioned [in an epigraph to Nye’s “Introduction”]. My father left a lot of scrappy notebooks, after all. Many more titles awaiting …

RB:All cultures have story-telling traditions—from oral history to literature. Since your narrative poems and Aziz’s autobiographical texts about his exile from Palestine were often created from actual events, can we assume that you place great value upon story- telling, especially stories generated through the Palestinian culture?

NSN: Without a doubt, I do. No one can deny your story, or the way you remember what you describe as your story. They may argue with your opinion, but not your story.

RB: Recently, we are hearing the long-silenced Palestinian narrative spoken in its own voice (President Mahmoud Abbas spoke about statehood at the UN). Do you sense new possibilities for human rights, self-determination and peace in these developments?

NSN: Definitely I do. And it is long, long overdue. Everyone with a moderate, reasonable sensibility in any country hopes for it—Palestinians and Israeli Jews and everyone who cares about balance in the region and mutual respect.

RB: Your third section includes diverse poems—several focus on anecdotes about Aziz, others have no literal connection but become suddenly touched by strophes of grief. All in a sense are “ informed” by Jack Ridl’s epigraph that reads: “ Grief is an ambush. You’re walking along feeling fine, look down, see a leaf, and begin to weep.” Does this quote capture the resonance of these poems on Palestinian children, a lost dog in your neighborhood, the lovely meditation on language (in “ Maximum Security” ), the homage to poet William Stafford and those “ invisible” worlds represented by fish in a Dubai aquarium? Since grief appears randomly, unexpectedly and painfully in places with no direct bearing on your father was the sense of loss symbolically projected upon these other experiences or did the connections emerge unbidden?

NSN: Unbidden, definitely. It’s the gift of poetry that helps us see, allows threads to be stitched among disparate details, experiences, moments. I was staying at the San Jose Hotel in Austin—a favorite hotel—but was feeling deeply lonely for my dad. Kind friends showed up with a thermos of white tea. That same night, Jack’s quote floated in, and carried me for months. His own knowing helped life feel bearable again. Grief carries us into that new country of citizenship where no one is denied a passport. … Sentences can help a lot. Since childhood, I never thought we give enough credit to simple sentences.

Robert Bonazzi’s latest books of poems are Maestro of Solitude (Wings Press 2007) and The Scribbling Cure (Pecan Grove Press 2011).