The Norman Transcript

November 1, 2013

NSK Neustadt speakers discuss love of poetry

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Naomi Shihab Nye, NSK Neustadt Prize laureate, and Ibtisam Barakat, NSK Neustadt Prize juror, spoke Thursday at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History of their craft and poetry’s ability to connect with readers by its brevity and subtly.

Nye is an American author with Palestinian roots on her father’s side. She is celebrated for her sensitivity to difficult and culturally based social issues, such as the post-Sept. 11 treatment of Arab Americans in the United States.

Nye has published several collections of poetry for adults and children, including “Yellow Glove,” “Fuel,” “19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East” and “Habibi.”

Barakat’s memoir, “Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood,” is about being a child in war and living under occupation. It has won more than 20 awards and honors, including the International Reading Association’s Best Non-Fiction for Young Adults and the Middle East Council’s Best Literary Book.

To begin the event, Pioneer Library staff members Valerie Kimble, Leah Kenton-McGaha and Alex Batchelor read an excerpt from Nye’s work about a teenage American girl who moves to Palestine and some of Nye’s poetry, including “Torn Map.”

“Once by mistake she tore a map. In half. She taped it back together. But crookedly. Now all the roads end in water. There were mountains right next to her hometown. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? I’d tear a map and be right next to you,” Kimble said as she recited Nye’s poem.

“I love the brevity of a poem,” Nye said. “It speaks of our time.”

Nye and Barakat went on to discuss how poetry leads and trusts a reader; it doesn’t tell them what to think or know.

“I liked poetry because it trusted that I had a brain. That it didn’t explain; it just gave me the idea,” Nye said.

Barakat agreed with Nye, saying, “There is a respect by the indirectness. You surround them. You don’t tell them. You subtly put it out there. And the poem will wait for you (the reader) if you don’t understand it at first.”

Nye and Barakat started composing poetry at an early age. Nye said she wrote her first poem at age 6 after visiting Chicago.

“I was dazzled by the buildings, and I had just learned to write, so I composed a four-line rhyming poem … I gave it to my teacher, who put it in the hall. A little while later, an older student came up to me and asked if I had written the Chicago poem. She said, ‘Oh, I’ve been there. I know what you mean.’ and I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Nye said.

Barakat said she wrote her first poem when she was being dressed by her mother and said, “Can I wear my home like a jacket? I don’t want to lose my home again.”

Nye said she felt a need for poetry early on. Barakat said Arab culture is entirely poetic; when a mother rocks her baby or when two people fight, there is poetry.

“I don’t know of anything that defines Arabs more than poetry,” Barakat said.

The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award that was established in 1969. It is the first international literary award of this scope to originate in the United States and is one of the few international prizes for which poets, novelists and playwrights are equally eligible.

The NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, given to Nye, is a new award intended to enhance the quality of children’s literature.

The Neustadt Festival will conclude today with Middle Eastern music and Barakat speaking on Palestinian culture from 10 to 11 a.m., followed by the NSK keynote address by Nye from 11 a.m. to noon at Meacham Auditorium in the OK Memorial Union. Lastly, a storytelling performance with fiction writer Gabriella Ghermandi will take place from 3 to 4 p.m. today at the Reynolds Performing Arts Center.

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Katherine Parker