Naomi Shihab Nye was Shangri La’s Artist in Residence in 2016. She and her husband, Michael, lived in Shangri La’s playhouse for a month in the summer of that year.
Naomi, an award-winning poet, editor and professor, recently inquired if Shangri La still had her “little chapbook of poems.” When we asked her to describe it greater detail, she guided us to look for a “sheaf of handmade papers, on which I hand-copied my poems for Doris which I wrote during that month.”
Naomi told us said she was “taken with the great creative spirit of Doris Duke and a project of immense beauty and vision which took so long to develop and was never quite finished, as creative projects never are. I wanted to honor that.”
Shortly after, Naylor Finnerty, a Shangri La Public Engagement Assistant, found “Poems in Progress” tucked away in the library. The staff has been passing it around ever since, in awe and appreciation.
Naomi obliged us in answering a few questions…
Shangri La: What motivated you to write these Poems for Doris? Why “poems in progress?”
Naomi Shihab Nye: We were/are just so fascinated by her passion for Islamic art, the “why” of that particular affection, her unusual life, her fine aesthetic, her love for O’ahu, which we share – and a project (Shangri La) that she worked on actively for SO LONG. How many of us dream up a lifetime project on our honeymoon? I was also fascinated, even before we stayed there, by her notorious solitude, her brief relationships, the sad death of her mysterious baby, the lack of her own writings in the archive to describe her philosophies, etc. She has a lot of charisma for me.
I had visited Shangri La on tour before we ever stayed there and asked a lot of questions. By writing poems, I was able to explore these thoughts and curiosities a little more. People who remain a bit mysterious all their lives are of course the most intriguing! And I have always noticed that many people are highly prejudiced against extremely wealthy people, however they use their money, however philanthropic they may be, and this seems unfair and weird to me.
SL: Now that several years have passed since your residency, what memories and feelings remain with you?
NSN: The light, air, and wave sounds of Shangri La will always be with us. Entering the fabulous house after dusk, by ourselves, a couple of times, felt like pure magic. Sitting on the veranda, staring out, imagining who had been there before us, time and its essence, a sense of the presence of Doris, always, a knowledge it was the high moment and best venue of our whole lives. We were transported by the birdsong, they are still calling to one another in my phone. It was sad and hard to leave after a full, beautiful month. I adored the old soda fountain (chocolate?) in the guest house kitchen, and the minimal little kitchen itself. Those pots on the shelves. I loved being taken down into the vault to see things that are NOT on display!
SL: Your remarks in the playhouse in the summer of 2016 were titled “Light on the Water: How Poetry and Art Help Us Survive an Endless Election Cycle (and everything else)” In your talk, you shared poetry and poetic thoughts about political and global turmoil, including the election and the refugee crises, and still, the possibilities for beauty in all regions of the world. You talked about how nice it was for you and your husband to be away from all the news and asked the question “how much serves you?” and how you must balance it all to be a good citizen. Do you still feel that struggle? Have you made progress in finding that balance since 2016? (um, practical tips and advice welcome here)
NSN: Ha ha, yes, I struggle every day. I do think art and creation and beauty has a very precise power to help us through all this morass of craziness. Power struggles, greed, war, climate disaster, lies, attempts to overthrow government — whoever dreamed THAT was coming? — definitely it feels as if things keep getting worse not better, so I guess this means we need artistic, creative thinkers more than ever. I feel an enormous hunger in young people to be acknowledged as creative beings, not just measureable students, and this hunger has gotten greater through the years. We NEED our mindful practices, our passions — how do we discover them? Without art or creative practice or empty time to absorb and savor beauty, how indeed?
SL: In those remarks, you encouraged people to write things down “that come to you” and that in doing so, “more will be given.” It’s wonderful advice. Do you have a snippet to share of something you’ve written down recently? Or any other advice for people seeking to live creatively?
NSN: Yes, be kind to yourself. Don’t wait for big ideas. Just begin anywhere. I still and always believe “Each things gives us something else.” Jack Kerouac, my birthday twin, used to give his advice for writing, “Rest and be kind, you don’t have to prove anything.” True. If you’re a writer, dive in a little every day. Whatever your medium, keep it close, make doubt your friend. And just keep on.
I fell into a two-month silence after our dearest and only son (he attended kindergarten long ago at Hokulani Elementary School in Honolulu, a wonderful place to begin an educational career) died suddenly last October. Even writing thank you notes felt overwhelming. But little things he loved, little things about him, started returning in tiny bits to me as the ferocity and intensity of grief calmed a bit and helped me feel the need for words and composing again — writing has helped me think, experience recurrent sorrow, and feel closer to him in his terribly difficult absence which will always feel like the closest presence we have. I know that now. A poet, Kishwar Naheed, in Pakistan told me years ago, “We always need to write about the hardest things.” I think she was right. It helps us live with them.
SL: Where are you finding inspiration these days? Is it a place or person, a time of day etc?
NSN: I have always found it everywhere, inside and outside. Voices, oddities, close details, a sudden link, where two things overlay one another and suddenly seem interesting!
Naomi Shihab Nye is an award-winning poet, writer and editor, a professor of creative writing at Texas State University, and a forever friend of Shangri La.