National Poetry Month is only fifteen-years-old. For some reason, I thought it had been around much longer, but that’s a sign of a successful program. Focusing attention on the art of poetry during April is firmly is “institutionalized” in my mind which, I imagine, is just what the Academy of American Poets would want. And this year I get to celebrate Poetry Month by meeting one of my favorite poets in the whole world – Naomi Shihab Nye. She’s speaking at a conference I’m attending on Thursday, and this morning I put her books by the door (just a few days early) so I won’t forget to bring them for her to sign. Others might line up to meet Bono or Tom Brady, but I would wait patiently for hours to say hello to Naomi.
And it gets better – this month-long celebration. On April 13, Paul Janeczko is visiting Inly. As I’ve written before, Paul is the editor of many wonderful poetry books for children. Like many literature teachers, I rely on his books to help me introduce poetry to kids. A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, Paul’s 2005 collaboration with illustrator Chris Raschka, is the best resource for teaching poetry – the illustrations are fun and the explanations of various forms are excellent. Janeczko’s introduction to concrete poetry, A Poke in the I, is one of my all-time favorites.
This past winter, I taught a poetry unit in our middle school. Among other poems we read by Naomi Shihab Nye, was this one from her book, 19 Varieties of Gazelle. Of course, I brought figs in for the students to taste – real figs, not the kind inside of a Newton!
My Father and the Fig Tree
For other fruits, my father was indifferent.
He’d point at the cherry trees and say,
“See those? I wish they were figs.”
In the evening he sat by my beds
weaving folktales like vivid little scarves.
They always involved a figtree.
Even when it didn’t fit, he’d stick it in.
Once Joha1 was walking down the road and he saw a fig tree.
Or, he tied his camel to a fig tree and went to sleep.
Or, later when they caught and arrested him, his pockets were full of figs.
At age six I ate a dried fig and shrugged.
“That’s not what I’m talking about! he said,
“I’m talking about a fig straight from the earth — gift of Allah! — on a branch so heavy it touches the ground.
I’m talking about picking the largest, fattest,
in the world and putting it in my mouth.”
(Here he’d stop and close his eyes.)
Years passed, we lived in many houses,
none had figtrees.
We had lima beans, zucchini, parsley, beets.
“Plant one!” my mother said.
but my father never did.
He tended garden half-heartedly, forgot to water,
let the okra get too big.
“What a dreamer he is. Look how many things he starts and doesn’t finish.”
The last time he moved, I got a phone call,
My father, in Arabic, chanting a song
I’d never heard. “What’s that?”
He took me out back to the new yard.
There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas,
a tree with the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig in the world.
“It’s a fig tree song!” he said,
plucking his fruits like ripe tokens,
of a world that was always his own.