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What is fame?
You might not think that Naomi Shihab Nye would have the answer. After all, it's entirely possible you've never even heard of her; it's not like she's Emily Dickinson or Maya Angelou. She is, as she says, "a wandering poet," who was born in St. Louis and grew up in Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas (source). Wandering poets, it seems, never stick around in one place long enough to get their names in lights. So what does Nye know about fame? Well, according to her poem "Famous," it has something to do with buttonholes and the elderly.
See, Nye is known for writing about everyday objects, for highlighting humanitarian issues, and for working to bridge the gaps that exist between people, and that's what fame is all about. In fact, she says of her own work, "I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there's that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime […] Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own." (Source.)
And, that quote is pretty much the essence of fame in a nutshell. Nye suggests that all these little things that we overlook—all these everyday, seemingly unimportant things—are really what deserve our attention. The small stuff—that's what's famous. Not quite what you were expecting, right?
Believe us. Nye is pretty convincing.
Come on, admit it: at one time or another, you have totally considered trying out for a reality TV show. There's no shame in it. Whether you're a potential Survivor or one half of an Amazing Race team, you know you've got the itch. If you've been tempted to wait in line with 100,000 other songbirds (of questionable talent), just to get a chance to sing in front of the American Idol judges, well then fame is your game, buddy.
But you also probably are well aware that the chances that any one of us will end up with a star on Hollywood Boulevard are slim. So what are all of us fame-seekers supposed to do? Give up and go home?
Naomi Shihab Nye's poem provides a much better solution to this dilemma than taking to YouTube with your song stylings, becoming the next Octomom, or staging elaborate and illegal hoaxes in the hopes that someone from MSNBC will interview you. See, according to Nye, all you have to do to be famous is just be nice to people, notice the little things, and smile. No, not with your eyes.
Well, to be fair, it's a bit more complicated than that. What Nye is really arguing in "Famous" is that we should change our understanding of the word in the first place. Sure, smiling won't get us on TV, but it will make us famous to that smile's recipient. And that's the kind of famous we should strive for.
Nye's Life and Works
Here's a short overview of her life and work, with links to some of her other famous (pun intended) poems.
Brief Biography of Nye
All the made-for-the-front-pages-gossip on Nye's life. (Actually, it's pretty tame.)
Interview with Bill Moyers
Here Nye chats with Bill Moyers about life after September 11th as an Arab-American.
Meet the Poet
This one's long, but worthwhile.
Nye's Ready for Her Close-Up
Dying to know what she looks like?
Words Under the Words
A collection of Nye's poetry, featuring "Famous," and the words under it.
There is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories
A recent publication of Nye's short stories, just in case you're peaky for prose.
A Maze Me
A collection of poems for girls.