Coffee with a Poem

‘It’s all about how we have choices,’ said a Write for Growth participant, as we looked at this poem under our workshop theme Space and Light. See what you think over a cup of coffee as we sit down with Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘The Art of Disappearing.’ 


The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?

say no.


When they invite you to the party

remember what parties are like

before answering.

Someone is telling you in a loud voice

they once wrote a poem.

Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.

Then reply.


If they say We should get together

say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.

You’re trying to remember something

too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.

Tell them you have a new project.

It will never be finished.


When someone recognizes you in a grocery store

nod briefly and become a cabbage.

When someone you haven’t seen in ten years

appears at the door,

don’t start singing him all your new songs.

You will never catch up.


Walk around feeling like a leaf.

Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.

                                                                         From Words under the Words: Selected Poems (Far Corner Books 1995)


Conversational in tone, our poem is good company for a coffee break. Its party bores, sausage balls and chance meetings over grocery shopping locate us in the identifiable rhythm of everyday living. Yet behind this lurks the half-light world of trees, of monastery bell.   

The rhythm of the repeated introductions to stanzas, ‘When they’… say/invite/recognize you’ makes an immediate link to the regularity with which others can impose on our world. Their requests can trap us in the rut of a repeated dynamic as they trigger our impulse to meet expectations. The default position of saying yes to others, especially as they stand in front of us, can be strong. The poem marks out a space between question and answer that we may not otherwise register in our rush to react. It gives us permission to take our time to respond. 

Disappearing is indeed an Art. It requires attentive practice to pursue our priorities in the face of challenge, without being confrontational. How can it be achieved? The poem encourages the first step: to anticipate and prepare for the inevitable next intrusion. The speaker also invites us to draw on our memory: We call to mind the consequences of giving way in times past. More profoundly still, we bring into focus the things most important to us. We can do this most vividly via moments, images and sensory impressions: loud-voiced anecdote versus the softer monastery bell. 

The poem signposts times when we feel put on the spot and invites us engage them in a new way. We are not instructed what to do, but invited to decide for ourselves. We do so in the bigger context of we value most, mindful of both our freedom and vulnerability, the parameters of mortality and the preciousness of our time. 

In our workshop, we explored how the poem made us aware of our own traps and triggers. But awareness opens up the possibility of choosing a new route through an old situation, with the help of the poem’s gentle nudge.

Some writing ideas:

  • What are the ‘When they…’ intrusions that trigger a reaction in you? Can you and the poem come up with some different responses? 
  • How might you prepare and plan for encounters that risk knocking you off-course?
  • What images and moments can you recall to help you stay on track – ones to avoid, ones to treasure?
  • What approach do you want to take to managing your time that you could sum up as a piece of advice to self?

You could free-write in response to any of these questions, or respond in thoughts and fragments, perhaps writing in parallel to the poem. 





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