Early in her career, Nikki Giovanni was dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry,” and over the course of more than three decades of publishing and lecturing she has come to be called both a “National Treasure” and, most recently, one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” A multiple Grammy Award winner, Giovanni has received more than 100 awards and honors, as well as 19 honorary degrees. She has been given keys to more than a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, and New Orleans. Her autobiography, Gemini, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Most recently, her children’s picture book Rosa, about the civil rights legend Rosa Parks, was a New York Times bestseller and named a Caldecott Honors Book.
Nikki Giovanni will appear on stage with Leigh Haber, Books Editor for O, The Oprah Magazine. Haber is making a return visit to the National Writers Series, having served as guest host for the Colum McCann event this past June. The event will also feature a special reading by National Writers Series/Front Street Writers writer-in-residence Francine J. Harris.
Deep Wood Press is producing an exclusive limited edition broadside of one of Nikki Giovanni’s poems for this event. Located along the banks of the Cedar River in Northern Michigan’s Antrim County, Deep Wood Press has continued the centuries-old tradition of handcrafted printed items, bindings and book matter. With a foundation in fine art and a careful attention to craftsmanship and detail, the end result is more than a vehicle for information. When you purchase a copy of Giovanni’s book Utopia at the event you will receive one of these beautifully handcrafted broadsides compliments of Deep Wood Press, National Writers Series, and Horizon Books (while supplies last).
For ticket pricing and information, visit cityoperahouse.org.
Event details: 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 30; doors open at 6:00 p.m.
For readers who may be new to your work, would you say a little about your use of the lower-case “i” in your poems? How do you decide when it’s the right thing to do, and when it’s incorrect?
I almost hate to admit it but when I started writing we were on the old typewriter system and it was difficult to hit the shift to raise letters. I found the flow of my words improved when I just went about creating. The only poem I actually took the time during those pre-computer years to raise the I was Ego Tripping. The nature of that poem required a capitol I. It is easier for me to type now, so I pretty much use the standard way.
You began speaking truth in poetry—exuberantly, fiercely, and out loud—when you were roughly the age your Virginia Tech students are now. What kind of energy do you see driving this new generation of poets? Are you hopeful about the work you see developing?
I have the pleasure of teaching some really creative writers. Just recently we hosted Duke and St. Augustine Universities at Tech for a poetry slam. We had great fun and watching the young people attacking the political problems was wonderful for me. Each group of artists changes the way the next group will attack a question. I think they learned from us, as did we from The Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts poets who took some of their style from the beatniks. It was so funny to hear them snapping their fingers in approval at the slam. The beats used to sit in Greenwich Village and do the same thing.
Many of your poems are spoken to a specific person, and I wonder, as you’re writing, whether your poems begin in your ear or in your eye? Can you tell us a little about how your ideas come to you?
I don’t try to separate like that. Ideas come from everything … conversations, food, the clouds or a cloudy day. I think a lot and play in my head to see if there is something to share. There are also ideas that come from repudiations of some of the things you read or hear. Ideas are like the air: something we always have and always need but are not always aware of.
What writers are on your VA Tech syllabus this year?
This is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 100th Anniversary of the founding of my sorority Delta Sigma Theta, so we are looking at a variety of poems, short stories, movies and history texts following the “bus.” It’s been a great adventure.
Have you visited Northern Michigan before? I know from reading Bicycles that you’re perhaps not too fond of beer, but how do you feel about apples, cherries, wine, or stand-up paddleboards?
I’ve not visited Northern Michigan before. I’m not a beer drinker but my mother was, so I have a fondness for it. I cook with beer, which improves a pot roast or oxtails or a good pot of beans. I don’t know what a stand-up paddleboard is.