I used to be able to recite "Nikki-Rosa," "Ego-Tripping," and some of her other poems by memory. Now I can only summon a few lines. But I have been fortunate to be able to teach her work in the intervening years, to junior high and high school students, and then to college students, and I marvel at how readily they take to her, how powerfully her work continues to resonate. Among literary scholars, though, she doesn't make the same impact. I sometimes think it's because she's considered not especially profound or interesting or innovative, that she's read as too simple and not worthy of research beyond work on the Black Arts Movement. That may be just my misreading, but I would be hard-pressed to recall any discussion of I've had with folks teaching poetry and poetics, except those working specifically in African American literature, or with other creative writers, over the last 10 years, in which her name arose.
That is, outside of the moment when the tragic events at Virginia Tech thrust her back into public view. Yet this year at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago, her public conversation with Thomas Sayers Ellis--which I couldn't attend because I was teaching at that hour--reportedly was packed. Among the creative writing community she still is a draw. That results not only from her poetry, which speaks for itself, but from her work as a teacher, consciousness-raiser, and mentor, especially to younger writers. She has taught at Virginia Tech since 1987, where she is now Distinguished Professor, and has received many awards for her poetry, which can be found in more than two dozen collections. She also has published essays, children's book, and recorded her work on vinyl and CD.
Here are two early poems by Giovanni that capture some of what I described above. Both are also about being a poet and writing poetry, which is to say, about art, artists and their power. As a young poet who saw the need for and participated in a social and cultural revolution, she was aware, even when expressing her doubts, that what she was doing had some value. Poetry does make things happen, pace W. H. Auden (whose poem in which this formulation, more carefully and fully stated, I probably should select for tomorrow), though not in the ways that poets might imagine and that others dismiss. What is clear is that good poems do survive, and their work continues long after they were written and for that we should always be thankful. So thank you to Giovanni, and here are two of her poems. Enjoy.
kidnap poem ever been kidnapped by a poet if i were a poet i'd kidnap you put you in my phrases and meter you to jones beach or maybe coney island or maybe just to my house lyric you in lilacs dash you in the rain blend into the beach to complement my see play the lyre for you ode you with my love song anything to win you wrap you in the red Black green show you off to mama yeah if i were a poet i'd kid nap you My Poem i am 25 years old black female poet wrote a poem asking nigger can you kill if they kill me it won't stop the revolution
i have been robbed it looked like they knew that i was to be hit they took my tv my two rings my piece of african print and my two guns if they take my life it won't stop the revolution my phone is tapped my mail is opened they've caused me to turn on all my old friends and all my new lovers if i hate all black people and all negroes it won't stop the revolution if i never write another poem or short story if i flunk out of grad school if my car is reclaimed and my record player won't play and if i never see a peaceful day or do a meaningful black thing it won't stop the revolution the revolution is in the streets and if i stay on the fifth floor it will go on if i never do anything it will go on
Copyright © Nikki Giovanni, "kidnap poem" and "My Poem," from The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1996. All rights reserved.