Saturday, April 28, 2012

Poems: Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni
Ah, Nikki Giovanni (1943-). When I was in junior high and starting high school she was my favorite poet. There was something about the directness of her address, the humorous way she dealt with frustration and rage (though she wasn't always so funny), her articulation of power in the face of marginalization, her truthfulness about what it meant and means to be young and black and living in the US (and she was at least a generation or two older than me, but everything she wrote spoke immediately to me), her sophisticated use of vernacular, all of it made her a poet I could not get enough of. There were other poets I adulated at this age, but alongside nearly all of them, Giovanni held pride of place until I turned 16 or so, and then I drifted away from her work.

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
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
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.

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