Friday, December 4, 2009
Nikki Giovanni--another woman poet
Nikki Giovanni is one of the greatest poets that you have probably never heard of. So much of our poetic education is rooted in the past that often the more modern writers aren't appreciated while they are still alive. Known for her strong African American themes, accessible style and strong views, Nikki's poetry is one of the voices that echoes both the civil rights movement of the 1960's and still evolving black community.
She was born in 1943 in Knoxville, TN and raised in Cincinnati, OH. She was the second child of two teachers, Yolanda and Jonas. Unlike many of her predecessors, her childhood was reasonably happy. Yet, she always felt this restless need, the dissatisfaction with the way things were. Part of her growing issue with the racial situation was rooted with the problems her sister suffered.
Gary Ann, her sister, was forced to live with relatives for a while as a small child because there were only white schools available where her parents were living. Then as Gary Ann grew older, she attempted to attend a desegregated school. This negative experience scarred Nikki's entire family and began Nikki's passion for civil rights.
In 1955, Nikki and a friend staged a walk out in class when a teacher commented that Emmett Till deserved to be murdered. The school later apologized for these words but this climate of racism fueled Nikki's rebellious spirit. If you listen to her early poetry, you can feel this simmering anger underneath the words.
In the early 1960's, she was thrown out of Fisk University for aggressive and rebellious behavior. She had trouble with the strong conservative views expressed at the small black university. However after a change of management, she returned to Fisk in 1964 to complete a degree in History. While there, Nikki started Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and became the editor of the school paper,Elan.
Her early poetry in the 1960's reflected the activism and burning ideas of the time period. Over the last three decades, her poetry has become calmer, more introspective and more focused on love instead of bitterness. As the times have changed so has this poet. Her audience still seems to be of that same time period, growing with her, changing with her.
In 1967, Nikki finished her first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, and she self-published it in 1968. The same year she finished her second book titled Black Judgment. Then in the early 1970's, she helped publish one of the first black women's poetry anthologies, Night Comes Softly. The death of her beloved grandmother in 1967 and the birth of her only son in 1969 inspired to write more as both a refuge and a tribute of her life. Her work began to grow and pull in more aspects of her personal life.
Over the next twenty years, she published many of best known works such as: Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers and A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Cotton Candy on A Rainy Day, Gemini (Children's Poetry)and Sacred Cows . . . And Other Edibles. There will never be enough space or time to list all of Nikki's accomplishments. Prolific and timely, she continues to grow and touch the world.
Nothing stopped her from writing even as she successfully battled lung cancer in 1995. By this time she has numerous awards, honorary degrees and speaking credits. Yet even during her her recovery, she was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent and accepted the Appalachian Medallion Award.
In 2004-2005, another one of her spoken word albums,The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection was nominated for a Grammy for the Spoken Word. She is a modern, living icon, representing both the civil right's era and modern African American relationships. She is currently a tenured professor at Virginia Tech.
As the years have passed, her poetry has mellowed and turned inward. She still discusses black ideas, black lives and her own ideas of how to let bitterness go. Her use of alliteration, rhythm and accessible conversation style really connect with a reader's gut and pulls them into flow of her work. That is why she will be remembered, loved, and revered.
Link to one of her poems