A New Jersey Urban News Exclusive
While the days of elementary school may be decades behind you, most reader probably remember the first time they were introduced to poetry with readings from some of America’s greatest: Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes. Some may have even read the works of America’s first published Black poet, Phillis Wheatley.
And to pay homage to these and other literary greats and to encourage youth to follow in their footsteps, the Academy of American Poets launched National Poetry Month in April 1996, which serves as an annual opportunity to celebrate the integral role poets play in our culture. But it’s also a reminder that poetry matters.
Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K–12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, families, and— of course — poets, marking poetry’s important place in our lives.
This April, U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón has selected 20 new poems by contemporary poets to be featured in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series as part of a collaboration with the Library of Congress.
Each April, with the support of National Poetry Month partners and sponsors , the Academy is able to offer activities, initiatives, and resources so that anyone can join the celebration. Given the plethora of acclaimed poets included within the American canon, one might find it difficult, if not impossible, to identify their favorite. But this writer would like to offer the name Nikki Giovanni for consideration.
Who is Nikki Giovanni?
Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni Jr., born June 7, 1943, holds many impressive titles: American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator.
One of the world’s most well-known Black poets, her work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, and nonfiction essays, and covers topics ranging from race and social issues to children’s literature.
She gained initial fame in the late 1960s as one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts Movement.
Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement of the period, her early work provides a strong, militant African American perspective, leading one writer to dub her the “Poet of the Black Revolution.”
During the 1970s, she began writing children’s literature, and co-founded a publishing company, NikTom Ltd, to provide an outlet for other African American women writers.
Over subsequent decades, her works have discussed social issues, human relationships, and hip hop. Poems such as “Knoxville, Tennessee” and “Nikki-Rosa” have been frequently re-published in anthologies and other collections.
She describes her journey on her website with the following thoughts: “I think I was lucky because I was always sniffling – colds, allergies; something or another – which meant I got to stay home from school a lot. Which meant I could read the books that I wanted to read. Mommy had a wonderful library. Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Hershey but she also read trashy books that she kept in the back of her closet. I remember a nun once saying to me that “Black Boy” by Richard Wright was a bad book. I knew better but I thanked her for letting me know just because you are grown and a nun you don’t necessarily know what is a good from a bad book. I guess this is a long way of saying I’m a dreamer.”
“We had music growing up, 78RPM’s that evolved into 45RPM’s and, always, the radio. The radio in my day, Black and white, played everything. Gospel, spirituals, even some opera when Leontyne Price came along. You could listen to R & B late at night or you could go to the other station and listen to popular music. There was also jazz if the wind was right. I feel so sorry for the kids who only hear one kind of music. Where do your dreams come from?”
“My dream was not to publish or to even be a writer: my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does. I don’t have a lot of friends but I have good ones. I have a son and a granddaughter. My father, mother, sister, and middle aunt are all deceased literally making me go from being the baby in the family to being an elder. I like to cook, travel and dream. I’m a writer. I’m happy,” she concluded.
On the Art of Creating Poetry
For more than 50 years, Giovanni’s poetry has dazzled and inspired readers. Still sharp and outspoken as ever, her most recent works include “A Good Cry” (2017) and “Make Me Rain” (2020).
In her most recent collections, she continues to call attention to injustice and racism, celebrate Black culture and Black lives, and give readers an unfiltered look into her own experiences. She said she greatly admires today’s youth who have had to endure the unprecedented change in their lives and the world because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If they had been killed by a bomb, there would be statues of them everywhere with their names, pictures and what they had planned to do in their lives,” she said. “But because they’re alive, it’s almost like they’re being punished. They have given up so much, especially those who completed high school or college during the pandemic. Not walking across the stage, no proms or celebrations, but still doing what we expect them to do. I think we should salute them for their extraordinary efforts and achievements.”
Giovanni said her generation differs from today’s in that neither she nor her contemporaries felt the need to be affirmed.
“I was friends with some of the greatest Black minds who were writing and publishing during the 60s and 70s when I began to create my own works,” she said. “Dudley Randall, Margaret Walker, Alice Walker were tremendous artists and even more amazing people. We always discussed what we were working on. We shared our fears, hopes and dreams about and for our people. And we met as often as we could – which was never enough.
“As you mature, and certainly in my maturity as a poet, I realized I could either wake up on top and be on top or under the ground. We have a choice. I felt like if I could say something that mattered to someone, I could change the world. Now, I realize I can only make sure the world doesn’t change me. I cannot change the world. And my generation did a good job at making sure the world did not change us.”
Giovannis said writing poetry is like quilting– pieces of cloth that one puts together. And one cannot be afraid of doing the work. “One of the benefits of the recent pandemic was that people had to stay home, read, and begin to talk more with one another,” she said. “Some like to ask me how poetry made its way back and I tell them it has never gone away.”
Giovanni highlights the accomplishment of Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. “She showed the world that everyone has a message, a story to tell – some even have a few poems in their hearts. But sometimes it takes inspiration to draw it out of you,” she said.
Giovanni said her grandmother is her greatest inspiration. “I always wanted her to be proud of what I had done but I never strayed from what I felt compelled to say,” she said. “She may have wanted me to use different words sometimes – like me calling Trump a ‘MF,’ but as I tell my students, the main person and the first person who reads you is you. It must make sense to you. Keep that in mind. Otherwise, you’re trying to please someone else and you don’t even know who you’re trying to please.”