Celebrated poet and author Nikki Giovanni helps to expand and enrich young minds in Blacksburg, where she's a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Still, she's not exactly cloistered in her mountain-top, ivory tower. She gets around.
Giovanni, who grew up in an all-black suburb of Cincinnati, is an enthusiastic world traveler. Also, back in 2010, she was bouncing around the United States to promote a new collection, "The 100 Best African American Poems," which she edited.
Giovanni doesn't sit still — physically or creatively. She's the author of more than 30 volumes of poetry and prose, including her autobiography "Gemini," which was a National Book Award finalist. She's created many children's books and has recorded CDs including "Truth Is On Its Way," on which she reads her poetry along with a gospel-music backdrop. Among her books is "Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry of With a Beat."
A proponent of hip-hop as an art form, the 69-year-old poet has "Thug Life" tattooed on her left arm. She got inked in tribute to the late rapper Tupac Shakur, for whom she's written poems of praise.
On Thursday, Giovanni will be in Hampton where she'll speak at an event organized by the Virginia Peninsula Literary Consortium. To help set the scene, we e-mailed her a set of questions about her life and work.
You've been teaching at Virginia Tech since 1987. Do you find that enthusiasm for poetry among students is waxing or waning?
Probably because of the love of rap and slam poetry I find students as interested as ever in writing. And we need to remember these youngsters have grown up totally connected to the world outside themselves. They do not read books as much as some of us would like but they all Google, tweet, Facebook and all that like/dislike/unlike stuff that keeps them writing. They also are very self aware in a way that I think is different from previous generations. They have a lot of information at their fingertips but they are still needing guidance in keeping and disposing what is useful and not useful.
Do you see poetry and rap as different art forms?
The short answer is yes, they are distinctive but overlapping art forms. Like rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll; or gospel and the spirituals. Each has its own place but they are definitely connected.
What did you learn as you went about compiling the book "100 Best African American Poems"? What's the reaction been like?
"The 100 *Best …" is one of my favorite anthologies because I knew from the start that I would cheat. If I only choose the 100 best I would start with Phillis Wheatley, go over to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, why…Langston Hughes alone would take half the book, then over to the Black Arts poets and just barely have room for Tupac. So I decided to cheat. I decided one-third of the book would be young poets. Ten more are the first time published. I knew folk could say, "How do you know they're the best?" My answer is, "What makes you think they're not?" I either look like a genius or an idiot but I wanted young people in, so we made suites and duets and bound poems together. I think we have almost 200 poems in that book including the dedication. I'm so pleased people like it. The CD is wonderful, too, because we rap Dr. King's March on Washington speech. We have choral readings and do really fun things with the poetry. It's doing very well.
Does Hampton Roads hold any special significance for you?
Of course, it's Ella Fitzgerald I always think of when I come to "your neck of the woods." The Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk side of the state holds incredible significance for all of America no matter what Boston tries to say. I also have had the pleasure of teaching so many youngsters from your area including a wonderful young man who plays football in Philly. It's always a pleasure to come to your part of the Commonwealth.
Are there subjects you write about at this age that you wouldn't have touched when you were younger?
I am indeed 69 which means I'm closer to 70 than anything else. I'm on my way with my 90-year-old aunt to Antarctica in December. I'd love to continue my journey around the world that started about 15 years ago and get that book written. Like most writers, I write about those things which interest me that I either know something about or can learn something about. I do love travel and hope to write more about my own journeys.
You have said "We in America have a bad habit of thinking everyone should be dumb and young."
I think the world focuses on youth; I'm just sorry we as a nation don't love young folk enough to trust them with the truth. America is a great promise or as King said: A dream. Anytime American tries to shut down that dream of equality, a better life; a chance to be who you want to be … we are all diminished. I think the nation needs to get over its obsession with youth and most especially over its obsession with controlling the bodies of young women.
Did you observe National Poetry Month this year?
Yes. We at Virginia Tech award The Steger Poetry Prize during National Poetry Month. It is an undergraduate prize of $1,000 first place; $500 second place and $300 third place, making ours the largest undergraduate poetry prize. We are so proud of The Steger because we believe the arts are as much a necessary part of education as academics and athletics. Actually that is the true triangle; those three A's. I am so happy to be at an institution where our president comes to read poetry with us on that special day. I was invited by Virginia Tech president [Charles W.] Steger to create a poetry prize six years ago and decided to name it after him. Won't it be wonderful in another ten years or so people will list on their resume: I was a finalist for The Steger?
Your "We Are Virginia Tech" speech/poem five years ago had a huge impact. Have your thoughts or feelings about the shootings changed? Do you still write about it?
Why do you enjoy writing books for children?
Lest we all forget we started out as children. And there are many happy memories associated with it. There are also many questions. I think children are intelligent and should be approached as such. Writing for young people is satisfying because they like to know what happened back then or as my son would say "in your day" to which I would always respond; "It is still my day."
You've won a big stack of awards, been praised by Oprah Winfrey, written or collaborated on a slew of books. Is there anything, any goal, that's still hovering on the horizon?
I am so excited to be working on the Legacy Programs here at Tech. This year we are, for the first time, bringing Dr. Maya Angelou and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison on stage together. Dr. Angelou has partnered with us, and we with Joanne Gabbin at James Madison University to celebrate Toni Morrison in a program entitled Sheer Good Fortune, after Toni's dedication in "Sula." "It is sheer good fortune to miss someone before they are gone." We will have 30 readers who will be reading from Morrison's work. Pulitzer Prize winners Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa; cultural icons Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis; novelist Edwidge Danticat; poets Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti; Tony Medina and more. We were sold out within hours and are now working on our overflow. I am, of course, dreaming of the next Legacy Conversation.
Want to go?
What: Author talk by Nikki Giovanni
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 4. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium, Templin Hall, Thomas Nelson Community College, Hampton
Tickets: All of the free Nikki Giovanni tickets were distributed within the first few days that they were made available. Ticketholders will be seated first. Any remaining seats will be offered to those waiting without tickets.
More information: After a brief welcome and introduction, Giovanni will talk, and then accept questions from the audience. A book signing will follow. http://www.thevplc.org