Thursday, April 08, 2010

Poetry Makers - Nikki Giovanni

At the end of January an envelope arrived for me at work with no return address. Inside was a letter from Nikki Giovanni. Given that the bulk of interviews for this series take place through e-mail, I was thoroughly charmed to receive her answers in this fashion.

How does one introduce Nikki Giovanni? I've been grappling with this for a while, so I think the best thing to do is let the words of Virginia Hamilton speak for me. Here's what she said about Nikki in the foreword of the book Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People.
She's a professional writer and a college professor who cares about uses of art and uses of her work. She's a renowned poet who, by utilizing startling imagery uniquely her own, attempts to open young people's minds--to connect herself with them and connect them to living.

She writes in a colloquial language that is seemingly artless. But that, of course, is its artistry. It is a workable style without guile or pretension; and yet the clean poetry of it is pointed and directed to the head and the heart, as in "a poem (for langston hughes)":
    diamonds are mined . . . oil is discovered
    gold is found . . . but thoughts are uncovered

    wool is sheared . . . silk is spun
    weaving is hard . . . but words are fun
Before we look at some more of Nikki's poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Nikki: I love story telling which, in my opinion, is what a good poem does. The story of emotional and intellectual discovery. I also love putting dissimilar things together which poetry allows us to do.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Nikki: I like the feelings, the ideas, the journey.

Who/what made you want to write?
Nikki: It's what I do . . . like brushing my teeth, washing my hair, smiling on a sunny day . . .

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Nikki: I learned to read when I was about four years old. I also learned to pay attention in kindergarten. That's pretty formal when you think about it.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Nikki: Curiosity. You always start with curiosity.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Nikki: I am proud of each of them and most especially I'm proud of the way each book helps map my career.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Nikki: I'm in a planting not plowing mode right now. Last year I wrote or edited: 1-Hip Hop Speaks to Children; 2-The Grasshopper's Song; 3-Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship; and 4-Bicycles: Love Poems. I am thinking, observing and wondering right now.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Nikki: We need an "S": Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Your favorite place to write?
Nikki: My home office.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Nikki: Better Reading; Better Thinking; Better Poems.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Nikki: I don't have one.

One of Nikki's recent projects was Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. Take a few moments to listen to Nikki talk about this book.

Here's an excerpt from her introduction to the book.
Poetry with a beat. That's hip hop in a flash. One part story, one part rhythm. And just like the church congregations from hundreds of years ago, listening to the "Call and Response," the people embrace the rhythm and remember the stories. Rhythm is how I learned to spell e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a from Jiminy Cricket. And when you're born with a long name like Ni-kki-Gi-o-van-ni you've got to rock the rhythm to get the name right.
Nikki edited this volume and has included many outstanding contributions from a wide range of poets and musicians. However, it's one of her own poems that I adore. This is the poem she began reciting at the end of the video.
The Girls in the Circle

The girls in the circle
Have painted their toes

They twisted their braids
With big yellow bows

They took Grandma's face powder
And powdered each nose

And sprayed Evening in Paris
All over their clothes

They are amazed
At how they look
They smell good too

Mother may not be amused

The girls in the circle
Now tease and giggle

They look so grown up
With that high heel wiggle

Their pearls are flapping
Their dresses flow

They are so sorry
They have no place to go

Mother refuses to drive them
Looking like that
Nikki was born in Knoxville, though she was raised in a suburb of Cincinnati. I have always loved her poem about her birthplace and the feelings of family, summer, and dreams it conveys. Today it seems like the perfect poem to end with.
Knoxville, Tennessee

I always like summer
you can eat fresh corn
from daddy's garden
and okra
and greens
and cabbage
and lots of
and buttermilk
and homemade ice cream
at the church picnic
and listen to
gospel music
at the church
and go to the mountains with
your grandmother
and go barefooted
and be warm
all the time
not only when you go to bed
and sleep
To learn more about Nikki and her work, visit these sites.
Let's give a rousing cheer and a hearty thanks to Nikki Giovanni for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Nikki Giovanni. All rights reserved.


  1. Had the distinct pleasure of hearing Nikki read her poetry at a library event. Love the Knoxville poem, and I've given Hip Hop Speaks to Children as gifts. Thanks for featuring her!

  2. Ah, The Girls in the Circle. Mother just has NO sense of style!

    I always love to hear from Nikki Giovanni; she is so wise and refined and ...quiet, with her personal life. But her poetry sings "notice me!" and dances.