Nikki Giovanni: Poetry, social commentary and a whole bunch of fun

If I were to choose one word to describe Nikki Giovanni, it would be this: Convicted.

I mean that in every good way. I mean that in the sense of a woman who stands proudly, and publicly, for her beliefs.

Of course, so many other words come to mind, too. Words like: energetic, enthusiastic, warm, caring, engaging and downright fun. Then there's honest. And fearless.

Ms. Giovanni demonstrated all these and more last Thursday evening before a packed auditorium at Thomas Nelson Community College at an "author talk" sponsored by the Virginia Peninsula Literary Consortium. Using stories about her life--growing up in Tennessee, teaching at Virginia Tech, and more--Ms. Giovanni shared her opinions on everything from last week's presidential debate and her feelings toward the candidates, to her choice of must-see TV while eating dinner. (It's Deal or No Deal, if you're interested.)  If any in attendance strongly disagreed with her stances on social or political issues, you wouldn't have known it. Probably they were simply too charmed to care.

Size-wise, she appears petite in stature, but with a giant personality, one minute making us laugh, the next making us blink back tears. Some of those laughs and tears came during readings of her poetry, giving me (a novice at poetry) a whole new appreciation for that genre of writing. As she blazed through the stories and I listened to the change in her pitch and cadance, I finally got it (poetry, that is). I finally understood that poetry is a story, set to a rhythm, like a spoken song. And with that epiphany, I crossed my fingers that I'd absorb some of her writing genius by sheer osmosis.


I haven't really processed everything I heard that night to the point where I can say what I learned (about writing), but Ms. Giovanni was gracious enough to share some thoughts with the Daily Press prior to the event. I'd like to share them now with you:

I had noted that I'm interested in advice for writers, specifically: how to interest young people in poetry, how to launch a career in poetry, what type of schedule she keeps, and finally, and I asked for any advice she'd like to offer for new poetry writers.


Here's what she said:

"I think all young folk like poetry.  What happens to turn them off is we ask questions like what did the poet mean?  The poet meant what the reader thinks.  If we let the young readers enter the poems at their own time then they will continue to love poetry."

(She's so right about that! I hated those questions as a student. Why did I have to dissect something that just seemed fun?)

"Publication is the last step.  The firs step is your dream: what  are you dreaming.  Find a way to put that on paper;  the rest will happen as it is ready to happen."


(Good advice for anyone!)

"I don't write everyday and I don't believe anyone should.  I do read everyday; I do think of why and why not.  But I do not write everyday.  I think that will make you stale."

(This surprised me. I'd always heard to write every day, even if it's forced. Maybe poetry is different than straight fictiion? I don't know, but she's given me something to think about.)

"My best advice for writers is to read.  No matter what we think we know these problems have been faced before.  Read and you will be able to put both problems and solutions in balance."

(I love this one! Reading is one of my all-time favorite things to do, and when I can't read, I feel deprived.)

Many thanks to Ms. Giovanni for her graciousness in answering my questions, and to the Virginia Peninsula Literary Consortium for presenting the evening free of charge to the public. If you'd like to read more about the evening, Karen Gill, Community Relations and Program Coordinator for the Newport News Library System, shared her thoughts here. If you'd like to see some photos of the evening, check  the Consortium's Facebook page.

To learn more about the Consortium. its programs or how to support its goals, please call (757) 926-1350, or check out their website at