|Angelou and Giovanni with Joanna Gabbin, organizers for a tribute to Toni Morrison|
Within literary circles, poets typically gain prominence by winning prestigious awards. Interestingly, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou have not won the most high profile poetry awards, but no two living African American poets are more popular than those two. None even come close.
Interestingly, one way to study the popularity of poets is to consider how known and beloved they are by people who aren't really into poetry. Some poets could become frustrated or distressed by popular poets, since their popularity does not rest on writing abilities alone. Various other factors, including performance skills, public personas, and non-literary endorsements, matter a great deal.
During the black arts era, and especially during the 1970s, Giovanni began reading and speaking on college campuses and at cultural events all across the country. In some years, she was booked for more than 250 speaking engagements. Her active and extraordinary appearances made her a popular cultural figure for countless audiences, especially African American audiences, and she remains one of the most well known poets in America in general and second only to Maya Angelou among African American poets.
Angelou had a career in performance on the stage and screen before becoming more active as a literary artist with the publication of her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her fame as a poet came later. Her poems "Still I Rise" and "Phenomenon Woman," both published during the 1970s, steadily became staples in black cultural discourses over the decades.
Angelou kept up a busy speaking schedule, and her popularity soared to new heights with one special speaking engagement in 1993--President Bill Clinton's inauguration. Her popularity further increased based on the Oprah Effect: Angelou was frequently referenced and celebrated by Winfrey on her television show.
In the case of Angelou, endorsements (by Clinton and Winfrey) beyond the immediate realms of poetry were vital for her increased popularity. For Giovanni, early and widespread speaking engagements decades ago helped pave the way for her popularity today.
Then too in the case of both poets, they have written memorable works that can not only be declaimed, but performed. I can think of a number of young people, especially when I was growing up, who knew and could recite and perform some of Angelou's and Giovanni's poems. I used to know "Nikki Rosa" by heart, and I know others also had memorized and could recite their work. We often lose cite of the popular life of these poets' (and others') works, especially in the academy. But then losing cite of the popular life of all art isn't uncommon in the academy. Most people don't read like academics do (or don't), including our students.
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