|Source: Furious Flower|
By Laura Vrana
Despite my research and studies having focused on black female poets for over a decade, I am woefully under-educated about Nikki Giovanni. So when I heard about this summer’s Furious Flower Living Legacy seminar on her at the College Language Association convention, I immediately applied to participate.
I spent the past rejuvenating week at James Madison University, surrounded by poets, teachers/scholars, old and new friends—and the legend herself. Events included:
• an interview with Giovanni to appear at The Fight and the Fiddle;We were especially fortunate that Giovanni was present. Her knowledge about literature, history, and black culture is vast, and she blessed us with nuggets on subjects from her own work/life to Aretha Franklin.
• talks/roundtables featuring Margo Natalie Crawford, Emily Lordi, Virginia Fowler, and Cultural Front runner Howard Rambsy II;
• discussions of Giovanni poems, led by poet/Furious Flower assistant director Lauren K. Alleyne;
• conversations among Giovanni, Joanne V. Gabbin, Jessea Gabbin, Carmen Gillespie, Trudier Harris, Daryl Cumber Dance, Val Gray Ward, and other members of the exceptional Wintergreen Women’s Collective;
• and countless informal gatherings among the 50+ thinkers from around the world who gathered to honor Giovanni.
This week prompted me (and others) to reflect on how my training could have left such gaps about Giovanni. What produces the tragic dearth of scholarship on her poetry and the tendency to teach her rarely—and then in a static, limited way? Obvious factors include:
• the duration of her career, which yields uneasiness about era within which to position her;
• her popularity, which contradicts academic snobbishness that elevates as better that which appeals to “cultivated tastes” rather than seeking “to cultivate taste” (to quote Giovanni’s disagreement in an interview with Margaret Walker, collected here);
• her writings for children, an audience mostly disregarded by scholars;
• her breaks with Black Arts Movement leaders;
• and her unwillingness to adhere to any aesthetic or topical approach, instead crafting one of the most capacious, diverse oeuvres out there.
To explore less immediately evident factors, I am reflecting on the relationship between her career and broader cultural forces that have shaped African American poetry over the past five decades. Giovanni took up her post at Virginia Tech in 1987, not coincidentally (I would argue) the year that Rita Dove became the first black female poet to win the Pulitzer Prize since Gwendolyn Brooks (1950). I juxtapose these events to highlight how two intertwined forces have come to play large roles in shaping black poets’ careers over the past three decades: prizes/awards of predominantly white literary organizations, and historically white colleges/universities. Both are closely related to publication venues and presses available to/interested in black poets. In my book manuscript in progress, I am evaluating how these forces have evolved post-Black Arts Movement, producing outcomes both positive and negative for black poetics.
|Giovanni discusses her poetry with seminar participants. Photo by H. Rambsy II|
I would assert (tentatively!) that Giovanni’s longevity situates her in close proximity to but at an odd distance from those forces. She came of aesthetic age before the dramatic post-BAM increase in black poets being formally trained by PWIs and was thus less affected by the institutionalization and pseudo-integration of creative writing programs that has impacted poets from Dove to Trethewey to Tracy K. Smith. This temporality, her aesthetics and politics, and broader cultural forces, have made her unpopular with those mainstream awards/prizes that have helped launch younger black poets into a cultural visibility among white readers that was in some ways previously unthinkable (well-documented in this blog’s meticulous lists of awards granted black poets).
All this remains the case career-wise even though her poetry continues to be enormously important to many, especially black women, who attend her readings in huge numbers. Rambsy pointed out how Giovanni has maintained a rigorous schedule of public appearances, with reasonable speaking fees. These kinds of structural choices render her out of step with larger evolutions in (African) American poetic culture’s politics of prestige, reinforcing other cultural reasons for her unreasonable lesser visibility. Participants in the institute all feel inspired to rectify these kinds of problems and hope others will feel the same.
I would be remiss to end this synopsis without mentioning the Furious Flower Poetry Center as sponsoring organization and its founder/head Dr. Joanne Gabbin. This center and its indefatigable administrators have played and are playing key roles in the unfolding of black literary history. Be sure to check out its 25th anniversary celebration events featuring a who’s who of important black poets this September in Washington, D.C. and to support this work!
• A notebook on the Furious Flower Nikki Giovanni seminar
• A Notebook on Nikki Giovanni