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Nikki Giovanni's poetic life: Her journey from civil rights observer to inspirational sage

IT WAS 1968 and Nikki Giovanni, the revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement, had just published her first book of poetry, "Black Feeling Black Talk."

IT WAS 1968 and Nikki Giovanni, the revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement, had just published her first book of poetry, "Black Feeling Black Talk."

It also was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Giovanni traveled to Atlanta for the slain civil-rights leader's funeral. By year's end, she was ready to publish her second volume: "Black Judgement."

This was a revolutionary era for many African-Americans: a new black awareness, a new black love for the color of their own skin.

In a recent interview, Giovanni, who is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th Annual Celebration of Black Writing Festival, in Philadelphia, this week, said that she "didn't start consciously writing poetry" until she was in college.

"I said to myself, 'I wonder if I could express this energy of the civil-rights era,' " Giovanni said. "We were still essentially a voiceless people."

In 1960, Giovanni began her studies at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

"What we were seeing needed to be expressed," she said. "I think my generation was incredibly courageous. We had the Greensboro [N.C.] rebellion, where four young men sat down at a [segregated] lunch counter."

While Giovanni "went on a few marches," she added that "in no way do I want to make it seem like I played some big part in the protests. I was a writer, an observer in the background while other folks were doing the planning and organizing."

When Giovanni's poetry burst upon the scene, a good part of it was angry and agitated:

Surely I am not The gravitating force that keeps this house full of panthers

Why, LBJ has made it quite clear to me He doesn't give a Good goddamn what I think (else why would he continue to masterbate in public?)

Rhythm and Blues is not The downfall of a great civilization,

And I expect you to Realize That the Temptations have no connection with the CIA

- From "A Historical Footnote to

Consider Only When All Else Fails," 1968

Giovanni's poetry had an explosiveness that seemed too fierce to come from a soft-skinned young woman with a gentle girlish face; her hair, a dark-brown cotton-candy Afro, crowned her head like a halo.

But years before her poetry told the stories of a revolution, Giovanni had fomented her own personal revolution.

In the fall of 1960, just months after those four young black college students began their lunch-counter sit-in at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, Giovanni enrolled at Fisk. It was her grandfather's alma mater.

Among the historically black colleges, Fisk, in particular, was known as a school where young men and women were expected to behave like ladies and gentlemen.

But almost from the start, Giovanni ran headlong into trouble with the dean of women.

As Thanksgiving neared, the new college student decided to visit her grandparents in Knoxville, Tenn. Giovanni describes what happened in her book "Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet":

I rushed home to Grandmother's without the bitchy dean of women's permission and that dean put me on social probation. . . . And the funny thing is that I knew everything would go down just as it did. But I still wouldn't have changed it because Grandmother and Grandpapa would have had dinner alone and I would have had dinner alone and the next Thanksgiving we wouldn't even have him and Grandmother and I would both be alone by ourselves, and the only change would have been that Fisk considered me an ideal student, which means little on a life scale.

When she returned to Fisk, the dean chastised her for leaving campus without permission. By February, Giovanni was expelled "because my 'attitudes did not fit those of a Fisk woman.' "

Her grandfather died that April.

A few years later, after a new dean of women arrived, Giovanni re-enrolled at Fisk.

She took writers' workshops with the novelist John Oliver Killens and, in 1966, at a writers conference on campus, Giovanni met other black writers: Dudley Randall, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson and LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka.

The decades sped by.

Now it's 2010. And Giovanni continues to write poetry. She also teaches writing at Virginia Tech University, where she has been a professor since 1987.

Today, at 66, Giovanni still has clear, soft-looking almond-colored skin.

She is a grandmother now. The puffy Afro has been replaced by silvery-white close-cropped hair.

Giovanni published two new books of poetry in the last couple of years, adding to the dozens of books she's authored over her career. "Bicycles: Love Poems," came out last year, and in 2008 she released a collection of poetry for young people called "Hip Hop Speaks to Children."

While the hip-hop book includes rhymes from Queen Latifah, Common, Mos Def and Tupac Shakur, it also includes poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson.

"I wanted people to realize that hip-hop is much more than what we hear on the radio," Giovanni said. "I wanted to go back and pick up Dunbar, and say that he, too, is part of that spoken word. Spoken word with music goes back to opera."

Asked if it seems strange that a poet known for angry revolutionary poems of the 1960s is now writing love poems, Giovanni said, "I think I've been writing love poems all of my career.

"But you have to give yourself different challenges. What would I look like, a 66-year-old woman. . . . One does grow up and older. You can't keep doing the same thing. It's that simple. The people that do, we always feel so sorry for them."

Sure enough, if you return to her poems from the civil-rights era, you will discover love, lust and longing.

In her 2002 book, "Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea," Giovanni told the story of Daisy, a woman charged with helping black students enroll in an all-white school in Little Rock, Ark.

One night, while friends stood guard at the windows with shotguns, Daisy's husband told them, "Daisy and I need to be alone."

And he took her to a private area of the house, bathed her in a room lit with lavender-scented candles, kissed her gently, whispered to her, then made love to her; telling her: "I Want You To Remember This When The Mob Hollers Tomorrow. I Want You To Remember To Come Back Home To Me."

The love poems in Giovanni's latest book, "Bicycles," speak of love with the voice of a mature woman. But the book also includes two poems, the first and last, about tragedies.

The first is about a shooting at Virginia Tech in August 2006, when a young man shot and killed a security guard at a hospital and later killed a police officer. "We had to close school on the first day of school, because the young man they were looking for looked like he could have been a student."

The last poem, "We Are Virginia Tech (16 April 2007)," is about the tragic slaying that day of dozens of students and faculty members by a disturbed student. He had taken a class with Giovanni.

She said that she does not discuss the campus killings or the shooter in interviews.

"We had the tragedy of April 16, 2007, and for me ideas tend to spin. How can you make sense out of the senseless?"

One way, she said, was to "put a handle on those two spinning ideas" and the result was "Bicycles."

"That's what love is, that's what life is, love requires trust and balance. One without the other never would work.

"And what gets you through tragedies, is love."

We are Virginia Tech

We are sad today We will be sad for quite a while We are not moving on We are embracing our mourning

We are Virginia Tech

We are strong enough to stand tearlessly We are brave enough to bend to cry And sad enough to know we must laugh again.

Nikki Giovanni Lifetime Achievement Award, 6-8 p.m. Friday, Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond streets, $20 online/in advance, $25 at the door. (Includes a complimentary ticket to the Black Pearl Orchestra concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Baptist Temple.)

Hip-Hop Speaks: A Nikki Giovanni School Matinee, 10 a.m. Friday, Church of the Advocate, $5/student, reservations at, or 215-232-4485.