Archive for Saturday, March 12, 2005

Revolutionary Poet’

Nikki Giovanni bridges the generation gap

March 12, 2005


Nikki Giovanni wasn't going to wait.

A shade before 8 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the stage manager at the University of California, Los Angeles' Royce Hall pulled her aside to ask if they might start just a hair late. "The rain ... L.A. ... people are driving." What else was there to say?

The poet's brow furrowed. Her briefcase in hand, she was ready to get things going. To get down to business. "Why should the people who got here on time be punished?" she shook her head. "I never did like that Prodigal Son story. Never did." And so she sauntered out into the wings.

If you're not on time, you'll miss it.

That's what Giovanni has been preaching for decades.

There are poets who clarify, poets who incite, poets who instruct and poets whose lines -- often unbeknown to our conscious selves -- become life mantras.

For more than 30 years, Giovanni has been filling one or all those roles for a generation and a generation's children and now their grandchildren:

"I'm so hip even my errors are correct."

"Black love is black wealth."

"Let's build what we become when we dream."

Giovanni, both a player in and a product of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early '70s, is known not just for her forthright verse but for her fortitude as an activist as well.

That constant push against old hierarchies, against white America's power structure, is what earned her the label of "revolutionary poet." Her seminal books, "Black Feeling Black Talk," "Black Judgment" and "Re: Creation," placed her in the center of the conversation on black identity, part of a group of new, vibrant black thinkers who were tearing out the old foundation, and building anew.

In the decades since, Giovanni has embraced many forms and mediums to continue to spread the word of perseverance -- poetry, essays, interviews, dialogues, spoken-word recordings (one of which, "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection," was nominated for a Grammy last year). Her themes have traversed an open road from the tools of revolution -- guns and words -- to nature and space travel.

At 61, her influence hasn't dimmed; the portrait has only deepened. "People of a certain age will remember her as a fiery radical, but the poems that are more gentle are the ones that (often) are anthologized," says Harryette Mullen, associate professor of English at UCLA and author of "Sleeping With the Dictionary." "She's not writing in that same angry voice. I don't think people (of this generation) really know that voice, that lighting the torch. Now, she's writing about different issues -- aging, menopause, children, relationships. The times are not quite as political in the same way."

Like old-school poets Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, Giovanni sees the imperative to expand the circle, to be a sturdy link to the new generation. While Sanchez has influenced artists including Mos Def and Jill Scott, and Baraka has recorded with politically conscious hip-hop acts such as the Roots, Giovanni has dedicated her collection, "Love Poems," to the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

"Students know and love Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou," Mullen says. "In my African-American lit courses they always grab up those Nikki Giovanni poems quick. It is something that they know and they understand."

That recent night at UCLA bore that out as an audience of all ages and ethnicities shook off the rain and settled in.

She takes quite seriously her role as generational link. Of late, Giovanni, a cancer survivor, has been traveling the country, speaking, reminding, drawing political parallels and connections. Her appearances aren't so much readings as incisive commentaries that have the elastic feel of a free-form opening monologue. In fact, in her hour on stage as part of UCLA Live's spoken-word series, she read only four poems.

It's a way of using space on the stage in the way a poet might play with verse on the page.

Dressed in a flashy red suit, collar trimmed in white, red shoes, sky blue shirt and be-bopper wide tie, she was a vivid exclamation mark. She put on her glasses and set down to it.

Her concerns were meditations on where we've been, how we got here and where we're going. Installed behind a lectern, she riffed on Social Security and her Grammy nomination of last year. "I was against Hillary Clinton. I knew I was going to lose. But I lost to Al Franken!"

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