Versatile poet's only limitation is honesty

Giovanni: With topics ranging from Dr. King to credit cards, a woman of words brings hers to Carroll County.

February 18, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Very few things could keep Nikki Giovanni from accepting an invitation to speak or read her poetry during Black History Month.

One, perhaps, is the ubiquitous threat of severe winter weather in such far-flung cold spots as Columbia, Mo.

Or Missoula, Mont.

"You get stuck up there," she said in a phone interview from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., where she teaches English. "It's the devil to get there - you need a triple connection, and then they get snow and you're stuck. So I say it with no disrespect, but I wouldn't accept a Black History Month invitation there."

But absent the unshakable menace of blizzard conditions, Giovanni will do her best to get here, for a 7 o'clock appearance tonight at Western Maryland College's Baker Memorial Chapel.

"I like Black History Month," said Giovanni, 58. "I think it's a really good idea. I was going to say it's really an honor, but I'm not humble like that, but it is something of an honor to share my work with young people and the history of it is exciting."

Named Woman of the Year by Essence, Mademoiselle and Ladies Home Journal, Giovanni has taken her work across the globe, from readings in New York's Philharmonic Hall to a State Department-sponsored lecture tour to Africa.

Her poetry covers a vast landscape, from poignant verse about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to a whimsical tribute to love. She has a new poem about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that figures in the Smithsonian's traveling exhibit The Spirit of Martin. And in I Take Master Card (Charge Your Love To Me), Giovanni describes her pining this way: I've heard all the stories / 'bout how you don't deserve me / 'cause I'm so strong and beautiful and wonderful and you could never live up to what you know I should have but I just want to let you know: / I take Master Card.

"People have ranges," Giovanni said of her varied styles and topics. "There's more to everybody. I just happen to be a writer, so I'm lucky enough to be able to express my personality in a variety of ways. We don't have to center in and be just one thing to the public. It's honest, and it probably prevents me from being a best-selling author, because it's not predictable, so somebody could love one book and hate the next. But humans are multi-faceted, and we should get to be multi-faceted."

Psyche Williams-Forson, a visiting professor of English at Western Maryland, chose to feature Giovanni's work in her Advanced Composition class because of the poet's ability to "write within the cultural moment." Students are reading Giovanni's collection of love poems that is dedicated to Tupac Shakur, the rapper-actor who was murdered in 1996.

"I thought it would be very relevant for them to see how an African-American writer speaks to issues and subject matter that is particularly relevant to them," Williams-Forson said of her decision to include the poet in her course.

Mary Grace Almandrez, coordinator of diversity programs on campus, sought out Giovanni for the Black History Month event because of her prominence: "If we're going to value diversity as a community, we should celebrate leaders from all over the community." (African-Americans represent 13 percent of the college's 1,600 students.)

Giovanni's poem Ego Trippin' also inspired Almandrez. "Even though she was writing from the perspective of a black woman, I could relate as a non-black woman," she said. "This is a celebration where everyone can come together and learn from everyone."

Giovanni is in demand: She has just returned from appearances in Portland and Seattle, and she'll continue on to Massachusetts, Maine and Michigan after her stop in Maryland. A self-described "space freak," she has written a celebration - not a poem, mind you - of "the road we / have traveled" and "a prayer for the roads yet to come" in a work called Stardate.

And the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have inspired quite a bit of work, including a poem about the tragedy as it affects pets.

"I've looked at [the attacks] from so many ways," Giovanni said. "I poetically was very concerned about the dogs - not to the exclusion of the cats, but in my own mind's eye, when the planes hit, I thought immediately of the dogs and the owners of the dogs who were killed and someone having to go tell the dogs who don't understand why their people didn't come back."

As is always the case when she speaks to students, Giovanni will alternate between reading her work and explaining her technique.

"A lot of students who write frequently don't know how to incorporate history, and they think that everything they write they need to get going themselves," she said. "But ... I show them how knowing this and knowing that, I put this poem together."

In that sense, Black History Month is the perfect showcase.

"You don't have to be black to love black history," she said. "It's an American history, it's a courageous history and it's something that the entire country should be - and is - very proud of."

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