'It's better to take a chance and be wrong than to be safe and dull'By Sally Harris
Nikki Giovanni walks into a classroom of students with a look in her eye similar to that of a stand-up comedian approaching an audience — questioning, challenging, amused. Determined to get a response.
One day this summer, she began talking as she came through the door to her class on "The Poetic Tradition of Black America." Looking from person to person, gauging reactions, pulling out responses, she flew into a rapid monologue that covered everything from Kroger commercials, to Shakespeare, to Pat Boone — all to make observations. She recalled an anecdote about coffee drinking and advised her students that Kenyan coffee is the best, with Jamaican the next best. "I tell you that in case you don't learn anything about poetry."
Early in the course, Giovanni told the students to relax, to enjoy the class, to forget about grades and, most of all, to be creative. "Relax so it'll be fun." She also urged them to think, to be innovative in their writing. "If it doesn't work, you'll be rewarded for taking the risk. Don't sound like everybody else." It was easy to tell which students had been in her class before. They were the ones who started laughing at the first joke. The others took a few minutes to come to grips with the dynamic, sometimes startling, but always challenging, teacher.
The ice-breaker was the student with a class-admit form for her to sign. "The syllabus says we're going to have to sing," he told her. "I love to sing." He obtained her signature, and the class relaxed into a state of laughter. Nikki Giovanni, world-renowned poet and professor of English at Virginia Tech, is a small woman with a big, whirlwind approach to life. She never does anything halfway, whether it's teaching or writing or volunteering or smoking or inspiring others. As a writer, she became the spokeswoman for a generation of blacks.
As a woman, she joined the Rotarians because "I thought they should have to see women." As a volunteer, she gives talks for middle schools, civic groups, and churches. Last year, Virginia Tech President James McComas said that, "within a very short period of time, she has become one of the university's best goodwill ambassadors." As a smoker, she's militant for smokers' rights.
As a teacher, she demands participation and creates new classes, somehow squeezing them into her heavy schedule. Giovanni readily admits that her years in New York, not her Tennessee upbringing, gave her that "let's-get-it-done" attitude. She urges writers and students alike to be willing to jump in and do, to make mistakes in order to achieve creativity. "It's better to take a chance and be wrong than to be safe and dull," she said.
This is not to imply that Nikki Giovanni rushes through life. The quiet, sedate Giovanni, who helps the citizens of Warm Hearth Village Retirement Community put their concerns in writing, is an alter-ego of the pacing, gesturing, challenging Giovanni who appears to a class of college students. But whether her manner of the moment is challenging or reassuring, Giovanni's purpose is the same: to help others express themselves creatively.
At Warm Hearth, for example, "she gives us a new outlook on life," resident Zeke Moore said. He showed the small group of retirees an article about Giovanni that he had found in a Florida newspaper. The article brought forth a realization that the woman who gave her time once a week to listen to and make suggestions about their writing was truly a famous writer herself. Giovanni listens as Warm Hearth residents read about topics as diverse as a trip to the U.S.S.R. to the anniversary of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria. Giovanni is warm and supportive, her criticism constructive and gentle. After a lunch with other professors, Giovanni returns to her office — an office with walls that chronicle her life and interests.
There's the Silver Apple Award from the National Educational Film and Video Festival. A poster of Prince. Literary maps of Southern Appalachia and Ohio. A framed picture of Giovanni taken during the Chalk Talks seminar last year (her talk kept the audience laughing). A collage of "The 60s" from a course she taught. A framed copy of the first newspaper article written about her in this area. A picture of Ella Fitzgerald. A tee-shirt she received when she spoke to a group. Speaking to groups, reaching out beyond the boundaries of campus, is one thing Giovanni believes in doing. The woman whose poetry was the voice of a generation uses her work to reach people. She believes that a university has an obligation to extend its expertise to the community and that helping others "makes you happy." "I respond yes to any speaking request within 100 miles of Virginia Tech if I have space on my calendar," she said.
She frequently goes to middle and elementary schools to discuss poetry and to write with youngsters who have read her work in their textbooks. "Students so seldom see writers who are in anthologies," she said. "They're usually dead. When you make the Norton anthology, they expect you to be dead." Giovanni sometimes combines her college teaching with her outreach. At Margaret Beeks Elementary School, for example, she worked with teacher Linda Smith on a "Writing for a Young Audience" course that Giovanni was teaching at Virginia Tech. The college students' final assignment was to write a story and read it to the second graders at Beeks. Smith had prepped her students in the art of critical analysis, Giovanni said. "I told my presenters their final grade rested with Beeks."
Giovanni also reaches out to churches. She visited Bethel Church in Roanoke to speak on Women's Day. "The odds of a small church in Roanoke coming to Virginia Tech to hear a poetry reading are small," she said, "but after that, they will come. You have to give something back (to the world)." Her giving back takes many forms, from participating in "Read-Out America" for National Reading Month to conducting a one-day workshop for Black Veterans of Foreign Wars to serving on the board of the literary publication Artemis. But, her own writing aside, it is in the classroom at Virginia Tech that Nikki Giovanni "gives back" the most. She teaches writing as well as poetry and literature courses, and she is a devoted, passionate teacher. Giovanni saw a need, for example, for a course for athletes, a course in which they would learn to express their feelings.
"I know a lot about sports and winning and losing," she said. "Writers do the same thing. Our rejections are in private, but they're still painful. On the court, when you lose, everybody has an opinion. We need to get young people to write because there's a lot bottled up. Most of the kids have a perspective. They've been stars since high school, and that has a whole lot to do with how they look at the world." In that class, titled "Personal Narrative," the reading assignments range from Virginia Woolf to biologist Lewis Thomas — a variety to open up new possibilities of thinking for the athletes. Giovanni encourages the students to look at themselves as characters in life. "I'm very proud of that class," Giovanni said.
Giovanni's desire to help sometimes gets her more than she bargains for. "I made a suggestion and ended up the chair," she said of the 1991 Black History Month planning committee, which began planning next year's events as this year's were taking place in order to get the desired speakers. Giovanni called on Alex Bostic, the artist who designs posters for Anhauser Busch, to do a poster for Black History Month, "something people will hang on their walls," she said.
Giovanni has also called upon friends around the country to assist her in bringing to Virginia Tech such speakers as authors Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. Giovanni knows Morrison and Naylor through her own literary achievements, which emerged in the 1960s during a black-arts movement, during the civil-rights movement. "I was part of the group," she said, "one of the few young voices. I was a writer and a woman. Most literature and art things were still male. My job was to describe the world as I saw it."
She published 17 books in 20 years as a full-time artist. The books of poetry include Spin a Soft Black Song, which recounts the feelings of black children about themselves and their environments, and Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. For some time, Giovanni lived in New York, considering it the best place for a writer to be; but she traveled widely because she believes writers have to "get out into America: into Indianapolis and Cincinnati and Dayton and Lincoln and Omaha and Salt Lake City." Gradually, she came to be considered the "poet laureate of black women and sensitive souls everywhere" as well as a spokesperson for an era.
"I became a speaker of the age inadvertently," she said. "I have always thought my job is to call what I see, to describe my world. When you are a speaker from a people who don't have a voice, then you are a spokesperson." A number of her contemporaries, she said, thought they were supposed to change the world. "I don't think so," she said. "We're to put the truths as we see them and have enough respect for the truths as other people see them to see what good comes out of it." Being a spokesperson for an entire group of people was a responsibility, Giovanni said, "but one I think I'm capable of. I think I shouldered it well."
In 1987, Giovanni came to Virginia Tech under the Commonwealth Visiting Professor program. "My son had just graduated from high school," she said, "and I thought it would be a good time for me to get away, for a new adventure. My son brought me to college." She decided to stay because "it's impossible not to love this place." She had started her work at Warm Hearth and felt good about that. She had begun to help with the Women Artist Series. And she felt her particular skills could be of help in the areas to which Virginia Tech was committed — to the humanities, for example. So she accepted a permanent professorship in the Department of English. She continues her writing. Since coming to Virginia Tech, she has published a book of humorous essays titled Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles, and is working on another book of essays and one of poetry.
"One thing teaching does," she said, "is slow down publication." She also continues to reach out to others, to try to inspire and teach and help them, whether it's community citizens, youngsters, or students. "That's the responsibility of an English teacher and a writer," she said. "After all, we're the dream makers."
Sally Harris is an information officer for the College of Arts and Sciences.
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 12, Number 2 Fall 1990