The legendary wordsmith responds to tragedy and bad news with a flurry of sensual, exultant poems.
You expect a writer to deal with tragedy with a rush of words. There are many searing, searching and somber books born of grief.
But after being buffeted by private and public losses in recent years, literary legend Nikki Giovanni mourned in an unusual way. She wrote deeply sensual love poems.
Those lyrics form her latest collection, "Bicycles," which she will speak about tonight in St. Paul as part of the Talking Volumes series.
"I'm very proud of this book -- it's the one that makes me smile," Giovanni said last week. "There has been a lot of loss. I am a writer. I write my way through it."
The love poems in "Bicycles" are framed by works about the loss of family members and of former students and colleagues. The tragedies, Giovanni explained, form circles -- wheels -- on which she can build a vehicle that will carry her flying through the rest of her life.
The first wheel represents the deaths of her mother and sister. The second comes from a mass shooting that shocked a nation. Giovanni is a university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, where, on April 16, 2007, a former student, Seung-Hui Cho, massacred 32 students and teachers. She had taught Cho, who had been reluctant to express himself in class.
Giovanni ends "Bicycles" with a rousing poem that she shared, and that was broadcast around the nation, at the memorial for the shooting victims. "We are strong enough to stand tearlessly /We are brave enough to bend to cry /And sad enough to know we must laugh again ... We are Virginia Tech."
'Black Princess of Poetry'
"I'm not trying to do Psych 101, just trying to share the hole in my heart," she said.
In some ways, that public voice has suited Giovanni since her early days of writing during the sit-ins and protests of the 1960s. Then, she was dubbed "the Black Princess of Poetry." Fearless and fiery, she spoke truth to power and wrote with urgency about injustice and healing.
Her work has ascended to the canon, including the culturally planted "Ego Tripping" and "Choices," a poem that fits into the American mold of willing one's dreams into reality:
"When i can't express /what i really feel /i practice feeling /what i can express /and none of it is equal /I know /but that's why mankind /alone among the animals /learns to cry."
There have been awards aplenty, including more than a dozen honorary degrees. Controversy and commotion have also attended her work. When she first heard, last summer, that one of her 28 books was on a list of works that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin found objectionable, she was more surprised than taken aback.
"I mean, I couldn't figure out why they would want to ban 'My House,'" Giovanni said last week by telephone from Orlando. "That's one of the nicest books I've written."
Interviewed as she boarded a plane for Dillard University, where she was going for the dedication of a literary collection named in her honor, Giovanni stays on the road. She no longer does 200 readings a year, but she loves to travel.
"Writing is lonely -- you have to go to meet your public," she said. "Some writers complain about touring. What's there to not like? You get unconditional love. And what a privilege to live the life of a mind -- to do good work and try to make sense of a senseless world."
Still, does she think of slowing down now that she is retirement age -- 65?
"I've had the privilege of knowing many of the jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie," she said. "I'm an old jazz or blues singer at heart. If I'd been born 50 years earlier, I would have been Bessie Smith or something."
Giovanni has lung cancer, a fight she is waging in life and poetry. That may explain some of deep sensuality present in "Bicycles."
"It's important to share that I don't want to die," Giovanni said. "I wanted to share my fear, but my job now is to be brave." She paused. "All I've ever had is a brain and a body and a voice. ... I am happy to use them to make a contribution. It's fun to be alive."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390