The author of more than 30 books and the winner of an unprecedented eight NAACP Image Awards for literature, Nikki Giovanni could revel in the glow of a firestorm of accomplishments. Instead, the University Distinguished Professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences continues to envision new possibilities. Virginia Tech’s internationally renowned poet said many of her ideas “have not yet come to fruition.”
The woman whose poetry books have been recognized on best-seller lists now seeks to create an intercollegiate poetry slam that she calls The Commonwealth Challenge. “I think that could mean so much to our art youngsters by enriching their stage experience and also by giving them the information that you only can learn by travel,” Giovanni said.
To get to the competitive readings, students would ride an “art bus,” the second part of Giovanni’s open-eyed dream. “No one would think we could have a number one athletic program if our young men and women didn’t travel,” she said. “The same is true for art.”
A spark ignited this idea in 2010, when aspiring poets and established writers from Virginia Tech rolled up Interstate 81 to James Madison University. There they participated in 73 Poems for 73 Years, an event where eminent poets from across the nation gathered to read poems to commemorate each year of poet Lucille Clifton’s life.
Because most artists would prefer celebration while their feet still walk the earth, Giovanni began to plan Sheer Good Fortune, a tribute to Nobel Prize for Literature winner Toni Morrison. That vision came to life in October 2012 in Burruss Auditorium with Maya Angelou and dozens of other poets and performance artists in attendance.
Giovanni has a history of bringing great minds to campus. In the past, Morrison, Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove, the iconic poet and activist Sonia Sanchez, and author Alex Haley have all visited at her behest.
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tenn., and grew up in Lincoln Heights, an all-black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated with honors from Fisk University and published her first book of poetry in 1968. Virginia Fowler, professor of English, recruited Giovanni to Virginia Tech in 1987, bringing momentum to a drive that helped women and minorities become a more prominent thread in the Virginia Tech fabric.
In the classroom, Giovanni's talents shine. “If you write, you teach,” she said. She enjoys “being around the young people and learning about their lives and challenges.”
She also has a penchant for the special production. When she taught the Harlem Renaissance, for example, she orchestrated a fish fry on the Drillfield. “I wanted my students to understand how folk survived during the Great Depression,” she said. “People all over the country would fish all week and fry them up on Saturday nights. So we held a fish fry with 1930s prices.”
One of her most treasured memories happened every Wednesday for 12 years at Warm Hearth Village, a Blacksburg, Va., retirement community, where she hosted writers’ workshops for residents. “We published three books,” said Giovanni, “one of which ["Appalachian Elders"] was a regional best seller.”
In 2006, President Charles W. Steger challenged Giovanni to create a university poetry award. She founded the Steger Prize, which invites students to submit their poems about the future with the winner receiving $1,000. This is recognized as the largest undergraduate prize for poetry in the country.
In 2007, in the wake of tragedy, Giovanni uttered three words that are likely to remain a hallmark of Virginia Tech history. At the close of a gripping convocation, Giovanni, with fist pounding the air for emphasis, proclaimed: “We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail.”
Today, Giovanni reinforces that sentiment. “We will prevail. Of course we will,” she said. “Someone attacked us at the core of our hearts. Someone tried to damage us. To make us smaller. We overcame that. We are Virginia Tech. We are good people. We held our heads high. We were, we are, courageous. We will continue to invent the future. We are strong. We are brave. Definitely … we will prevail.”
Prevail she has. Testifying to Giovanni’s versatility and ongoing popularity is the fact that two of her books, “Hip Hop Speaks to Children” and “Bicycles-Love Poems,” were both featured in the New York Times best seller’s list at the same time in 2009. Her children’s book “Rosa,” about Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks, won Caldecott Honors and peaked at No. 3 on the list in 2008. “Poets don’t make much money,” she said, “but it is a testament to our vision to be a best seller.”
Giovanni and Fowler established an endowment for the university and named it “The Answer is Yes.” That generous gift is indicative of Giovanni’s love for Virginia Tech and demonstrates her support of the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I may serve).
Her ability to cross seamlessly between servant and visionary makes her a most fitting ambassador.
On Oct. 16, 2012, Nikki Giovanni coordinated a grand celebration on the Virginia Tech campus in honor of acclaimed author Toni Morrison.
Nikki Giovanni is featured in one of the My Virginia Tech videos created for the university's visitor center.