Giovanni links freedom, discipline


"Press delete and start all over again," Nikki Giovanni says about revising poems. "Most people are opposed to delete. They think they're going to lose something. But if you keep tinkering with a word here and a word there, what you're going to lose is the flow of the poem. Sometimes, you just have to slide blind."

As one of America's most highly acclaimed living poets, Ms. Giovanni should know. In addition to editing four anthologies of poems and essays, she is the author of six books of poetry, five collections of essays and seven books for children.

She has read her poetry nearly everywhere, from the New York Community Choir of Harlem to New York's Philharmonic Hall. She has traveled to Africa on lecture tours sponsored by the State Department and has been a featured poet at the Utrecht Literary Festival in Holland. Named Woman of the Year by eight magazines, Ms. Giovanni has received a host of other awards, among them 12 honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Maryland.

It's appropriate that the African-American writer, orator and social reformer will discuss the legacy of Frederick Douglass as the keynote speaker at the Middle-Atlantic Writers Association conference tomorrow at 8:30 p.m. (She'll also read from her forthcoming book, "The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni.")

Sponsored by Morgan State University and Bowie State University and held at the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel from Oct. 18 to Oct. 21, this year's conference, whose theme is "The Lion Writes. History: Slave Narratives," observes the centennial of Frederick Douglass' death.

In a telephone interview from her home in Blacksburg, Va., Ms. Giovanni comments on Douglass' Herculean efforts to learn to read and to write when he was a slave, as seen in his classic autobiography. "Discipline is one of the most important ways to achieve freedom," she says.

For Ms. Giovanni, a professor of creative writing at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University, discipline is a part of creativity.

"Every little bit of truth brings forth every other little bit of truth," she says. "The possibilities of life are so great and beautiful that to see less wears the spirit down."

She puts it this way in "Adulthood," one of her poems: "but then i went to college where i learned / i could be real and not just real through withdrawal / into emotional crosshairs or colored bourgeois / intellectual pretensions / but from involvement with things approaching reality / i could possibly have a life."

Ms. Giovanni, 52, has been involved since the early '60s. She edited the literary magazine at Fisk University, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1966. She was active in the civil rights movement and in the black arts movement, establishing Cincinnati's first Black Arts Festival. Recently, she served as final judge for the 1995 Baltimore County Poetry Contest.

Ms. Giovanni's poems focus on everything from racial protest to maternal love to women's issues to African-American self-identity. Even the titles of her books suggest those concerns. Her first book, "Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgement," was partly inspired by civil rights issues.

Later books, such as "Re-Creation," "The Women and the Men," "My House" and "Those Who Ride the Night Winds," contain more nostalgic poems. Some are about her son, some about her mother and some about her outspoken grandmother, whose stand on civil rights influenced her.

Her style has evolved from simple free verse to energetic works that resemble prose poems and often use ellipses. Many celebrate the act of writing.

"Stardate," a recent poem that she will read at the conference, suggests the scope of Ms. Giovanni's work: "This is not a poem No It is a celebration of the road we / have traveled It is a prayer for the roads yet to come / This is an explosion The original Big Bang that makes the / world a hopeful loving place."

Poetry reading

Who: Nikki Giovanni

Where: Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday

Admission: $10

Call: (410) 319-3165 or (410) 319-3374

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