If the word "unspeakable" has any meaning, surely it applies to the acts of a South Korean loner whose shooting rampage at Virginia Tech left 33 dead this week. Perhaps only a poet could find the language to inspire at such a moment.
Lucky for a shattered Hokie community, they have one for the ages on hand.
At a convocation in honor of the dead the day after the killings, the words of Nikki Giovanni, long known as "the princess of black poetry," drew a somber crowd of 10,000 to its feet, sparking an ovation that rolled through the school's basketball arena and became, of all things, a chant of collective hope: "Let's go, Hokies!"
"I'm sure you heard it," said Nancy Metz, a colleague in the Virginia Tech English department, where Giovanni, 63, is a University Distinguished Professor in literature and black studies. "The poem was amazing. It was just the right mix of courage, defiance and hope. But the delivery was something else. She connected with an audience in their suffering."
The circumstances, of course, were unique. Monday's massacre represented the worst shooting rampage in the United States' modern history - hard enough for anyone to digest, let alone those attending or working at the school. But Giovanni's effect was nothing new. As a poet, she has been mining tragedy for mirth and vice versa for decades and is one of the world's most sought-after readers of poetry.
"She's a person who can put an unusual focus on just about any event," said Rebekah Presson Mosby, an arts reporter for National Public Radio who included Giovanni in Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006), a CD she produced last year. "I remember hearing her speak years ago, raving, in her inimitable way, against the KKK. The way she put it was comical: 'The Klan needs to get a new outfit.' She can make something true and funny at the same time, even when things are hurtful."
The evening of the shootings, the office of Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger called Giovanni, widely seen as an ambassador for the school, with an invitation to make closing remarks after those of President Bush, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and several religious figures, among others, at a convocation Tuesday.
Paradox played through "We Are Virginia Tech," the poem she wrote on her home computer the night before and delivered with arms reaching toward her audience.
"We are brave enough to bend and cry," she said in a bold, clear voice, "and sad enough to know we must laugh again."
Harsh as it might have sounded coming from someone else, she said unfairness is not unique to Tech this week, but a part of life to be faced and overcome. She cited "the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory" and "the Mexican child looking for fresh water."
Giovanni was en route to a speaking engagement late yesterday and unavailable for comment, but according to Virginia Fowler, a longtime colleague and friend who recruited the poet to the Virginia Tech faculty two decades ago, Giovanni had originally written two caustic lines in reference to the Iraq war but trimmed them out of respect for President Bush.
"Nikki's as radical as they come and no fan of the Bush administration," Fowler said. "Normally you'd probably never see her on a podium with him. But she said the occasion was about helping the community through this hardship, not her personal political beliefs."
Fowler said the president and first lady commended Giovanni afterward for her speech. But her connection to the tragedy went beyond her prominent role in helping to heal the university community.
The acclaimed author of nearly 30 books, most of them collections of poetry, also had a personal connection with Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator of the massacre. It's one she does not remember fondly, Fowler said.
An English major with an emphasis in creative writing, Cho managed to make the roster of one of Giovanni's perennially oversubscribed classes. He often could be found glowering or scowling at other students, "trying to exude an intimidating presence," Fowler said.
One student told Giovanni that Cho was in the habit of bringing a camera to class and photographing others without their permission, Fowler said. His writings often contained "disturbing images," including references to chainsaws.
"He can't bully me, but he's trying to bully the other students, and I won't tolerate that," Giovanni told Fowler at the time.
"There was something mean about this boy," the poet told CNN yesterday. "It was the meanness - I've taught troubled youngsters and crazy people - it was the meanness that bothered me. It was a really mean streak."
In a letter, she told the department head she'd quit if Cho weren't removed from her class. He was.
Perhaps the stand wasn't surprising, coming as it did from a woman so closely identified with the American civil rights movement. In 1967, Giovanni organized the first Black Arts Festival in Cincinnati, where she grew up, and met H. Rap Brown and other movement leaders in Detroit that same year. Her first volume of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk (1968), drew widespread attention, launching her lengthy career as a major literary voice. She won the first Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award in 2002.
In 1971, her album Truth Is On Its Way mixed traditional gospel music with her own spoken poetry. It was a Grammy Award nominee.
If her work has been inspiring, it's partly due to Giovanni's passion for history, especially African-American history, and bringing it to life, said Fowler, adding that her friend is also "very much a futurist.
"She always says if they'd only ask her, she'd love to go off in a space ship," Fowler said, laughing. "Her concern is always about discovering new things, and helping to bring others to discovery."
Though she's often traveling to give lectures, Giovanni is well known in the university's surrounding community for her outreach work. For 14 years, she led a creative-writing group at a local retirement home, inspiring two published books from the residents. She wrote a play about the Brown v. Board of Education legal case specifically for a fifth-grade class at an elementary school in Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech.
"She has won so many awards, she's so famous, you'd never think she'd take the time to do the things she does," said Metz, who doubles as assistant chair of the English department.
On Tuesday, the campus was reeling so badly it desperately needed uplift, Metz said. Metz showed up an hour and a half early for the convocation, only to find out it was already standing-room only in Cassell Coliseum.
She walked to the school's football field, where hundreds were gathered "just for the comfort of one another's company," she said. The day's speeches were piped in over a sound system that crackled with static and sometimes dropped out altogether.
Still, no one left, she said, and when "We Are Virginia Tech" came over the loudspeakers, "the effect was electrifying," Metz said.
"We will prevail," Giovanni said, repeating the line four times - part sermon, part assertion of fact - before ending her address with the poem's title: "We are Virginia Tech."
When the long ovation in Cassell finally faded, a small group of students near the stage started up a chant. It spread through the auditorium, but also through the football stadium.
"Let's go, Hokies!" they cried. The response was not unlike ones Giovanni has always evoked.
"At a time like this, all we have is our words, and hers had power," Metz said. "She helped us recover solidarity in the face of a real assault. She helped us recover what we share."
"After The Drowning" is an example of Nikki Giovanni's work:
After the drowning the calm waters come closing a whole that never opened Why not take the Champagne flute dip it in the salty cold water and drink a toast to all that never was[Source: From the book "Acolytes: Poems by Nikki Giovanni." ?2007 by Nikki Giovanni; reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers]
Yolanda Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni
June 7, 1943, Knoxville, Tenn.
B.A., Fisk University
Distinguished Professor of Writing and Literature, Virginia Tech University
More than two dozen books, including volumes of poetry, children's tales and essay collections. Most recent: On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History Through Spirituals (2006) and Acolytes (2007)
Named Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle, Ladies Home Journal and Ebony magazines; Best Spoken Word Album award from the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers for Truth Is On Its Way (1971); NAACP Award for Literature (1998); first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award (2002); named one of Oprah Winfrey's 25 Living Legends (2005), along with Aretha Franklin, Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou.
Cities to which she has been given the key:
Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Mobile, Ala., among others
A scientist fan named a species of bat after her
To be sent into space
[Sources: Nikki-Giovanni.com, compiled by Virginia Fowler; poets.org.]