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Reflecting the Moments in Nikki Giovanni’s Collected Poetry (1968 -1998)

Nikki Giovanni came into my life through my sister who always read her work. Back then I used to try and read everything my sister read (which means she hid her romance novels somewhere safe!). I feel like I grew up with Nikki and I never knew the depth of her work until recently. Going back to the work of a writer you think you know always leaves you in an altered position (for better or for worse). As our lives take on new directions and as we gain new perspectives, so do the books we read. Reading Nikki’s poetry now, comes with a new light, better understanding and incredible appreciation of the work before me and the times. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my love for poetry runs deep and I intensely feed that love! It took me a week to soak in this poetry and I do not regret taking my time. From reading this collection of poems I just realized that I did not know as much Nikki Giovanni poetry as I thought I did. I am far much better off now!

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni is an anthology that features her early poems, these poems were written between 1968 and 1998. Thirty years of story telling and she has not stopped speaking her truth! The period within which the poems were written has an effect on the type of message Nikki puts across. The themes that colour the anthology are race, gender, black consciousness, liberation, love, notes on celebration and struggle. The collection is divided into eight; Black Feeling Black Talk, Black Judgement, Re: Creation, My House, The Women and The Men, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, Those Who Ride the Night Winds and Occasional Poems. In over 200 poems spanning decades, Nikki’s consistency in ensuring that her poetry is topical, powerful, truthful and expressive is striking. It’s like there is no timeline.

From Black Judgement (1968) some insightful gems were handed to me. It is in ‘Of Liberation,’ that I found out that the U.S Constitution originally defined a male slave as three fifths of a man! A compromise on how slaves would be counted to determine a state’s population. The agreement set the census value of a slave as 60% of the value of a free person. That is enraging and that is the reason why the cutthroat tone in this poem is suitable for the pain that flows through the life of a black American person. The structural inequality is still visible and still infuriating.

‘Poem of Angela Davis’ (1970) is such a powerful poem. The story behind the inspiration of the poem warmed my heart. Nikki wrote this poem to be sold as a broadside to help raise money for Angela Davis’s legal free, a part of the ‘Free Angela’ movement. It has to be something about solidarity looking different, solidarity being doing what one can to push through for others. I thought that was impactful and Nikki only met Angela Davis for the first time in 2001. In this anthology, Nikki writes poems that are inspired by so many other people such as Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Lorraine Hansberry, Billie Jean King, Aretha Franklin, Rosa Parks and one with special love to James. Inspiration comes in many forms but when the impact of one’s work is valued it really must be fulfilling. Especially for Nikki who sees poetry as practical and part of a people’s culture.

Here are some quotes from the anthology:

1. ‘in life one is always balancing’ – page 81

2. ‘sometimes when i wake up in the morning and see all the faces I just can’t breathe’ – page 132

3. ‘i’m giving up on language my next book will be blank pages of various textures and hues i have touched in certain spots and patterns.’ – page 167

4. ‘I hang on the edge of this universe singing off-key talking too loud embracing myself to cushion the fall’ – page 332

5. ‘angela you shall be free’ and i thought i won’t be free even if i’m set loose,the game is set the tragedy written my part is captive’ – page 352

I enjoyed the free flowing nature of the poems, the radical honesty and that this collection is comprehensive. The interview with Jill Scott at the end is also a nice touch! Of course there are some poems that I could not resonate with, but overally this is a good book. Nikki Giovanni’s growth and fire as a person, a poet and activist is visible and inspiring in this body of work. There is so much to say about the work of a poet whose work has bemoaned the struggles of her people in America, celebrated their gains and dreamed hopes of better days. This is a book that one can go back to for different seasons in life. That’s just how encompassing it is.


Author’s Profile

Nikki Giovanni is a three-time NAACP Image Award winner, the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award, and holds the Langston Hughes Medal for Outstanding Poetry. She is the author of twenty-seven books, and she is an Oprah Legend and a University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. (bio extracted from back cover)


Book Details

Title: The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (1968-1998)

Author: Nikki Giovanni

Genre: Poetry

Pages: 514

Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Reprint edition (2007)

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