Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Nikki Giovanni - Blacksburg, VA

Nikki is wearing a medal when I meet her at her office on the campus of Virginia Tech. Her poetry has won almost uncountable awards, plaudits, and honors, but this is an actual medal. I'm thinking figure skating or the 400m hurdles or something.

But the medal is from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences which Nikki got earlier this week at the annual Grammy Awards dinner in Los Angeles. Her spectacular spoken word release of "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection" lost out to Al Franken - go figure - but the nomination, the medal, and the good seats she had (near Carole King) made the trip a great success.

She's wearing the medal because her students wanted to see it. Just before our chat starts she even gets a call from a student who wants to know about the medal. Did she wear it to class? Did the other students like it? Was Nikki on TV? Nikki answers the questions, reminds the student to turn her paper in, and has to admit that she never got her mug on the TV. And it's too bad, because it's a great mug, open and vital.

On the walls of her office she displays posters of Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, and Prince, and her long love of music fills her work in the same way. So I smile at the picture of her sitting there on Tuesday watching Prince and Beyonce tear up the opening number, and then later George Clinton and P-Funk tear the roof off the sucker.

We talk a little about Nikki's life in Appalachia: Knoxville, Cincinnati, and here in southwestern Virginia. She spent ten years in New York City and loved it, but her life has been here. I can see the campus out her window behind her. The blinds are wide open, and the sun on this seasonable February afternoon pours in, lighting up Nikki from behind, giving her spectacular white/platinum hair a real glow.

Nikki wants to talk about place widely, and in further locales than anyone else so far on the trip. We talk about Mars, about the need for humans to keep exploring. The wheel took over for the horse, Nikki tells me, and it follows that if we can get to Mars, we really should. She talks about space and the future of humankind with such fervor that I have to ask a question. "What about a poet on that first crew to Mars?" I ask. Nikki's eyes light up. "I think it should be a woman, a black woman, a black woman in her 60s." She laughs.

We wrap it up with some photos. I take another peek at the medal. It's cool, but not as cool as Nikki.