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Tuesday, January 20, 2004 - Page updated at 09:31 A.M.

Poet and activist Nikki Giovanni keeps '60s spirit intact for a new generation

By Tyrone Beason
Seattle Times staff reporter

ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Nikki Giovanni shows off her "Thug Life" tattoo, which she says she got it in honor of slain rapper Tupac Shakur. "Tupac would be my literary son," she told students during her visit to Franklin High School.
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Nikki Giovanni may be a 60-year-old cancer survivor with a respectable teaching job at Virginia Tech University, but her opinions — and hair — are as edgy as ever.

A cornerstone of the Black Arts literary movement in the 1960s and early '70s who sported an Afro when Afros were social statements, Giovanni still looks hip with her new, don't-mess-with-me platinum locks.

And Monday, when the poet and activist pulled up the left sleeve of her sweater in an auditorium filled with 500 students at Franklin High School to show off her "Thug Life" tattoo in honor of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, the roars of approval further showed that Giovanni knows how fuse her rebellious spirit with that of a younger generation.

"Tupac would be my literary son," she told the students. "He was the first martyr of your generation."

The students responded with nods and 'umphs' of agreement when she counted Shakur and the hip-hop duo OutKast among the artists whose ideas she admires.

Giovanni visited Franklin High School, and later Madrona Middle School, both in Seattle, as part of the Writers in the Schools program, which is sponsored the Seattle Arts and Lectures organization.

"It brings a whole new generation to your work," Giovanni said of visiting the schools. "You'd be surprised how many people have never seen a live author."

Local writers-in-residence work directly with teachers in 17 schools through the program. Famous writers who've had an impact on American culture, like Giovanni, are invited to help show students how they can use writing and critical thinking in their own lives, said Erin Guest, director of Writers in the Schools.

Pulitzer-prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka have also visited Franklin High.

True to form, just about every social or political comment Giovanni makes is tinged with the rage, pride and hard-won wisdom that defines her most memorable work, which has been compiled in a new book, "The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni" (William Morrow, $24.95).

ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
After speaking at Madrona Middle School in Seattle, poet and activist Nikki Giovanni listens to a few seventh- and eighth-grade students read poems they wrote. Giovanni was visiting the school as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures' "Writers in the Schools" program.
Known as a poet of the people, Giovanni has a knack for making high-minded ideas street, while elevating the vernacular to eloquent spoken word. Her poetry riffs on the issues of the day, from intrusive FBI practices in the 1970s — a subject she can discuss from personal experience — to black women's views of black men.

The boastful and rhythmic poetry she and other black writers of her generation produced is considered to be the artistic precursor to rap.

In the poem "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)," Giovanni bombastically attributes the Egyptian pyramids, the Ice Age, the Nile River, oil and gold to the existence of black women.

"I am so hip my errors are correct," she writes. "I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/I cannot be comprehended/except by permission."

Over breakfast before taking the stage at Franklin High, Giovanni explained that she comes from a generation of black artists who viewed poetry as a medium for change in a country reluctant to change on its own.

ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
At age 60, activist Nikki Giovanni is an acclaimed poet, has a teaching job at Virginia Tech University and has survived cancer. She visited Franklin High School and Madrona Middle School on Monday.
By the time she won fame for her self-published first book of poetry in 1968, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had been assassinated. The slogan "Black Power" resonated perhaps more deeply than "I have a dream."

"We felt that our job was to become a voice, because nobody was listening," Giovanni said of those days. "Somebody had to take it to the, I won't say next level, but a different level."

Giovanni's poems from that period, when she was winning write-ups in The New York Times and Newsweek, present a bitter, bleak view of race relations and of government.

She said she was intentionally pushing the envelope, taking inspiration from controversial comedians like Dick Gregory.

The mainstream media still embraced her. But when Ladies Home Journal named her its Woman of the Year in 1973, the radical black activist and feminist took criticism for accepting the honor.

With lung cancer and 35 years of poetry behind her, Giovanni is now in a more contemplative mood — that is, when she's not railing against President Bush and airport security checks.

Giovanni said she's thinking a lot about the work of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin — specifically the idea of survival of the fittest — but also the power of luck.

The news of a U.S. rover landing on Mars excites her. She'd love to be the first human to visit the Red Planet.

NASA scientists planning manned Mars missions could learn a lot from the experiences of her African ancestors, who survived journeys across the Atlantic in slave ships without going insane or losing their souls, she said.

For now, Giovanni will settle for more earthly pursuits.

She has been nominated for a Grammy award for her audio CD, "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection" (HarperCollins, $22). She'd like to win but doesn't hold out much hope, since her competition is Hillary Clinton, among other famous authors.

But what Giovanni dreams of more than a Grammy, she told the students at Franklin, is to have a sneaker named after her.

"I want The Giovanni," she mused, in full ego-tripping mode. "I want you to be able to go into Foot Locker — all you writers out there — and say, 'I want The Giovanni,' and then buy a $500 pair of my shoes."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com


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