Sunday, February 21, 2016

Poet Nikki Giovanni at 2016 Writer's Symposium by the Sea

Photo by Susanne Barrett at PLNU
I've attended the Writer's Symposium by the Sea many times over the 21 years since Dr. Dean Nelson, my creative writing professor and later office-mate at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), started inviting some of the most renowned authors to share their thoughts on the art and craft of writing.

Of course, PLNU is a place where I have nestled, heart and soul, since first hearing of the college during my senior year of high school when I escaped from Algebra II with friends to view yet another college presentation. (However, any college presentation was a vast improvement over Mr. Winters' droning on and on about algebraic formulas I'd never see again.) But by the time that the PLNU presentation was over, I knew that I'd be throwing aside my plans for the famous English departments at Dartmouth and UC Santa Cruz (Go, Banana Slugs!) in order to attend this Christian college that was half the population of my high school.

And I adored every moment of my time at PLNU. I cried on graduation day as I didn't want to leave this family of people who loved all things literary as much as I did. So I returned with my Master of Arts and began my teaching career.

That was nearly 24 years ago, and walking on campus this week made me feel as though I had never left.

This year's Writer's Symposium by the Sea featured four writers: sports writer/announcer Dick Enberg, young adult writer Robin Jones Gunn (whose event we attended), African-American poet Nikki Giovanni (we attended two of her events), and Christian feminist blogger/writer Sarah Bessey (whom I really wanted to see, but it just wasn't possible). My lovely friend, poet and author Judith Deem Dupree, kindly purchased my tickets as an early birthday present, and we attended the three sessions together.

(I'm assisting Judith with various aspects of her new book, Sky Mesa Journal, to be published by Wipf and Stock later this year. It's a joy to work with her on this amazing piece of prose-poetry ponderings.)

The talk by Robin Jones Gunn was wonderful, but the two talks we attended with the legendary Nikki Giovanni were amazing! She's a 72 year old black woman who speaks her mind, no matter who her audience may be. On the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, Nikki does not mince words. And she drops the most amazing names: she babysat for Morgan (Freeman)'s kids; she went to Maya (Angelou)'s house, she interviewed Rosa (Parks) in her living room, she entertained the Queen of Ghana with a bottle of Utopia beer ($250/pint), she met with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (at their request), etc.

The afternoon session with Nikki Giovanni, which was supposed to be for faculty and students (but Rachel, the departmental assistant, smuggled Judith and me in) was definitely tamer than the evening session, but it was still memorable. I snapped the above photo just before Nikki began reading some of her poems--and does she ever read her poems in an interesting manner (this reading was posted on YouTube; it's not from the Writer's Symposium, but I will post the interviews and readings as soon as they are available):

In all of the interviews Dean Nelson has done over the 21 years of the Writer's Symposium by the Sea with writers as varied as Garrison Keillor, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Yancey, Anne Lamott, etc., I've never seen him lose control of an interview. Until now. It wasn't a bad thing--it was interesting and rather hilarious to watch Nikki grab onto one random topic and then another so fast that I don't think that anyone could have caught up with her.

She read more poems in the evening session, and Dean started off the interview by teasing her about being mentioned in a Kanye West song, and it happens that Nikki is a very good friend of Kanye's mother. She quickly moved through Downton Abbey, mentioning how hilarious it was that Mr. Carson had to cook in last Sunday's episode, to having a bat named after her, to taking Barack Obama to task for plagiarizing her phrase "We shall overcome."

"Poems have work to do," she says. They are to inform, delight, and leave something with people. When asked about the lack of punctuation in some of her poems, she advised Dean that these poems "work on the breath" like a song. "Poets build bridges," she says next, then applauds Pope Francis for his bridge-building.

Yet she was a history major in college. But she does say about African American feminism, "We want to be part of the ones who forgive, not to be the ones who put Jesus on the cross."

"Very few dumb people quote me," Nikki asserts with a wicked grin before complaining that the Fisk Jubilee Singers should have been on Downton Abbey last season. A professor at Virginia Tech, she glories when her students are successful.

"Poems are right there with good wine and caviar" she advises, but she means red wine only, for earlier in this interview she had asked rhetorically, "Whoever fell in love over white wine?"

"Black women are the best things that ever happened in the world. It's a great thing to be black. I recommend it," she says with another mischievous smile.

In both the afternoon and evening talks, Nikki made this statement: "I married my mother, and she widowed me." She openly describes her mother as a victim of physical abuse...a situation which gave her an innate skepticism about men. "We have to be willing to tell the truth," she says.

Then she's talking about having no interior doors in her house. Not even on the bathroom. "It's my house, and I plan to live in it." She continues, "Doors are stupid. They're a waste of wood."

She advised us at both talks to read something every day. In the afternoon talk, she recommended the comic strip "Zits." Nikki is also a Trekkie, yet in the next moment she says that all of the recent talk about race is "tiresome."

"Life is interesting--why not enjoy it?" she states at the end of the afternoon talk. And she finishes the evening talk by citing the title to one of her books, Chasing Utopia, which wasn't philosophical at all; rather, it was about trying to obtain a bottle of the world's most expensive beer, Utopia, at $250/pint.

The entire evening interview will be shown on UCSD-TV in about six weeks, and then will be posted on their Writer's Symposium site where we can watch all of the previous interviews Dean has conducted since the Symposium began 21 years ago: UCSD-TV Writer's Symposium by the Sea. The interview with Nikki Giovanni and the other speakers will be at the top of the page when they are posted.

So it was a lovely week--especially staying with a dear friend who now works at PLNU in the Literature Department as an adjunct. We spent both evenings chatting while grading essays and preparing lessons for our students. Perhaps we can get together when the pressures of teaching are not quite so manic. Leaving her home after praying together lightened my stress-load considerably.

Wishing you all a wonderful week,

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