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Poet Nikki Giovanni reflects on 35 years of teaching

Nikki Giovanni is known around the world for her writing and activism, and she recently retired from teaching at Virginia Tech after 35 years.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
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Nikki Giovanni is known around the world for her writing and activism, and she recently retired from teaching at Virginia Tech after 35 years.

Nikki Giovanni is known around the world for her writing and activism, and she recently retired from teaching at Virginia Tech after 35 years.

“One of the first things I would say to my class, when I was teaching, is, ‘if you want to be a poet, you must know one thing, nobody will know who you are until after you’re dead,” Giovanni said. “We don’t do art to be known. We do art for the art.”

Giovanni has published more than two dozen books of poetry and essays, and 11 illustrated children's books. One of her books, “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection,” was a Grammy finalist for the Best Spoken Word Album.

Listen to an extended interview with Nikki Giovanni

Much of her writing is about social issues, like race and gender. “The role of the poet in society is to tell the truth,” Giovanni said.

She’s also continually interested in science and technology, and hopes that engineers and physicists remember to look to artists to help answer questions about the universe.

Giovanni grew up in Ohio, but spent many of her summers with her grandparents in Knoxville, TN, the city where she was also born. When she was in high school, a teacher encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to attend Fisk University, in Nashville. She won the scholarship, and enrolled as a freshman when she was 16 years old.

She credits her grandparents for her love of learning. “My grandmother probably had my biggest influence. Grandpop was quite a brilliant man. He was a Latin scholar, and he taught Latin in high school.”

Her newest book "A Library" debuts this fall at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She says it was inspired by her love of libraries and books.

“There’s just something nice about holding a book. There really is. That’s what rainy days are for.” She said she’s concerned about recent efforts to censor which books are available for young people to read in libraries.

When asked what she hopes will be her legacy, Giovanni said, “I think that they’ll say, ‘she always told the truth.’ I have. I’ve not been afraid of truth. I’ve not been afraid to say it.”

After retirement from more than three decades of teaching at Virginia Tech, Giovanni plans to continue writing, and she looks forward to catching up on reading and cooking for friends.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: September 7, 2022 at 3:12 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.