From Bethlehem to Mars with Nikki Giovanni

Rains to clouds to sun, and then the late-October trip to the sleek Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University yielded up its prize: poet Nikki Giovanni. The night before, community members, including elementary, middle- and high-school students from the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD), recited poems at City Hall. The Favorite Poem Project of Bethlehem public reading event was organized by teacher Jennie Gilrain and retired teacher Sue Lucrezi, inspired by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and supported by grants from the Bethlehem Fine Arts Commission and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Project Stream (PCAPS). The PCAPS grant funded bus transportation for BASD students to Lehigh University to meet poet, Nikki Giovanni. Later, each of them will write thank-you emails to Lehigh with such lovely detail that we are printing them here as their own blogs?—?including student poems!*

Students hush as Nikki Giovanni steps into the wide-open auditorium. They’ve been reading her poems, and now here she is, easygoing, informal, sitting quietly and mouthing the words to herself as Ari’a Williams reads Giovanni’s “Knoxville, Tennessee” and Allen Grimes reads “A Poem (for Langston Hughes).”

Nikki Giovanni looks on, smiling as one of the students reads a poem of hers.

Then she’s talking. It’s irreverent down-to-earth love and out-of-this-world ambition. Literally. “I want someone here to go to Mars.”

Nikki Giovanni tells them about her friendship with Major General Charlie Bolden, the NASA administrator who flew the space shuttle and whose voice was broadcast from Mars by Curiosity. The car-sized robotic rover landed on Mars in 2012 and has been sending back information ever since. She wants them aiming at Mars, she says, because they already know what’s wrong here, and as much as she wants them to understand our human foibles, she really wants them to look up, look forward. And when they go to Mars, they’ll need poetry, she says, and she’s told this to Charlie Bolden, because a reader can discover something new with each reading.

She talks about good and bad poems, and says that she’s got one in the upcoming collection that doesn’t quite come together, but she’s going to go with it anyway, because she loves the “Bears in Spring” that show up near her Virginia Tech campus and home, with mothers and young cubs coming out of hibernation hungry. She talks like this, in sentences that flow. Poems lead her to family: the sister who, unlike Nikki, had dimples and could play piano and sing; and to how her mother was an angel and her father?—?she calls him Gus?—?was crazy, just crazy and abusive. Her grandmother raised her for a chunk of her childhood and volunteered her to speak at church events; her grandmother cooked Nikki’s favorite, okra with chicken feet, which is delicious, but you have to know to pull the nails out, and you cook it with garlic…. She tells them that when they are older, they can drink wine with such a meal, but they should never drink cheap wine. Cheap wine is terrible; there’s no point.

Also they should never smoke, because smoking gives you cancer, and then they have to take out a lung, that’s if you’re lucky and if it’s operable. She smoked, and they had to take out her lung. So now she can’t go to Mars. Students look harder at the tiny woman silhouetted against the glass wall where clouds jet across a drama sky trying, like the rest of us, to keep up with Nikki, surfing along, as if one lung were plenty.

Photo Credit: Bethlehem Area School District Blog

Like her poetry, Nikki’s talk rolls and hops around with deceptive humility. She talks about how artists should go to Antarctica, where it’s cold and lonely, because the artist will know herself then?—?and be able to go to Mars without losing sight of who she is. And go in peace.

Nikki looks at them with that unsentimental fascination and care. She tells them a funny story about winning a record seven NAACP Image Awards and being furious when one of her favorite shows, Jeopardy, featured an entire category of Image Award winners and never put her in as a question or answer! This has to do with a student telling her about it, and about how students and teachers can change each other, and books, too, which is why she sends books to a man named Darryl in prison?—?that’s another story, and why Germany has a program to help prisoners rehabilitate by reading books. How what we are is not all we can be, she keeps saying. If they could all?—?every one of them?—?go up in a spaceship, maybe not to Mars, but just high enough to see the curve of the earth, they could see how blue and fragile our planet home is.

She wants them to see what a wonderful world it is, and how vulnerable.

And that despite the vulnerability, despite lousy childhoods and abusive fathers, such as hers was, there has to be love.

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