I am at the Furious Flower Legacy Seminar on Nikki Giovanni—featuring Professor Giovanni.
Today is my first full day. The structure of the event is like none other I have seen. It not only gathers scholars of her work and teachers looking for professional development—it also has as its guest of honor throughout the event the living legend herself: Nikki.
The Furious Flower Poetry Center has been in existence for over 25 years. There was a stunning video presented last night showcasing excerpts from the 1994 conference. Check it out here! Dr. Joanne Gabbin functioned as both historical scholar and emcee. She was acting as a living griot, storytelling and keeping the culture—while also keeping a house full of budding scholars to continue the work after her.
Upon registration, attendees received a packet of readings that were meant to be read in the off-hours and the down times. The readings included works by Rita Dove, a bibliography by her partner Virginia Fowler, an anthology list of Black Arts Era poets and, of course, work by the guest of honor: Professor Giovanni—who likes to go by just Nikki.
zWhile the text packet was definitely lit, what really left me breathless was the living text of bodies and consciousness flowing around the room. The women, and the smattering of men, were on fire. Some a quiet flame. Others more like conflagrations. Some others like torches. Others like matches, waiting for the right excerpt, tone, quotation to strike.
This was the moment for which I was looking, for the last couple of years since leaving Philly and subsequently Buffalo. I often cite Lyn Hejinian, who says that “poets work in the context of being numerous” (Hejinian, 2000). My writing was born in the community in which I grew up—Brooklyn Belizeans, Southern blacks up North, Latinos. I write communally.
I like Zadie Smith, who says that she often “writes against” and is understood as doing so. I need to write against and with what is happening. In communal dialogue, that is where I discover where the gaps are, where the dearth in study is, what are folks wanting—what the legacies are needing. That happens, for me, through showing up and being painfully honest.
We are scholars—and we bleed.
What we do is gruesome. To write is grueling work. We do it not in some sycophantic, self-flagellatory objective at self-gain. We do it as a project on love.
Talk about a project on love—during the presentation of one of the greatest labors of love I have yet to see was done, truly is was performed, by Dr. Rambsy II. In his BBoy-styled, intensely scholarly presentation, he provides each table an annotated copy of “Ego-Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni that included over 40+ footnotes! He went beyond the close read of line by line. He went phrase by phrase and sometimes word by word in his extrapolation on the layered meaning and allusions in the text
Right after, during the Q&A, Nikki suggested that it would be something to do a project on the beautiful rejects, on the rejected anthology submissions called “The Poems that Got Thrown Away.” Her role as the harbinger of black judgement is seen in her editorial consciousness—gently present yet fiercely piercing. Usually academe bemoans editorial proximity. However, only an astute editor—a poet—knows how to be a fly on the wall at their own ceremony—while also understanding the need to be at the ready with critique—to perform that happening for the next generation—like a lioness teaching her cubs to hunt.
The attention to work that is underrecognized is the work that we are all asked to do as scholars: Make anew what has been understudied or publicized. It was an utter shock for me that Nikki’s work has been so under-researched by scholars in literary studies. I, myself, am baffled at the missteps I have made in not including Nikki in my syllabi—although I read Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement in high school.
The last two days have, for me, been a call to resurface the work of our living scholars in Digital Humanities—since clearly no one knows what it means. We get to define what black scholarship looks like in the near future by making our primary resources available today via archiving works that are out of print or gathering black-authored texts that haven’t been appropriately categorized or adding more relevant metadata to institutional databases. This is the work scholars are doing at the Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas (KU-HBW). The HBW there is working with the University of Chicago via a NEH grant to create a digital archive on black-authored text called the Black Book Initiative Project (BBIP). BBIP has over 50+ metadata categories, cultivated by scholars with a sensitivity to what future user communities and academicians may hope to find or research in such a collection. (Read more about the project here!)
In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Dr. Kathyrn Conrad, chair of the English department at KU, cites the piece “The Rise of the Cognitive Nonconscious and the Costs of Consciousness” (Conrad 2014). It deals with the necessity for workers in the humanities to value "nonconscious cognition,” as Conrad writes, “the interpretive function performed by nonconscious entities and systems—in order to avoid the ‘isolation of the humanities from the sciences and engineering’ and to participate in collaborative intellectual work” (ibid).
When Dr. Gabbin presented YouTube videos of Nikki reading poetry to Aretha to gospel hymns or her “Woman Poem” to Amazing Grace—during the conference lunch break—while many of us were looking on cell phones and thumbing our fingers waiting for the next session, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. On it were these giant projections of black women, being black women to black women talk-singing about black women. This “nonconscious” space, too, was part of the intellectual work.
In fact, a white woman, herself a poet and statistician, who on the lunch line yesterday shared with me some lines of a poem she wrote—“what kind of joy would send someone down a road and back again”—had asked me a question about my take on something Nikki had said. A woman next to me, a black woman chair of an English department at a university further down south, said—looking up from her phone, “I think she is in what’s happening on the screen,” referencing my stare. My gaze was on Nikki, on Aretha, on the digitized voices, while Ms. Giovanni, living and breathing, was a table away. I looked at the women—the women at the table with me. They looked, eyes smiling at each other, then back again, then us three, back at the screen—and understood—a kind of understanding between.
That program chair was looking up emails for departmental new hires. The statistician poet was visiting on a fellowship. I was on assignment from KU’s HBW. We were having lunch. And doing the work.
Photos by Adrienne Oliver