‘We’re all sisters,’ says poet and YWCA speaker Nikki Giovanni

She teaches at Virginia Tech and knew what to say after the nation’s deadliest school shooting there.

Renowned poet Nikki Giovanni will be the keynote speaker at Snohomish County’s YWCA Inspire Luncheon April 18 in Angel of the Winds Arena. (Photo HarperCollins Publishers)

Renowned poet Nikki Giovanni will be the keynote speaker at Snohomish County’s YWCA Inspire Luncheon April 18 in Angel of the Winds Arena. (Photo HarperCollins Publishers)

Poet Nikki Giovanni has a lot to say.

A distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, literary voice of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, and five-time winner of NAACP Image Awards, the 75-year-old can’t begin to count her many books or hundreds of poems.

“It’s good to write a poem, forget it and go on,” she said Monday by phone from Virginia. “The book I always like is the one that’s coming.”

Giovanni will be in Everett next week as keynote speaker for the YWCA’s Snohomish County Inspire Luncheon.

Scheduled for noon April 18 in the conference center at Angel of the Winds Arena, the lunch is a fundraiser for YWCA Seattle King Snohomish. The organization provides emergency shelter at its Pathways for Women facility in Lynnwood, runs a Working Wardrobe program in Everett for women experiencing homelessness, and offers other services for women and children.

“A Good Cry,” a poetry collection published in 2017, is only the latest in Giovanni’s prodigious body of work. Along with nearly two dozen poetry books that she’s written for kids — “Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship” and “Hip Hop Speaks to Children” are among those titles. Her work is on record albums dating to the 1970s. She has written essays and edited volumes of other poets’ works.

Twelve years ago, Giovanni was thrust into the public glare after a gunman’s rampage on the campus where she still teaches poetry. On April 16, 2007, what remains the nation’s deadliest school shooting occurred at Virginia Tech.

The shooter — she said he’d been an antisocial and defiant student in her poetry class before she insisted that he be ousted — killed 32 people before taking his life. “I don’t like bullies,” Giovanni told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper as she described the shooter a year after the tragedy.

Volunteers and staff with the YWCA’s Working Wardrobe program in Everett look through business-appropriate clothing that is offered free to women in need. Here, in 2016, volunteer Karen Erickson (right) found a faux fur jacket as Vicki Von Stubbe (center) and Kay Reissig looked on. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Volunteers and staff with the YWCA’s Working Wardrobe program in Everett look through business-appropriate clothing that is offered free to women in need. Here, in 2016, volunteer Karen Erickson (right) found a faux fur jacket as Vicki Von Stubbe (center) and Kay Reissig looked on. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

President George W. Bush attended a huge Virginia Tech gathering a day after the massacre. Students and faculty heard Giovanni deliver a stirring message she wrote just hours after the attacks.

“We are Virginia Tech,” she said in a powerful opening repeated throughout the moving talk. “We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does the child in Africa dying of AIDS … No one deserves a tragedy.”

Giovanni’s poems have addressed racism, violence and the nation’s heroes.

Her “Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy” likened the presidential candidate killed in 1968 to a tree, felled by someone “unheeding of nature … who … with ax and sharpened saw … would … in boots … step forth damaging … Not the tree … for it falls… But those who would … in summer’s heat … or winter’s cold … contemplate … the beauty.”

And there are personal poems, of sweet memories, loved ones lost and other intimate thoughts.

“It’s Just Love,” in her “Chasing Utopia” collection, begins “it’s just love it won’t sweeten your coffee or ice your tea” and ends “yeah good for nothing love throw it away when you get tired of it.”

Giovanni loves the idea of space exploration. “I’m a big fan of earthlings — not Africans, not Europeans — we’re all earthlings,” she said. “If I were more well, I’d want to go into space. Artists need to go.”

A lung cancer survivor, Giovanni said she’s lived with rather than battled the disease for 13 years. Her only child, a son, is a lawyer. Her 13-year-old granddaughter “likes to write,” she said.

Asked about her long success as a poet, she said, “I pay attention and I watch.”

Happy to speak at an event supporting women, she said, “we’re all sisters.”

These days, Giovanni is discouraged by the nation’s lack of leadership and incensed by its current direction. “To see these people be afraid of people coming across our border — Americans have never been afraid of anything,” she said. “We are better than what we’re seeing.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

YWCA luncheons

The Snohomish County YWCA Inspire Luncheon, with poet Nikki Giovanni as keynote speaker, will be at noon April 18 in the conference center at Angel of the Winds Arena, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett.

The King County YWCA Inspire Luncheon, with broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien as keynote speaker, will be at noon May 16 at the Washington State Convention Center, 705 Pike St., Seattle.

The events support programs of YWCA Seattle King Snohomish. Register for either event at: www.ywcaworks.org/support/luncheons or call 206-490-4378.

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