"Oh, Nikki. You so fine.”
As soon as I thought of writing this essay, Nikki Giovanni came to mind. But it’s not because she’s the obvious choice. If you polled my friends, I don’t think any of them would pick her as my “literary mother.” Often our literary mothers are not the ones whose work ours most resemble or who our professors pick for us in school (“Oh yes, yes, your work reminds me of So-and-so”). They may not even be the writers we talk about in workshops or on panels—though they should be. My first literary mother, the first writer I wanted to be when I grew up, was Nikki Giovanni. ego-tripping and other poems for young people, published in 1973, with illustrations by George Ford, first put a form to the things I wanted to express, and the music and rhythms and power I could sometimes, though not all the time, feel course through me.
I came across this book by something I can only call fate—her name reminded my father of someone he knew, and he bought it thinking he might have gone to school with her. He did not, it turns out. But I was hooked. I ran the title poem “ego-tripping” up and down my tongue all day long.
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
That only glows every one hundred years falls
Into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
It was the eighties in New York City and every street corner and radio station was saturated with the exclamations, nay the proclamations, of boys being bad. I took Nikki’s poems and held them in my mouth like hidden pieces of fruit. I whispered them to myself as I glared and pouted and snarled and puffed at no one in particular. I tried on being bad.
The fact that a light-skinned mixed girl (white to the rest of the world? I wasn’t sure) was chanting lines about growing up in Africa and building pyramids is not lost on me. Reading—and trying to embody—her piece was my first encounter with cross-cultural reimagining and made me distinctly aware of my own confusion regarding my identity, both as mixed-race and female. The work of a black lesbian poet from Tennessee was the first language I understood and perhaps more importantly, understood I understood.
I still catch myself whispering in moments of doubt, “I am so hip even my errors are correct.” And it is these small acts of self-love, these planks of sunlight that shine across a life too often ordered by self-deprecation (and diminishment by others) that Nikki Giovanni first gave me. I learned other things from her, too. A few years later I got Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. From the eponymous poem:
Don’t look now
I’m fading away
Into the gray of my mornings
Or the blues of every night
Is it that my nails
Or maybe the corn
on my second little piggy
Things keep popping out
on my face
of my life
It seems no matter how
I try I become more difficult
I am not an easy woman
By my early teens I knew I was not (or would not be) an easy woman to hold. Things were popping out of my life in ways that I did not understand. And the way Nikki Giovanni used the page and its white space—words popping out of line, popping out of symmetry, and yet the lines kept close and short, claustrophobic and unstable at the same time—un-easy. I could hear it and see. Through her, I could say it. I felt like she was accurately reflecting my feelings as a girl going through puberty.
This is why I never understand arguments about poetry being irrelevant, out of reach for the common folk. We do young readers a disservice when we assume that they cannot relate to poems like these, when we don’t bring poems like these to class. It is no accident that the first poem I ever read aloud, in front of a crowd of my peers at IS70 in the now gentrified Chelsea, was in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. It matters who we read. They can have the best influences on us, teaching us about empathy, about self-love, about power, and race, and all the difficulties we may face in the world—oh, and craft too. Because of my literary mothers, writing, and especially poetry, is inextricably linked to self-love and agape—love of my community. It is to me the song of the underdog, the other, the one society would prefer remained silent.
Recommended Reading: ego-tripping and other poems for young people, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day
Nadxieli Nieto is a writer, visual artist, managing editor of NOON, and the lead designer and editor at Nieto Books. Formerly, she was the coeditor-in-chief of Salt Hill Journal. Her writing has appeared in Publishing Genius, Clamor, The New York Tyrant, West Wind Review, Dirty Durty Diary, and Washington Square Review, among others.