Closing Out National Poetry Month with an Interview with Poet Nikki Grimes

April is creeping out, which means the end of National Poetry Month, but that does not mean you should stop reading, writing, and celebrating poetry! To keep you inspired, we are thrilled to share this conversation with perennial favorite and poet extraordinaire, Nikki Grimes. Her memoir-in-verse Ordinary Hazards was a 2020 Printz honor title, and her newest release is sure to cement her status as one of our finest poet-teachers! Thanks so much to Nikki for taking the time to share her thoughts and words with us.

poet Nikki Grimes

THE HUB: Your latest book Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance is an anthology, a history lesson, and a collection of new original work all aimed at celebrating women’s voices. In the introduction, you note how often women have gotten lost in history until someone (like you!) recovers their stories and shares their words or ideas. How did you go about discovering and recovering these poets? Where did you look? How did you find them?

GRIMES: I began with Voices of the Poetic Tradition and Collected Black Women’s Poetry, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933, both edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1966). I went on to a copious list of other sources, found in the back of the book, which include Shadowed Dreams:Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey, The Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, edited by Jack Zipes, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry. These and other printed volumes were supplemented by a variety of online sources. The lesson is, seek and ye shall find!

THE HUB: Here, and in Ordinary Hazards, you remind young readers and writers of the power of words and of their own voices. This is perhaps especially true for those young readers and writers who are Black and identify as young women. Besides the poets collected in Legacy, who were (or who are) the writers who helped you find your voice?

GRIMES: First and foremost, James Baldwin, my favorite author and first mentor. Then came Nikki Giovanni, Quincey Troup, John O. Killens (I attended both their workshops), Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Sonya Sanchez, and Toni Morrison. They were mentors, friends, teachers. Their work guided me in finding my own voice. When it comes to children’s literature, in particular, my strongest influences were Virginia Hamilton and Katherine Paterson.

Cover Art

THE HUB: The women you have highlighted in Legacy were not just hobbyists or domestic scribblers; many of them had important roles in publishing and as public intellectuals even as they wrestled with their status as Black women. In the introduction, you write,

they wrote boldly about race, earnestly questioned the white standards of beauty that cast them as ugly.

What does it say about our society that we still haven’t collectively or adequately addressed those white standards of beauty?

GRIMES: Like so many shortcomings in America, it says we still have a long way to go.

THE HUB: In Legacy, you use the Golden Shovel form, which you explain beautifully in the book. Would you explain how it works for our readers?

GRIMES: In Golden Shovel poetry, you borrow one or more lines from an existing poem, place them in the right margin, then write a new line ending in each of those words, thereby creating a new poem. The poem may be on the same subject as the original, or it may tackle another topic entirely. The writer is free to choose the direction the new poem will take.

THE HUB: It seems like a form that is simultaneously challenging and accessible. I can see this book being used in an English Language Arts class even as I sometimes recoil at the ways we feel like poetry must be part of a “lesson” in school. It can certainly be that, but it is also just a thing of beauty, to be enjoyed. Do you have any wisdom to offer in this argument?

GRIMES: Of course, a Golden shovel poem is a thing of beauty on its own, but why not also offer the form to students as another tool for self-expression? There is nothing more helpful to student writers than giving them a place to start. The Golden Shovel method literally gives them a handful of words to begin with, to use to help shape their own poems. That’s far less intimidating than asking them to face the tyranny of the blank page.

THE HUB: The art in Legacy is stunning. It, too, is an anthology, featuring artists like Cozbi Cabrera and Xia Gordon among many others. Even though the art was created by many different hands, there is a continuity throughout. How did those partnerships come to be? How do you feel about the final product, the pairings of art with poetry?

GRIMES: I drew up my wish list of artists, and my publisher offered each the opportunity to select the poem that most spoke to them. Of course, that meant that the first artists to sign on had the longest list of poems to choose from. In any case, if you want artists to produce work that inspires, they must first be inspired, themselves. By allowing them to choose the poems that sparked something in their own hearts, the best result was a given. I couldn’t be happier! Every time I turn the pages of this book and come to a work of art, I fall in love all over again.