We just welcomed Nikki Giovanni, once dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry,” to the lineup of the 2012 Skagit River Poetry Festival. She is one of the most widely read poets in America, as well as one of the most honored. She has been named one of Oprah Winfrey’s twenty-five “Living Legends” and was dubbed Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle Magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, and Ebony Magazine. She is the recipient of more than twenty honorary degrees and has received the keys to more than two-dozen cities. Her books have made both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists.

What gives Giovanni such wide appeal? One clue is her tell-it-like-it-is honesty. She is famously quoted as saying: “If now isn’t a good time for the truth I don’t see when we’ll get to it.” And after she was treated for lung cancer – the disease that killed both her mother and her sister — she denied easy platitudes that cancer had made her a better person: “(I)f it takes a near-death experience for you to appreciate your life, you’re wasting somebody’s time.”

Here is Giovanni talking about poetry, and its audience, in a 2010 interview with PBS Art Beat host Jeffrey Brown.

Poetry to me has always been like opera. You know, we’re not like rock ‘n’ roll; we’re like opera. There’s going to be a smaller group who is going to love what we do.…

I think that we as poets have to be very careful with how we treat ourselves, because if we’re not careful with ourselves we will start to inappropriately compare ourselves. And we’ll say, Golly, poetry doesn’t sell the way that trashy novels sell. And it doesn’t. And poetry doesn’t get made into movies. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, Nikki, I really love ‘Ego Tripping,’ I’m going to make a movie out of that.’ That’s not going to happen.

Poetry is complete. And I think that we have to recognize, well maybe we’ve done good work and maybe we’ve reached at this particular point a maximum audience. Our problem is not to worry about that so much as to make sure that we are reaching the people who want to be reached.

Kidnap Poem

Ever been kidnapped
by a poet
if i were a poet
i’d kidnap you
put you in my phrases and meter

You to jones beach
or maybe coney island
or maybe just to my house
lyric you in lilacs
dash you in the rain
blend into the beach
to complement my see

Play the lyre for you
ode you with my love song
anything to win you
wrap you in the red Black green
show you off to mama
yeah if i were a poet i’d kid
nap you

–Nikki Giovanni