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Five questions for Nikki Grimes

Photo: Aaron Lemen

Photo: Aaron Lemen

Last month at ALA Midwinter, Nikki Grimes was announced as winner of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children,” the latest honor in a long career that spans poetry, chapter books, picture books, novels, and more (she’s also a photographer, performer, and textile and jewelry artist!). Her newest volume, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomsbury, 11 years and up), makes creative use of the “Golden Shovel” poetic form to make connections between contemporary teens and luminaries from the Harlem Renaissance.

1. The Golden Shovel form you use in the collection makes each poem closely tied to the words of past poets. What does that connection to the past mean to you?

NG: Each of us is tied, in some fashion, to the past. We are all part of a continuum. I am particularly conscious of my connection to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance because I, too, am a Black poet, born into, and shaped by, the very community in which those poets of the past produced so much of the work we associate with the Harlem Renaissance. We speak from the same place, both literally and metaphorically.

2. You include a good number of women whose work people may be less familiar with. From your research, what was life like for these women during the Harlem Renaissance?

NG: I didn’t have cause to research a great deal about the lives of these women, per se, but I found it very interesting to discover that they were very well respected by their male counterparts, and that they played such a large role in making the Renaissance what it was. In fact, a few of them — here I’m thinking especially about Jessie Fauset and Gwendolyn Bennett — were quite instrumental in nurturing and encouraging a young Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and others. Fauset did so as literary editor of The Crisis, while Bennett served on the editorial board of Fire!! These and other women also engaged with the male poets through the Writers’ Guild, and by hosting artist salons in their own homes — this in addition to their own writing. And yet, in later years, they weren’t as celebrated as the men. It’s high time to correct that.

grimes_one last word3. This seems like a very challenging — and rewarding — form of poetry. Was there a lot of trial and error?

NG: It is a challenging form, but that is one of the main reasons I chose it. And yes, there was quite a bit of trial and error, especially because the language and phraseology in many of the original poems is so formal and, in some cases, now antiquated. The question became how to use those words in a way that was transformative so that they spoke to readers of today. A few of the poems took as many as six, seven, or even eight tries before I got them right.

4. Golden Shovel itself is a very visual poetic form, with the original poem’s line or stanza clearly indicated within the tribute poem. (In One Last Word, the shared words are bolded in each poem to make the connection even clearer.) How do you think the (wonderful!) illustrations enhanced the volume?

NG: When I think of the Harlem Renaissance, I think of bright colors, and bold, dynamic art. African American artists of the period were, in large measure, breaking out of the constrictions white society had set for them. They were claiming and remaking their own images, and doing so in bold and striking ways. The art in One Last Word hits some of the same notes, which helps to make this representation of the Renaissance whole.

5. What do you take away from the Harlem Renaissance artists about “toughness, survival, and a positive attitude”?

NG: These artists lived in a time when lynchings were still commonplace, a time when racial discrimination in every facet of life was de rigueur. In spite of that caustic environment, these artists managed to hold onto hope for the future of their people; they managed to stand strong, and to insist on believing in their own beauty and worth, and felt compelled to share that beauty with the world. That is the continuum I get to step into, that legacy of faith, that legacy of hope, that legacy of inner strength that allowed them to survive, and has allowed our people to survive and even thrive until this very day. It’s my turn to pass on the message of that legacy to a new generation at a time in our nation’s history when young people of color, especially, are desperately in need of it.

From the February 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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Comments

  1. Loved reading this – Nikki Grimes is an inspiring poet. Legacies of faith, hope and inner strength – what wonderful qualities to pass on to our children!

  2. what do u think about black history

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