Interview with Prof. Lauren K. Alleyne
Why did Furious Flower select Giovanni for this particular honor?
The Summer Legacy Seminars are designed to recognize distinguished Black poets who have contributed to American letters by producing a substantial body of work, and Nikki is a highly decorated Black literary and cultural icon with over 30 books, so her qualification in that way made her an easy choice. More importantly, though, the goal of the seminar is to ensure that these writers’ literary legacy is continued through curricular inclusion and critical consideration. There is a dearth of scholarly work on Nikki Giovanni—in the words of Maryemma Graham, Nikki is a poet who is “over-read and under-studied”—which also made her a perfect candidate for the Legacy Seminar.
Who was the program’s target audience?
The seminar primarily targets professors and high school teachers—i.e. folks who would study or teach the Legacy poet. That said, it’s open to everyone, and we’ve had middle school teachers, community leaders, poets, and graduate students. We’re always excited by the diversity of the folks we attract, and this year is no different. We had 57 attendees, and among them we had people coming from 21 states and 3 countries; we had 47 women and 3 men; we had grad students, arts administrators, student affairs staff in addition to our 27 professors, 14 high school teachers, and 14 literary scholars. 31 identified as poets and 38 were Black and 18 as white with the rest identifying as Native, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or Asian. We aim to be inclusive and I think we were successful!
What would you say is Giovanni’s literary significance in the region?
Nikki is quick to tell you that she was born in the Appalachia, and you had better get the pronunciation right. Nikki was born in the Knoxville General Hospital on June 7, 1943. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Cincinnati, where she stayed until she moved back to Knoxville in 1958 to escape the parental tensions of their house. Her grandparents’ house at 400 Mulvaney Street became the spiritual and psychological home that has been the space that she inhabits most as a poet. Recently, a historical marker was placed at the site of 400 Mulvaney Street (the original house was a casualty of urban renewal) to recognize Nikki Giovanni’s national reputation as an educator, gifted and powerful writer, and cultural icon. You just have to read her favorite children’s book, Knoxville, Tennessee, to realize the emotional pull of this place for her.
What is special about James Madison University that draws so many people to the mountains to support Furious Flower programs?
JMU certainly offers a scenic location, but the real draw here is Furious Flower: folks know that when they attend a Furious Flower program, they will be met with warmth, taught with rigor, and engaged in their full humanity. They will be both supported and they will be challenged. The work we do is academic, but it is also community building and spirit-sustaining, and I think people know that (or they find that out very quickly once they get here). Once you participate in Furious Flower, you become part of a family, part of an ever-evolving legacy.
How did (or will) Furious Flower assess the quality or success of the series of events surrounding Giovanni?
That’s a great question. In the past we’ve done brief satisfaction surveys that measured how participants felt about their experience. This year we’ve partnered with the Public Policy program here at JMU and they’re conducting an independent, in-depth assessment that will measure things like learning and impact across several spheres, in addition to satisfaction. We’re excited to engage with more detailed data and to contribute to exploration of ways we can identify and measure the impact of the arts. Because it was a larger scale undertaking, we won’t have those results for a while; however, thanks to the internet we already know that we’ve made an impact. As of the moment I’m writing this, I’m aware of three blogs about the week written by seminar participants: Dr. Laura Vrana was invited to be a guest blogger for seminar faculty Dr. Howard Rambsy II’s Cultural Front; Shayna Israel, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, wrote her blog during the week; and most recently, Dr. Kendra Bryant, an assistant professor at North Carolina A&T State also produced a blog, which she considers her “first effort” at articulating why she wants to enter scholarship on Giovanni’s work. Additionally, a quick perusal of #giovanniclass, #livinglegacy19, and #furiousflower across social media platforms will reveal how our participants felt about their time with us!
–Associate Professor of English at James Madison University, Lauren K. Alleyne serves as Furious Flower’s Assistant Director, seeking funding through grants and gifts; envisioning and planning events; editing the center’s online journal, The Fight & the Fiddle, and other literary projects; and advising JMU’s student creative writing organization, Word is Born. She hails from the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago and holds an MFA in Poetry and a graduate certificate in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Cornell University. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have been widely pulished in journals and anthologies, and she is a Cave Canem graduate who has been awarded numerous prizes, including the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Prize, the 2015 Iowa Arts Council Fellowship Award, the 2015 Picador Guest Professorship in Literature at the University of Leibzig, a 2012 Lyrical Iowa Award, 2010 Small Axe Literary Prize, and honorable mention in the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
Her first full-length book of poetry, Difficult Fruit, was published in 2014 by Peepal Tree Press, and the Difficult Fruit/Lauren K. Alleyne Poetry Prize was established by the journal, IthacaLit, in 2015.