Interview with Prof. Amy Alvarez
What inspired you to attend the 2019 Furious Flower Summer Legacy Seminars?
I attended Furious Flower’s summer seminar on Nikki Giovanni to deepen my understanding of what it means to be a black Appalachian poet. I have read Nikki’s work since girlhood, starting with Spin A Soft Black Song, a book gifted to me by my aunt.
Did the experience meet your expectations?
My experience at the seminar went beyond what I could have expected. I knew I would learn and grow as a poet and educator. I knew I would meet incredibly talented writers and educators from all over the nation. I knew I would get to speak with Giovanni herself. The seminar met all my expectations. However, what I did not expect was to meet the sisters of my soul—brilliant women who I want to gather with to write and talk and laugh for the rest of my days. Nikki Giovanni and Dr. Joanne Gabbin, the director of Furious Flower, have this sisterhood with the Wintergreen Women—a group of women who have met for decades in the wilds of Virginia to write. The women I met at the seminar and myself feel compelled to create our own gathering and hope to walk in the footsteps of these brilliant scholars and writers.
Did anything about your experience change your perception of Giovanni, her work, her relevance today or her legacy?
After attending the seminar, I am even more convinced of the importance of Giovanni’s work and how overlooked her work has been as part of the Black Arts Movement. It is critical that scholars engage with her extensive body of work. Her voice as a black queer Appalachian woman, a voice that demands justice while celebrating life, is one of the most compelling and unique in all of American poetry.
As a poet and scholar, do you consider her a role model or an inspiration?
As a poet, Nikki’s work is inspiring. She is a master of her craft. She gives a great deal of thought to the line, to her use of verbs, and punctuation (whole poems turn on a carefully placed colon). Her confidence, vulnerability, and joy draw readers in while her layers of meaning allow the same poem to be read through multiple lenses. And that joy—even as she writes about loss—is pushing me to think about how I convey healing to readers even as I engage with difficult subjects.
How does her life’s work celebrate the region known as Appalachia?
Nikki Giovanni has defined her Appalachian-ness as the “independence and individuality” (Fowler) that emerges in her work. Her insistence on speaking her truth and not allowing others to speak for her in poems like “Nikki-Rosa” are part of this independence. Her focus on mountain foodways, music, the work of quilting, and her references to the natural world, and mountain economies such as coal mining make her voice distinctly Appalachian.
Did the drive to or the rural mountain setting at JMU influence your experience in any way? If so how?
I loved being in the mountains at James Madison University for this seminar. I live in Appalachia and felt that the only way to really understand Giovanni’s work was to be near those mountains. I watched the sunset over the mountains each day.
What is the one misconception you feel people have about Giovanni? What is one thing you wish everybody knew?
I think some people may not understand or appreciate how complex Nikki Giovanni’s work is. She is a popular poet, she is in dozens of anthologies, but even while I was at this conference, an acquaintance sent me a message asking whether Giovanni was a “legit” poet. This person is from Virginia and only knew of Giovanni because of the national coverage of her reading after the shooting at Virginia Tech. I want everyone to know how brilliant Nikki Giovanni is, how layered and complex her poems are. To that end, I am adding her work to my syllabi and am considering co-writing an essay on Appalachian foodways in Giovanni’s work.
What is a favorite Giovanni poem and why?
I think the poem “Tourism” might be my favorite by Nikki Giovanni. In this nuanced love poem, she speaks to a feeling of otherness even while she draws strength from her multiple identities. It inspires me to draw the same strength in my life and work.
Fowler, Virginia C. “Tennessean by Birth.” Appalachian Heritage, vol. 40 no. 4, 2012, pp. 15-22. Project MUSE, doi: 10.1353/aph.2012.0108
—Amy M. Alvarez is a poet, educator, and scholar. Her work focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, regionality, nationality, borderless-ness, and systemic injustice/social justice. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, The Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, PRISM international, Rattle, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. She is both a CantoMundo and a VONA Fellow. Amy was born and raised in Queens, New York to a Jamaican mother and Puerto Rican father. She has taught English, History, and Humanities at public high schools in the Bronx, New York and in Boston, Massachusetts. She now lives in Morgantown, West Virginia and teaches writing at West Virginia University.