During her decades-long career as a poet, novelist, journalist, and artist, Nikki Grimes has garnered numerous accolades, including the Coretta Scott King Award. Her work for young people is wide-ranging, from the picture book biographies Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, and Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice, to such young adult novels as Bronx Masquerade and the verse memoir Ordinary Hazards. As with Talkin’ About Bessie, her illustrated biography about African American pilot Bessie Coleman, Grimes’s work often counteracts the erasure of African American lives. Grimes spoke with PW about her latest work, Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, her artistic mission and process, and breaking boundaries in representation.
What does it mean for you, with Legacy, to introduce the Harlem Renaissance to young readers at the specific age group of 10–14?
It’s everything to me. This is sort of me talking to myself at this age. I gave my first poetry reading at age 13, at Countee Cullen Library [in Harlem]. They had organized a young people’s poetry reading, and I was the youngest reader. Everyone else was around 17 or 18, and there I was! I feel as if I’ve stepped into this continuum of poets, and so I am speaking with them, as well as for them.
How did that formative performance happen?
My dad set it up—he was always getting me into trouble! He was both a violinist and a composer, very rare for a Black man at that time, and he took over my art education. He got me my first signed book, took me to concerts, brought me to a celebration of Lorraine Hansberry, and also got me involved in theater in Harlem. I had a lot of artistic interests, not only writing, and adults kept saying: “You have to pick something to pursue.” But my dad said, “No, no, explore everything you’re interested in, and then when you decide, you’ll be able to use everything in what you do.” It’s the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given me. So now, when people talk about, “Your voice is so strong”—well, yes, I was in theater, thank you, Dad! Or “Your sense of music”—again, thank you, Dad. It all begins right there.
How familiar were you with the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance beforehand? Were there many discoveries for you in selecting these poets?
I was born in Harlem, I grew up with that history, that legacy in my head, and I’ve been reading Harlem Renaissance poets for a long time. It occurred to me I was not coming across any women. So I started to look, and there were a number of poets new to me who I was excited to discover. It was moving to learn that Clarissa Scott Delany, who died young, only lived long enough to publish four poems—but what poems! I loved “Joy,” especially that line, “Joy shakes me like the wind that lifts a sail.” I also newly discovered Mae V. Cowdery, and fell in love with her work. In fact, the first Golden Shovel poem in this collection was inspired by her lines: “Our dark fathers gave us/ The gift of shedding sorrow/ In a song.” I mean, wow—it just sings.
As I was in the process of researching, I mentioned on social media what I was working on, and someone posted an anthology I wasn’t familiar with, which turned out to be hugely important for the work I was doing: Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, was also a really good source. During the process I was reading individual collections, mostly out of print, and a number of things on microfilm. I have a friend who’s a librarian, so I had some insider help! The other thing that happens when you research the work of one person is that they mention another person; once I started digging, there was more and more and more.
I actually started doing this research during the previous project One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance [Bloomsbury, 2017], my first collection of Golden Shovel poems. Initially, the idea was to do a book of women poets—I always want to do something new. So I’d be saying to the publisher, “I’m going to introduce a form you’ve never heard of, and I’m also going to introduce poets you’ve never heard of? That’s a bit uncertain!” So instead I started with the Golden Shovel form with more familiar poets, hoping it would do well enough. It did, at which point I came back, and they said, you are welcome do whatever you want! I was definitely playing the long game.
What drew you to the interplay of such poetic voices as Jessie Redmon Fauset and Angelina Weld Grimké with your own work in the Golden Shovel form, which is quite a difficult form to use?
I love the challenge. After contributing to The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, using the form created by Terrance Hayes, I thought, “This is so cool, what else can I do with it?” The Golden Shovel form feels sculptural to me: you are handed these words, and these words are your clay. As with sculpture, you don’t know what you have until you arrive at the end. It completely takes me outside of any preconceived notions I might have about what I’m going to say. I can ask, “Where are these words taking me?”
How did you envision the narrative elements of Legacy, especially in poems like “Leah’s Reunion” or “Tara Takes on Montclair”? It’s interesting to see such specific voices in a more general project on the Harlem Renaissance.
Yes, I was climbing into the skin of each character I wrote about, and trying to see the world through their eyes. This comes from taking whatever information I have about the period—about the people of that era and their relationships—and imagining them at various ages, and running with that. Because the things that are true are universal, and the emotions are always true. I always want readers to be able to enter into the story in a personal kind of way, and I’ve found the best way to do that is through the first-person voice.
What do you hope readers will take away from your organization of this project into three sections: “Heritage,” “Earth Mother,” and “Taking Notice”?
I’m always looking to create a bridge between past and present. With “Earth Mother,” I specifically wanted to talk about current issues—climate change, in particular—and I actually went hunting for a striking poetic line that would enable me to go there. When I read “At the Spring Dawn” by Angelina Weld Grimké, especially the line “And the red sun shouldered his way up,” I immediately started thinking about the ozone layer. I knew that I wanted to see nature themes, which we need more of in books for young readers, especially by or for African Americans. There’s a sense of stereotype in what’s available, as if Blacks aren’t interested in the environment. Many other ideas caught me or moved me, so the section “Taking Notice” shows a wide range of concerns. We [as Black people] are always being put in a box. It’s always the single story. I say: No, we’re breaking that box wide open. We have all kinds of stories, environments, and interests. It’s so important to get that across to readers.
The illustrations in Legacy provide a rich counterpoint to the text. Can you describe the process of commissioning the visual work for this project, and the pairings of poems with each individual artist?
I had a dream list of artists I wanted to have involved. I also knew who I wanted to do the cover, so she got first dibs: Ekua Holmes. Her work speaks to me on so many levels. Her palette is so vibrant, so inviting; her colors represent to me the whole spectrum of Black women, the range of colors and the richness there. I do watercolor and collage myself, so that style always gets my attention. She did not disappoint! And her interior work for the book is in some ways even more powerful. Each artist involved read the poems and had some choice of which poem to illustrate, because I want people I’ve chosen to choose work from inspiration. That’s when you get the best work.
You’ve frequently been more involved than many other authors in selecting illustrations for your books. Can you speak to the importance of this for you?
Yes, the cover especially—that’s a really big choice to me. In choosing a cover artist, you want to go after particular sensibilities. The cover artists have always been people I’ve known, so that I know something about their soul, about their essence, and what they bring to the project in terms of knowing Black history, respecting that history, and loving that history.
You’ve also said “Harlem is in me.” As we see from many of the biographies of the poets in Legacy, the Harlem Renaissance extended outside of Harlem, and almost became a sort of idea as much as a place. Do you feel you carry that idea with you?
It’s true—Harlem, in this context, is sort of a construct, though for me, growing up in Harlem really was foundational. I have traveled, but no matter where I go, I am always from Harlem. What I first saw of beauty and strength in the world, I saw there. I think of those ladies in church with their hats and their gloves, everything matching, and of the women in the jazz clubs, how the women would just be stylin’, and how I would just breathe it all in.
You’ve spoken about how books were a lifeline for you during turbulent times. Do you feel that providing that same lifeline is a part of your mission?
I always imagine—in fact, know, rather than imagine—that there are young readers who are alone in their experiences, who feel alone, who aren’t supported as fully as we would like them to be: who need to find fuel and sustenance for the journey that’s ahead of them. I’m always looking to provide some of that fuel, some of that direction, that maybe they’re not getting in their own lives.
How does this project extend or expand on previous works like Bronx Masquerade, which dealt with young poets, and what doors do you feel it opens for you creatively, moving forward?
It’s true that this work is also dealing with race, politics, identity, and feminism. It’s all in there, to varying degrees, and I suppose there are other connections between this project and one like Bronx Masquerade, but I like to let other people make those connections. In terms of Legacy, and moving forward, I do imagine at some point doing something with all the work written for children by women from the period, which was not being widely done at that time—a wonderful discovery that occurred while researching this project.
Also, I had to leave an awful lot of good stuff out! I thought that I should be able to find 10 to 15 poets—well, it turned out it was more like 50. I could not fit in all the work. [In Legacy] I was very fortunate that my editor was generous with the space for biographies, as most readers are meeting these women for the first time, and it was important to show how they were educated, how they were travelers, editors, activists, teachers. One of these women [Ida Rowland] had been one of the first Black women to earn a PhD. I mean, these women had studied at the Sorbonne—we don’t know that stuff! Young women, and men too, need to come to this book and understand the accomplishment of our people at such an early time in the century. They need to understand what is possible—and that if these achievements were possible then, what more could we do now, if we put our minds to it?
Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. Bloomsbury, $18.99 Jan. 5 ISBN 978-1-68119-944-3