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2021 National Book Festival Highlights: Poetry

Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the 2021 Library of Congress National Book Festival! Here, we offer highlights from this year’s treasure trove of programs celebrating the theme, “Open a Book, Open the World.” Whether you’re tuning in for the first time, or revisiting favorites, we hope you enjoy these programs — and that they continue to open the world for you. Make sure to explore the full video collection from the 2021 Festival.

This week, we’re highlighting our poetry programs from the 2021 Festival. If you missed any of these conversations, don’t fret: All are now available to watch and enjoy on the National Book Festival website.

Nikki Giovanni reads from and discusses her new collection, “Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose,” with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Hayden begins the program by reading one of her favorite poems by Giovanni, “My First Memory (of Librarians),” which leads into a generous and wide-ranging conversation with the poet about her life, poetry and activism.

When the Librarian asks Giovanni to characterize her journey as a poet since publishing her first book in 1968, the poet responds, “All I know are words.” Giovanni continues to put it simply: “I can’t sing. I can’t dance. … I couldn’t play the piano. So what did I have? I could watch. And that’s what writers do, writers watch. So I watched.” Throughout her life, she has said what she needed to say. “I don’t want anybody to take words away from me, because words are all I have. And words are what I have to offer. People can take it, or people — and I mean no disrespect — they can take it or they can leave it.”

Later in the conversation, Giovanni reads the title poem from “Make Me Rain,” and explains its origin: “I ask my students, ‘If you weren’t a human being, what would you be?’ And I know what I would be. If I weren’t human … I would want to be rain. Because rain changes and becomes everything. And everybody loves rain, even though it can be pretty serious. But I would want to be rain.”

francine j. harris (“Here Is the Sweet Hand”) and Patrick Rosal (“The Last Thing: New & Selected Poems”) discuss their new poetry collections with Ydalmi Noriega, director of programs and community engagement at the Poetry Foundation. After the poets give a short reading, Noriega asks them both to speak on their skill of building narrative in their poems.

Rosal says he “grew up around people who just knew how to tell a story,” but adds that it’s hard for him as a poet to “differentiate between that sort of lyric musical impulse and the storytelling impulse, the narrative impulse.” The more he writes and the longer he writes, he says, “the more I realize that all of my poems — my narrative poems included, and maybe especially — aspire to the quality of music, all of them, which is rhythm and sound and repetition and variation and invocation. … And that has to be part of the architecture of the storytelling in a poem. Otherwise, it’s not a poem to me.”

harris says she thinks a lot about “what it means to want to invite, to allure a kind of communication or understanding” between the reader and the speaker in her poems. “And I think that that’s the most beautiful thing that a story can do. Of course, there’s a trust level there, too, right? You have to believe that what is coming to you is from a place of goodness and love.”

Claudia Rankine (“Just Us: An American Conversation”) and Phillip B. Williams (“Mutiny”) read from and discuss their new collections with Kevin Young, editor of the anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song.” Both Rankine and Williams are featured in the anthology, which gathers the voices of 250 Black poets from the colonial period to the present. “I think the anthology shows us that we always are in conversation with the poets that came before us,” Rankine says, “and so the threads are pulled through.”

During the conversation, Young asks both poets to shed light on the titles of their new books. Rankine says “Just Us” refers in part to a Richard Pryor joke on the Black experience in America, but she also wanted the collection to “point to an intimacy, inasmuch as it’s an American conversation. You can’t have conversations that will stay with you unless you are with somebody who’s speaking to you from a place of openness and intimacy. And I love the phrase, its resonance obviously with ‘justice,’ but also the idea that, you know, it’s just us here, so we can speak freely. And that was the driving impetus behind the title.”

Williams says “Mutiny” points to the book’s focus on “shrugging off the Western canonical figures that are often used as allusions to, or within a work,” and instead “digging more deeply into using Black culture, African diasporic spiritual traditions, Black folk lore as the core to where the inspiration can come from.”

You can watch programs from the 2021 National Book Festival on our National Book Festival website. For up-to-the-minute Festival news, highlights and other important information, subscribe to this blog. The Festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the Festival, too, by making a gift now.

One Comment

  1. Nuzhat Khatoon
    December 8, 2021 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for forwarding me this info. regarding the poetry recitation. I enjoyed the poems by Nikki Giovanni and Francine Harris.

    I have not gone through the readings of the other poets at National Book Festival. I love poetry and I am sure I would enjoy the poems by other poets.

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