Personality: giovanni singleton

Spotlight on winner of the 2018 Stephen E. Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry

7/26/2018, 6 a.m.
Inspired by African-American spirit writing, jazz and gospel music and the support of family, a locally grown poet’s discovery and …
giovanni singleton

Inspired by African-American spirit writing, jazz and gospel music and the support of family, a locally grown poet’s discovery and love of writing and the arts led to a prestigious national literary award.

Poet giovanni singleton, a Richmond native who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is the founding editor of “nocturnes (re)view of the literary arts,” a journal dedicated to critical and creative literary work of the African Diaspora.

Her poetry has appeared in “What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America,” “Best American Experimental Writing” and “Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American poetry.”

Her work also has been exhibited in the Smithsonian Institute’s American Jazz Museum and San Francisco’s first Visual Poetry and Performance Festival and commissioned for display on the exterior of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Her latest recognition: The 2018 Stephen E. Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry.

The award, presented May 25 by the African American Literature and Culture Society, is one of the most prestigious for African-American poets. Among the past winners are Jamaica Kincaid, Elizabeth Alexander, Marita Golden, Evie Shockley, Fred Moten, Charles Johnson and Sam Cornish.

Ms. singleton received the news of her award via email when she was contemplating her future at Chrissy Field next to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

She said the oddly worded email asked if she would accept the Stephen Henderson Award.

“At the time, I was bemoaning my fate and feeling like crap,” Ms. singleton said. “I responded, ‘Yes, I would consider accepting the award.’ Then I broke into a little happy dance. I was stunned and thought, ‘This is crazy!’ ”

The award is named for the late Dr. Henderson, a former professor at Virginia Union University, Morehouse College and later Howard University, where he was director of the Institute for the Arts and the Humanities.

His book, “Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic Reference,” is “really significant in terms of my research and studying black poetry,” Ms. singleton said. “He wrote poems particularly for black people, talking about things without seeing them through the lens of white people.”

For the awarding organization, Ms. singleton was a natural for the honor. In addition to her work appearing in numerous anthologies and her many engagements to read her work, her book of poetry, “Ascension,” which was inspired by the music and life of Alice Coltrane, won the California Book Award for Poetry in 2012.

Her work, she explains, is “inspired and fueled by what is often found in the margins — people, ideas, et cetera — and also what is hidden in plain sight.” It addresses themes of power, displacement, transcendence, race, the natural world and grief.

“I want to inspire everyone who comes in contact with my creative work,” Ms. singleton says. “I believe there is enough space in my writing to allow entry for anyone to connect it with something within themselves.”

In addition to her writing, Ms. singleton also teaches. She also coordinates “Lunch Poems,” a monthly poetry reading series at the University of California, Berkeley, started by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass.

Past featured readers at the event, which can be viewed online at www.lunchpoems.berkeley.edu, include Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, a University of Virginia professor and former U.S. poet laureate, and Carmen Gimenez Smith, a Virginia Tech professor and National Book Critics Circle poetry award finalist.

Ms. singleton, 49, grew up in the East End and graduated in 1987 from Huguenot High School, where she was the editor of the literary magazine and the school newspaper. She credits her grandfather, Robert Neal, for nurturing and supporting her interest in writing when she was just a young child.

“My grandfather would take me out to (the former) Drug Fair drug store on Laburnum Avenue near the old site of the State Fair, and tell me I could buy anything that I wanted,” Ms. singleton recalls. “I would usually buy something that I could write with — pencils, pens, markers and crayons. I love all of that stuff — the tools of the writing trade,” she says.

Poetry, she says, served as an act of creation.

“That creation can be expressed in words and language and shared with other people,” she says. “Poetry can be applied to anything you can see — a rose or a magnolia tree, which I had in my backyard when I was growing up.

“Writing is liberating. It gives me freedom,” Ms. singleton continues.

“It is important for our community and America to support poets, writers and people that document and also speak to what is going on in society. We often get stuck and don’t know how to move forward because we don’t know how to express ourselves. Art offers that kind of outlet and that kind of possibility for engagement and connection, for celebrations and mourning — all of our human emotions.”

Meet this week’s Personality and award-winning wordssmith, giovanni singleton:

Top honor: Recipient of the 2018 Stephen E. Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry.

Date and place of birth: July 24 in Richmond.

Current residence: Fairfax, Calif.

Occupation: Poet, creative writing professor, editor and editing consultant.

Alma maters: Huguenot High School; bachelor’s degree in communications, American University in Washington; and master’s of fine arts in creative writing and poetics, New College of California in San Francisco.

Family: Mother, Candace Brown of Church Hill, and grandmother, Carrie B. Neal of North Side.

First reaction in learning I was the winner of the Stephen E. Henderson Award: Wow!

What this honor means to me: It is great honor to have my work acknowledged by such a distinguished organization. I am immensely grateful for the validation and for being included in the company of so many previous awardees, many of whose work I know and admire.

First poem written and why: I don’t remember my first poem. It was likely written in response to a school assignment. I do remember that in middle school I became interested in a variety of art forms. I did modern dance, played clarinet in the band, wrote poetry and started making my own clothes. When I got to high school, that list thinned out and poetry and sewing were the only two things that continued.

Why I became a teacher: I initially became a teacher as part of the requirements for my graduate school studies. I realized that I actually enjoyed it. I have continued to teach anywhere from fifth grade to graduate school because I am inspired by an exchange of ideas and because I know first hand what a difference a great teacher can make in one’s life.

Teaching philosophy: My teaching philosophy centers around encouraging students to write what they don’t know, face what they are afraid of, trust what wants to be written and take risks.

What have your students gained from taking your classes: An expanded view of what poetry can be.

How I start the day: I start the day with amazement and wonder.

A perfect day for me: One in which I breathe deeply, do something creative, dream, engage with nature, remember my ancestors and eat nourishing food. And, too, I appreciate a good nap.

How I unwind: I’m not sure that I actually ever unwind. My work life as a writer, teacher of poetry, part-time administrator and freelance editor is as flexible as it is stressful. The small town I live in offers endless opportunities to unwind in the natural world. I can go for a hike in the woods or spend time at the beach or go for a bike ride or go to a yoga class. But perhaps the best ways that I have found to unwind is by dancing and being aware of my breath moment to moment.

Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I’m not sure what others would say, but I will say that I myself never imagined I would love knitting, but I do.

A quote that inspires me: “Peace is every step.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

My friends describe me as: Thoughtful, loyal, wise, intelligent and straight forward, with a quirky sense of humor.

Best late-night snack: I love fruit, particularly raspberries or kumquats whenever they are in season and I can find them.

Favorite poem and why: I have a number of favorite poems, among which are “Blessing the Boats” by Lucille Clifton and the 23rd Psalm. I apply the word “poem” to song lyrics as well and in that regard, I am drawn to “I’m Feeling Good” by Nina Simone and “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” by Mahalia Jackson.

Favorite author and why: Poet Lucille Clifton. Her work achieves much of what I strive for in my own work — clarity, wisdom, humor, exactness, grace, honesty and a sense of the universal in the particular.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: My mom always says that I can do anything I set my mind to. Just keep going and don’t give up.

The person who influenced me the most: I was influenced the most by the women in my family, including my mom, my grandmothers and my aunts. Throughout my childhood in Richmond, I also benefited a lot from a collective of dedicated African-American women schoolteachers, friends and journalism mentors.

Book that influenced me the most: There is a tie — “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and the power and prophecy of James Baldwin’s essays and speeches. Through “The Bluest Eye,” I came to understand the power of self-esteem. It was the first book I ever read by an African-American author. When I was in high school, Ms. Morrison gave a reading at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was my first time meeting a living literary author and I still have the paperback copy of the book that she signed for me.

What I’m reading now: In the usual manner of the poet/writer/artist, I am reading a bunch of different things simultaneously: “Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010,” “Extra Hidden Life, among the Days” by Brenda Hillman and “Feel Free,” essays by Zadie Smith.

Next goal: To give a poetry reading in Richmond while my grandmother is still alive and to manifest a gallery show of the work in my just published book, “AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper.”