I can’t think of a more fitting way to ring in the new year than with the words and thoughts of Nikki Grimes. She and I have never met but after I read about her newest project, a stunning new illustrated poetry collection, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomsbury; multiple illustrators), I knew I wanted to host her on my blog. And she graciously accepted, even though she and I have never met except through her words. (If you are a writer, study her Bronx Masquerade to learn about differentiating characters through dialogue!)
As an artist, I’m always up for a challenge. Usually, the literary or visual art challenge I tackle is one I’ve created. Occasionally, though, a challenge comes from an outside source. Such was the case with the Golden Shovel poetry form, which I used to craft One Last Word.
A few years ago, University of Arkansas Press asked me to contribute to an anthology honoring the work of esteemed Poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. I was to borrow a line from a Brooks poem, and use the words in it to create a new poem in a form called The Golden Shovel. In this form, you select a line from an existing poem, stack the words in the right margin, and write new lines, each ending in one of the original words. For example, if the line were “Peace, be still”, it would appear like this:
You’d then create a new line for each word. If you chose a 3-word line, your result would be a three-line poem, and so on. My Facebook feed was full of stories and comments about the Trayvon Martin shooting, at the time, and so I was led to write:
Trayvon’s mom watched injustice kick peace
down the road, like a tin can. But she’ll be
retrieving it once her son is able to rest quiet, still.
I had no idea what I’d write when I first started, but those three words led me to this poem. Crazy, right?
Once I figured out what I was doing, I dove into the anthology assignment. Once I finished, I immediately started brainstorming about what poetry projects of my own I could apply this form to.
As it happens, I’d been reading Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Voices of the Poetic Tradition, including works by Clara Ann Thompson, and it struck me—and not for the first time—that books of poetry from the Harlem Renaissance rarely, if ever, include the work of women poets from the period. What if I used this new form, I thought, to craft a collection of verse incorporating poetry from the Renaissance that would feature some of these women? With that, I was off and running.
Of course, soon after I began slogging through old volumes to select poems to use, I slammed into chunks of formal and sometimes archaic English phrasing and vocabulary that was problematic. I was crafting a book for contemporary middle graders, after all. How was I going to transform old fashioned, highbrow English into language that would engage today’s young readers? For a while, I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I’m a stubborn cuss, so I forged ahead.
One of the poems I chose to work with included the word “Chromatique.” What the heck was I supposed to do with that, I wondered? My solution was to make it the name of a hair salon! It worked, and every other time I hit a word-wall, I pressed on until I devised a way through it.
One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance is a book about which I’m very excited. It allowed me to stretch myself as both writer and visual artist (one of the illustrations in the book is mine.) That is always key for me. I want to keep growing, learning, and challenging myself as an artist. It’s how I keep my passion alive.
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.