Lately, as anyone who follows this blog even cursorily will be aware, these days it is hard for me to hear the fifes and drums of positive change coming from anywhere. But yesterday I went to a weird sort of fiesta at the Roanoke Hotel with my friend Katherine Devine, in which 900 women of all sizes, ages, shapes, and hair colors had paid $50 to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Art Museum of Western Virginia celebrating "Women, Art, & Education." It was also the Ann Fralin Award event, a prize now offered annually to honor someone for her commitment to the arts, education, and community. This year the recipient was the well-known poet, activist, and educator, Nikki Giovanni, and we all sat down to a plate of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, salmon salad, and chicken slices with greens, in her honor.
Nikki had been allotted only ten minutes to speak, but managed nevertheless to have her signature impact anyway. She told us something about her state of mind when she sat down to compose the poem that she delivered to the convocation on campus the day after the Cho shooting at Virginia Tech, in which thirty students and faculty died.
She had been asked by the administration to help out at the convocation and do something to honor the dead. "Of course I'll do whatever I can," she thought to herself, "I have to, but I'd better write something down. Otherwise I'll just stand up there and cry, and that won't do." So she composed her phenomenal poem about grief and world suffering that would ultimately ricochet around the globe, and when she recited the final words "We are Virginia Tech. We are the Hokies, and we will prevail," something really uncanny happened. The shocked, grieving faces and bodies suddenly, synchronously, shifted direction and burst into wild exhilaration and communion, chanting and clapping as loud as they could, "Go Hokies!" A zombie crowd had in a few seconds transmogrified back into life again. I, who watched the proceedings on television from home, was witness to what can only be described as a miracle: the kind of radical energy shift only shamans accomplish when healing. I've never seen anything quite like it.
"Of course I had no idea of the impact it would have," Nikki explained, adding "but that, you see, is the power of poetry."
The power of art to change the world. Most surely it was a true moment when art did change the world, and I know, because I saw it happen with my own eyes.
"That's the power of PineSol, baby," mocks Virgil, trying as usual to stamp his droll personality on whatever I write. Today he is sporting his Jackson Pollock necktie, bought at the Guggenheim Museum gift store, proudly on his alligator chest. "Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've got art in my tummy," he sings to me, as he quickly turns back to his Basquiat jigsaw puzzle, the latter having been acquired recently from a trip to the Brooklyn Museum. He says he's going to hold an "Alligators for Art" luncheon in cyberspace to honor the Surrealists, the Jacobeans, and recondite graffiti artists. He wants me to wear my orangutan string jacket, the same one I wore years ago to Jasper's opening, and to be the keynote speaker. But I haven't seen hide nor hair of that jacket in years.