On Wednesday, Oct. 17 legendary poet and social commentator Nikki Giovanni received the 2007 Carl Sandburg Literary Award.
The author of 32 books that ranging from her autobiography to poetry anthologies and books for children is the first poet to be honored with the award. Previous recipients include novelist John Updike and playwright David Mamet.
The bow-tie gala was held in the Winter Garden of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., Chicago.
Prior to the ceremony, Giovanni talked modestly about the latest award of her career, one that has included acknowledgment from Oprah Winfrey as “one of 25 living legends,” an NAACP Image Award and a Grammy nomination.
“I’m thrilled to be honored and I am so happy to be here in Chicago, which is such a beautiful city,” said the-64 year-old Giovanni, who is also a university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va.
“I come to Chicago to shop and visit its museums often, so to receive this award here is such a pleasure.
“I write because it’s all I ever wanted to do,” she added. “I think in a lot of ways, I’m a lot like my grandfather, who was a dreamer. When I was a kid, he used to take me out and show me the stars and talk about Orion’s belt, and encourage me to pursue my dreams. I feel that, in many ways, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity.”
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tenn., but grew up in the predominantly black town of Lincoln Heights, which is a suburb in Cincinnati, Ohio.
She graduated with high honors from Fisk University in 1968. Afterward, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Along with being a symbol for the black pride movement of the sixties, both through her poetry (her first published book, “Black Feeling, Black Talk” saw her giving voice to members of the Black Arts Movement) and her feminism, arguing against the idea that women’s roles were to be submissive wives.
Giovanni once said that marriage was “inhospitable to women and would never play a role in [my] life,” an opinion she never softened on. She had her only son in 1969 as a single mother.
Giovanni was mildly pensive during her podium speech, as she reflected on her own mother and sister, both of whom died of cancer within two months of each other in the summer of 2004.
“It’s a strange feeling to receive an accolade and not be in the position to call my mother up and tell her about it,” said Giovanni. “In many ways, she was my muse. No matter who you are, you become a different person after you lose your mother. She will always be in my thoughts.”
Also honored at the event with the 21st Century Award was Sara Gruen, writer of the best-selling novel “Water for Elephants.”
The 21st Century Award honors up-and-coming writers with Chicago ties whose accomplishment warrant recognition, despite them being newcomers.
Gruen was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada and came to Chicago in 1999 for a technical writing job. During her speech, she kidded the formality of the event as she took to the stage.
“I am so not used to 4-inch heels,” Gruen said. “I love Chicago. Ottawa is nice, too, but this is a big, beautiful city and I am honored to be recognized by you.”
Gruen exchanged vows with her husband in “car 26 on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel,” and says that she thanks her parents for encouraging her to pursue writing as a career.
The annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner was sponsored by the Chicago Public Library Foundation.