By the Blue ridge mountains of Virginia and surrounded by Pine Virginia Tech is a peaceful university town. It wakes in mist and sleeps with moonshine resting on Brush Mountain. The sun throws off its winter coat and spring brings blossom towards bloom. It was the same beautiful weather on 16th April 2007 when a student, an English Major, armed himself then walked into his university and in cold blood killed students and teachers and then himself. It was a sustained attack. Not one person died, nor two, nor ten, but thirty two. It became known as The Virginia Tech Massacre. It is that English department who have invited me here as visiting writer. They are strong.
In the midst of their grief helicopters and film crews descended like vultures sensing blood. The town was besieged by hungry journalists. They’d do anything to get a quote from the grief stricken. “They even dressed like students.” A young woman tells me “A journalist from NBC asked for an interview. I refused and she looked at me and said spitefully “You my dear have just lost your fifteen minutes of fame.”. Up until then the student was studying journalism. That comment changed her life.
Tonight I’m at the Steger Poetry Prize. In its third year the prize is open to any student on campus. It is headed by university distinguished professor and acclaimed author Nikki Giovanni . It is the same Nikki Giovanni who articulated the grief and pride of every Virginia Tech student past and present. Here she is reading in front of George Bush and the world at The Virginia tech memorial on Tuesday April 17th 2007. Poetry rises it’s fiersome head when all else fails. Poetry bridges the gap between the spiritual and physical. We read it at funerals because amongst death it is the essence of ife.
This same evening in a different time zone actor and friend Lisa Dwan is reading two new poems of mine on stage at Southbank centre, London, England. Death In Custody and Weapons of Article 2. Various authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith had their work read too. Each of us wrote on an Article from The Human Rights Act which we used as the inspiration for our pieces. Mine was Article Two, The Right To Life.
Bu here thousands of miles away from London at Virginia Tech was my final engagement and the highlight of a week of highlights. And it was my turn to be audience, my turn to listen, my turn to be moved. The university president came. Like the president of America he too lvoes poetry and sees its relevance to students and institution alike.
Both students and professors read poems. Shots of light coiled through the windows and finally Nikki Giovanni stood to read her poem. This woman, this incredibly powerful woman as contemporary as any poet a third of her age, who has more energy than those a third her age, whosse latest book of poetry is a New York Times Bestseller said “Lemn this poem is for you”. I wasn’t expecting it. And I wept. The poem is called The Artist.