A Conversation with Nikki Giovanni
Chapman Hood Frazier | March/April 2011
When Nikki Giovanni read her poem "We are Virginia Tech" at the memorial service for the thirty-two slain students and faculty after the campus shootings in 2007, the poem brought the mourners to their feet because it spoke not only about the loss and suffering of those students, faculty, staff, and parents who survived the tragedy, but also about the ability of the human spirit to endure. This is a testament to her ability to touch the human pulse in her work, an ability that is characteristic of her career as a poet, writer, speaker, and activist.
Throughout her long and involved career as a poet and writer, Nikki Giovanni is noted for her willingness to embrace difficult topics, her activism on social issues, and her support for teachers throughout the nation. Consequently, she and her work have received numerous awards and honors including the NCAA Award for Literature, Caldecott Honor Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award for best illustrations, and Best Spoken Word Album Award by the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. She has been both a Grammy Award and National Book Award finalist. A recipient of over twenty-five honorary degrees, she has been named Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle, Ebony, and The Ladies Home Journal. In addition, she has received the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry, and she is the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award. Oprah Winfrey identified Giovanni as one of twenty-five "Living Legends." Her work as evidenced by her reception at Virginia Tech continues to inspire others and heal a campus that was immersed in tragedy.
Giovanni is the author of twenty-seven books and a Grammy Award nominee for The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. Her new collection of poems, Bicycles: Love Poems, published in 2009 by William Morrow, is a companion to her 1997 book, Love Poems. Currently, she is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech where she teaches and writes.
Chapman Hood Frazier: Margaret Walker called "Nikki Rosa," a poem that appeared in your first book published in 1968, Black Judgement, one of your "signature poems." How is it a "signature poem" from your perspective?
Nikki Giovanni: I think it defines an age. I'm not a Boomer. I just missed being one. I was born in '43. But we were coming out of that war period, and the world was going to change. And the concept of the Black community's changing how it looks at itself-through such things as the continuing fight that ultimately resulted in Brown v. Board of Education and through the "War on Poverty" that the Johnson administration proposed-was going to get redefined. But in redefining, you can't just let other people step in and make your life pathological-a lot of people want to do that.
They want to say well, since they're poor they're deprived, and if they're deprived they're depraved, so we're going to do benign neglect, right?" 1968 was a bad year because King got killed, Bobby Kennedy got killed, Malcolm had already been killed, Emmett Till got killed almost fourteen years before that, and, of course, Rosa Parks responded by her refusal to give up her seat; a lot happened in a little period.
But this poem says that despite everything, I'm going to define myself, I'm going to define my circumstances, and I think that my life is a good life.
Nonetheless, I don't think that because we're poor we're going to let people say that we were not loved and that we didn't recognize the value of that love. And it probably is a signature line - "Black love is Black wealth" - and has been from 1619 until right now at this moment. Without that, the Black community would have dissolved.
Frazier: In Virginia Fowler's biography of you, she writes that the poem is also coming out of some outrage over a '65 Daniel Moynihan report titled, "The Negro Family: A Case For National Action." Was that also an impetus for the poem?
Giovanni: Yes, that was Nixon-before Moynihan was a senator. And Moynihan did some changing too because he was a part of that right-wing "let's blame the victim" group. So the Moynihan Report was a terrible thing. It was terrible because it was wrong and it was terrible because it considered the Black family pathological. It said the Black household was headed by a woman. But today, the fastest growing group of poverty in America is made up of single white women. And the biggest group on welfare has been single white women.
Nixon and Reagan used to laugh at the so-called "welfare queen" too: these people would be on welfare and playing the stock market and eating steaks. Nixon and Reagan were just trying to incite the rednecks-"They're eating steaks on food stamps and here you are, you're eating road kill, and you ought to do something about that. Vote Republican."
And all of that was to keep the various poor communities in their places. One theory of why Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated was that he was, in fact, trying to bring the various poor communities together.
Frazier: Right. So what I hear you saying is that the issue is class warfare rather than just race. How did you actually write this poem? Do you remember what your process was like? What processes do you go through to compose a poem?
Giovanni: I do a lot of writing in my head, and I always recommend that. I have spent most of my adult life on the road in one respect or another. This is my first real job here at Virginia Tech, and jobs are okay. I think jobs are something that you do last, not something you do first, and that's the truth.
Remember Gigi, the movie? Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan? They wanted to get married, and the Madame said to Gigi, "We get married at last, not at first." And I always thought that jobs are like that if you want to be a poet, particularly, I mean.
Frazier: But did you write it in a single sitting or...?
Giovanni: I did a lot, and I do a lot even now in my head. And I think it's important that you don't always have to be sitting down, that you don't let the structure of your writing overwhelm you. I think structure is important. When I'm actually trying to do something, I do sit down and write.
Frazier: Do you have a set time that you write?
Giovanni: No. I'm not a set time type of person. It was so pretty the other day, and I was going to sit out on the deck with my dog, and I had some things to do to finish up on Acolytes. I took my computer, and I couldn't figure out how to open the file, and I thought, "I'm going to have to take a computer lesson because I don't know how to open a file." That's terrible! Once a file is open, you just hit "New."
Frazier: Does music influence your early work? Does it have an impact on your writing?
Giovanni: Oh my, yes. Because I listened, sure. James is so funny-James Cleveland- because I wanted to record and did record, "Peace Be Still." And, of course, that's an old song, and James took it and put it in gospel, and we took part of his arrangement and then re-arranged it, right? So James comes to Madison Square Garden-James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers-(I didn't know James at that point). His encore was "Peace Be Still" and, of course, I had a gold record going on this, and he said, "Well, I'm going to sing that song that everybody is singing," right? And that was 'Peace Be Still.' And when he came off the stage I'm there and I say, "Reverend Cleveland, it's really good to see you." And he said, "Oh, baby." I said, "I think I need to point out to you that the only people singing "Peace Be Still" were you and me." He just laughed. So he invited me out to his home for dinner. He said, "When you're in Los Angeles, you come to dinner." And I said, "No, no, you don't mean that because I will be in Los Angeles next week." And so I didn't go out the next week, but I went out later and he's a fabulous cook.
Frazier: So, did "Nikki Rosa" grow out of this music?
Giovanni: "Nikki Rosa" was a gift to my parents. I think I'd published one book, and "Nikki Rosa" was going to be in Black Judgement. But it came out of the desire or the intelligence to know that at some point you have to tell people that you care about them. And for my grandmother with whom I lived often...
Frazier: Emma Louvenia?
Giovanni: Yes. Grandmother would make these statements to all these old women: "Don't send me no flowers when I'm dead." Well, she said, "When I'm gone." And I used to always wonder, where does this come from? Because you've got all of those sayings: "a stitch in time saves nine;" "the hurrier I go the behinder I get;" and I'm thinking, what are they saying? I mean, all that imitation of life stuff doesn't work.
There's a schlocky, bad movie, Jean Crain is in the version I saw, and it was based on an old story called "Pinky." But the girl is very light, and she wants to pass, right? And therefore, she's ashamed of her mother. When her mother dies, she comes to the funeral. She's in Las Vegas; she's a showgirl. And she finally comes to the funeral. Now, her mother's dead, and Mahalia Jackson has sung, "The sooner we'll be done with the trouble of the world." It's the only thing that made the movie worthwhile. It's a real Saturday tearjerker. The casket is being carried out; they're going to take her to the burial, and because the daughter has missed the funeral, she's running behind the casket: "Mother! Mother! I always loved you!" And it was one of those things-I was the kind of kid people didn't like to watch movies like that with. They still don't, because I'm looking at it and I'm saying, "This bitch is crazy."
And I think that that's not the reaction you're supposed to have. I know that, and I'm ten years old, and I'm looking at this bitch who I think is crazy. Because why is she saying to her dead mother what she feels now? Why didn't she say so when her mother came to Vegas to see her? She looked in the audience and saw her mother and denied her. I grew up in the Baptist church so I know about denial. Peter denied Jesus, you know.
I think I've been a little different. And so I'm like, "No, this is not getting it for me." And when I came to "Nikki Rosa" I thought, it's time, because everybody's looking at the black childhood as bad, so I wanted to bring it around to say, "yeah, no matter what you're thinking, this is not what I'm doing."
Frazier: Could you comment a bit on the structure of the poem? Though you don't use traditional punctuation, it appears to be two sentences, essentially.
Giovanni: I guess so.
Frazier: Did it begin that way or did you revise it into these two sentences? Did it go through many revisions?
Giovanni: No, I don't revise. I start all over again. And I say that to my students too. To say revise is to say, "Oh my goodness, line fourteen needs some, you know." So, you just start the poem all over again. Of course, now the problem for the critics and the people who like to study poetry is that with the computers you hit Delete. There was a time you would have the working papers of how a poem or how a story or how a play evolved, but now all you have are the end plays, all you have are the productions and there will be changes in productions. But with poetry you're not going to even have that because it's going to be printed.
I looked at a poem I wrote called, "What We Miss," that I was invited to write for the 10th anniversary of Essence magazine. And since I was in the first publication of Essence, it was a pleasure to do that. And I wrote it as a eulogy. So it's like, "What We Miss: A Eulogy." And, of course, Essence, being an upbeat woman's magazine, didn't want to publish a eulogy, though it is a wonderful poem. And so they published it as "What We Miss: A Tribute."
Frazier: When you work line breaks, do you consider how you will read the poem? Is that how you structure your work?
Giovanni: Structure is always on my mind. When we look at lines and poetry I think all of my poems kind of structure out differently. To me "Nikki Rosa"-and this is probably the most I've ever said about it or ever will-is the "and poem." Because there's always an and there, and so the ands end up running on the left side. And that's where they are: and, and, and, and. You know, you look at it you'll see. And so it ended up being a left hand poem.
Frazier: You published that yourself?
Giovanni: I did. It was such a hit.
Frazier: Your first book, too, right?
Giovanni: Oh yes, both of them. But because it was such a hit, William Morrow came and asked me; well, Phil Petrie and Larry Hughes invited me out to Le Perigourd Park, which was a wonderful restaurant in New York, and they said, "We'd like to publish the books." And I said, "Well, I would like that," because I knew I couldn't stay in business. And I didn't have the capital end of it covered, so I was literally robbing Peter to pay Paul. And so I said yes, but I had borrowed money from my grandmother, and I had borrowed money from my mom, and I had borrowed money from my roommate, Barbara Crosby, at that point. And I said, "I need an advance in order for you to do that." And they said, "No. Poetry advances are, like, $500." And I said, "No, no, we need to add zeroes on that, you know. I can't even think about $500. You could probably put some numbers in front of that." I said, "This book is the only way I have of paying back the people who invested in me. I'm sure that they're proud of me, but I'm going to give them their money back, and this is the only way I have of doing that." And they said, "Well, Nikki, we just don't do that." And I said, "Well, you know, I really have enjoyed lunch, and I really thank you, but I can't let it go because it's all I have." And so I came back across town, to the West Side, and they went back wherever they went back to, and three days, four days later, Phil called me, and he said, "We'll do it." I said, "Do what?" He said, "We'll give you your advance." I said, "Thank you." I didn't have any choice.
So I know a lot of times people think you're playing hardball. I wasn't. 'Cause once that book goes, I didn't have any way of paying them back. There's no way. And I knew the book was going to continue to sell, and so that's what I was going to have to do. Sell it out of my Volkswagen. But if I let it go, I had to be able to pay the people who supported me. I've conducted my career like that.
I'm a Tennessean. You pay your debts. And you don't screw the people who take care of you. That's a huge no-no. So we do that, and the book has done well, and I've been with Morrow since.
Frazier: You've chosen to stay with Morrow...
Giovanni: Yes, that's the truth. And it's not just that I'm loyal, but I also know that as a poet I need to stay with my backlist, and if I had left for the money I would have had... whatever. And it was a terrific amount of money, but I would have left my backlist. So what's going to happen to my backlist? It was better for me to short the money. It's like with Judgement. It was better to charge a dollar for the book and sell 5,000. And plus, I have a good relationship with them.
Frazier: Another question on "Nikki Rosa." You put it between "Litany for Peppe" and "The Great Pax White." Both of those are fairly political poems.
Giovanni: From the beginning, and pretty much until the published book that you haven't seen yet, my publishers, William Morrow, and I had a discussion. I like to date the poems and so the poems were dated as I wrote them. Morrow said - and I gave in because it wasn't all that important - "If we date them, they're going to get dated. And people are going to read it and they're going to say, 'Oh my god, this was written way back in '68' or something, and the poem will seem old. But if you don't date them, when the person discovers it, it becomes a new poem." And that made sense because that's their job; they're publishers, and they're there to tell me how, you know. And they thought that they could do a better job if I would be willing to take the dates off. And so it made sense and I said, "Okay. I've done what I was going to do." And so again, in the final proofs, you're going to see dates. But after that they take it over and eliminate the dates. So placement just fell in the order they were written.
Frazier: So they were placed chronologically, then.
Giovanni: Yes, all of them. Black Judgement, Black Feeling, Black Talk, Re: Creation all carried dates, but they no longer do so now.
Frazier: Ezra Pound writes in Guide to Culture, "Properly we should read for power. The book should be a ball of light in the hand." What are the books that have been balls of light for you?
Giovanni: Oh gosh, that's too hard.
Frazier: Do you have key books that have influenced you?
Giovanni: Oh no. I come truly out of an oral tradition, and my reading is most eclectic. I mean from just trash to Alfred North Whitehead to... I read Pound. "I stood still and was a tree amid the wood seeing sights unseen, hearing things unheard." I remember reading The Cantos. I remember reading a lot on the Roman Empire. I remember reading a lot from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I'm a history freak. I love history, and so I've read a lot on that. But I also love science fiction, and I love science as long as I don't have to do the math. No, I mean, that's why I liked Alfred North Whitehead, because I could do the philosophy, the theoretical math.
Frazier: Is there a particular book that you like of his?
Giovanni: No. I can't remember what I was reading. But I just remember, again, the idea. Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned. And I remember reading almost all-I think I've read almost all of Clarence Darrow's briefs, because he was such a good writer and he had all of the good cases, and so many of them did become novels because they were all, you know, so great.
But my reading, especially as I was growing up, of course, was Gwendolyn Brooks. I read Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and as I got older, I loved Sula-Toni Morrison. But during my formative years, if it was there, I read it. I'm trying to think of... we used to get ('cause I was with Grandmother) the Condensed Reader's Digest Books.
Frazier: I remember those. My grandmother subscribed to them also. I remember she had an entire shelf of them, as did my great aunt who lived next door.
Giovanni: We had a library, the Carnegie Library, but it was a while before I could use it or before I actually felt comfortable, even though it was the Black library. I remember asking her for things like Ezra Pound's Cantos. I remember when I wanted to read Leaves of Grass, things like that, and Mrs. Long had to go somewhere else to get them.
Frazier: If you were to create a lineage of key influences on your work, now, looking back on your evolution as a writer, who would you pick?
Giovanni: It's impossible, and I'm always amazed that people actually try to answer it. I mean, I can see now with the spoken word explosion you see influences. You really do, and I think that you do simply because of the musical aspect of the spoken word, the cadence and the rhythm, has lent itself the same way that Natalie Cole sounded like Aretha Franklin 'til she realized she should sound like Natalie Cole. You have those kinds of influences going on.
But in writing, I don't think you could really ask any serious writer because I don't think that there is an influence. I mean, you can look at, let's say, speaking of novelists, Toni Morrison, and clearly she read Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez. I mean, clearly she did. But you'd have to be an idiot to say he influenced her since she was also very clearly Toni Morrison when she read him. And so you can roll it back to Lorraine, Ohio. And Toni's older than I am-what's she reading? Paul Laurence Dunbar, Faulkner probably; I don't know.
I didn't do that much fiction. I get teased even now because my fiction reading is very limited. And, of course, you had to read Faulkner finally, but I'm one of the few black writers I know who just thinks Faulkner is overblown, that he needed to learn to end a sentence. I just was never enchanted. And we had to read "The Bear," which I never thought was his best work. I did like Dreiser because I thought American Tragedy was a good book and then, of course, Liz Taylor and Monty Cliff-Shelley Winters was quite brilliant in that too. You can't go wrong with something like that. But Sister Carrie is what they wanted you to read. I thought Sister Carrie was stupid. So she went to the city and she got screwed. Sorry. You know, please, is there a story here? Am I missing something? And so again, I don't see influences. The Jungle - I mentioned that to somebody, talking about immigration and talking about the meatpacking industry, and I said, "Well, it's just like The Jungle."
Frazier: So you found the Realists and Naturalists engaging?
Giovanni: I think they're important. I struggled through Moby Dick, but that was just because I wasn't an English major. I was a history major.
Frazier: You were a history major in school? Do you find that history still influences you as a writer?
Giovanni: Yes, that's my love. That's why I continue to explore what we think we know about slavery; it's something that continually has new information. It just keeps emerging... A lot of the new information emerges from the way we imagine it. So I think that that's important; to keep looking at things.
I bet last year I saw more movies and read more fiction than I probably have in my whole life because I never liked movies-because of segregation-and I just surprised friends because I think I was sad. I am still sad about my losses, and so I've tried to reach out. I've tried to let people be company, 'cause if you stay home you'll just be sadder and sadder. So I've actually gone to movies, and I hate movies. But I actually enjoyed them. It's something I just need to get over.
I grew up in Knoxville where there was a black theater, the Gem Theater, and then the white theaters were uptown and you were not allowed in-you could go in the back door but - no, that's not me. And so I started reading a little more fiction. I read The Kite Runner, which I thought was quite brilliant. I read Graceland and a couple of other books, which I enjoyed.
Frazier: You're a very eclectic reader.
Giovanni: Well, I'm a sports fan.
Frazier: Do you read other poets? Are there particular poets who you read, or do you read when you are writing?
Giovanni: I read them very sporadically. You just don't want to get tied up in somebody else's vision. I went to Ireland for the Irish Poetry Festival, and I read with Seamus Heaney.
Frazier: I saw him read years ago at Hampden-Sydney College in southside, Virginia. He is a superb reader, and he has a lot of music in his verse.
Giovanni: He and I were on together, so I was excited about that. It's not just that we were going to be at the same thing; we were reading together. I was excited about that, and so I did want to read some of his work.
Frazier: He has a great ear, and he really integrates a lot of sound play into his work. I love to hear him read.
Giovanni: When Bob Hass was the poet laureate, we would have a slam in DC-Borders does the slams for Writer Corps. We would read to raise money for the Writer Corps, and so Bob would always come to read and I would always come; it was a nice thing to do. And so we did slams against the kids. The kids always beat us by, like, two points. I'm always threatening to bring my own judges, and they're like, "You can't bring your own judges." So I would use that as an occasion to hear other people. I'm a big fan of Shenay, especially her earlier work-very, very much, but it's not going to be my daily reading.
Frazier: So there are no specific writers who really influenced how you write in particular?
Giovanni: No. I try to make sure I don't get influenced. It's like being a journalist covering the White House. You have to keep your distance. If you find yourself actually having dinner with George Bush, you've got a problem. No, it's not just because I dislike him, but you also can't do your job if you're too close. And I'm a poet, so I want to be informed; I don't want to be ignorant. But I'm not going to carry around somebody else's poetry. It's going to get in your head without you really knowing that it's in your head. And the next thing you know your voice is gone and you're sounding like this other person, and I don't want that.
Frazier: That's a really interesting perspective. Yes, you have to keep up with what is going on, but not to the point where you get it in your head and it might begin to impact your own work. In your case, you most definitely work with your voice, and you have such a distinctive voice. I can understand what you are saying about how it could have a negative effect on your writing.
Giovanni: Yes, I say that to my students, too. It's important that you follow your voice, and that you work on hearing it because writing like you talk is very difficult. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is. It really does, you know. And so it's something you're constantly working on to make sure that this is what you say. If somebody wakes you up in the middle of the night and gives you a line-you could have your wife or your husband do that-just shake you and say, you know, "Black love is black wealth." I could say, "Yeah, I said that" and go back to sleep because I know I did. Or any number of things, not just my line, but also the way it's said. I remember Jack Kennedy. I don't know if you remember Kennedy.
Frazier: Certainly I do.
Giovanni: And he got accused of something that they said he said, and the word that they said he used was really a strange word, and Jack said, "I have never made a sentence like that in my life." And it was the end of it. That's what you want. You want to know who you are well enough to say something like that. To not let anybody mess with you.
Frazier: We were speaking earlier about signature poems. Are there other poems that you think are signature pieces for you? Those that really stand out?
Giovanni: There's no way to get around "Ego Trippin'." "Ego Trippin'" is clearly my most popular poem, and that was quite a surprise to me. I mean, I liked it, and I wrote it, and it was fun, but I never thought that it would become what it is.
And speaking of literary executors, a lot of the young rap artists like to sample. And so we have a standing "yes" on that because you can't make money every time somebody does something. Money's a good idea. But you can't think like that. And so I have a standing "yes," that if somebody asks to use it, it's a standing "yes." If they have money, we'd like to get paid, and if they don't, they should use it and go on because it's kind of a building block.
But I have poems that I love so much that I think right now have not surfaced because as a writer - well, as a poet - you're only going to get a few poems that everybody sort of knows. It's the nature of the game. And so you realize you're always ahead of your audience. There are just poems that are buried in your books that you know you would love to be a fly on the wall when in fifty years they finally come into their own. You feel like you've got sleeper cells there, and somebody's going to finally discover them. It's going be really great. And so that's the way that I'm looking at most of it because we were talking about "What We Miss," but then I love a poem called "Train Rides."
Frazier: I was reading that one over again last night.
Giovanni: "Train Rides" is a wonderful poem.
Frazier: Yes, I agree. You can really see your mind working in that one, the way that you...
Giovanni: Because that's the reality, too. A lot of times-actually it was one of the poems I read in Ireland-because a lot of time there is nothing we can do and that's what people don't understand. And so I wrote that poem way before my mom and my sister passed, but that still is a reality. There's nothing you can do but continue to love. And so you know, you and this poem recognize that. I read it at slams sometimes, and when I do that, all of the kids start to echo, and this poem recognizes that. So I began to see that, and I begin to hear that. I am only trying to acknowledge that though others may find your work useful, you can't think about "influencing" people. You can only think about the best poem you can write, and not worry about contradictions with earlier work or anything. Just think of the best poem you can write now. So I don't care if I'm going against what I've said. I don't care if I'm offending half the people who love me. My job is to write this poem, and clearly, whatever else it is, existentialism is a reality for the life of any poet.
I think novelists get away with some level of consistency that poets never can. You have to exist in this moment. And you can't think about what you did right, and you can't think about who might not like what you are writing. You have to write what you believe. And I think that's important.
Frazier: I think it was Billy Collins who actually had his secretary read some of the poems over to determine if they were ready to go, and if she got them, they were ready. Do you do that? Do you have a reader who you run your work by after you've got it essentially finished?
Giovanni: No. That's a huge no-no. Again, maybe I'm different but, first of all, I don't have a secretary. I'm proud of that. But there are opinions that I do value, you know. I would be happy if Ginney (Virginia Fowler), who is my critic, likes a poem-I really would be. But I don't want anybody to think that what they think is going to have an impact on what I'm doing. I don't think that way, and that's a huge no-no.
Frazier: Do you think of an audience or a reader in your head when you're writing?
Giovanni: No. I put it on the board for my kids the other day: "What's the story? It's not about writing a best seller. It's about selling your best writing." If I looked at audience, I'd never write a children's book. Look at Rosa on Rosa Parks. It's a lot of history there. And I finally read one review because I was so glad to finally get it. Ginney was upset. She said, "This was stupid." And I said, "I knew somebody had to be offended because the book is a very harsh book."
The book tells what happened that day, and what was influencing her. And so we got a complaint on the review. The woman who reviewed it said the kids don't know Emmett Till-they shouldn't have to know about lynching. She just took it apart. But I knew that everybody couldn't love this book, so I was glad when I finally saw some reviews that didn't. But in terms of what I'm doing, I couldn't think, "Will a five-year-old or a four-year-old be offended by it?" I mean, for god's sake, then you end up with Clifford the Big Red Dog, and that's nothing. That's just swill. I'm not going to say it doesn't sell, but it's swill. There's no story, there's no heart, there's nothing...
Actually, this year, I started my class with Clifford because I hate it so much and I wanted-well, you have to know what's bad. We talked about Clifford. Because Clifford was the runt of the litter, right? Runts of the litter die. That's what they do. They don't get enough in the womb, they don't get enough... their brothers and sisters push them off-they die. It's the baby that got pushed out of the nest. They die. And the boy wanted Clifford. He saw Clifford. Clifford was really sweet. The boy wanted Clifford. His father said, "But that's the runt, and he's going to die. Runts don't make it." And the boy said, "No, Daddy, this is what I want." So he takes him home. And the boy loves this dog, this puppy. And he tries to take care of him, but the boy has to wake up one morning and the dog is dead. And that's the story. That was my first lesson, and that's the story. The dog is dead because it was a runt, and no matter how much the boy loved it, it could not live.
The lesson is not that the dog grew and ate the family out of house and home, which is what happens in that stupid story. The lesson is, no matter what, no matter how much you love something, you can lose it, and that does not mean that your love was in vain. It does not mean that you've made a mistake. It does not mean that you did wrong. It meant that you gave it the love that you could while it was here. And that's sad, and we go on.
It's like people who look at divorce as a failure. Divorce is a real good idea. You're tired of each other, it ran its course, so you had twenty good years or ten good years or three good weekends; it doesn't matter. In the end, it's over, and so we do not say we have failed, but that we have completed. Divorce is a completion. And you've taken this next step on the ladder. And I don't know why people are making that such a big deal. I think nothing shows a lack of imagination so much as somebody's been married sixty years. You know somebody wasn't thinking. That's the truth. No, you know, we have to think about the whole span of emotions.
Everything can't be fixed. So we have kids out there right now losing things, losing their parents, cancers are all over, losing their pets, anything, losing their own sense of what they should be doing because they have no sense of challenge or direction. And we're saying to them, there's a half an hour fix. Turn on the television. Don't you see? Everything can be fixed in a half an hour, and everybody will laugh at the end. Oh Cisco. Oh Pancho. No, no, no.
Frazier: So you wonder what happens to the kids who are right now being brought up in Africa where the AIDS epidemic is wiping out entire villages. No parents at all. If there are any grandparents around, they're raising the kids-since the parents are obliterated.
Giovanni: It probably hurts losing their parents, I'm not a big fan of that, but it's the parents I most worry about, and I'm certainly not happy they're dying. I don't mean to make a casual statement to imply that grandparents will take care of that. But what worries me about the children in Africa are the children of war. Those children have been, first of all, soldiers-the children have done incredibly awful things. We look at Rwanda, we look at Darfur; I mean, we got fourteen-year-olds who have just slaughtered people, and they're going to be with us. Many have, in fact, migrated to the United States. It's a real problem. They're also going to be in Africa. They're also going to grow up to take leadership positions. This is what worries me because as somebody says, what is done to you, you will do. So there's a viciousness out there that we don't want... AIDS is sad. And you die. But there's viciousness when you hurt somebody, because now you have to justify that, and you justify it like Hitler's Youth did. They're not quite human, these people who kill. You start to be crazy in another kind of way. It's a bad idea.
Frazier: It is. Yes, there's a legacy of violence that we will live with, a legacy that somehow we must deal with. Last question: With all of this violence and all these terribly difficult issues that we face in the 21st century, what's the purpose of poetry as you see it?
Giovanni: I don't think poetry has to have a purpose. What's the purpose of the sun? Well, the sun is there to warm us up, and we can actually be warm without the sun, as you know. But poetry is one of the natural elements. Poetry is the grass, poetry is the mountain, it's the stream-especially the stream that holds the fish, and we see the trout. I'm from Tennessee; you see the trout jumping. I took my son fishing, 'cause you're supposed to do these things, right? I read all the books, and it's like, okay, you're supposed to take them fishing. So we went fishing several times because fishing is very pleasant and I wanted to fly fish.
I just like to do it, but I wouldn't bait his hook, so he never caught anything. He didn't. It took him the longest time before he understood that he wasn't catching anything. And I'd say, "Well, you know, everybody doesn't catch something," but he didn't have anything on his hook, and he said, "You cheated me." I said, "I didn't." I mean, what am I going to do? You go catch a fish. What am I going to do with a fish? If you want to catch a fish, you go to the fish market. You know, you go fishing for the community-you take a sandwich and you sit out, you hear the buzzes.
Poetry is a part of the natural world. It's the tulips in spring, it's the redbud in the mountains. I've got four redbud bushes in my space called "the meadow." It was cleared land because some fool messed it up, but we replanted it with natural Virginia foliage, and so we've got a lilac bush, which this year is the same color as the redbud.
And, of course, the witch-hazel was up earlier. The witch-hazel comes up when it's still snowing. You can boil it and make witch-hazel out of it. And so it's a lovely tree because it comes up early, and shows you spring is coming. Then, the robins come and that is poetry. Poetry is the robin's egg. I mean, poetry is what we do, is what we are. It's the best of us. And it's not purposeful, any more than the yellow finch is purposeful.
As I say to my students, sometimes you just have to go for a walk. It's not for a purpose and it's not to learn something. Or you go to the beach or, I don't know, go to the library; I don't know where you go, but sometimes you ought to go someplace for no damn reason. And when you come back, you should not have done anything. Because you can't spend all your life being purposeful-using every moment. I don't know anything dumber than that. Moments are to be wasted. That's a part of life, too, isn't it?
Chapman Hood Frazier is a poet and Professor of Education at James Madison University. His work has appeared in many literary reviews and other small press publications. Currently, he is working on a collection of interviews with contemporary poets about the craft of composition and ways of teaching. He is a member of the Poetry Commission for NCTE and a poetry consultant for schools.
from The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni
& Bicycles: Love Poems
by Nikki Giovanni
childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you're Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father's pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you're poor it isn't poverty that
and though they fought a lot
it isn't your father's drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they'll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
(there must be a reason why)
I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred year falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is neffertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman
I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat's meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
So swift you can't catch me
For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on
My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to read east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
except by my permission
I mean ...I ... can fly
Like a bird in the sky ...
We Are Virginia Tech
(16 April 2007)
We are Virginia Tech
We are sad today
We will be sad for quite a while
We are not moving on
We are embracing our mourning
We are Virginia Tech
We are strong enough to stand tearlessly
We are brave enough to bend and cry
And sad enough to know we must laugh again
We are Virginia Tech
We do not understand this tragedy
We know we did nothing to deserve it
But neither does the child in Africa
Dying of AIDS
Neither do the Invisible Children
Walking the night away
To avoid being kidnapped by a rogue army
Neither does the baby elephant watching his community
Be devastated for ivory
Neither does the Mexican child looking
For fresh water
Neither does the Iraqi teenager dodging bombs
Neither does the Appalachian infant killed
By a boulder
Because the land was destabilized
No one deserves a tragedy
We are Virginia Tech
The Hokie Nation embraces
And reaches out
With open heart and mind
To those who offer their hearts and hands
We are strong
We are better than we think
And not yet what we want to be
We are alive to imagination
And open to possibility
We will continue
To invent the future
Through our blood and tears
Through all this sadness
We are the Hokies
We will prevail
We will prevail
We will prevail
"Nikki Rosa" & "Ego Tripping" from the book The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright Â© 1996 by Nikki Giovanni. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers."We Are Virginia Tech" from the book Bicycles: Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright Â© 2009 by Nikki Giovanni. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.