Poet of More Tolerant Tomorrows
Nikki Giovanni in 2008 speaking at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (photo by Brett Weinstein-Flickr)
This article first appeared on December 4, 1985 in the Los Angeles Times.
Nikki Giovanni zoomed from one topic to another. Even after she scooted her petite body around the kelly green plastic table into a booth at her airport hotel’s coffee shop, the poet conveyed a sense of motion.
She whipped out the first of many cigarettes, ordered coffee and leaped into the start of her day. From that moment, mention within her earshot of almost any subject – nationwide demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, which she opposed, rearing a child, reasons to smile – sparked well-sharpened rapid-fire opinions from the 42-year-old writer who insisted: “I’m very strong in the belief that I should think for myself.”
Without a doubt.
The audience who listened to Giovanni read selections from her 13 books of poetry at Loyola Marymount University’s “Writing for Your Life” conference last month seemed to welcome her kinetic flight, seemed to want to “ride the night winds” (the title of her most recent book) with the woman wearing gray pants, a sweater of many colors and a blue jean jacket.
Whether talking with one or to 70, the “Princess of Black Poetry,” as the New York Times crowned her years ago, worked to impart a kind of preacher’s wisdom through the reading of her poetry – long a spiritual balm for some – and her discussion of writing, family, loving friendships and politics. She spent her fount of mental energy, sassy sense of humor and untarnished mettle trying to leave her colleagues a little stronger, a little more hopeful, a little more tolerant of tomorrow.
A laureate who wrote her first poem around age 8, but who truly cut her teeth on the turbulent passions of the ‘60s, Giovanni’s close-cropped Afro is now touched with wisps of gray. In her throaty voice, she spoke at the conference with a writer’s brutal insight tempered with human compassion and need.
“Hopefully, we communicate with each other; we share with each other; we learn to love somebody some time recognizing that nothing is permanent. But we would not stop the sunset because we cannot see it every day. We would enjoy it when it comes. We would not decide that we don’t want a full moon because we only get 12 of them a year. Beauty is its own reward. And no matter how transitory it is, it is nice to know that there is something beautiful or something lovely or something we can take joy in. . . .
“I think that there is something precious about life, and I think that we have to invest the same integrity in others that we want invested in ourselves,” she said. “Of course, I’m a poet so I get away with thinking things like that.”
Giovanni now does her thinking and writing in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she lives with her 15-year-old son, Thomas, and her widowed mother, Yolande, 67. Six years ago when her father, Gus, suffered a stroke, Giovanni left New York City to move back home. Much of Giovanni’s earlier work springs from Cincinnati, such as “Nikki-Rosa,” which she dedicated to her parents and which writer Margaret Walker predicted would become her signature poem:
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 Holydale
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
Seventeen years later, she says she is still happy working on a collection of essays that applaud the unappreciated polishing, scrubbing, cleaning and cooking that has traditionally been “women’s work,” refurbishing her house and pitching in on what she calls her annual “volunteer project,” teaching creative writing at the College of Mount St. Joseph on the Ohio River.
“Writing is, of course, a lonely profession,” she told the audience at the writers’ conference. “One of the things that I would urge you to do is to find a volunteer project once a year that will take you into people. If you’re not careful, you’ll spend all your time with yourself or you’ll spend all of your time with other writers. I would urge you not to make friends with other writers because we’re all nuts. We are.
“One of the things that you need to do is to find people who have real concerns because, otherwise, everybody’s dealing with similes. Everybody’s dealing with ‘How do you structure this stanza?’ What you need is somebody to say, “I know what you’re saying about writing this poem, but I have a hell of a time at the grocery store when the woman in front of me has 13 items in a 12-item lane. . . .’ “
She cautioned: “Sometimes we as artists begin to think that we are so special and so sensitive and so important to the world that we can’t do rather mundane, ordinary things like have our cars washed or fill up at a gas station. We forget that there’s a real world and as we forget . . . we lose touch with the people we’re hoping to meet, to reach, to talk to. . . .”
Though it was not her purpose, the writer said that the switch from line breaks to ellipses, making the poetry look like prose, in her latest book, “Those Who Ride the Night Winds” (William Morrow & Co., New York, 1983), may entice people who don’t usually read poetry. She said she felt “comfortable with the poetic content. I don’t think poetry is form. I think poetry is content. . . .
“I wanted an ellipsis because I was looking for a pause,” she said. “I wanted a way to slow it down. I know how to do line breaks. I can do them in my sleep.”
The book’s first poem “tumbled out” after the killing of John Lennon. The final words of “This Is Not for John Lennon” read:
. . . And those who ride the night winds to learn to love the stars . . . even while crying in the darkness . . .The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts . . .we’ll never know now . . .one part is missing. No this is not about John Lennon . . . It’s about us . . . And the night winds . . . Anybody want a ticket to ride?
Readers write her 10 to 15 letters each week, she said. An essay in the September 1984 issue of Essence magazine about her son’s excessive use of the telephone drew a heavy response from people who wrote, “ ‘I remember reading you in college or hearing you speak in 1968, and I have a 12-year-old son who is doing the same thing!’ We haven’t gotten very far, but we haven’t lost an awful lot. People are doing the same thing. I think I’ve grown with a lot of my readers, I really do. And it’s a great comfort to me.”
After the poet’s evening reading at the writers’ conference, she autographed new books and tattered, cherished ones. “I’m glad my mother told you to come,” she said to two middle-aged women after hugging them.
A shout from a 30-year-old security guard at the Westchester college halted Giovanni before she disappeared through the doorway. “I heard you read every Sunday at church,” he said, after catching up with her. “My mother played your albums.”
And a 31-year-old writer remembered that she kept Giovanni’s first published book in a special place in her college dormitory room as a touchstone of one of her realities.