Nikki Giovanni: Interview

Nikki Giovanni: Personal Politics by Nicole Sealey
This interview originally appeared in Mosaic #22, August 2008

Arguably one of the most widely read poets of all time, Giovanni is, among other distinctions, the author of more than 30 books for both adults and children, the recipient of over twenty honorary degrees from national colleges and universities, and currently Professor of English and the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech. Notwithstanding her many accomplishments and accolades, Nikki Giovanni is unpretentious.

Amid pouring gravy, literally “letting her dogs out,” and battling a small bout of the hiccups, Nikki Giovanni talked frankly with me about the permanence/resonance of history and politics, her new children’s book, The Grasshopper’s Song, and the ultimacy of disappointment.

Nicole Sealey: It is such an honor. Thank you, in advance, for taking the time to speak with me this evening.
Nikki Giovanni: It’s my pleasure.

NS: What inspired you to begin writing?
NG: I’m from Knoxville. We’re storytellers down there. When I was at Fisk University in the mid-60s, I was beginning to take a serious interest in writing. I used to think about how interesting it would be to write for a living. During that time, there weren’t many black people doing that. I said to myself, “Well, maybe it’s time for somebody to do it.”

I’ve never been afraid to try something new, even back then.

NS: You were just in your 20s when you were named Woman of the Year by Ebony, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Mademoiselle. That must have been an exciting time. How did you (do you) manage celebrity?
NG: I’m only a celebrity when I’m on stage. The rest of the time I’m cooking dinner, checking my mail, walking my dogs, or picking up the shit after the dogs have finished. I’m a human being.

Young people coming up who are having difficulty with their so-called celebrity need to get back into their lives. It’s your life and you can’t let the fact that you do something pretty good take away the joy of it.

NS: Where does your joy come from?
NG: We all have our muses. My grandmother and my mother are the people I write for. I’ll never have to worry about who buys my work, or who likes it, and who doesn’t. The people who I want to be proud of me already are.

NS: After the death of your grandmother in 1967, you sought writing as a refuge. Your first and second book of poems, Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgement, were published the following year. What are your thoughts about those two books of poems?
NG: They remain in print, which I am very pleased about. New generations of readers are reading them. I think that they must have been honest voices to have survived the years. From Black Judgment came my most famous poem, “Nikki-Rosa.” It’s all good work. I’m proud of them both.

NS: Some writers approach poetry from limited points of reference—borrowing from the 60s and 70s without present-day context or borrowing from today without historical reference.
NG: History is wonderful. We have so much we can learn if we would quit making ideology out of history, and just deal with what happened.

I’m a big fan of history—applying the lessons as well as the joys and sadness. If we pay attention, we would see how we affect each other. In terms of time, we are not that far from one another. If we were to look back a century, it would seem like a long time; but, if we look at it by decades then it’s only 10 years, and by generations it’s only five.

NS: Your anthology On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History Through the Spirituals is a testament to that fact.
NG: Black people are such a phenomena.

I really hope that On My Journey Now becomes a conversation. As these spirituals were past down, they changed. There are about 140 absolutely different ones. All beautiful. I hope that people begin to talk about the spirituals that they grew up with in church and that their grandmothers sang.

NS: Was your grandmother the inspiration for Grand Mother: A Multicultural Anthology of Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions?
NG: That actually grew from a writer’s workshop I was facilitating in Blacksburg, VA. I volunteered to work with seniors in a retirement home. I’d talk about my grandmother. And, they’d begin to talk about theirs. I realized that in talking with an 80 or 90-year-old woman who’s remembering her grandmother, that that memory dated back to the past century.

I’m very proud of that book because we want people to know that the past is not so far back. People think, “Oh that happened so long ago.” But, in reality, it wasn’t.

NS: Anthologies. Children’s books. Poetry. Is your process much different from project to project, from children’s book to poetry?
NG: I don’t think so. Children aren’t dumb. I’m writing a children’s book not Clifford the Big Red Dog, which, by the way, I hate. I’m telling a story to kids that they will like.

Rosa, for instance, was a big, big, big breakthrough. The kids embraced the story of Rosa Parks because she is an embraceable woman. I’ve read the book to 1st and 2nd graders and they were like “yeah, he shouldn’t have hollered at her.” Kids understand. I don’t ever dummy down.

Like I said, I’m an old storyteller. I tell the story. It’s about the story.

NS: You told your new children’s book, The Grasshopper’s Song, beautifully. James “Jimmy” Ignatius Grasshopper, the protagonist in the story, asked, “Does not the work of my heart and soul earn respect? I am an artist. Is there no place for beauty, no solace for the ear, no hope for the heart?”
NG: I thought he raised a good question. I got sick of those damn ants.

The grasshopper and the ant story more than any other bothered me because it seemed to me that the grasshopper, in making the music, was doing something and the ants, in listening to the music, were taking something. Ants don’t make a sound, but the grasshopper does. Obviously, the grasshopper provided something that the ants could not. He set the cadence for the ants to get the work done. He deserved half of the harvest.

My grandfather would read this Aesop fable to us as a warning: make sure you save for a rainy day. I didn’t take it that way. I was trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with those selfish ants. Later, I kept seeing people dealing with the same story and coming to the same conclusion, the same warning. I thought, “Haven’t we learned anything?”

Aesop was a slave—no problem there, not his fault. But, a slave thinks, acts, and speaks to please his master. Consider his options: he could tell stories to the master’s children or go out into the fields. So, that was a no-brainer.

NS: I really enjoyed the story. It calls into question society’s views of art: art as foolishness vs. art as relevant work.
NG: I’ve just always resented the fact that the ants act as if the grasshopper was just a little minstrel boy. People need to see and hear beauty. Where would blacks be without our own grasshoppers to help us feel better?

NS: The ants’ case seemed foolproof to the head, but to the hearts of the jury it was clear.
NG: It was very clear. The defendants, the ants, argued that there was no contract between the two parties (the ants and the grasshopper). Had there been a contract, there would have been signatures to prove it.

This story reminded me of the New Orleans/Katrina situation. If you buy insurance for your house and your house is destroyed during a storm, it shouldn’t matter whether the wind or the water destroyed the house. The point is the house is gone.

NS: How telling is this story to your experience as a poet?
NG: I think that I have been treated extremely well; but, I don’t think that only that should inform how I look at the way we treat artists. I think that we can do better. I’ve always wanted to see more money given to regional theater and young filmmakers. Of course, nobody will touch writing because of the first amendment. The writer is a stepchild—other than graduate school, there ought to be a place and a way that young writers can begin to see their work.

NS: Your work is very much entrenched in politics. Is the personal always political in your work?
NG: Politics is personal. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s ideological. It means that one cares about what she or he is doing, what he or she is writing. And, you have to believe in what you’re doing. I’m not asking anyone to vote for me. That’s not the kind of politics I deal with.

Photographers direct the eye toward a particular object. We who write, one hopes, are directing the heart and the soul.

NS: How can poets direct the hearts and souls of readers?
NG: Poets can tell the truth as they see it. It’s the author’s story, the author’s voice. You can’t say, “I want to write a bestseller.” I’m sure Khaled Hosseini didn’t write The Kite Runner for that reason. He probably said, “Here is a story of two boys that I want to tell.” It found a great audience because it’s a great story. The same goes for Toni Morrison’s body of work—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved are absolutely brilliant.

NS: For over four decades, you’ve continued to produce great stories.
NG: I’m a good writer because my work is fresh. I stay in the now. I have my books here and I love them, but there is not a lot of what I’ve already done around me. When my mom was alive, she passed in 2005, the major awards were in her house. She enjoyed looking at them. They didn’t quite mean the same for me as they did for her. I didn’t want to get stuck in what I had already done. I want to continue doing.

NS: You’ve said, “I’ve learned so much and I want my work to show that. I want to keep growing.”
NG: Yes, you have to. And the only way you can grow is to let yourself make mistakes and create contradictions. As we learn new things, some of our old attitudes will change.

As a writer, one has to be willing to be wrong, willing to make mistakes. I’ve put everything on the table and accepted the fact that I may come up short. And, if (or when) I do, that’s okay.

Nicole Sealey is a writer, editor, and Cave Canem fellow. She has written for a number of arts journals including Code Z: Black Visual Culture. Her interviews with acclaimed writers Sapphire and DJ Spooky can be found in Artists and Influence: Volume XXV and Studio, respectively. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.