February 13, 2009
We travel now far from the world of oligarchs and high finance, to some enduring matters of the human heart parochial affairs like love and bicycles. Our guide is the poet Nikki Giovanni, and when she came to town the other day, her fans were waiting. It was standing room only at the Barnes & Noble store on Union Square as she read from her new book.
"My Muse." This is so egocentric.
I am my own muse
I delight me with my words of both wit and wisdom
I teach myself so much, such insight into the human soul, such compassion for the weak and weary, such utter contempt for the self-satisfied.
Then it was on to St. Francis College in Brooklyn, performing in memory of the civil rights hero, Rosa Parks.
In order for these kids to grow up, and have some other sense of Rosa Parks, because eventually they'll get to the history, but I thought, well, why don't we just turn Rosa into a dance so that they can sit around and do the Rosa Parks? It's how you teach them.
Do the Rosa Parks, say: "No, No." Do the Rosa Parks, throw your hands in the air. Do the Rosa Parks say: "No, No." Do the Rosa Parks, say: "That's not fair." Somebody's lying, Rosa Parks him. Somebody's crying, Rosa Parks her. Shame the bad, comfort the good. Do the Rosa Parks just like she would. Sit down, sit down. Let's do the Rosa Parks all over town.
These students are too young to know much about Rosa Parks or Giovanni's own fabled story. But some of us remember when she burst on the scene in the incendiary '60s, as a student activist at Fisk University in Nashville, a founding member of the Black Arts Movement, a friend of Angela Davis and James Baldwin. By the time she made the cover of "Jet Magazine", she had been dubbed the "Princess of Black Poetry." Here are some excerpts from a film shown on PBS twenty years ago.
And she would learn
How god was neither north
Nor south east or west
With no color but all
She remembered was that
Sheba was Black and comely
And she would think
I want to be
Where are your heroes, my little Black ones?
You are the Indian you so disdainfully shoot
Not the big bad sheriff on his faggoty white horse
You should play run-away-slave
Or Mau Mau
These are more in line with your history.
Over the years she produced 27 books, and some years ago was named University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She was off-campus that day in April two years ago when a student turned violent. When the massacre was over, 32 people were dead. The next day, at a memorial for the victims, Nikki Giovanni was asked to speak. Her words brought thousands to their feet in a tearful standing ovation, a moment it was said, of profound healing.
We are Virginia Tech, the Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hand to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave, and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the 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. We are Virginia Tech.
That was April 2007, almost two years ago, and that poem is now the closing work in her new collection, "Bicycles."
Nikki Giovanni is with me now. Welcome.
Oh, thank you.
What do words do for grief? The sadness you sometimes feel, the grief you felt after Virginia Tech's massacre. What do they do?
I guess they let us know that we're not alone. I think what words do is we acknowledge that we're human and we hurt. And so you don't have to pretend you're not hurting. Because you have a hole in your heart. Poems, I mean, go back to 9-11-01 here in the States. People were posting poems all over the internet, because they were trying to find a way to connect. To say, "This hurts, but we're not alone. Someone else is sharing this pain." And this thing that happened at Virginia Tech, it was an incredibly sad time for us. And I think that the only thing that I could do to make sense out of it was to connect these dots. And the only thing to connect the dots was going to be love. Because, no matter what else is wrong with you, good wine and good sex will make you feel better. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that.
You are, you most certainly are.
Yeah. But, you know, 65 year-old women are not finished. It was great. And I just thought, you know, I've got to rethink it, and then I've got to find an object.
But the object you chose was bicycles. Why bicycles? And what do they have to do with tragedy and drama and loss and death even?
Well, tragedy and trauma are wheels. And they're always with us, aren't they? They're always spinning around. That's the perimeters of life, of these tragedies. They just spin around and spin around. And so what you're trying to do is bring them together. And when you bring them together you've got the bar, right? So you have a vehicle, right? Well, when I grew up, you learned to ride a bicycle by getting on a bicycle. Which means you're going to fall off. And love and life and bicycles are about trust and balance. It's about riding it and believing that this thing that doesn't make sense for you to be on, can move. And we see it here. This is such a great city, I love Manhattan. And I miss it in my dreams sometimes. But when we see the messengers on that bike, that's just trust and balance. They just say, "I'm coming at it. I don't care if the cars are going to swerve, I'm-" It's beautiful watching them on their bicycles. But we do that in our relationships. It's the same bike. We are continuing relationships through trust and balance.
So you learned to ride a bicycle, right?
I did. An emotional bicycle. I saw the spinning wheels because I was spinning. I was being hurt by things that had nothing to do with me. I was being hurt because my sister had a lung tumor that had metastasized. And I would go to my grave believing my mother died because she didn't want to bury my sister, because there was nothing wrong with my mother until it was evident that my sister was not going to make it. And I say it all the time, I hope, when I get to heaven, the only reason I want to go to heaven is to tell those two women, "You did it to me again." Because they were always they did, they were always leaving me, Bill. I was a baby.
And, remember, Robert Louis Stevenson, "In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight. In summer, quite the other way, I have to go to bed by day. I have to go to bed and see the birds still hopping on the tree." And I had to go to bed at nine o'clock. Mommy would bathe us at seven. And then we'd sing or tell stories or something, I had to be in bed. But she would come and get Gary my sister's name was Gary. She would come, about 9:30, and I would hear her, "Is she asleep?" And Gary would say, "I think so." And then they would sneak out. And when this thing happened I said, you know, they did it again. Mommy just decided, okay, I'm going to go and Gar, I'll be back for you. And nobody said, "Well, what about Nikki?" 'Cause everybody would always think, well, Nikki can take care of herself. Nikki's strong, and Nikki can do it. And Nikki was feeling very sad. But, fortunately, Nikki's a poet, so I began to write my way out of it.
Read your poem "Bicycles" for me. It's on page 29.
"Midnight poems are bicycles
Taking us on safer journeys
But never as beautiful
As my back
Touching you under the quilt
Sing a sweet song
Is all right
Here for us
I reach out
To catch the laughter
"The dog thinks
I need a kiss
With the flow
Of the earth
Like a cloud
In the October sky
Like licking ice cream
From a cone
Like knowing you
"All day long I wait
For the sunset
"The first star
The moon rise
To a midnight
I love that.
You know my favorite poem of yours?
"Choices." Would you read it?
"if i can't do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don't want
"it's not the same thing
but it's the best i can
"if i can't have
what i want then
my job is to want
what i've got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more
"since i can't go
where i need
to go then i must go
where the signs point
though always understanding
"when i can't express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal
but that's why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry"
Where did that come from?
I wrote this book, "Cotton Candy On a Rainy Day" and I wrote it while my father was dying. Losing your father's real different from losing your mom, I think.
When you lose your father, you have your mother. And you bury your father, you know, and you're there with your mother and your sister. Normally, when you lose your mother, you would have your siblings, in my case, my sister. But I'm going to lose my mother knowing that my sister is going to it's imminent.
And burying my dad was a sad affair because I wasn't that close to him. But my mother liked him. And I liked my mother. So I figure, you know, maybe she knows something I don't know. But burying mommy, I knew that I was going into a place that there was no one that I could actually talk to. I can talk I mean we talk, but there's no one that's going to enter that boat that you row by yourself back to that place where your deepest fears reside.
There are a lot of somber books born of grief. But not many books I've seen that are about love born of grief. And, yet, that's what this book is about. It's a book of love poems.
Oh yeah. Well, what else was going to make you smile? I enjoyed it so much. The writing of it makes me smile. What else will get you through it, you know? And you start to dress better because you there's so much that if you don't take care of yourself I'm a freak for how food looks. I will not eat ugly food. I'm an American, I will not starve to death. So I do not have to eat ugly food. I refuse to do drive-through. I am not a grazer, I am not a cow. You eat. You sit down. You put a napkin there. And it has to have the colors. If you're having a steak then you'll have a little carrots because it's really yellow, and it looks good. And maybe a little broccoli. So that the plate first, you plate it. And my aunt, because my uncle died, and she'd been very sad. And I had to call her and say, "Ag, what'd you have for" you know, because she didn't have any daughters, right? And so I said, "Ag, what'd you have for dinner?" She said, "Oh, I just had a bowl of cereal." I said, "You can't do that. You have to plate your food." You have to take of yourself. I've started to have massages because it's like, I have to make time to have a massage. It feels great, somebody just rubbing oil in your back. Where's the downside? You have to do things to remind yourself that it's a really good idea to be alive.
Do you, today, think a lot about death? I mean, you're on the campus that was stalked by death. You lost your mother and your sister in the approximate time. You've lost a lung, right?
I was glad to give that up. It was a bad lung. Nasty. Mean lung. It was my left lung. I didn't need it. I have another one.
But are you, at 65, thinking more of death because of all of these that have preceded your own?
No, you know, I think, Bill, I think I fell in love. And so I started thinking about, what else are we going to do?
You fell in love?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. It is wonderful. You know, you just keep thinking of things that are wonderful to do. And life is a good idea.
Tell me what it takes to write a love poem.
I think a generous spirit and a willingness to make a fool of yourself.
That's love, right?
That's love too.
And you somewhere that love is about you and not the beloved. And that's very important to remember as you're writing a poem. Why?
Because it's your trip. And, you know, it's one of the reasons, I think, that people, and I've always been amazed that you can break up with somebody, and somebody will say to you, "Well, if you leave me I'm going to kill you." Now, logic says, if I'm dead, you still didn't get me. Right? So how do we get you see what I'm saying? How do we get to that point?
And I think that we have to look at I love you, which is enhancing to me. I learned a long time ago, because I just fell madly in love, and I don't mind saying this, his wife knows it, with Billy Dee Williams. Billy is so good looking. If I was 40 years younger I'd be in love with Barack Obama. But I realized that it had nothing to do with Billy Dee. And I remember meeting him. And I said, you know, "Your wife's going to kill me." He said, "She don't care." But being in love has nothing to do with how the person feels about you. It has to do with how you feel about yourself.
That's often the source of the pain is if you love someone who doesn't love you.
No, that's just because you're expecting something that you can't have. The love is itself. That is the journey. And that's the journey that you're on. Because love, that kind of love is crazy. And it's going to go away. It's like a cold. Except that the cold is uncomfortable. I mean, you're madly in love, and the hormones are raging, but, hey, six months from now you'll be off doing something else. So you give over. It's the truth. You enjoy that feeling. Being an artist you, of course, put it into that. I mean, you look at and I'm really fond of the writing of like a Paul Williams, you know, "You and I against you and me against the world," something like that. For that moment that you are in that spot the best thing that ever happened to you was that you saw that person and all the lights went on. Now you ask yourself, not what can that person do for me, but what can I do. I've got the light, what do I do with it?
I read these poems, every one of them reeks with desire.
Well, desire is there. You fall in love, there's always desire. But, also, there's a lot of longing. And I realize a lot of this book, too, still has a lot to do with my mother. That I miss the safety. And I think that one is never so safe again as when one's mother is not there to put their arms around. I mean, they're just your mom just makes you safe. You know? No matter what it is you go and your mother just says, "It's going to be all right." No matter what it is, you say, "Yeah." So I really had to almost stop myself, on April 16th, from picking up the phone, because she wasn't there. But that's who I would have wanted to talk to from that tragedy. I wanted to hear my mother's voice.
When the killings occurred you wanted to talk to your mom?
Yeah. I did. I wanted mommy. Because I knew she'd make sense out of it for me.
My mother's been dead almost ten years now, and I still reach for the phone to call her. And then suddenly I realize there's nobody to pick up 4606, you know.
What I think all of us realize is that it's not that phone, but there's another one. Because you do sort of, sometimes, you know, in the middle of the night, you're sleeping, you just feel like somebody. And I felt that, that I just heard, "It's going to be all right. Everything's going to be all right." And it just allows you, just you know, science teaches us: matter is neither created nor destroyed. And that's true. I believe that. I have no problem with it. If that's the case, then what was, is. So we lose the body but we keep the spirit. And it's up to us, the spirit is not there to scare us. I don't believe in ghosts and things like that. But there is an energy. And we have to keep finding ways to tap into it.
And you do that by writing.
I do that by writing. I do that by listening. I do that by allowing myself to admit that I'm sad. I don't always I mask a lot of my feelings, but there are just times that you have to admit, "I'm really sad. I really wish I had my mother." And you just have to kind of let see if you can get the feeling to come to you.
Read "Everything Good Is Simple."
"Everything good is simple: a soft boiled egg...toast fresh from the oven with a pat of butter swimming in the center...steam off a cup of black coffee... John Coltrane bringing me 'Violets for My Furs'
"Most simple things are good: Lines on a yellow legal pad... dimples defining a smile...a square of gray cashmere that can be a scarf... Miles Davis 'Kind of Blue'
"Some things clear are complicated: believing in a religion...trying to be a good person...getting rid of folk who depress you...Horace Silver 'Blowing the Blues Away'
"Complicated things can be clear: Dvo‰ôˆ°k's 'New World' Symphony... Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations'... Mae Jemison's riding in space... Mingus 'Live at Carnegie Hall'
"All things good are good: poetry... patience... a ripe tomato on the vine... a bat in flight... the new moon...me in your arms... things like that"
Oh, I like that.
It's a nice poem.
And then there's "Give It a Go?" on page 34.
"Give It a Go?" is just an old lusty poem. I love it.
"I like to polish
Rub the paste in
Let it set
Then shine shine shine
"Even as a little girl
I loved to wash
Watch the light bounce
Off of the edges
Of the glasses
"We were taught
Never to use clear
But trim our nails
To a respectable length
And buff them
With lamb's wool
"I wipe my bathroom
Mirror after each shower
And always shine my faucet
In order to properly care for things
They must be loved
"Want to give it
You know, that's a shout out to Prince Charles and Camilla.
Yeah. Because you remember, when they met, the myth, I don't know them, but the myth was Camilla said, "You know, my grandmother was the mistress of your grandfather. Want to give it a go?" And so I did this as a shout out to Charles. I'm a big fan of Charles. I think he's a great kid. And had a lot on him to be, what, is he 55 years old? To spend your life waiting for your mother to die so that you can do what you were born to do. That's a burden. And that's where that's a shout out to Charles.
These poems are a long way from your days as a young revolutionary.
Did you know love then? Or was it the love of the cause? The passion of the commitment?
Thank you. Young people do things differently. And I did what I thought I should do. And I'm very, very proud of my work. But as we go along, I mean, the hip-hop generation elected a president. Barack Obama's President of the United States. This is something that we would have dreamed of.
One of the poems here in "Bicycles" is a poem I did for Huey Newton, who was a wonderful young man. And I just hated that people had so misunderstood Huey. But this was Huey's dream. He's the one electing people. He's the one registering voters. He's the one having school programs and things, you know. The politics of it was Huey. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about justice for the world. Martin would be happy, I'm sure. And, I don't want to speak for Martin, I don't want you to misunderstand. But he would be happy that the United States had elected a fine young man. But he would still weep for the genocide that we're finding all over Africa. He would weep for the children dying of malaria. He wanted a just earth. His vision was way beyond an American president.
Are you saying that his dream, "I have a dream," was not fulfilled in Obama's election?
No. I'm yes. That's what I'm saying. That it was not. Obama's election, we hope, is a step. Obama said that. Barack is a smart man. I really, I'm so proud of the United States for having elected him. Because this is not the change, as Barack Obama himself said. This is the ability to make the change. And that it's a fine line, but it's so true.
And King's Dream was for a just world.
For a just world, sure. Martin was Martin is one of the great people in the 20th century. He's way beyond America. He, again, brought a simple thing, a bus boycott, by a great woman, Rosa Parks. Without Mrs. Parks there's no boycott. Because Mrs. Parks was so well regarded that when this happened to her, it was like not, not Mrs. Parks. And so the city came together and they asked, as you know, Martin to speak. You were there. And Martin spoke. He's 26 years old. So he's a child. And he knows, when he goes to that podium, that a bell, you know, a clock starts to tick. He knows he's not going to die of old age. He knows he's not going to see his grandchildren. He knows these things. But he did his job. But his job was not the bus boycott, or what happened in Birmingham, or that wonderful speech on the March on Washington. His job was to change the earth. And he did. You can go anyplace on planet earth, any part of Africa, any part of Europe, and you see pictures of Martin. He's way bigger. He's way bigger.
Does Obama's election mean in your eyes, that we've moved into a post-racial world, as some people are saying?
Well, I think as much as people don't like it, yeah.
Is that feasible? And is it desirable? That we don't think of race anymore?
Oh no, no, we think of race. But we now don't think that that is an automatic exclusion. And there's going to be racist things that are going to happen. I mean, we've already seen a young man gets shot in the back in Oakland, California. The young baseball player gets shot in his own driveway, you know. We see things like that.
But when for me, Bill, to say it's post racial, is to say that we now have to find a way to move our nation, and our own individual desires and possibilities, beyond it. We have to recognize that when we look at a Barack Obama, we are looking at a man of color. If we just go back even ten years, when we looked at Tiger Woods, maybe 15, I forget how long Tiger Woods has been around, I remember Tiger Woods having that discussion, "I'm not really black." Well, it was fine with me, 'cause you don't want to be black, you don't have to be. But it's really one of those you want to call up and say, "Tiger, baby, have you looked in the mirror lately?"
And, you know, we're moving, not that we don't see race, because we'll always see it, but that now it is an enhancement. Right now, somebody is saying, "My daughter, my daughter, can be president of the United States." 'Cause maybe the first Chinese-American will be a woman president of the United States. We've opened up the world.
What opened up your world? What empowered you?
I think, largely, my grandmother. Because she was a great old girl. I adored her. And, you know, grandmother would walk, and I'd be right behind her. If she stopped, I would bump into her. I absolutely adored her. I always felt I wrote the poem "Knoxville, Tennessee" for grandmothers love poem to grandmother. And I know the term I use a lot is safe, and it's because I'm an artist, and I never feel safe. So I'm always looking for safe places. And, you always felt safe with grandmother. With grandmother was always saying, you know, "You should do this." Mommy would say, "You can." You know. But grandmother's like, "You should." Because grandmother wanted to change the world. And, you know, when you have a retrospective on your mother, your father, your grandparents, or something, you realize that grandmother wanted to change the world. She wasn't ambitious, like she didn't care about money and stuff. But she wanted to make an impact. And she fought very hard, in Knoxville, Tennessee, to make changes for those of us who are black. Grandmother's, you know, a black woman, obviously. And I think I took her drive to make a difference. You want to make a difference.
Where did this adoration of words come from?
Oh, probably grandpapa, because he was a Latin teacher. And grandpapa was 20 years he's a Fisk University graduate. He taught Latin at Austin High School. And grandpapa was 20 years older than grandmother when he met talk about a crazy love. He fell in love with her. And, he was married, unfortunately. And grandmother wouldn't have any truck with him. And it took me the longest I used to hear them talk, 'cause I lived with them. And he would say, "I only wanted to kiss your grandmother." And his name was John Brown Watson. And grandmother would invariably say, "John Brown, if I had let you kiss me, you would have never married me." And I had no idea, you know, you can't corrupt the innocent. Had no idea what that meant. And I was old before I realized that's a metaphor. It wasn't about a kiss. 'Cause, to me, a kiss is, you know. It was a metaphor. And grandmother was right. If she had let him make love to her he'd have never married her. So he divorced his wife and he married her. But now he's 20 years older. So when we come along, grandpapa is an old man. And was not one the suffer fools gladly. So I never knew why grandpapa spent time with me.
But he would say, you know, "Nikki, let's go look at the stars." I know the stars. We'd go out, and, "That's Orion's belt. And that's the Big Dipper." And he would explain that. He would help me, I'm not good at conjugating Latin verbs. He read all of the myths to me. Because I guess I was the granddaughter that I don't know why. I don't know why grandpapa spent time with me.
Why he invested so much in you?
Yeah. I really don't.
He saw something.
Yeah. But he did. I mean, he I don't know. But that's where all of that comes from. And my father's a big talker. So if you put the combination of my grandfather's intellectual with my father's B.S.-ing, I think that you end up with a Nikki.
You wrote a poem once to specifically empower girls.
Why did you think they need a special kind of empowerment?
Because girls are always sitting around listening to stupid things that boys say. And girls, you know, half the games girls play, Little Sally Walker, what is she doing? She's rising to the east, looking for the one she loves the best. What did what's her name? Snow White. And she's going to go to sleep until "one day my prince will come."
You get sick of that. You got a girl who can spin flax into gold, and her father, "The Miller's Tale," which became "Rumpelstiltskin," her father than takes her up to the prince to say, "You should marry my daughter. She can spin flax into gold." What does she need with him? If I can spin flax into gold I would I mean, she didn't need the prince. And I got sick of girls always saying, you know, "Well, we'll just see what the boys want to do." And so I wrote "Ego-Tripping... I was born in the Congo." I wanted to give the girls a shout out to how wonderful it is to be a girl. You are complete within yourself.
"(there may 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 years 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 nefertiti
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 for 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 reach 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..."
But you know, the joy of my life I wrote this for little girls but the joy of my life was watching a couple of little kindergarten boys recite that for me once. And I realized, I think I have a good poem because the boys didn't feel excluded. You know, when you can do something like that and little boys say, "I was born in the Congo," it was, like, whoa, wait a minute. We might have something here. So I was 'cause little girls are always getting dumped on. And I just wanted to say, but, look, everything that happened on earth is about you.
What was the turning point in your life? As you look back, what do you see as the moment that was the hinge?
I think its maybe ten years down the pike. I haven't hinged yet. I haven't thought about it like that.
No, but you start out as this passionate, incendiary, controversial activist. What was it? The Princess of Black Poetry?
Yeah. That was nice.
Yeah, and here you-
I'm still passionate. I just don't try to censor myself as I go through things. I was never an ideologue. I think-
What were you?
I was just a woman looking at the world, trying to find a way to be happy and to be safe and to make a contribution. And, in order to do that, a lot of bush had to be cut down. I don't think I cut down any trees. I'm a big fan of trees. But there was a lot of weeds out there. And racism, poverty, just basic prejudice against women. Prejudice against any number of things. And so you go through, not the jungle, because the jungle is impassable, but you go through that field. And you say to yourself, "I have got to knock some of these weeds down." And so that's all I was trying to do. And I was just trying to be me.
The book is "Bicycles: Love Poems." Nikki Giovanni, it's been wonderful to talk with you.
Oh, Bill, thank you. It's been my pleasure.
That's it for the Journal this week. Be sure to join us on our website at pbs.org, where you can find more poetry and prose from Nikki Giovanni, as well as some useful online tools that will help you track just where all those billions of economic stimulus dollars are supposed to go.
That's at pbs.org. I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.