Conversation: Poet Nikki Giovanni

BY Tom LeGro  November 23, 2010 at 11:55 AM EDT

'The 100 Best African American Poems' by Nikki Giovanni

Poet and writer Nikki Giovanni is the author of several books of poetry, including most recently Bicycles: Love Poems. Her spoken word album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, was nominated for a Grammy Award and the National Book Award.

She is a professor at Virginia Tech, where she teaches writing and literature. The 100 Best African American Poems was edited by Giovanni and published in November. I spoke to her this week about the anthology:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown and joining me today is Nikki Giovanni the poet and, in this case, editor of a new volume called “The 100 Best African American Poems.” She joins us from the campus of Virginia Tech University, and welcome to you.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Thank you. Glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, why a new collection of African American poems?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, there’s an asterisk there. It’s “The 100 Best African American Poems — But I Cheated.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, I love it. I have 221 poems in that book, and it was probably time to do another update. Every now and then you do at the end of the century or so, the 100 best this or the 10 best that or whatever, and I was invited to do the 100 best, and I thought, Well, if I do the 100 best I will only have done what had already been done. If I do the 100 best African American poems, I essentially go from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Amiri Baraka. I get about the ’60s. If I really stretch it, I might get to the ’70s, but I wanted to do more. So I needed to number one to 100. So I started with Margaret Walker ‘For My People,’ and I’m ending with ‘Ego Tripping.’ But what I did was suites and duets and quartets. I just kept putting things in. Essentially it was a sandwich and I kept stuffing something in.

JEFFREY BROWN: You clearly want to get the whole range of history and different voices, young and old.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Young is very important, because if said to yourself, Oh gosh, I want to find an African American poem, you can always find ‘Between the World and Me’ by Richard Wright, or you could always find ‘The Bean Eaters’ by Gwen Brooks or something of that nature. But I wanted to turn a fourth of the book, which essentially I was able to do, over to the new voices. And I think what makes this book really wonderful is the young writers, the Lamar Wilsons, the Remica Binghams, the Jericho Browns. I love Jericho.

JEFFREY BROWN: You got Terrance Hayes in there. He just won the National Book Award. I’ve talked to him in Pittsburgh, a wonderful guy.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m so happy to hear that. Well, good, because he’s a talented young man. Also, good for me!

JEFFREY BROWN: I also see that you got Tupac Shakur in there. Now that’s always interesting to me, because I just was talking to the editors of a new book called “The Anthology of Rap,” which is presenting rap as a kind of lyric poetry of our time. I guess you feel that way?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, I would agree, not everybody and not all the time, because rap is its own thing. But Tupac was quite a poet and I think an incredible young man. One of the things that I so loved with this book also is the CD. I invited my sorority sisters — I’m very fortunate with that, Ruby Dee is my sorority sister. I had a bunch of, maybe a gaggle of writers from around to come and we had the reading. So on the CD you get Ruby Dee reading Gwendolyn Brooks. And she and I actually did a poem together, so you’ve got this duet going. We read “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother burns bacon.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a poem from the collection that you could read for us?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: I’d to read “Bicycles,” because bicycles, like love, require trust and balance.

Midnight poems are bicycles
Taking us on safer journeys
Than jets
Quicker journeys
Than walking
But never as beautiful
A journey
As my back
Touching you under the quilt

Midnight poems
Sing a sweet song
Saying everything
Is all right

Everything
Is
Here for us
I reach out
To catch the laughter

The dog thinks
I need a kiss

Bicycles move
With the flow
Of the earth
Like a cloud
So quiet
In the October sky
Like licking ice cream
From a cone
Like knowing you
Will always
Be there

All day long I wait
For the sunset

The first star
The moon rise

I move
To a midnight
Poem
Called
You
Propping
Against
The dangers

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. “Bicycles” by Nikki Giovanni, read by Nikki Giovanni. You know occasionally there have been these debates about you go into your local book store and you see the shelves that are specifically African American literature. Is it still something that you want to have, that category, as sort of a defining category?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: It’s helpful, but only if you recognize that’s it not really definitional. For example, one of the big books this year is called ‘The Help.’ Is that a black book or what? And you won’t see it shelved under African American, because it is such a big book. It’s going to be shelved someplace else. I am not offended by sections that say, you know, sociology, psychology, Christian reading or whatever, children, black, Hispanic. I’m not offended by that as long as we recognize it’s not exclusive.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you want to make sure that this collection, “100 Best African American Poems,” gets to everybody.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Yes, because black poetry is — well no, excuse me, poetry is for everybody. Poetry is one of those crossover things. You know, all of the sad things that happened on 9/11/01, and the country is still paying for that. The one thing that was outstanding I think to all who write was the number of people who were posting poetry on the internet. People were trying to find away to express their dismay, their shock, their hurt, and they turned to poetry. It shows how important it is. This is “The 100 Best African American Poems — but I Cheated.” Again, it’s not exclusive. One of the reasons that I wanted to cheat was to add in, so that we realized that there’s more yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: In talking generally about the state of poetry today, you know, a lot of people worry about that. Where are the new readers? What do you see?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, I don’t think that there is any lack of readers. Poetry to me has always been like opera. You know, we’re not like rock ‘n’ roll; we’re like opera. There’s going to be a smaller group who is going to love what we do. I don’t mean me, Nikki, or you. But there are the people who say, I want to read poetry. Then there are going to be the other people who are going say, I need to read a poem at this point. And somebody will send it. The kids are reading. The kids are reading. Of course, rap is like the stepchild of poetry. A lot of people started with rap and with the hip hop movement, with poetry with a beat, who have now said, Oh, I need to learn a little bit more. I think that we as poets have to be very careful with how we treat ourselves, because if we’re not careful with ourselves we will start to inappropriately compare ourselves. And we’ll say, Golly, poetry doesn’t sell the way that trashy novels sell. And it doesn’t. And poetry doesn’t get made into movies. Nobody’s going to say, Oh, Nikki, I really love ‘Ego Tripping,’ I’m going to make a movie out of that. That’s not going to happen. Poetry is complete. And I think that we have to recognize, well maybe we’ve done good work and maybe we’ve reached at this particular point a maximum audience. Our problem is not to worry about that so much as to make sure that we are reaching the people who want to be reached.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. ‘The 100 Best African American Poems — but I Cheated.’ Nikki Giovanni, nice to talk to you.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Thank you.