Writer Nikki Giovanni

Originally aired on November 18, 2013
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The world-renowned poet, writer and activist dissects her latest collection of poetry and prose, Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.

Nikki Giovanni is one of the foremost storytellers of the 1960's and 70's Black Art Movement. Now on Virginia Tech's faculty, she's written some 30 volumes of poetry, children's books and collections of essays. The Tennessee native has also released several albums, including "Truth Is on Its Way"—at the time, a groundbreaking combination of gospel spirituals and poetry—and won a Grammy nod for "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection." She's a breast cancer survivor and contributed an intro to the book, Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors. Among her many honors are seven NAACP Image Awards and the first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award.


Tavis: Best-selling writer Nikki Giovanni is one of this country’s most honored poets, commentators, and educators. Her eloquent voice comes through in more than 30 books and as a university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech.

Her latest collection of poetry and prose is called “Chasing Utopia,” but the utopia here is not the one envisioned by Thomas More in 1516. It’s something else entirely different. We’ll get to that later in this conversation, I suspect. (Laughter)

First of all, Nikki Giovanni, it’s always good to have you on this program.

Nikki Giovanni: Oh, it’s good to be here, Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: Let me start where anyone with good sense would start with you, (laughter) and that is by not asking a question but by asking you to read. I guess that is a question: Will you read something for me from the book?

Giovanni: I would love it.

Tavis: All right.

Giovanni: “I would like to see you cooking. I would like for you to cook for me. I would like to see you decide upon a menu, go to the market and pick the fruit, the vegetables, the fish. I would like to see you smell the fish, test the flesh for freshness and firmness.

“I would like to watch you in the bakery. In the bakery by the dinner rolls, deciding – rolls or crusty bread? I would watch you run back to get the goat butter.

“I would like to be sitting in a corner and you, intent upon your meal, not noticing me when you walk to the wine store. I would watch you wrestle with red or white. White, of course, because it’s fish; but red is seductive. Whoever fell in love over a glass of white wine? (Laughter)

“I, uncharacteristically on time, would like you to greet me in a butcher’s apron. I would like to watch you greet me only in an apron. You would ask me to undress – to undress for you.

Before I sit down at the beautiful table, before you hand me my glass, you would ask me to undress. I would like to watch you watch me undressing for you. I would like to watch the movement inside the apron as I undress for you.

“I would like to watch you walk – no, stroll to your closet, where you bring out your old buffalo plaid dressing gown, your pilly, much-washed dressing gown that smells like you after you brush your teeth, after you shower, after you comb your hair. I would like to embrace your odor. Your odor, your essence, as we sit down to eat.

“I would like for you to cook for me. I would like that very much.”

Tavis: This, (laughter) this book – that piece is called, by the way, “Still Life with Apron.”

Giovanni: “With Apron.” (Laughs) Yes.

Tavis: “Still Life with Apron.” This book is filled with can I say an ode to food?

Giovanni: Yeah. (Laughs) That’s good.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me why that is for this book.

Giovanni: Well, the book started because of Chasing Utopia, which actually is a beer, and it’s because my mother was a beer drinker, and she drank, Mama drank a beer every day of her life, and we knew she was dying when she didn’t want a beer.

I was mourning and I was sad, and I was trying to – what does one do with sadness? So we’re all foodies, and so it started with the beer, and then realizing that I was – I drink a beer, by the way, Tavis, everyplace I go for my mom.

I was just coming from Accra, and so when I got into the hotel in Accra, Ghana, I went downstairs. The number one beer in Accra, as you know, is Club beer, and you go to Jamaica, number one beer is Red Stripe.

But the number one beer in the world is Utopia, and so I thought well, if I want to drink a beer for Mommy, I want the number one beer. So that’s what started it. Then everyplace you go you do something that reminds you.

I cooked with my grandmother and my mother, and of course you know my sister, Gary, was a great cook. So a lot of my good memories are about food, and I just found a way for me to incorporate it, to bring it out.

Tavis: How does engaging in that activity allow you not just to remember your mother, but to connect with your mother?

Giovanni: I think that we all do things that the people we love do, and so in this case it’s cooking. But then that would be my sister, my mother, and my grandmother.

And the art of repeating it, because I’m also, if – and I say this with no arrogance, but I’m also being able to share Mommy with the rest of – because a lot of people didn’t know her, and didn’t have any particular reason.

But this way I can share my good feelings about my mother, and somebody else has a mother, and they bake beans together. Somebody else has – you see those ads all the time, and the father and the grandfather go fishing, and that makes everybody smile.

Well, we’re Black and we cooked, and so that’s what we did. (Laughter) That’s what we do.

Tavis: We don’t know your mother, but we celebrate and we appreciate and we are grateful to your mother for at the very least giving us you, which was a significant contribution.

But I’m just curious, though. Brag about your mama for a second. Tell me what it is about your mama that you would like for us to know, that we would have loved about your mother.

Giovanni: Well, Mommy was a dreamer, let me start with that. She’s short. I have an aunt who’s 5’4″.

Tavis: I know you ain’t calling nobody short. (Laughter) Did you just say your mother was short?

Giovanni: Mama was short. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m not going to ask you to stand up on camera, but that was funny for me.

Giovanni: I’m 5’2″.

Tavis: Yeah, okay.

Giovanni: But Mommy was 4’11”.

Tavis: Okay, that’s short. Okay, okay, okay.

Giovanni: Okay, yeah, that’s short. But Mommy was a tennis player, so she had a lot of upper body not muscles, but she had a lot of upper body strength. Mommy, growing up as she did in segregation, played tennis in the old Wilberforce, so she played tennis – Arthur Ashe was the last big person, but Althea Gibson was the first person to come out of that to go on and play that.

Tavis: That’s right.

Giovanni: Mommy was a mother by that time that Arthur – and there still aren’t really any mothers in women’s tennis. There are fathers in tennis, but not mothers.

So Mommy did that. Mommy was also, had a beautiful voice, and she sang. She sang in the glee club. But Mommy and I were the only two people in the family that couldn’t play the piano, and pretty much for the same reason.

Grandmother taught everybody how to play the piano, but Grandmother, whom I absolutely adored, had a really bad habit of wanting to hit you. So if you hit the wrong note, she had a little number two pencil. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Giovanni: I was doing – I thought I was doing what she told me to do, and I hit a wrong note and Grandmother hit my hand, and I’m a cerebral – that’s (unintelligible). I said, “Grandmother, if you’re going to be abusive, I’m not going to sit here.” (Laughter)

Grandmother – I wish you had known her – Grandmother said, “Abusive? Well, I’ll be dogged.”

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Giovanni: And that was the end of that. Of course, she got the best of it, because now I wish I knew how to play the piano, I really do. But I love music and Mommy loved music, and there probably isn’t a jazz song between the ’20s and the ’70s that I don’t know, because Mommy listened to it all the time.

Tavis: That’s funny; we have one of the same regrets. I took piano lessons as a kid, stayed with it for a while, and it is one of the greatest regrets of my life that I stopped taking piano. I wish I could just sit down and play whenever I wanted to.

Giovanni: Don’t you? Yeah, no, it’s – my father, and I’ve begun to deal with my father. I mentioned to somebody else, I’m so glad I didn’t really try to write about my father when I was in my twenties, because he could be abusive, speaking of abuse, and I don’t think that’s what he intended to be.

I think that he and my mother understood each other, and I always say that to any man that I know, and anybody that’s listening – the reason that you don’t hit your wife is not that your wife doesn’t understand why you’re doing it, because there’s a great book by Ernest Gaines, “The Gathering of Old Men,” where one of the men says, “Don’t you know why I hit you?”

Of course it’s because it’s (unintelligible) your wife understands it, but your daughter doesn’t, and your son repeats it. So you make a judgment about what your father’s doing, and it’s a bad judgment.

I was glad that I didn’t try to do that, because I knew whatever it was, I didn’t understand it. But I have begun here, as I was mourning Mommy, I’ve also tried to begin to access what it is that my father was going through.

So it’s going to – it’s being interesting, because I don’t want to think like – I don’t know that I have another book, that I’ll live long enough. These are not things you know. But if I do, the book that I want to access is trying to understand what he went through and why I think he should have done something different, but also what we have to understand. I just made a terrible sentence, didn’t I?

Tavis: No, it wasn’t terrible enough – it wasn’t so terrible that I didn’t understand it, and I think the audience got it too.

Giovanni: Yeah.

Tavis: But it does raise a question. I suspect there’s somebody in that audience asking right now, “But Ms. Giovanni, it sounds to me like you’re excusing what your father did.”

Giovanni: No, I don’t think I excuse – we called him “Gus.” I’m not trying to excuse Gus; I’m trying to understand it.

Tavis: Right.

Giovanni: Because I do know on my life that he loved us. I also know he couldn’t find a way to make that make sense. So in a way, “Chasing Utopia,” because I’m a mama’s girl, and in “Chasing Utopia” and in embracing Mommy in the way that I have here, because it was fun writing this book, and if you wouldn’t do anything else but “Chasing Utopia,” you will laugh, because the laughter is there.

My grandmother’s laughter is there. I have a thing in this book called the “giggle bank,” and what I had imagined is that my grandmother, because her laughter was universal.

So what she did was she deposited the laughter, so whenever we needed laughter we could go to the giggle bank, and the Giggle Fairy had to give it to us. Because Grandmother took care of us.

So I thought well, I’m not just lopsided, and I just read Marcus Samuelsson’s book, which I loved so much, “Yes Chef,” and you want to deal with your life as you see it.

So there’s this whole part of my life as a writer that I haven’t really – I’ve dealt with what I can deal with, but now I think I’m ready. I’m 70 years old, Tavis, and I think I’m old enough to deal with this other part, and just to try to understand.

I don’t know that I ever – I laugh about it because I know all mothers and grandmothers go to heaven, and I know my mother had some pull with God, so I’m sure my sister made it to Heaven.

But Gus went to Hell. I have no question where he went. (Laughter) Being very much his daughter in my own way, I’m going to go to Hell too, but I am going to get a day pass to Heaven so I can sit down and talk to them.

Tavis: See, you – (laughter) you said something a few minutes ago that I want to go back and have you unpack for me, and I’m glad that this is on television, because I’m glad we have this on tape, because I’m sure years from now I will look back on this particular answer to this question.

Are there things now at 70 that you know – your father’s one of them. Are there things now at 70 that you know you could not have written about earlier in your career? As a poet, the world is a canvas.

You could write about anything, but there are some things, your father being one of them, that you have chosen not to, or at least knew that you couldn’t tackle at an earlier age that you now feel equipped to deal with.

Giovanni: Gus would be the main thing, simply because I knew that I wasn’t looking at him objectively. I know that there are people who probably look at my early work and say, “Well, you weren’t looking at white people objectively either,” but I had a history that I was dealing with.

Politics is a whole nother kettle of fish. You have to be on the dime on politics, you have to be now with politics because that’s all you can deal with. You can have a bigger vision. I never had that question.

I got asked, as did everybody, “Do you think that Barack Obama,” when he was first running, “Do you think that this was Martin Luther King’s vision?” Well, no. Barack Obama wasn’t Martin Luther King’s vision. Martin was a leader and Barack is a politician. That’s two different things.

You see what I’m saying? Entirely.

Tavis: Sure.

Giovanni: So I could be what I was because I never really hated anybody. I just was dealing with the truth of the situation as it politically presented itself. But dealing with the family, I’m a fan of the family as long as the family is a fan of you.

So I’ve had friends and I’ve had students, you can see that their parents are just kind of holding them back. I don’t want to say forget your mother and father, but you do have to go beyond, because you’ve had experiences that are different.

Heck, look at where we are right now. We were talking earlier – kids don’t know albums, kids don’t know record albums. Kids don’t know landline phones. But there’s a generation right behind us who won’t know television, because everything that they’ll see, it’ll be on their iPhone.

So what you have to do is approach whatever it is you’re dealing with as you understand it and as you can make sense out of it. This is not psychology. Writing is not a substitute for your analyst or something.

Writing is something that you can share that somebody can come back in 40 years. I wrote my first book in ’68.

Tavis: See, that raises – what you’ve said now raises two questions, and I’m glad I’ve got a little bit more time here to kind of get you to unpack it for me. In no particular order, question number one.

Since you write in the here and the now, based upon your understanding that you have in the here and the now, does that mean that there’s stuff you wrote in the ’80s and the ’70s and the ’60s that if you were to revisit you might critique harshly your own work?

Giovanni: (Laughter) (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Based upon what you know now that you didn’t know then, or based upon how you see the world now and the way you didn’t see it then?

Giovanni: Well, we were talking, but one of the things that I’ve been very cautious about how I approach it has been slavery, the issue of slavery. There’s no way to be a Black American and not realize that the reason that I am who I am is that somebody sold me. Somebody bought me, but somebody sold.

So you have to respond to that. I was just in Ghana, three weeks coming from a literacy conference, that a student of mine, Kwame Alexander, convenes in Ghana.

I was glad to go over, because in talking to that audience – first of all, I know that there are many different kinds of literacies. So we’re there for a literacy conference, because we’re there because people want, we want people to read.

Reading is a good idea, but the Gypsies can read your hand. There are people, American Indians particularly, who can read the clouds. There are people that can read the road.

So there are a lot of different literacies, and we have to respect it. But what I am fascinated by with slavery is not the slavery, because slavery’s been with people forever.

It’s that these people who are going to become us went from enslaved, captured and enslaved in Africa to an auction block in America, and they remained sane. That these people, in coming through middle passage, actually took the voyage to Mars.

That’s why I wrote the poem “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea,” we’re going to Mars. They took the voyage into outer space, because they were in a place with no known landmarks at all.

They had no way of knowing where they were or what was going to lie ahead. They knew it had to be harsh, and yet when they stepped off the ship – and nobody ever wonders how did that happen. They were sane, and they found a way to accept a god, to build a family.

Some little boy had a peanut in his hand that he had probably gripped all the way for three weeks, four weeks of that journey, and I always think it was a girl. Some girl, though, had an okra pod or had a couple of okra, because these were not indigenous to America.

They brought it and they planted it and they watched not only the thing grow, but us grow with it. So I think the Black American journey has been just an incredible journey.

I’m a space freak, and so I know that we have to get more Black kids involved in the science of going to space, because space is not science, space is emotional. Once we can make that journey of these people can do that and we can do this, then we have made our contribution to the future. We continue to make our contribution.

I just think the most fascinating thing on Earth is to be a Black American, because just look at what we’ve done. We found a way to sing a new song. It’s an incredible thing.

To go to Africa, I’m not going because my ancestors were king or queen. Mine weren’t. My ancestor was in a village someplace. My great-great-great-great-great was there pounding yams or doing whatever we were doing.

I don’t have that fantasy of that life. What I do know is that I’m a survivor, and that I love. That’s why we opened with a love poem.

Tavis: Your friend and mine, Toni Morrison, once said to me on this program in this very chair that, “Black people have never bored me.” (Laughter)

Giovanni: I love Toni.

Tavis: It was great line. (Laughter) “Whatever you think of Negroes, they have never bored me.” I love that line.

The other thing I want to come back to that you raised earlier in this conversation, back to again, looking at your work in retrospect. You made a sort of joke when you said that there are some people who might think that you weren’t very objective about white folk when you first started writing.

Has your lens, the lens through which you look at white people, is it different now than it was in the ’60s?

Giovanni: No. I think that what I – and I do re-read – I think what I had to say is true. But that didn’t mean each and every. It just meant that as we look at this group of people who call themselves white – look at the Tea Party, for God’s sake.

They call themselves white, and that’s what’s important to them. There’s nothing likeable. That’s despicable. It’s stupid. I have every right to consider it despicable and stupid.

When we look at the other people who are dealing with I have a color in my skin as you have a color in your skin, then we get along. I have friends. It’s none of that. It’s that when you look at the history, you have to condemn this history, because it’s a bad idea.

But I don’t condemn, but you also are not necessarily fond of the fantasy. I don’t have to fantasize about where I was 1,500 years ago. So I think you have to accept this is where we are and this is where I’m going.

As I said, I’m a futurist, so what’s a – what I wanted – I got an opportunity to speak to NASA a couple of years ago, and I loved it so much, because what I really wanted to say to them is, “You’ve got to send some old Black women into space.” (Laughter)

You do. Because we keep sending young white men and young white women, and I’m not against that. But if you want to know what space is, you need somebody my age, with a utopia, because now if I went into space, speaking of Toni, I would take a vodka for Toni and I’d take a little bit of scotch for Maya, because they’re friends, and I would want to toast them, as I would toast a beer for my mom. We should go up.

Somebody said to me, I said that and they said, “Well, what if you don’t come back?” I said, “No, I worry about not coming back from I-81.” (Laughter) That’s a dangerous road.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Giovanni: I’m not worried about not coming back from space, because why the hell should I? You go up there, of course the rocket ship’s going to blow up, or of course something’s going to happen.

The end of life is no more life. You can’t be afraid of that. But since it will end, I can’t think of a better way than me being on – “Houston, this is the poet,” and just start to say what I see until I can’t say it or can’t see it anymore. That’s fabulous.

Tavis: How did you get so comfortable – and I say that, knowing you as I know you, at least – so comfortable within your writing, being able to espouse what is for some people uncomfortable, inconvenient truth-telling?

Giovanni: (Laughs) Well, I came up and the only thing that happens to you at 70 that didn’t used to happen (unintelligible) I cry all the time. But I did come up at an age that so many of my friends are in jail, so many of my friends were killed.

I’m still upset that the president won’t pardon Rap Brown, because he knows Rap should come home, and just some sad things like that. I thought okay, if I’m not dead – almost quoting Maya on that one – then I should be alive, and if I’m alive, then I should tell the truth, because I don’t ever know when the last day – I came up with that – I’m of the ’60s generation.

We don’t know when the last day was going to be, so I’m just in the habit of saying this is what I think and this is why I think it. I think anything else would be unworthy of all of the people who have gone before me, from Malcolm X, from Emmett Till, from Rap, speaking of Rap Brown.

From Martin Luther King Jr. Look at the people who came to change this country. So the least I can do – I’m not a leader, I’m not a big thing. I’m just a poet. But the least I can do is always try to tell the truth.

Tavis: You’re more than just a poet, and even as a poet, your poetry for years has been pregnant with power. You think poetry still has that capacity?

Giovanni: Oh, my. I’m just coming, I’ve been on tour with this, and I just ran into the poet laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a great – hi, King – he’s a great kid, a really great kid. Energetic, smart.

I see it all the time, because now I’m everybody’s grandmother, and the kids give me their books and I get to hear them. I was at Syracuse University as a part of this, and they had a 90-minute slam, and it was just wonderful.

I’m just sitting there watching. No, we’ve got the writers out there, and they’re not all going to be as successful as Jay-Z, or Shawn. They’re going to be ordinary, mid-level authors like me. But they are bringing power and truth, and they’re bringing the joy of their work.

I just can’t imagine that we’re not in good hands. I so do not worry about growing old. (Laughter) There was a time that you thought, “God, I don’t want to grow old because how is the world going to be?”

Not – I’m American, so we’re not going to starve to death or freeze to death, but how is the world going to be? Will I be happy to turn on the TV, and who’s going to be the next Tavis Smiley?

I think the kids are great. I really, I’m totally thrilled, and if I get to hang around another 20 years. I think it’ll be something that I’m not used to, but I think good, something good, because the kids are smart, too.

Tavis: Well, with one correction before she reads this last poem I’m going to ask her to read, there is nothing ordinary or mid-level about one Nikki Giovanni. (Laughter) I hope that she lives a long time, because I want to read that book about Gus.

Giovanni: Oh. (Laughter)

Tavis: So please, live a little bit longer and get that book about Gus done. So I’m going to ask you to read one last piece. We started this conversation with food, and let’s close it with food and ask you to read this wonderful piece called “Artichoke Soup.”

Giovanni: Let me die in a bowl of artichoke soup from Guy Savoy, surrounded by garlic cloves and zucchini blossoms. Please, wash me down with a 202 Remy cab. I love the bread tray, too, as long as a block.

“I’ll have the lemon bread and the seafood rye, tucked under, both under my arms. My smile will be enhanced by goat butter. My sautéed quail is floating in.

“I know, I know – I have to go one day, so please let it be in pureed artichoke, no oil, no wine, just pure spring water artichoke soup.” (Laughter)

Tavis: The book from Nikki Giovanni is called “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.” Always a delight to be in conversation with you, Nikki Giovanni.

Giovanni: (Laughs) Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: November 20, 2013 at 12:12 am