THE POET AS STORYTELLER: ‘LIVING LEGEND’ NIKKI GIOVANNI REFLECTS ON LOVE, GRIEF, AND MUSIC
Interviewed by Jessica Gigot
Nikki Giovanni is a world-renowned poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. One of the most widely read contemporary American poets and one of Oprah’s 25 “Living Legends,” she prides herself on being “a Black American, a daughter, a mother, a professor of English.” Giovanni is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. I recently spoke with her about the breadth of her work and the stories she represents in her poems, essays, teachings, and spoken word recordings.
JG: You were a strong, outspoken, and prominent voice for equality and civil rights in the 1960s and 70s, and I know you remain so. In reading your most recent book of love poems (Bicycles, 2009), we see a gentler and more relaxed side to you. I particularly like the reflective poem “In Simpler Times” and the final, powerful poem “We Are Virginia Tech: 16 April 2007.” How did this book come together for you?
NG: I decided to write love poems. There were a lot of sad things going on at that time. “Blackburg Under Siege: 21 August 2006” is the first poem in the book and that was about the murder of two police officers here, which was a difficult time. Personally, I was dealing with the loss of my sister and mom, who had died. I was sad and needed to make adjustments. Then April 16 happened. I had two wheels spinning, personal and public grief, and I realized that love is what gets you over all of this and love poems cheer you up.
JG: Your spoken-word CDs “Truth is On Its Way” and “Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection” have been very successful. Can you describe how music and poetry overlap in your work?
NG: My mother used to sing to me and she had a beautiful voice. Now I enjoy music and am seldom without it. I am always making connections between poetry and music. We had spoken word before we had music, really. Poetry was lyrical and people would play instruments and tell the story of their people.
JG: You write a lot about the value of oral tradition in your essays. Can you comment on how the value of oral traditions nourishes and feeds your creative writing and poetry?
NG: Oral traditions nurture everyone. People have to hear things internally, there has to be rhythm. Writing from authors like Shakespeare and Milton benefit from being read aloud; “Ulysses” is better read aloud. Everything has to come back into that human voice.
JG: I once had a poetry teacher that said that a poem was not done until it was read aloud. Do you agree with that?
NG: Absolutely. Poets will read a poem differently than the reader. When you hear people read your poetry they generally emphasize words in different ways than you do. It is important to read your poems aloud in order to really understand them.
JG: You are a wonderful storyteller. Your autobiography “Gemini” was a finalist for the National Book Award and your children’s books, such as Rosa, re-tell important histories and impart strong values