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A Poet for the People

Nikki Giovanni discusses rap, politics and poetry

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Nikki Giovanni's career has spanned decades, starting in 1968 when she self-published Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment. She quickly became one of the most celebrated poets of the Black Arts movement and has since written more than two dozen books of various genres including poetry, children's stories and essays.

Born in Knoxville in 1943 and raised in Cinncinnati, Giovanni has received 21 honorary doctorates and a host of accolades, including woman of the year designations from several magazines and governors' awards in the arts from Tennessee and Virginia, according to her official biography on her Web site. Three volumes of her poetry have won NAACP Image Awards. "She's made an enormous contribution to the vibrancy of American poetry," said Brenda Flanagan, a professor at Davidson College.

In 2003, her spoken word CD, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, was a finalist for a Grammy Award. Kanye West referenced her in his song "Hey Mama." Such staying power can be attributed partly to Giovanni's outspokenness, said Malin Pereira, associate professor of English and interim chairwoman of African studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "People remember that," Pereira said.

Giovanni also is accessible yet meaningful, said Sandra Govan, an English professor at UNCC and friend of the poet. "She's always been, to me, the quintessential people's poet. Any woman in the world can identify with 'Master Charge Blues,'" Govan said, referring to a poem about one woman's remedy for man trouble.

Giovanni spoke to Creative Loafing by phone from Vermont, where she was to speak at a children's literature conference.

Creative Loafing: Why did you decide to participate in the Charlotte Literary Festival?

Nikki Giovanni: Well, I'm excited about the Charlotte Literary Festival. I live right there in Blacksburg [Virginia], I'm a professor at Virginia Tech. And actually, as you know, we're closer to Charlotte than we are, for example, Richmond. So Charlotte is our neighbor. I'm very excited about coming down and being a part of it. There's no such thing as too many book festivals.

You started off self-publishing. Is that something you would recommend to writers today?

Oh, I think it always helps if you know the process of how your book, how your ideas, in other words, become a book. And of course, self-publishing has become a major part of the industry now. So I think it's really wonderful. Yeah, I would recommend it. If you're writing 600 pages, you might not want to engage in that, but for poetry it works. Absolutely. And always has.

What can poetry -- something unfortunately perceived as unpractical to so many people -- offer people today?

I think that's a myth, in all fairness. People always say, oh, poetry is unpractical. Poetry doesn't do anything. And yet when people get married, they do a poem. When people get dead, somebody does a poem for them. When people celebrate a baby being born, somebody does a poem. I can't think of anything, any kind of congratulatory situation that doesn't call for poetry. Poetry is not, you know, graham crackers, it's not soda crackers or something that everybody in the world keeps in their pockets. But poetry responds to the best in human beings. It always has. If you look at 9/11, when we're having a national tragedy, when we're having war, what did people do? They posted poems. So I think that's just myth. I don't know what people want poetry to do. It's not ever going to be a bestseller, but nobody says that to opera. You know what I'm saying? Nobody says to opera, you know you haven't had a number one hit since Mozart or something. And poetry is a classic art and it does what it's supposed to do. It responds. When human beings need something, they turn to poems and poems respond.

Do you consider yourself a political poet?

I think all poets, and somebody said it better than I did, all poets are political. Because we're all trying to help people make some changes in the world that hopefully will be better.

You've said you are a big fan of rap, and you even have a tattoo that reads "Thug Life" in honor of Tupac. How do you expand interest in lyrics to other types of poetry and literature?

Well, first, everything is going to continue to change. It's sort of asking, how is it you went to church on Sunday but next Friday you're at a cabaret? The blues and gospel go together. For that matter, I live in the Appalachian Mountains and we have our own country and bluegrass music. And a part of that is I'm a Knoxvillian by birth. Of course, the greatest storyteller in my area is Dolly Parton and she tells stories in songs. Rap is the urban extension. If Dolly Parton had been born in the Bronx, she would be doing rap and if Master P had been born in Knoxville, he would be doing country. You find the voice where you are.

What did you make of the conflict between Ludacris and Oprah? [Ludacris criticized the media queen for not inviting him on her show, and for criticizing him once she did bring him on (as a cast member of the movie Crash.)]

I thought it was sad. I thought Ludacris was out of line, to tell you the truth. He wants to be on Oprah's show because it's successful. And he can't make her like his music. If that were the case, everybody would be picketing. Hell, I'd be picketing 60 Minutes. [Laughs] You can't go around doing that.

What did you think about President Bush's speech last month to the NAACP, the first since he took office? [Until last month, Bush was the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the civil rights organization. During his speech, the president mentioned the Bush family's commitment to civil rights, acknowledged blacks' distrust of his party and called for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Bush received 11 percent of African-Americans' votes in 2004 and was widely criticized for responding inadequately to Hurricane Katrina.]

I've got to be really honest with you right here. I try very hard not to think about Bush. We only have a few more years of him. I try to keep him out of my mind. That [his appearance] was so cynical. I did not read anything about it. I did not want to see it.

Unlike some well-known writers, you do not seem to cultivate or project a difficult persona; in fact, you're viewed as very approachable. Is that something you have strived to project?

Some people flip hamburgers for a living. Some people write poetry. I've never appreciated people that didn't appreciate people. I just try to be nice to everybody because it's twice as easy and I am approachable. I hope that I am and sometimes I'm actually helpful. You're not always helpful in this profession because people will say to you, well, I have this poem and I want to get it published. You can't always help, but you can always be positive about it.

What are your plans for the future? Will you slow down?

Time will take care of that. I'll probably retire in the next 10 years. I don't want to say I'm looking forward to it but it's all a big change. I don't know if you're a tennis fan, but I'm a big Andre Agassi fan. And Agassi is getting ready to step back from tennis to retire and he says you really do have to do a lot of thinking about this. Of course, Agassi is a young man and rich. And I'm an old woman and not. But you do start to think about ... when I retire from Virginia Tech, I hope I'll still have a good mind and Tech will let me teach a class or two, maybe a master's class. Which I think would be a lot of fun to do.

As a writer, and as a poet, we're always on the road. And so as long as I can get on a plane -- and of course, I do a lot of changes in Charlotte, so I wish your airport had a better restaurant -- but as long as I can get on a plane, I think I want to go and read poetry.

Who are some current poets you'd recommend people read?

I'm always recommending, and I'm not answering your question, but I think that you read everybody. And I think that's what's important. The only thing that kind of disturbs me sometimes about the young people is that they don't know enough about the past. They don't know, American youngsters don't know enough about, for example, the Harlem Renaissance -- black and white. And so they don't know enough about the poetry of a Countee Cullen. I think that a lot of people now are beginning to realize the brilliance of a Langston Hughes. And I think, to my generation also, we need to listen to the Jill Scotts of this world. And we need to listen or read Ntozake Shange. And so, what you're doing is trying to get the cross generations to look at each other. I think you need to read the old English poets like you need to read the young African.

Charlotte Literary Festival

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