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A sit-down with Nikki Giovanni

Famous poet and Black Arts Movement activist Nikki Giovanni visited campus last Thursday, thanks to an invite from the Mochila Review.

The Mochila Review invited outside writers to judge its annual national writers’ contest, the undergraduate MoRe prize. Editor and assistant professor of English Marianne Kunkel said she didn’t expect a prominent poet like Giovanni to reply, but was excited when she did.

“It’s important to have a poet like Nikki [Giovanni] visit campus to show students that there is a career in writing. So many students on campus are undecided on a major, and it’s great to be able to show them that you can make money as a professional writer with an English degree,” Kunkel said.

Before Giovanni’s poetry reading, a group of student journalists had the chance to interview Giovanni. She was just as no-nonsense and funny with the small group as she later was when she took the stage and delighted a packed audience in Potter Hall that evening.

HG: Heather Groenke, Griffon Update

JT: Jasmine Taylor, Yearbook

GE: Gillian Evans, Yearbook

JK: Jessica Kopp, Griffon News


HG: Are your poems written from your own experience?

A: Not necessarily. I was a history major, and I’m a big reader, and I’m always reminding my students that you have to read to write. It’s much more important to read everyday than write everyday. And I think experience is overblown, frankly speaking. You don’t experience everything –some things to sympathize with, some you empathize with, some things you understand and some you put together. I’m a big fan of space. And you guys in Missouri have Cronkite, who pushed for space; he was a fan of NASA. Going to space is like going through middle passage, and we have to find out what they experienced and how they came out sane. I don’t have an experience of middle passage or space, but I have sense.

JT: Why did you choose to become a poet?

A: I’ve always liked storytelling. I’m a Southerner and I’m a Tennessean. I’m a writer and a storyteller. And as the baby in the family, that is what you do. My older sister was very pretty and Gary could play the piano, and I couldn’t do any of those things, but I could read and I enjoyed learning things — not that Gary didn’t! So as a baby you kinda keep to yourself, and I watched my family and the world around me. I watched the country in which I lived, I watched the planet upon which I lived, and I watched the stars because I’m a big fan of the heavens and of NASA. So if you watch, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna tell stories about it.

GE: How has the arrival of modern technology and social media affected the way you write?

A: Social media has not affected me and the way I write, but social media has affected the world in which you all live. I teach at Virginia Tech — and we are what we sound like. At Tech all the students have computers, and if they don’t know something they’ll hit their computers. So I had to get used to my students using computers to find out information. I’m used to libraries, although they were segregated when I was growing up. I went to the Carnegie library in Knoxville, which was the Black library, and the Tyson McGhee was the white library. So when I wanted to learn something, I had to go to the Carnegie, but if it wasn’t there, Mrs. Long, my librarian, had to go up to the Tyson McGhee. I’m used to looking up information, which when you do it with the card catalog, you find a lot of other things. When you look it up on Safari, it comes up, there’s nothing in between. You get what you want. And I don’t think of that as one of the positives.

But I know the whole computer situation is good. [To say] I was delighted would be an understatement to finally see Hidden Figures come out and to finally see that we’re giving the women, especially Black women, who became computer experts [the recognition they deserve.]

HG: Regarding your poem Legacy: Is it supposed to be literal or metaphorical? What did you mean by that last line?

A: Oh god, I don’t even remember the first line (laughs). My interest in that poem is ‘Oh, isn’t it a nice poem?’ because I’m somewhere else in my poetry. And I should be. I don’t have a contradiction with Legacy. There are other poems though, especially my first three or four books, that I actually contradict. But if you don’t contradict your work you haven’t grown. I laugh about it, but that’s why some musicians are crazy. They sing the same lines over and over again. And that’s going to make you crazy.

If was to write that poem now at 73 – which chances aren’t good I would – I would look at what we’re giving in a different way. I have a granddaughter now, so what I would be looking at is what I’m passing on to her? Part of what I’m passing along is how to play bid whist. She has to know how to play bid whist because all Black women play bid whist, and I’m good, and I want to make sure she’s good. And she has to know how to fry chicken because we invented fried chicken. I hate Kentucky Fried Chicken. I would starve to death sitting here. I would never eat in life before I would eat Kentucky Fried Chicken because there’s not a white man on earth that knows diddly squat about fried chicken other than eating the fried chicken that Black women created.

JK: Looking at the current political landscape and the rise in hate crimes since Trump has become president, would you say we’re going back in time?

A: Nothing goes back. Donald Trump is a fool – and I hate fool men – and a racist and stupid. But we can’t go back to Donald Trump. We are going forward to Donald Trump. Hitler would be going back, but we’re not going back to Hitler. Although both (motions to her hair) — isn’t it funny that all those racists have strange hair cuts? But I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why white Americans are afraid of anything. White Americans run the world. Especially white American men. I don’t see why they need to bring this hatred in, other than that they want to be billionaires. But I think it will be stopped. My bet is that we’ll impeach that boy. He has to go.

GE: How has being a prominent person changed your life?

A:  I don’t think I’m that prominent. I’m not Aretha Franklin, you know. But I never look myself up, because then I might worry about what people think about me and not my poetry. I didn’t know Malcom X, but I knew his wife, Betty Shabazz, and the kids. About five years ago I talked to his daughter Ilyasha and I said ‘Ilyasha, I’m just curious, but how was it like being a famous daughter? How did you handle that?’ And she said ‘Nikki, I wasn’t a famous daughter, I was just me.’ And Betty was just an incredible mother. She had great girls, and they’re loving, sane people. The King kids – Yolanda was a great kid. And the loss of Yolanda was a great loss to the King family. There wasn’t anyone to take her place, so you can see the mess the King kids made. It was a disgrace to see Marty go up and shake the hand of Donald Trump after all the stuff Trump had said about John Lewis. So I don’t know if he can’t read — I know he’s stupid, but even he can read a little.

JT: Why did you decide to write poetry over other types of literature?

A: Oh, I could never write a novel. I look at novels by Toni Morrison, and they’re so brilliant I’m glad I didn’t get involved in that. I think that poetry and I got together simply because I put strange things together. As we’re saying here I said ‘Middle passage is like spake’ — no one else says something like that. Another thing I say – and I pick on the guys – I think the penis will go extinct, because it’s a misused organ. All misused organs eventually go extinct. So one morning they’ll lie in bed and it’s just gone (laughs). Nobody thinks like that.


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