by Evie Monroe/Lion Staff
Nikki Giovanni is a small person. The blue sweater she wears swallows her body. I watch this renowned African-American poet disappear into the crowd of people that flock to her for book signings and pictures. She moves only her arms around people, lifting them to scratch a sprawling signature into their book. Yet people gallop towards her, the new replacing the old before she even has time to dot her last i.
I watch as she finishes her talk with Lab Atlanta before our interview, and then they introduce me to the poet. “Hello Ms. Giovanni, It’s wonderful to meet you,” I say, extending my hand to meet hers. She smiles, shakes my hand, and asks me for my name. Her voice is loud, it fills the room. I don’t think the words “though she be but little she is fierce” have ever applied to anyone else better.
Nikki Giovanni gained fame during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and has written poetry ever since. Poetry Foundation describes her unique and insightful poetry as a testament “to her own evolving awareness and experiences: from child to young woman, from naive college freshman to seasoned civil rights activist, from daughter to mother.”
Mr. May-Beaver, who runs the writer-in-residence program, says, “She demystifies poetry, it’s not poetry with a capital P, it’s more accessible than we think poetry can be.”
Similar to the way her discussion began the day before in her after-school talk in the Hendrix-Chenault theater, and that evening in her talk to 1,200 people in the Wallace gym, she launches straight into talking about her lunch without a prompting question. She talks while I flutter around laughing hesitantly at her jokes. I don’t want to start recording in case she says no. When she finishes her monologue I ask for permission to hit record, and she responds with a chipper “of course.” She seems surprised I even asked.
People warned me she would talk for a long time and they weren’t wrong. I ask her a question about her most influential poem and she responds to the original question, but then goes into a long explanation of space, one of her many interests.
“Ego Tripping,” a poem about “how we get to the earth,” is one Ms. Giovanni believes is a favorite for many people despite the fact that it was written a while ago. She gestures with her hands outward to make her point that she has “been surprised, that it still has such a life and that people still like it.”
Since she loves space and “good math,” she begins to discuss the pyramids. “Every one hundred years a star falls,” she says. “You have to consider that that is good math, that’s not an accident.” Turning my simple question into a much more intensive look at the Earth.
She asks me if I have been keeping up with the Mayans, describing how it was her new favorite thing and how she was interested in viewing the empire from space. A self proclaimed “space freak,” she talks passionately about growing up with the “red planet” instead of Mars in school. Discussing the effects a nuclear holocaust would have on earth she says, “Whatever life form is in space will look and Earth will be considered the red planet because Earth can burn itself up.“
It’s clear from the beginning, she wants a reaction, she wants me to nod along with her, laugh at her jokes, and gasp in surprise after some of the things she says. For example, midway through a question about her poem “If I Have to Hospital,” she starts talking about her battle with breast cancer. Reenacting finding a lump, she grabs at the empty space behind her blue sweater, reaching for the very thing she lost during her mastectomy.
Talking about her “bad health,” she explains to me how she argued with her surgeon, Dr. Henshaw, after she told Ms. Giovanni she could go home after she had the surgery. “‘Joeleane,’I did this as slow as I could so she could understand, ‘Let me be clear, if it’s your [breast], you can go home overnight, but since it’s mine we are spending at least the night.” She laughs. “No, that’s not the way that works, not for my [breast].”
Expressing her feelings about old age, she speaks about hiring an agent to deal with the things she did not have any reason to care about anymore: i.e. the price of books in Asia. “I’ve done what I’m supposed to so now I can let that go,” she says.
She apologizes for eating an egg midway through our interview, but continues answering a question about one of her poems in which she says, “We seek Antarctica because poetry gave birth to Math and Science… not the other way around.” Then: “I’m a fan of science, I like science,” she says, holding her hand in front of her mouth, “but it’s what we have imagined that scientists have said ‘oh we can do that’.”
Charles Bolden, the former administrator for NASA, is a person Ms. Giovanni holds near and dear to her heart, literally. She keeps a picture of him in her wallet. “I want to see him send poets into space and he’s telling me why he can’t,” she laughs. She’s obviously pitched this idea to him hundreds of times. “I would love to see some writers, but also some composers, what music they would create just to go to the international space station.” She sighs. “Go up spend a couple of days, come back.”
Although most people would probably argue that writers, especially those who write fiction, are not the most truthful people, Ms. Giovanni knows the opposite is true. She’s ready to answer before the last words leave my lips, “We are the truth-tellers,” she says. Her goal is to “remind people that there is something better.” She says, “That’s why people in power”--she gives a list that includes our current president--”are always trying to shut down the writers.”
Mr. May-Beaver wants to bring writers “who are going to stir things up and make us look at ourselves, and I knew she was going to do that.” While there was some concern, in advance of her arrival, about some of her perspectives on things, he thinks “most people welcomed her and were excited about her speaking to us.”
Nikki Giovanni is adamant about the role artists play in society. “We have an important job,” she says. “Our important job is to keep remembering and to keep imagining what else could happen.”