Nikki Giovanni is Professor of English at Virginia Tech and the author of 30 books.
Throughout her literary career “The Princess of Black Poetry” has received the keys to more than two dozen cities. She is the recipient of the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry, the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award and one of one of Oprah Winfrey’s twenty-five “Living Legends.”
Bicycles: Love Poems, her latest book is a companion to her 1997 Love Poems.
Giovanni states, “We are all either wheels or connectors. Whichever we are we must find truth and balance, which is a bicycle. Trust and balance are also essential to true love.”
Giovanni’s encompasses love, loss, life, learning and the joys and pains endured from all experiences. Metaphorically speaking, the wheels of a bicycle keep us grounded. It is the simple things like love that offer comfort and keep us safe.
In a poem titled “Deal or No Deal,” written for one of her former English classes, Giovanni fantasizes about being a contestant on the game show despite the doubt of her young students.
“My dream is a red dress / Above my knees / High-heel red sandals / And me coming over the top / The music booming / Hi Howie I will say / With a lovely smile // I don’t want to play the game / I want to be it.”
The tragedies in Bicycles are earth shattering. In 2006, William Morva shoot a police officer and security guard. In 2007 another Virginia Tech student and former student of Giovanni, massacred 32 students and teachers.
The book begins and ends with two poems of public mourning: “Blacksburg Under Siege: 21 August 2006” and “We Are Virginia Tech.”
In “Blacksburg Under Siege: 21August 2006″ Giovanni writes:
Not safe… not even all that nice… when you think about it… What mean fraternity boys do with their fists… and drunk fraternity boys do with their penises… barefoot boys do with guns… Whether it’s a redneck screaming “nigger” … or a poet hollering “titties” … illegal and unkind behavor tells someone w/he doesn’t belong… check it… check it out…
Not nice … No … And no reason to feel safe
Nikki Giovanni talks candidly about creative processes, violence and the importance of incorporating culture into artwork, in an emailinterview.
JASSed: I never understood the psychology of a human being who feels comfortable with taking another life. I understand this trouble young man was a student of yours. Louisiana Supreme Court Justice, Revius Ortique, Jr. once told me that hindsight is better than foresight. Looking back, did anyone see it coming?
Nikki: I’m not sure [anyone saw the massacre coming]. The nature of tragedy and accident is that we cannot predict. We comfort; we understand; we forgive ourselves and those who trespass against us as we are required by the God we serve to do.
JASSed: Your work is very inspirational. There is strength in your message(s). I once taught a class to a group of inner city youth and they really found themselves through your work. What is the importance of fusing culture into your work?
Nikki: There is a great history of a brave and resilient people. I try to let my readers know about them…and me.
JASSed: You like rap. There were folks out there who were against the Tu-Pacs. How does Nikki identify with the rap culture and why do you think it has an important place in history and in poetry?
Nikki: If culture was a railroad, I can see the tracks running from the Spirituals to the Hip Hop Nation.
JASSed: Some universities offer courses in the poetry of rap. What books would you suggest for a course of this nature?
Nikki: You must start with the slave experience then go to the Spirituals then Gospel then Jazz, R & B, to Hip Hop. I would suggest my book On My Journey Now and I really love DECODED by Jay-Z.
JASSed: I noticed at a poetry reading that you were tooting some tattoos. What type of tattoos do you have?
Nikki: Not some tattoos but one tattoo: Thug Life. For that wonderful young man who was taken too early from us: Tupac Shakur
JASSed: How long does it take you to write a book of poetry?
Nikki: Most of my books are a two-year project. I tend to follow my heart and my mind and research materials where they take me.
JASSed: Are there any special places you prefer to go and write?
Nikki: My den.
JASSed: What is a semester poetry class like with Nikki Giovanni?
Nikki: Probably quite crazy. We have a lot of fun. We cook we sing we poet. I try to impress upon my students the importance of looking, listening…paying attention, in other words. You must pay attention.
JASSed: Do you think that being at a school like Virginia Tech has made your more cutting edge and comfortable with technology? You wrote that you are younger than your students.
Nikki: Yes. That poem is “Deal or No Deal” because my students laughed when I said I wanted to go on the show. We had fun with it because the younger generation is, in many respects, older than we because they are more cautious.
JASSed: If the government said they were going to send ten of your poems to outer space, what ten would you select?
Nikki: 1-Quilting the Black Eye Pea, 2-Train Rides, 3-Rosa Parks, 4-In the Spirit of Martin, 5-Nikki-Rosa, 6-I Am In Mexico, 7-The Yellow Jacket, 8-Deal or No Deal, 9-We Are Virginia Tech, and 10-Ego Tripping.
JASSed: Who are your favorite jazz musicians?
Nikki: Prez (Lester Young); John Coltrane; Gene Harris; Duke Ellington, to name a few.
JASSed: And if you had to write a poem for a jazz musician who would it be?
Nikki: Gene Harris. He has the bluesiest piano in the world! What a loss that these giants are not with us.
JASSed: When you write your love poems, do you have any particular lover in mind?
Nikki: The one I can’t have.
JASSed: What advice do you have for young poets?
Nikki: Read. Then read again. Then read some more.
JASSed: Do you think it is important for young poets to set up their own publishing companies to avoid the b.s. out here?
Nikki: You do what you can with what you have. You have to work the edges whatever they are. The main thing is keeping your integrity.
JASSed: Who are your favorite poets?
Nikki: I love all of us.
JASSed: What is your favorite poetic form?
Nikki: Narrative. In law school they teach you that everything is a contract; well, in poetry everything is a narrative.
JASSed: How does one become a better writer? How does one become a better poet?
Nikki: Nothing improves your writing, I think, as much as your keeping writing.
JASSed: How do you overcome writer’s block?
Nikki: There is no such thing. There is only not enough information. If you can’t write, learn something.
JASSed: How did you as a young poet develop your craft?
Nikki: My main strength as a young writer was that I had no fear of making mistakes. I knew I would and I knew I could and would learn from them. Mistakes are a fact of life. If you are willing to be wrong then you have earned the right to be right.
JASSed: How do you stay inspired to write?
Nikki: I am ever fascinated by the human experience and by, actually, human beings.
JASSed: Does your son Thomas write? Is he an artist? What does he do?
Nikki: Thomas has earned the right to be free of me.
JASSed: In you last solo book project, name three of your favorite poems?
Nikki: If I had to narrow it down to three favorites in “LOVE POEMS” they would be: And Yeah… This is a love Poem, I Wrote a Good Omelet, and When Gamble and Huff Ruled. I am particular about these because they are funny, confident, and honest.
JASSed: What projects are you working on now?
Nikki: I just completed The 100* Best African-American Poems (*But I Cheated). I’m very proud of the book because I was able to bring four generations under two covers. It’s beautiful and the CD is awesome with Ruby Dee, Novella Nelson, Sonia Sanchez and lots of younger voices to share their work.
JASSed: How challenging was it for you to select poems for 100 Best African American Poems? Who was involved in this process?
Nikki: I had help from a wonderful board: Mari Evans, Val Gray Ward, Joanne Gabbin, and Kwame Alexander.
JASSed: You bring in another form of technology to go along with this book. There is a CD incorporated in this package.
Nikki: Isn’t it great? To hear those iconic voices? To feel the passion and the love! We did “one shots” because most of us aren’t actresses so rather than allow folk to become nervous we shot it one time
JASSed: The Obama’s have a monthly music series at the White House. If they had a monthly poetry series who would you suggest as guest poets?
Nikki: Kwame Alexander, Nikky Finney, Jericho Brown, Kwame Dawes, Remica Bingham, Terrance Hayes…start young and work your way back.
JASSed: What is it that Nikki would like to do that she has not done?
Nikki: A lot is yet to be enjoyed. I’d like to stomp grapes for wine. Go to Antarctica. Have dinner with Venus Williams who is the greatest tennis player ever. I play a little tennis and my mother has two trophies from the old Wilberforce League. I’d love to have dinner with Venus and ask about her triumphs. Do you know her?