Nikki Giovanni needs no introduction--
but we'll give her one anyway. Her words
have resonated with readers for over four
decades. October 2017 saw the release of
her newest collection of poetry, A Good Cry:
What We Learn From Tears and Laughter
and some are calling it her most personal and powerful work yet. She's a child of the South and a woman of the world, continuing to etch her place in American history with no signs of slowing up anytime soon. When she speaks, it's clear: She's bold and unafraid. It just doesn't get any more fearless than Ms. Giovanni. We were honored to interview her about her new collection, the golden days of the Black Arts Movement, the relevancy of historically black colleges and universities, and her surprising yet befitting desire for space travel—after you've made such a huge imprint on planet Earth, the only place left to go is outer space.
"And remember our ancestors survived Middle Passage so we are the right folk to go to Mars."
—The Auburn Avenue Editorial Staff
"I think the business of all writers is to be as brave as possible."
"No one wants to put up with a liar."
Your new book A Good Cry was released on October 24th. In it you share a collection of poems about your upbringing, recalling relationships with dear friends, family, and acquaintances. Were there any newfound revelations about these relationships during the writing process?
I think the main insight I had while writing A Good Cry is the effort my grandparents made to make my life as happy as they could. I always loved them but I had no idea the trouble and sacrifice they went through for me.
This issue’s theme is “Be Fearless: Celebrating the Unafraid.” You’ve mentioned that A Good Cry is about “things that make us sad.” What drives you to be so fearless and forthright in presenting such personal and emotionally affecting stories in your work?
I think the business of all writers is to be as brave as possible. Probably the first thing is nobody really is involved in your life as much as they are finding your words involved in theirs. Truth is all we have and truth is the foundation of love and laughter. One of the reasons we rightfully hate that man who stole the White House is that he lies. No one wants to put up with a liar.
You attended Fisk University in the early 1960’s, the oldest accredited historically black college/university in the United States. Several of the poems in the new collection reference Fisk and your time there as a student. In what ways did Fisk shape you as human, writer, and activist?
Of course any college experience helps shape us but Fisk was especially important because it is a Liberal Arts University. Between the University and Church we all find a way to shape ourselves into better people. I would be very happy to see Fisk once again turn itself into a more liberal arts college, worrying more about the character of our students than any other part of them. Going back to Booker T. Washington who sent his daughters to Fisk and W.E.B. DuBois who shaped our school into a university; or actually going all the way back to The Fisk Singers, who saved our school. We had an insight into what a true soldier is and not just these folks the United States is sending around the world to destroy nations and cultures.
There have been many conversations in media, both on and off the record, about HBCU’s—specifically ones regarding their relevancy and future. With recent increases in enrollment at HBCU’s, what is your take on the role and future of these institutions in educating young minds?
HBCU’s are now and will always be as important as small colleges that welcome students from all over the world. I, like many Fiskites, would like to see our university become a woman’s college because it is much needed. Being in Nashville it would make “friends” with other universities to grow. It would give Fisk a challenge to grow in a different direction. I discuss this somewhat in my latest book, A Good Cry.
You were a key figure in the Black Arts Movement. When you reflect on its period (1960’s-1970’s), what are some of your fondest memories?
I had the joy of living in a great neighborhood that had Morgan Freeman next door, Eugene McDaniels down the street, LeRoi Jones just across the river; the Civil Right Activists such as Fannie Lou Hammer, The Liberty House, Micheaux Bookstore in Harlem and so many more great folks. At Fisk University we had Robert Hayden and Aaron Douglass; and were able to bring John Oliver Killens to teach Creative Writing and so many many more. It was a great time. Novella Nelson and Ellis Haizlip. All the great singers. What a time.
During this time, your poetry was considered fearless and militant, capturing the essence of the revolutionary period in which it was created (specifically Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgment). In retrospect, what is your opinion of your earlier work during this time?
I think I created as honestly as I could. I watched and I wondered. I questioned and I learned. I am still proud of my early work.
Many have referred to the current social and political era in America as being the Civil Rights Movement redux. How do you view this current movement in comparison to the one of the 1950’s and 60’s?
We in the 60’s changed not only America but the world. These crazy, cowardly folks today are trying to push back. I’ll be thrilled when the president is impeached.
In the past, you've expressed your love for Tupac Shakur and his work. In A Good Cry, you even dedicate a poem to his mother Afeni Shakur. Further, in the poem "Black Lives Matter", you say "I am proud of the rappers who rap..." What is your take on current hip-hop artists, their messages and their use of language to articulate their messages?
I think it is our job to learn from the youngsters and be supportive. Black Lives Matter is courageous and strong. They do not run around in the middle of the night destroying people. They show themselves and they stand. The nazi’s who steal elections and murder unarmed Black men and women don’t hold a candle to the youngsters they fear. And it is fear. You don’t have to move in groups running people over with your cars and try to find ways to make people afraid of you. We in the communities of color have been through this before. We were strong then and we will be strong now.
You’ve released over 20 collections of poetry in the past 50 years. Are there any particular poems from your body of work that you love to revisit, that hold special sentimental value?
I sincerely hope I can have "And Yeah…This Is A Love Poem" illustrated because I think it is so important to let the young Black men know we love and are proud of them.
Who are some of your favorite poets of today? What's currently on your reading list?
One of my favorite writers is Edwidge Dandicat. She is so lyrical. And I must confess my heart belongs to Kwame Alexander who has taken YA literature to another incredible level.
If you could go back and give younger Nikki any advice, what would you tell her?
I think the main thing I would say to me is: Don’t Smoke. Smoking is preventing me from going into Space. I can go if I can convince NASA, but in coming back to Earth -- because I had lung cancer -- and on the inbound trip, my organs would move around and kill me. Don’t smoke or do drugs. And remember our ancestors survived Middle Passage so we are the right folk to go to Mars.