We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Early in her career, she was dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry.” More recently, Oprah Winfrey called her a “Living Legend.” Nikki Giovanni is in studio to talk about poetry, writing, activism, and her new anthology, “The 100 Best African American Poems.”
- Nikki Giovanni Poet, University Distinguished Professor, Virginia Tech; and most recently, editor of "The 100 Best African American Poems" (Sourcebooks)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHer work began at the intersection of Art and Politics. As a young poet in the late 1960s, Nikki Giovanni gave voice to the passions of the black power movement. The success of her early books, in turn, made her a leading voice among African-American poets and an outspoken activist. She's won numerous awards for her more than two dozen books, but her more recent -- most recent project may have been the toughest, choosing the 100 best African-American poems for an edited book of the same name. She could have filled the book with the work of Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut she wanted to include newer voices, too. The late rapper, Tupac Shakur, national book award winner Terrance Hayes. So where to draw the line. In the end, the esteemed professor did what her students should never do, she cheated. Nikki Giovanni joins us in studio. She is university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and editor of "The 100 Best African American Poems." Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. NIKKI GIOVANNII'm glad to be here.
NNAMDIBefore we heard this broadcast, we heard a poem that was being rendered by the hip hop group, Blackalicious. Now, I would like our listeners to hear the same poem rendered by the original poet.
NNAMDIWhen I started in radio in the early 1970s, this was being played on popular music stations here in the Washington area. What effect did that have on your career? In today's world, they would say you blew up, so to speak, at that point. What effect did that have in your career?
GIOVANNII suppose it did have -- I don't suppose. I mean, clearly it did have a major effect. But the advantage, I think, of being a poet is that you do something you don't -- you're not doing it for effect. I'm not a singer so I didn't have to make a hit record or something. WWRL AM in New York City broke that record and I was just shocked, you know. I heard it. I was like, wow, that's me. I was listening to that. I walked -- whoa, what southern city did she come from?
NNAMDIShe did come from a southern city, in fact.
GIOVANNIYes, yes, sir, she did.
NNAMDIYour latest project was to edit a collection called the, "The 100 Best African American Poems," but you had trouble paring the list down to just 100. There are now how many poems in the book?
NNAMDIWhat happened, Nikki? What happened?
GIOVANNII did -- there's an asterisk there right on the 100. I love it so much. But I cheated. Well, if you do that, as you said, I would just end up with the old chestnuts. And I'm very fortunate that we had Terrance Hayes before he won the national book award. So I was really just thrilled and excited about that. We have L. Lamar Wilson. I wanted to reach out -- Rebecca Bingham. There was a -- there is a lot of talent. And at my age, actually, I'm 67, and my stage in the game, I've been in this business 40 years.
GIOVANNIIf I can't somehow serve the younger people, than what am I really doing? And so I wanted to find a way to do it. The book actually runs from one, which is, "For My People," by Margaret Walker to 100, which is actually, "Ego Tripping," by me. But what I kept doing was I treated it like a pizza, you know, or a triple decker sandwich. I kept stuffing things in and stuffing things in and stuffing things in.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation with Nikki Giovanni, call us at 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us a tweet at kojoshow or e-mail to email@example.com. You came of age as a poet in the 1960s and your early poems were very political. I remember reading you in Hoyt Fuller's, "Negro digest," which later became, "Black World."
NNAMDIAre young poets today still writing political poetry?
GIOVANNIOh, I think so. I mean, you look at what kind -- finish your sentence, Nikki. Look at what Kanye West and of course -- Tupac, of course, is an incredible young man -- was an incredible young man. But it's different. The politics have changed. You know, we no longer -- and I think this is good, we no longer see signs, "Colored Only," "White Only." We no longer have -- there's probably a glass ceiling and I would not argue that there isn't. But you also have that feeling now that you can climb that ladder and break that ceiling.
GIOVANNISo I think my generation did our job. And I think the politics have changed. In all fairness, Kojo, to everybody, the hip hop generation elected a President. And I don't think we can overlook Willie Aames' influence on the election of Barack Obama.
NNAMDIIndeed, Barack Obama probably himself counts as part of the hip hop generation in his mid '40s because that's where the early hip hop artists are now.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the themes young African-American poets are writing about today?
GIOVANNIThe same. Remica Bingham writes beautifully. The same things, identity, love, changing the world, finding a place in it, the refusal to turn our back on pain. And I think that they do an incredibly good job at that. You have a great kid, Jay-Z. I was laughing with somebody recently. You know, I have a son, but if I didn't and his mother would sell him, I'd certainly buy Jay-Z. He's a great kid. But you look at what he did with his life and the way that he was able to share his life and to elevate from that life.
GIOVANNIAnd that's what they're doing. They're looking at the world and they're saying, well, this is maybe not the best world. You know, you going to get a Nellie every now and then. You get a, you know, 50 Cents every now and then. And that's going to happen and you can't judge everybody by the edges they are. Though, 50 is, I think, a really fine young man, I really do. I think, incredibly talented. I'm still kind of mad at Nellie, but...
NNAMDIWell, I suspect a lot of the differences between the young ones and the ones back -- and they were the entrepreneurs of skills that the young ones seem to have today.
GIOVANNIWell, I'm very proud of them. Because my generation actually, knock on wood, we were -- probably won't have to have any benefits to bury us. But the previous generation, if you look at our predecessors in the Jazz world, you know, Louie Armstrong would be sitting in a chair some place if Bing hadn't buried him.
GIOVANNIDespite him being how great he is. And when you look at -- again, you're looking Jay-Z and, of course, he's married to Beyonce who's also a great person in her own right. You're looking at the kids that are now saying, no, no. We not only can bury ourselves, but we can live. I think that's incredible. Ice-T, you know, look at them, I mean, their talent. Queen Latifah is one of my favorite human beings on earth. These are very talented kids. I don't think we were untalented, but we didn't have the opportunity to be business people that they now are.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nikki Giovanni, university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and editor of "The 100 Best African American Poems." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you've called, stay on the line. Before we get to your call, Nikki Giovanni, you've said that poetry comes alive when it's read aloud because it is rooted in the spoken word. So I'd like to ask you to read a poem from the book for us. Would you read, "The Aunt," by Mari Evans?
GIOVANNIThis is my dedication, actually. So this is the one poem -- this is a 221st poem, but it's above the table of contents. "When your mother dies, your aunt comes in to make sure your ribbons are straight, your hair is combed right and your legs are not ashy. And before you know it, you are living at her house and every night, instead of your mother, your aunt is handing you dinner and telling you when. When it is time to go to bed and pulling the blankets up over your shoulders and saying, good night, Sunshine. And sometimes, have a smile in her voice. That is what an aunt does."
NNAMDIOh, Nikki can talk a great deal also about what a grandmother does, but we'll get to that in a little while. First, to the telephones. Here is Carlo in Alexandria, Va. Carlo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLOIt's an honor to be on the phone with all of you. My question is that, you know, there are many parallels in history and I think the horrible Virginia Tech massacre that I know you were a witness to or -- Ms. Giovanni and then what happened in Arizona. So I'm wondering if there are parallels amongst the poetry and things in the collection you've created in terms of historical perspective?
GIOVANNII think the quick answer, Carlos, is no -- Carlo, is no. These tragedies have affected other books, but right now in this book, no, that's not what we're -- it just didn't go that far. It just didn't and so I'm sorry, the answer's no.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Carlo. We move onto Mary in Silver Spring, Md. Mary, your turn.
MARYThank you, Kojo. Ms. Giovanni, I hope not making a colossal blunder here. But I think it was you who gave an address, who spoke at the memorial service after the killings at Virginia Tech. And I want you to know, if it was you and I hope I'm not making a big mistake...
GIOVANNIIt -- yeah, no, no. That was me, okay.
MARYThat was you. It was the -- one of the most memorable things I have ever heard. I never forgot it. And I remember your, "We are Hokies." It was just stunning and I just wanted to tell you how much I admired it.
GIOVANNIWell, thank you very, very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We weren't going to get to that until later, but we'll get to it now and come back to some other stuff later. Because we know that Cho Seung-Hui was formally a student of yours who eventually killed 32 people on campus at Virginia Tech four years ago. He was a student in your poetry class. You had him removed from that class. What lessons did you take from that experience?
GIOVANNIYou know, I've had some difficulty because of the situation in Tucson.
NNAMDIArizona right now, yes.
GIOVANNIAnd I'm really just not equipped to go beyond my testimony and I really don't care to revisit that. It's incredibly sad and we're having a lot of other sadness. And if anybody doesn't mind, I'd really just not -- I'm not capable of doing anything more with it.
NNAMDIIt's perfectly understandable how sensitive something like that would be at a time like this. So let's get back to your grandmother. You have written a great deal about intergenerational relationships. I know your great -- your grandmother was a big influence on your life.
NNAMDITalk about how important the relationship between generations is to you.
GIOVANNIYou know, Kojo, if I were in college now, and I would be -- though I'm a history major, if I would be a sociology major, I would be heading for my Ph.D. on the influence of the grandmothers on the NBA. Because we look -- look at the NBA and look at...
GIOVANNIThey were reared by their grandmothers.
GIOVANNIAnd my generation was informed by those ladies because we just couldn't -- they kept saying you can change the world, you can change the world, and we couldn't go back and tell them we couldn't. So we had to change the world. But the grandmothers are just incredibly important and that's the truth. The NFL is not as much influenced as the NBA, but look at those young men and women who -- there's no women in the NBA, but the women who play basketball. Look at them.
GIOVANNIAnd you'll see that grandmother influence. My grandmother told me this. It's an -- they're incredible. So I was -- I was very fortunate. I haven't done that many edited books, but I always enjoy putting my producing cap on. And I was able, several years ago now, to do a book called "Grand Mothers." And it's because I was doing a workshop with senior citizens. My oldest writer in that workshop was 90 years old.
GIOVANNIAnd so this is just like, bingo. I mean, the light goes off. Who would her grandmother be? Well, when we did "Grand Mothers," Mandy and Anna Kinney (sp?) , their grandmothers went back to the civil war because they were already almost a hundred years old.
GIOVANNIAnd we completed that. And, of course, you know, you get the letters flying, well, people have grandfathers, too. And it was like, I'm not against grandfathers. I like grandfathers. I have one. And so we did, "Grand Fathers." And at that point, you know, it's always amazing what you can and can't get done in publishing. At that point, I've had two successful books. So my next thing is like, wow, okay. Let's complete this trilogy.
GIOVANNII wanted to do aunts...
GIOVANNI...because the next most important person -- I'm a girl, it's going to be my aunt, who's going to tell my mother, oh, I think it's okay for Nikki to wear stockings, or, you ought to let her stay out a little bit later than eight o'clock, you know. It's your aunt that intervenes for you.
GIOVANNIAnd so I wanted to do aunts. But I collected the manuscript, but I lost my editor. My editor got fired in a shake up.
GIOVANNIAnd -- oh, God. You hate that. You really hate that. And when I lost my editor, nobody else wants to own the book. So right now, I can't get it done. But Mary Evans, who is senior in terms of black poetry right now, had written this poem because Mary's mother died when she was young. And it's a poem that I've loved so much. And I thought, no, I've got to find a way to get what I love into a book like this. That's why she's above -- no matter what would have happened with the rest of the book, I put Mary above the Table of Contents.
GIOVANNIBut I only have one aunt left. My aunt died four months after my mom.
GIOVANNIAnd so I have a baby aunt, Agnes Marsh, and I thought, oh, I want -- and I do, I love Agnes so much. She --she's 89. So I wanted to dedicate the book to Agnes. But then I -- it hit me. Don't write it yourself, idiot. You've got a great poem by Mary Evans. So I called Mary and asked her if it would be okay if I could use this in this way and that's where we got it in there.
NNAMDIYou clarified something for me because the way in which the civil rights movement influenced the anti-war movement in this country, the generation that participated in both of those movements were generations that said, and kind of felt that we could change the world. And I thought it was simply the enthusiasm and the exuberance of youth, but I'm realizing now it was an instruction from our grandmothers.
GIOVANNIWell, it was. It really, you know, there's a -- of course now, because of people having babies at a young age, we're now having an incredibly young grandmother.
GIOVANNIWe're having some grandmothers at 30. And again, I'm not a sociology major. I'm just a poet. But it's going to be interesting to me, because now we have -- and I mean no disrespect, so I don't want your phone to light up, but we're having immature women -- because at 30, you've not begun to blossom, you know. You have to at least by 40. And if you think about people like Rosa Parks, she was 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat.
GIOVANNIOr you think about people Marian Anderson. She was 42 years old when she stood at the Lincoln Memorial to give this -- so, you know, you're looking for that 40-year-old woman. So those of who are 30, I'm not picking on you, but we're now having an immature grandmother come in. And it's going to be really interesting to see how this is going to play out.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break, but we're talking with Nikki Giovanni, who describes herself as just a poet, which would be like Marian Anderson saying I'm just a singer. Nikki Giovanni is university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and editor most recently of "The 100 Best African-American Poems." We're going to take a short break, but you can still call us. 800-433-8850, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Nikki Giovanni. She is university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and editor of "The 100 Best African American Poems." We got this e-mail from Mavis. "I grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina. Needless to say, I grew up around very few black people, and was often reminded that I was different. One day I discovered Ms. Giovanni's poetry at the public library and was immediately filled with a sense of pride. I have to say that this was a pivotal moment in my life that assured that I, a little black mountain girl, would do great things in my life. Thank you."
GIOVANNIWell, that's wonderful, yeah. There's lots of, what do they call them, blackelations, but they're, you know, we're -- wherever there are people, there are black people. But, of course I'm at Virginia Tech so she's our neighbor now. I'm sure -- we're actually -- in Blacksburg, you know, we're closer to North Carolina than we are to Richmond.
NNAMDIWe got another comment posted on our website by Ramona Edelin. I know Ramona Edelin, and I'm sure you know Ramona Edelin.
GIOVANNII know Ramona. We went to school together.
NNAMDIRamona said, "Hey Kojo, ask Nikki about the influence of Robert Hayden and John Oliver (word?) Spring Writer's Festival when we were at Fisk."
GIOVANNIOh, yeah. No. I remember Ramona very well. And, of course, John was a big influence on all of us. We worked very hard...
GIOVANNI...to get John to come to Fisk. And Fisk has a history of art. And so we got him there, and, of course, John immediately is going to reach out and say, let's do this -- let's do the art festivals. And, of course, everybody knew John. So I remember when the (unintelligible) he was Leroy Jones when we had our first art festival. And he walked into the room and we just exploded. When Leroy walked into the room, it was just like, whoa. And it's incredible. My dream for Fisk is that it become a women's school.
GIOVANNIBecause we have Spelman and we have Bennett, and they have great leadership. And Fisk does not have that many men. If we converted single sex, I think we could make partnerships that would be meaning to Fisk, and I think that the Fisk woman is an out -- I don't think that. The Fisk woman is an outstanding woman. And we'd be able to create a triangle with our two sister schools.
GIOVANNISo I'm really hoping the Fisk steps up. You know, Fisk is having difficulty. I know you know that.
GIOVANNIAnd one of the reasons we're having difficulty is we don't have any money. But a part of money, I don't think that we have a money problem, I think we have a -- we need to reinvent ourselves. And as we reinvent -- everybody does, Tide does, you know, new and improved. Everybody does. And education does that also.
NNAMDIRamona, good to hear from you. Onto Eric in Alexandria, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICThank you very much. First ,I would like to say congratulations to sister Nikki Giovanni. I first met her way back at Buffalo State Teacher's College in 1971 during our Black Arts Festival back in that day.
ERICAnd she came up with a number of great people, brother Donny (word?) , sister Sanchez, as well as entertainers such as Nina Simone, Farrell Sanders, even Earth, Wind and Fire. So to see her continue to progress, I look back and I feel honored and very pleased, you know, to hear her, and to see her come to this point. She wrote a very interesting poem once that said, so what if my windows are dirty. If I can't see out that means you still can't see in.
GIOVANNIIt's my house, and I plan to live in it.
ERICAnd you still live in it.
GIOVANNIOh, of course I do.
ERICTwo things that I am -- number one, your -- your statement about aunts struck a chord because with having known and loved my great aunt, several paternal aunts, and maternal aunts, I hope you please do get -- are able to go forward with that. That really struck a chord with me, and sounds very positive. I hope -- I look forward to seeing something like that come from you.
ERICNumber two, I really would like to hear your opinion of being a poet, to being the national women's poet if you may. Because I think you are. I would like -- I'm interested in your opinion of the young -- of rappers.
ERICFemale rappers today. I -- I think your perspective would be interesting, both pro, con, or whatever, and I'll...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to give you a lead in to Nikki Giovanni's perspective on rappers, because this book, "The 100 Best African-American Poems" comes with a CD on which some of the poems are read aloud by the authors and by actors. So while you're on, Eric, let's take a listen to The River. A poem written by the late rapper, Tupac Shakur, and read here by Novella Nelson.
NOVELLA NELSONAs long as some suffer, the river flows forever. As long as there is pain, the river flows forever. As strong as a smile can be, the river flows forever, and as long as you are with me, we'll ride the river together.
GIOVANNIIncredible. Incredible. But let me do something for him.
GIOVANNIPaul Lawrence Dunbar. "We wear the mask that grins and lies that hides our cheeks, shades our eyes. This debt we paid to human guile with torn and bleeding hearts we smile, and mouth myriad subtleties. Why would the world think otherwise to counting all our tears and sighs. No. Let them see us while we wear the mask." And people forget you can rap Dunbar.
NNAMDIAnd that's that I, you know, I'm not a good rapper. But I wanted to show, and that's why I edited the volume "Hip-hop Speaks To Children," because I wanted to show the -- I'm a big fan of the hip-hop nation, but I wanted to show also how it's in line. If Paul Lawrence Dunbar were alive today, he'd be Jay-Z. It's in line, and that's what -- that's what we -- there's a holistic com -- what am I trying to say? There's this blanket that...
GIOVANNIYeah. That keeps all of us warm. Yeah.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Eric. Here is Roshi in Milton, Del. Roshi, your turn.
ROSHIYes. I'm here, can you hear me? I'm on speaker phone.
NNAMDIWe hear you very clearly.
ROSHIOkay. Ms. Giovanni, I have to let you know, I am a proud Bennett Bale (word?) graduate.
ROSHIAnd when I was at Bennett, I had the pleasure of seeing you twice. The first time I saw you at North Carolina A&T...
ROSHI...which, of course, is basically across the street from Bennett. And then I had another opportunity to see you at Guilford College.
ROSHIAnd I just want to tell you that -- I'm sorry, I'm not trying -- I'm trying not to cry. My mother read your poems to me when I was a little girl.
ROSHIAnd I grew up in a school that was predominantly Caucasian. And to have my mother influence me with your poems and your books, it has made a major impact on my life. So I just thank you for that so much.
GIOVANNIOh, thank you. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you so much...
ROSHIAnd I'm so excited to get your new book, and I'm really glad that it has a CD, so hopefully I can play the CD for my three-year-old.
GIOVANNIOh, definitely. And then, your three-year-old will be doing with the hip-hop and a hip, hip, hippy, with a hip-hop hippity hop.
NNAMDISounds like a plan to me Roshi. Nikki, your poetry has been praised for being so accessible to readers as Roshi just demonstrated. What advice do you have for people who shy away from poetry because they think they won't be able to understand it?
GIOVANNII think that's the arrogance of the poet, to tell you the truth. I do. I'm a big fan of space, and I had the pleasure a long time ago now, of meeting, at several occasions actually, Carl Sagan, who is a brilliant man. And I'm just a, you know, an ordinary person, but we could talk about space, and he could explain what was going on, and I could understand him, and I could converse with him.
NNAMDIThat's what I liked about him, too.
GIOVANNIOf course. I mean, exactly. I didn't meet Einstein, but had I met Einstein I would have had the same thing, because he could talk about physics to those of us who know. I'm a poet. And so there is some depth to my work. And the more you know, the more you're going to see some of the things that I'm doing. But you're not disadvantaged if you don’t know it. Because you read a poem of mine, and I'm glad I'm not the only one, don't misunderstand that.
GIOVANNIBut you can read a poem and enjoy it as it is, but then you can also take it to another level. It can also raise questions for you. That's my job. I'm supposed to be accessible.
NNAMDIYou've called yourself, speaking of Carl Sagan, a space freak, and it's my understanding you have been invited to the next space shuttle launch.
GIOVANNIYes. I am so excited. I don't know what god smiled down and made that happen. But I've never been to a launch, and I am -- we're clearing for it. I am so excited. Because if there's one thing -- people sometimes say to you, well, what one thing would you like to do, you know, before you leave earth? And I said I'd like to leave the earth. Oh, God, I mean, I'd sit on a space shuttle -- the shuttle is not difficult.
GIOVANNIIt's just a plane that keeps going up 80,000 feet. And I was fortunate in that I took the SST, and I'm very, very sorry we did not -- supersonic transport.
GIOVANNII'm very sorry we did not continue with the SST.
NNAMDIYeah. I wanted to take that too.
GIOVANNIOh, it was wonder -- you know, it's like you're at Mach Two and it's just like you're standing still. And you can see the curve of the earth. But can you imagine we could go from D.C. to Argentina, to Buenos Aires in two hours?
NNAMDII'd love it.
GIOVANNII don't know why we didn't continue. I mean, that's just stupidity on our part. But I would love to just, you know, take off to Mars. I have a dog, and Alex and I -- get little Alex in her little -- her little...
NNAMDII can see it now.
GIOVANNIOh, yeah. We're just sitting there and pop a glass of champagne and just, you know, rocket on out of here.
NNAMDII can see the picture now. We got an e-mail from Christine in D.C. "I just heard your comments about women turning 40 starting to bloom. I'm 38 and wrestling with the feeling that I have not hit my stride yet. You just made my lifetime."
GIOVANNIOh, the best is way yet to come. Oh, yeah.
NNAMDIIt's just starting. We're running out of time. You're a foodie and a gardener. How do you spend your time when you're not teaching or working on poetry?
GIOVANNIOne of the other -- I don't work on poetry. I'm always thinking about something. I mean, in terms of I don't just do poetry because I sit down and say let's do poetry. And, you know, you're watching, I wrote one my favorite poems actually, it's about the yellowjacket, because I'm a gardener. And I was watching this little yellowjacket drink one morning. And I, you know, one doesn't think of a yellowjacket as drinking.
GIOVANNIOne thinks of a yellowjacket as attacking.
GIOVANNIAnd it's like all of a sudden it's like, wow, I wish I could talk, you know, to -- friends of mine say, you know, you've been alone too long. You're talking to that dog and yellowjackets, you got a problem.
NNAMDIShe's not alone right now. Nikki Giovanni has the world embracing her. Nikki Giovanni is university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. Her latest book is "The 100 Best African American Poems." Nikki Giovanni, thank you for joining us.
GIOVANNIThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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