Nikki Giovanni has a thing about words, even a single one _ like “needed.”
“I’m not needed,” the beloved poet, drinking coffee at a hotel lounge in midtown Manhattan, insisted during a recent interview. “I think I’m enjoyed. I enjoy my audience and I think my audience enjoys me. I’ve seen too many people who think they’re needed and do you know how awful they are?”
And you can call her work honest, but not “confessional.”
“You confess to the lord, but you are honest with your work,” she said. “I’m an honest writer, I really think I am. But I don’t think I’m confessional.”
The 74-year-old Giovanni has been candidly sharing her views on the state of the world and the state of her life for 50 years, but sees her new work, “A Good Cry,” as her closest to “confessional.” She has written before with intimate passion about race and revolution, love and sex, food and childhood and the heroes and villains she has encountered. But she still believes she has held back some feelings, at risk to her health. She had meant to call her book “Surveillance,” because she calls observation the poet’s job, but a conversation with her doctor inspired a new title. Giovanni explained that she had had a seizure and her doctor told her that her blood pressure was high and she needed rest.
“And I said, `I have high blood pressure, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I said, `What I think I need to do is have a good cry.”’
The new collection is a close look at past, present and future, from memories of her grandparents to dreams of space travel. (She would happily die on a voyage to Saturn, she says). Giovanni offers bluesy poems of desire (“I want to be/The fly on the wall/About to fall/Down/In your arms”), diaries of everyday life (“Morning Breakfast Routines”) and proud memories of her activist past (“We, Too”). She honors Vietnam War novelist Tim O’Brien, the late Ruby Dee and such African-American newspapers as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. She likens storm clouds to her grandmother, carrying a load “they can no longer support.”
Tears fall for the late Maya Angelou, the subject of four tributes, including the mournful “At Times Like These”:
At times like these
Giovanni and Angelou, who died in 2014, were friends and sometimes competitors. (“She felt competitive with me,” Giovanni said during the interview. “When you die and go to heaven, ask her.”) They both loved to cook, and they both had their chosen drinks _ Angelou liked bourbon and champagne, Giovanni prefers wine). One of Giovanni’s poems about Angelou is called “A Sincere Apology,” in which she writes of feeling sad that she might have upset her friend and not lived up to her word. Giovanni says the poem was a response to her once turning up late for a meeting with Angelou. She might have simply called and apologized, but put her feelings into a poem because “I’m a writer.”
A native of Knoxville, Tennessee who graduated from Fisk University, Giovanni says it was her love of music, passion for history and lively imagination that helped turned her into a poet. Such early books as “Black Feeling Black Talk” and “Re: Creation” made her a leading voice of the militant Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and she has since published dozens of works, ranging from children’s stories to essay collections. Her honors include a Grammy nomination for the spoken word album “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection,” a National Book nomination for her memoir “Gemini” and an NAACP Image Award for her picture book “Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat.”
Giovanni sees her writing as a progression toward greater truth and self-awareness, and cites her signature poem “Nikki-Rosa.” Published in her 1968 collection “Black Judgement,” the poem is look back to childhood and the pain of being poor. But “Nikki-Rosa” also is a rejection of grim talk, because with the memories of no running water and her father’s drinking were moments shared alone with her mother and family gatherings for birthdays and Christmas.
“All the while I was quite happy,” she concluded.
Giovanni now speaks differently of the poem and says her happiness was more a matter of will than of underlying emotion. In what was once the title poem of her new book, “Surveillance,” she remembers a Saturday night her father hit her mother so hard “She literally flew/Across the living room.” She wasn’t really happy as a child, but made herself believe it.
“I had a decision to make,” she says. “My decision was I can’t let what they do with their lives determine mine. So the decision was, I’m going to be happy.”