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Nikki Giovanni, Finding the song in the darkest days

During her 52-year career, Nikki Giovanni has written 12 children’s books and eight non-fiction books, and she has released 10 spoken word albums. But the genre for which she is best known is poetry.

When you browse a stack of her 19 collections (it’s a big stack), you find her face, still beaming and smiling at 77, staring at you from the covers. It’s an unusual choice for the jacket of a poetry book, but Giovanni is the rare poet that many people will actually recognize – a distinction which is all the more remarkable considering the time it is true. .

Her name was verified in the 1980 song Teena Marie “Square Biz,” which performed at the 2016 Brooklyn Afropunk Festival, and both seen and heard her poem “Dream” read last fall in a campaign commercial for Joseph. R. Biden Jr. It was in 1972 that Ebony magazine first called him “a personality, a star. His stamina for more than half a century comes from a flow of acclaimed works, his propensity for a grueling schedule of visits and readings, and a fearlessness born of not caring what people are doing. stupid think.

“The best thing you can do for yourself is not be careful,” Giovanni said in a video interview from his home in Christiansburg, Virginia.

“People who are careful all end up doing drugs or alcohol, or being crazy or mean,” she added. “You can’t let people you don’t know decide who you are.”

Giovanni emerged as a writer in the late 1960s during the black arts movement, alongside fellow poets Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. In one of Giovanni’s early poems, “Reflections of April 4, 1968,” marking the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she writes: “What can I, a poor black woman, do to destroy the ‘America? This / is a question, with appropriate variations, asked in each / black heart. “

But despite his fame as a poet of the resistance, Giovanni has always been just as likely to write about tenderness or breakfast. (Food is a constant theme in her work, and she is an excellent cook, known among friends especially for her fried chicken, which she rubs with ginger and slowly cooks in a bath of butter.)

His latest book, published by William Morrow in October, is “Make Me Rain”, and it begins with a love poem of the same name. The collection includes “Laughter (for Dr. Ford)”, about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Trump, and “Ferguson: The Musical”, about the death of Michael Brown in 2014, as well as “De-Planing On navigating autograph seekers when she gets off a plane and needs to use the bathroom.

Black love, black struggle and black joy have long been at the center of Giovanni’s work. His latest book is full of affection for African Americans in their daily lives.

“There’s no way not to like black Americans,” she writes in “Lemonade Grows From Soil, Too.” “We try to practice love. / We use the chicken feet to make a stew; we take the scraps of fabric / to make the quilt. We find the song in the darker days / to say “ put on your red dress, baby, because we’re going out / tonight, ” understanding that we can be lynched on the way home / but knowing in between that field of cotton and this holiday house / something wonderful was shared.

“I could never have written ‘Make Me Rain’ 50 years ago,” Giovanni said. “I thought 50 years ago that I could make a big difference in the world. What I know now is that I won’t allow the world to make a big difference in me. This is what is extremely important. I’m not going to let the fact that I live in a nation with a bunch of fools make a fool of me.

Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr. in Knoville, Tennessee, in 1943, she was nicknamed Nikki at a young age by her older sister, Gary Ann. None remembers why, but the name stuck. The family moved to Cincinnati when Giovanni was a baby, but returned to Tennessee as a teenager to live with her maternal grandparents. (Before moving, she said, “If you wanted to know what I was doing on a Saturday night at 11 am, I would listen to my dad beating my mom.”)

From the end of the 1970s, she provided for herself, her young son Thomas and her parents by writing but also by speaking. Funny, charismatic, and captivating as she read her work, she went pretty much anywhere she was invited, not just to colleges and writing programs, but to churches, YMCAs, and black sororities.

In 1987, she was recruited by an English teacher named Virginia Fowler to teach creative writing at Virginia Tech. She’s been there ever since.

Giovanni and Fowler have now lived together for over 30 years. They cook together and go to doctor’s appointments together. They keep a goldfish pond in the yard and a Yorkie named Cleopatra, who runs the house. But Giovanni doesn’t name Fowler as his partner. She calls Fowler her bench, whereby she points to the person who will always support her.

“Everyone needs a bench, and to have one, you have to be one,” said Giovanni. “I could say love, but you’re tired of hearing about love.”

Fowler finds himself in the unusual position of being perhaps Giovanni’s greatest expert. She is currently in the process of selecting poems for a collection of Giovanni to be published by Penguin, and Fowler believes she has written more about Giovanni’s work than anyone.

“I felt weird at first,” she laughs, “but then I was really interested in her work. And I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting the attention of the academy.

These days, Giovanni isn’t traveling because of Covid-19, but she still teaches in person. She also toured for her book, albeit virtually. Not the type to be subtle with her opinions, in a promotional interview last month with Angela Yee and Charlamagne tha God on their radio show “The Breakfast Club” she expressed her disappointment that Mr. Trump did not die from Covid , claiming that there would have been less suffering and death if he had any.

“Make Me Rain” is her 19th book with Morrow – the first came out before the birth of her current publisher, Rachel Kahan, but she already has a “new book” file on her computer, with over 25 poems to date.

“She loves to write,” Fowler said. “She is deeply imaginative, but she may not remember anyone she meets on a given day. She lives elsewhere.

Despite being so free with her opinions and raw in her work, Giovanni makes a distinction between her poetry and herself, Fowler said. She has a small circle of close friends and her personal life is not about public consumption. She managed to keep the identity of her son’s father private for 51 years.

The writer and poet Kwame Alexander, a former student of Giovanni, is part of this intimate circle, a man she calls her literary son.

“When I was at Virginia Tech, she told me, ‘Kwame, I can teach you how to write poetry, but I can’t teach you how to be interesting,’” he recalls. She tells her students to be bold and raise their voice, he said, “Dance naked on the floor and don’t be afraid of who’s watching.”

“Make Me Rain” looks timely in 2020, a year when so many people have taken to the streets to support Black Lives Matter.

“She has always been deeply invested in the black liberation struggle, and since the black liberation struggle remains ongoing and necessary, she is now an alumnus of that movement,” said poet Fred Moten. “It’s not just that she managed to stay relevant, it’s that the need for her is still there.”

But Giovanni doesn’t see this as a moment for her to be ahead.

“I’m an old lady, which I recommend,” she says. “I really like what young people are doing, and I think my job is to make sure that I don’t get in their way, but also let them know, if it means anything to them, that I am proud of them.

Other than that, says Giovanni, you can find her sitting outside by her pond on warm evenings, having a glass of champagne with her goldfish.

“I recommend old age,” she says. “There is nothing more wonderful than knowing that you have done your job.”

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