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Nikki Giovanni on Poetry, Grief and Her New Book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid”

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We continue our conversation with award-winning poet, activist and educator Nikki Giovanni. She is currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech. In 1968, 45 years ago, she published her first collection of poetry, “Black Feeling, Black Talk.” She was soon dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry.” She has since published more than 30 books. Her latest is “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” a remarkable mix of poetry, essays and memoir. She was the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and she has also been awarded the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry. We also ask her to comment on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, talking about chasing—talk about Chasing Utopia.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, Utopia is a beer. And this book came out—you know, I said the other night to my editor, “If I could boil this book, if I could find some sort of special water to put it in, boil the book, cool it, and let people drink it, it would be joy, because this is a—really, this is a book that makes you smile.

My mother died, and I was incredibly sad. She died in 2004, actually just before the tragedy. And when the thing happened at Virginia Tech, I literally saw myself reach to call Mommy. And it was, “Oh, my goodness, she’s not there.” But I was very sad, but I had a lot to do. My mother died in June, my sister died that August, and my aunt died that October. So I had a lot to do. And I’m a responsible person, so you have to sort of put your own mourning aside to get done what needs to be done. But then, I got it done.

And I have a dog, Alex. And so, I said to Alex, you know, “I just—I just need to be quiet.” You know, you have a headache. You know, you’re just sad. And so, I would go out on the deck and have a glass of Chardonnay, and, as I said to somebody, about 3:00 in the afternoon I went to bed. So, I finally realized you can’t do that. You know, I mean, I think it’s OK—you’re sad; you ought to be able to drink, or you ought to be able to cry, or whatever it is one do—one does. But you have to eventually—I mean, I was looking at Alex, and one morning I went out, and Alex was giving me—I don’t know if you’re a dog person, but Alex was giving me that “Again?” And I thought, “OK, you’re right, Alex.”

But every day that I knew my mother, she drank a beer. And the reason I knew Mommy was dying—I knew that my sister was dying, but she had a brain tumor. But the reason I knew Mommy was dying is that she was in the hospital—she had taken a fall—and I said, “Oh, you want me to sneak you a beer in?” because every day she drank a beer, and she said, “No, I don’t—I don’t want a beer.” And I had to accept Mommy’s dying.

So I said to Alex, “You know, we’ve got to—I’ve got to make changes. You know, I can’t mourn forever.” So I said, “You know, why don’t we drink a beer for the old girl?” But I don’t like beer. I never did. My mother drank beer. My sister and I are wine drinkers. My mother and her sisters are beer drinkers. And I just don’t like beer. And I thought, “Well, if I’m going to drink a beer for Mommy, it has to be the best beer.” So we went—we, being Alex and I, went over to the local bookstore and looked—you know, went to the beer—and looked at the beer book. It’s that thick. And I was just, “What’s the number one beer in the world?” Well, it’s Utopia. And, of course, I thought—I knew you couldn’t find it at Kroger’s. It’s $350 a pint. But I did call the local wine store, and, “No, we don’t sell it, because we’re too small.” I called another liquor shop, actually, in California. They don’t sell it, because it’s a beer, because they only sell wine and brandy and fine things. So, it started off on: How do I finally get this beer and drink it for my mother?

So, I’m kind of fudging, because I have it, but I’m waiting now because—I mentioned my student, Kwame Alexander, who’s a great kid, and Kwame does literacy in Ghana. And he asked me to come over, and I did. And I met Queen Juanita. And I have a weakness for little old ladies, and I just absolutely—I just adored her. I just fell in love. And she’s coming to the States. And I was sharing this story, and she said, “Oh, I want to drink—I want to drink it.” And I said, “I’m going to keep this bottle until you come.” She’ll be over in January. So, we will sit on my—well, we’ll sit in the house, because it will be—I live in Virginia, it will be cold. And we will drink Utopia, and we’ll have a toast to Mommy.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, how do you write poetry? What’s your actual ritual? Does it just happen anywhere? You just pick up a pen, and you just start writing something down? Or you sit down in your home or your office?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: No, I have a den. I actually am not Internetty. Yesterday, a friend of mine, Ethel Smith, the writer, texted me and said, “You did a good job.” She saw me doing something—”You did a good job.” And I looked at my iPhone, and I said, “I can do this. I’m a grown—I’m 70 years old. I can do this.” And I pulled it up, and then there’s a little thing that says “reply.” And I touched it, and then it came, and it said “message.” And I said, “Thanks. Much love, Nikki.” And then I hit that reply, and she got it! And so, I was just like—I’m thrilled. Now I know how to text, if you do it. I haven’t learned how to generate it, but I know how to respond now. But I have a computer, but it’s not connected to anything. It’s just electronic, which I like.

And, you know, you have to think. I do read every day. I read something. I read a newspaper. I keep up with—you know, I just—every day you try to learn something. I don’t try to write every day. But I do—I don’t want to say “dream,” but I do start to think, “I wonder if I could—I wonder if I”—for example—and this will be a poem at some point, so you heard it here first on Democracy Now! I used to live here in New York, and I love Manhattan. If I were rich, I would live here now. But coming from like 57th Street down here, I started to look, and there used to be a bookstore. There used to be a bookstore. There used to be—and then you go down two more blocks, there used to be a bookstore. There was a bookstore that did maps on this side of the street. And I started looking. I thought, “I need to write that. I need to go back and do the geography,” because coming down 5th Avenue—just 5th, not Mad, not—you know, because Mad had a really wonderful bookstore, and still does. But just coming down 5th Avenue, there were like five major bookstores, and they’re all gone. They’re all gone. And what has taken their place is crap. You know, I mean, I’m not against 12-year-old girls wearing bras or something, but I just don’t think that it’s—you know how you look at the old, and of course you can still see that they were bookstores. It’s like, I want to write about that, because that—it used to be such a joy.

I lived uptown, 92nd and Central Park West. And I’m a walker. And so, now, you know, I’m a little bit older now, so if I were living in New York on 92nd Street, I probably wouldn’t walk, as I used to do, down to the Village. Or, I still do ride my bike, and I had a bike when I was here. And I had a seat, because I have my son, and I would put Tommy on the back, and we’d go down to the Village. There was a cheese shop in the Village, and we’d buy the cheese. And I only had one time to make the mistake of coming home, you know, via Lexington, because Lexington comes up, so you have to come over, you know, because you really have to pump. And we would go down and get the cheese, and then we’d come back home. Incredible. Manhattan is such an important and wonderful city.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, we’re going to go to break, but when we come back, I’d like you to share some poetry with us.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, I’d be delighted.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nikki Giovanni, the poet, the professor, currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech, author of 28 books. Her recent, most recent book, just published, is called Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Nikki Giovanni is our guest, the poet, the distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her new book is called Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. Why “A Hybrid”?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Because I have stories, and I have poetry in it. And Rachel and I argued about this, my editor, because it was Chasing Utopia: The Hybrid. And Rachel said, “Nikki, it can’t be 'the hybrid.'” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because there are other hybrids.” I said, “But they’re not other hybrids chasing utopia.” But I lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, wait. You have a tattoo on your arm?


AMY GOODMAN: What does it say?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: It says, “Thug Life.”




NIKKI GIOVANNI: Because of the assassination of Tupac Shakur. And I didn’t know Tupac, and I don’t know Afeni, his mother, but I wanted them to know that I cared, that it hurt all of us. This was not just an individual thing; this was a generational. Tupac was a great loss, just an incredibly great loss. He was a great mind, charismatic young man, and only actually two years younger than my son. So, you know, you feel it a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Share some poetry.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: “The Significance of Poetry.”

Poetry is as necessary
To life
As salt is to stew
As garlic is to pasta
As perfume is to summer nights
As shaving lotion is to mornings
As your smile is to
My happiness

Poetry is as significant
To life
As yeast is to bread
As butter is to toast
As grapes are to wine
As sugar is to lemons
How else will we get

Poetry is to me
Your voice
Your touch
Your laughter
That feeling at the end of the day
That I am
Not alone

I like that. I like that a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you read “Spices”?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, I love “Spices.”

i used to watch
my mother cook
she would invariably sigh
that little sigh then light
a cigarette

since no one smokes
anymore Beans
have not tasted as good

i have her sigh
and stack of spices

“This one is cardamom
It comes from Southeast Asia”
“This one is nutmeg
the defense of this spice by a Brit was so fierce
the world court heard the case and the Dutch
gave up Manhattan Island for that little island
in the Indian Ocean that grew nutmegs”
and cloves … stick them in an orange for a
Christmas present
or a ham to make
a design

cooking with Mommy was
Geography “These pansies you can eat”
“These mushrooms will
kill you” (should we put them in your father’s
eggs? she’d laugh
and say)

the green things
rosemary thyme tarragon cilantro
the fennel we grew brought mean
yellow jackets so
we get it at Kroger’s

“The trick to a great
is a song” she’d say
And we would sing loud and lustily
She harmonizing with me but me
Unable to carry a straight melody

Now it is ready

cold water almost to the top
fennel allspice pepper pods of all colors
No Salt—it’s a rule
green spices till it
looks right then
cinnamon on the uncovered top
low heat until boiling
(about 2 hours)
let cool 15 minutes
pour the water off then
let cool on your platter

I make my Ham the way
my mother made hers
with lots of talk and love and laughter

AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni reading “Spices,” one of her poems in Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, a hybrid of prose and poetry.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: And poetry, and a lot of recipes, as you could see. It’s a lot of cooking.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, food, poetry, joy.


AMY GOODMAN: So, when do you write poetry? When do you write prose?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: I think that essentially the story tells its—makes a decision. For “Chasing Utopia,” which is the lead here, could never have been a poem, because it’s a whole process of why I decided that I wanted to drink the number one beer in the world. And, I mean, I’d have to end up writing, you know, Paradise Lost or something; it would just go on forever if I was trying to do that as a poem. And I don’t think I have that ability, because I’m a storyteller, and the way I tell stories is through that voice. And so, this, I dealt with through just a story. You know, this is how I got to it. We lost Mommy. And I just wanted—well, we didn’t lose Mommy; Mommy died. And I wanted to celebrate. You don’t forget the death of your mother. I mean, that’s just not going to happen. But at some point you do have to sort of say, you know, “Now, are you embarrassing your mother by continuing to stay in this place?” I think that Americans need to—I think we, as a nation, need to recognize and respect mourning more, you know, because it’s not something to get over. Death and illness and things are not things you get over. But you do have to say, “OK, I have cried this last—this last tear. I need to try to recreate—life becomes different. I have to recreate myself.”

AMY GOODMAN: How did you start writing poetry?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: I just think, basically—I laugh about it, but my sister was a very friendly person. She had friends. And I—I’m just not friendly, and I didn’t have a lot of people around me. I don’t have a lot of people that I talk to. And so, I think I just started writing. I used to draw, but I was not as good at drawing, obviously, as I am at writing. And I like words. But, actually, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. And I lived with my grandparents for several years. And Grandpapa was 20 years older than grandmother, so Grandpapa really didn’t have a lot of patience with the grandchildren. I mean, he was a very nice man, and I don’t know a nicer human being, actually, than my grandfather. But all of the other grandchildren sort of paired off. My cousins went off and climbed trees or whatever it is boys do. And my sister was talented also, and so she was not only friendly, but she had piano lessons, she had dance lessons. And that just left Nikki, you know. And so, Grandpapa would talk to me, and we would read together. He was a Latin scholar, so he taught me the Greek and Latin gods. And, you know, we had all of the mythology. You know, I think that Grandpapa felt sorry for me, so I learned to function in my own space. And I’m still pretty comfortable with that.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Nikki Giovanni, this is the weekend that Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in his home village, Qunu. Any thoughts on this world leader?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, you know, Mandela was a great man. I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, as is Winnie Mandela, and she is our sorority sister. So, when the death, this transition, did occur, my thought immediately went out to my sorority sister, because I think that of all of the things that Nelson Mandela gave up—and I think he gave up quite a bit to help South Africa—the main thing that we ignore that he gave up was Winnie. And we have to recognize that Winnie Mandela carried on all of those years. And then, when he came out, there was going to have to be a compromise. This is the politics of it, we know that. There’s no way that Winnie, having run the ANC while he was in jail—there’s no way she can be first lady of South Africa. And so, that had to be one of the most difficult decisions. I do not know Mr. Mandela. I did not know him. But that had to be one of the most difficult decisions to make, that the woman who had stood with you, you now have to put aside.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nikki Giovanni, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Nikki Giovanni’s latest book is called Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

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Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” Ends with Burial in Home Village of Qunu

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