In Black America; Nikki Giovanni: Portrait of a Contemporary Writer
for your experience! I have built my tower on the wings of a spider spinning slippery daydreams of paper doll fantasies. I built my tower on the beak of a dove pecking peace to a needing woman. Writer and poet, Nikki Giovanni. She was one of the most popular and innovative young writers of the 60s. And through a powerful chorus, she not only advocated black nationalism, but makes tough demands for the correction of injustices against blacks. This week, Nikki Giovanni, a contemporary writer in Black America.
In Black America, reflections of the black experience in American society with John Henson. Nikki Giovanni, writer and poet, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. And raised in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, a black community outside of Cincinnati. At age 16, she and its fifth university. She helped put together the student nonviolent coordinating committee on campus. Nikki describes herself as a relative late-comer to the civil rights movement. During that period, she helped develop a black community theater group and conducted community workshops in black history. Her first book of poetry, Black Feelings and Black Talk, was published in 1968 by Merrill. The second book, Black Judgment, also came out in 1968 again by Merrill. In 1974, Ms. Giovanni became a media personality through network TV performances of her poetry. Presently, she is active in speaking on college campuses and participating in community programs.
In Black America asked Ms. Giovanni how she became one of America's prolific black writers. Guess you keep trying. You don't understand that you can't. So you go ahead and do it. I like poetry. I think that we, in America, overblow what is called fame and success. And actually, we don't judge it. I don't know if you fly a lot. I fly a lot. And when you land, they'll say, you know, welcome to Austin. You know, have a good day in Austin or whatever your final destination will be. And I finally got tired of it. And I said to the student, you know, my final destination is seven or how. And she didn't really understand what I was saying. But your final destination is not San Marcos. Your final destination is where you go. And I think that people are looking for an hour age right now. They're transitory things. So they're saying, you know, oh, she's successful or he's successful. And it's not about anything other than we're trying to do something. You don't become successful until you're dead.
It's one reason that most of us who grow up reading poets, you read dead poets. You know, you read very few living poets. You know, we've been fighting. We who are living poets have been fighting with that. Because they don't know how to judge a writer who is still alive to maybe do or say something embarrassing. What if you turn out to be as repound? Or what if you turn out to be, you know, a mom of a rocker? What if you turn out to be some sort of an asshole? So they prefer that you die and then we will judge the quality of your work because we know you can't come back and say anything that will be embarrassing. You know what I mean? Wouldn't you decide you wanted to be a poet? I haven't made any basic decision. We're still open. You know, we're easy on the question. I like writing. I do essays. I do short stories. I'm also writing some poetry, but it's what I do. It's not, if tomorrow I couldn't be published or something like that, I would still enjoy it for what I do. So it's a part of me. You came to national prominence during the 60s, the civil rights movement. Did that have an effect on the style at that particular time of your poetry? Well, we like to think our poetry had an effect on the style of the 60s.
We're not sure. But certainly it was symbiotic relationship. In your poetry writing, it seems to me that from your first book, Black Talk, Black Feelings, and then your book, My House, there was a definite significant change in the life and the way that you want to portray your work. I don't think so, but I am not a critic. And I try to always be as clear as I can about this. I don't criticize my work. I write it. And I don't think it's my job to do that. But I don't think so. I mean, you find a poem on here in the girl with the flaxen hair in Black Feeling Black Talk, or a letter to a bourgeois friend. In terms of the style, there is no stylistic difference between a letter to a bourgeois friend and the poem I wrote for John Lennon. And that's not to say that I'm consistent because I don't value consistency. I read upon the beat point, and I hate saying this. But I think that people find it convenient to label people. I don't really like to be labeled.
And the label that I wear that I am most proud of, actually, is that I'm Black, female, and a poet. I like to write where I see it, what I see, and what I feel. But I think that we can go back to book one, and I can show you everything in book one that showed up in vacation times. Same thing. You've been instrumental in forming Black theaters, Black art programs, Black history, Black culture awareness. In the 80s, are Black Americans particularly concerned about Black culture? Well, I think that we would always be in error in a multi-cultural nation not to be concerned about the culture of all peoples. I had the extreme delight of discovering Maxine Hong Kingston, who has to be one of the better contemporary writers. I don't know if we know Maxine, but she writes like an angel. And to read about the Chinese American childhood, I was so glad that I had written a book called Gemini, and it's enough to take me back to the typewriter, because you begin to learn about people. I'm not as aware of my Indian, American Indian, and Mexican American reading, as I probably should be.
But I think that always, you're extending yourself. I was at the LBJ Library last year with Mrs. Johnson, which was a delight. And the National Endowment came down and gave the Johnson Library, I think something like $800,000. I thought that that was regrettable as the Johnson's or Rich Family. And if we divided that $800,000 into ethnic theaters, we could have much more flowing. I think that we are, and you're asking a question about Black, and what I'm trying to say is I think that all of us have to, but I was very proud that Houston Opera revived Porgy and Best because it was one of the great things that they did. And as you may or may not be aware, they bought it to New York, and it was the hit of the New York season. I mean, they really did a number. And you think regional theaters should be supported. And if we're going to support regional theaters, it's going to have to be inclusive. That justice they did, Porgy and Best, which is an old, you know, we could do better. Do not misunderstand me. But we did do Porgy and Best, and we do do I, either. We also need to be looking for the other operas that either have been written that we're not performing. You know, Madam Butterfly, don't get it for the Chinese anymore.
There has to be, you know, when I'm saying something new. And you want to see the monies that we have, available to the arts, going into developing the writers. But I think that that should be in across the board situation. I think they endowment, particularly if it's going to survive under Reagan. And that's very questionable. Has an obligation to seek out the women, the minorities in general, as well as the men who are doing radical theater. Because what's happening off Broadway is the best that's happening in the world. If it would have been for a young man named Richard Geer, whom you may or may not know, I happen to adore Geer. I think he's one of the fine young actors that we have. If he hadn't agreed to do bent, a very significant play would never have made it to Broadway. It was only because of Geer that it happened. And then Michael Moriarty took it over after Geer happened. But, you know, you begin to think people are writing plays. And if they don't happen to have a good friend named Al Pacino, or Dick Geer, we don't get to see them. And I think that we're here to bring out that, which is not acceptable. You know, that I think it's nice. You know, you do Appalachian Spring or something. I enjoy Copen. I enjoy Dvořák. I enjoy the rest of them.
But they already have their shot. We have a lot of new composers. We have a lot of new poets. You know, when is the last time your public library could do a poetry reading? You know, that people would come out for. I mean, I think that that's important. I think that we have to expand the art community. Always. You know, all the way through. I am very supportive. I sit on the Coordinated Council of Little Magazines. And I think they said, when we get rid of her, never again. But I had the question, and I did question. Why are we giving the Massachusetts review money? Mass review is rich. It's old. Nothing's going to happen. You know what I mean? Nothing's going to happen to Mass review. It's subscribers can take care of it, like National Geographic. It's subscribed. Why do we want to give money to them? When there are 8,000 little Spanish-speaking magazines, and I don't speak Spanish. So I can't even tell you a good name. But they're there, right? And $2,000 makes a difference for a year's publication to them. Whereas 10 makes nothing. It means nothing to Mass review. You understand what I'm saying? And I just think that we should be there to help those who need help. Have you ever thought about considering writing a play or a movie? But I'm very much happy about Interzaki Shange.
I think that she does a very fine job. For colored girls who have considered suicide when a rainbow is enough. I think it's a fine, contemporary expression of the emotional life of Black women. It went across the country. I was very happy to have been a part of helping to put that together to help publicize what Interzaki was doing. And I think that my job as who I am is to try to make what other people are doing possible. See, I don't believe in that theory that if I shoot basketball, I also have to have an opinion on starvation in Africa. And I don't do plays, and I don't write scripts like that. And I don't think I should have to. I think that I am happy to see other people do it. In the beginning, was it difficult to get your points published? Not for me, but I would be less than fair if I didn't recognize that there are difficulties. What does the future hold for Black America? What should we concern ourselves with in the 80s? Living, trying to be better people. We're not the best people in the world. Neither is anybody else. I think the world is essentially a shit right now.
You have to bleep that out, I suppose. But I think that we could do an awful lot better. And our one-to-one relationships and our group relationships. And the idea is that we just have this poverty of ideas. I don't know if I'm a poet. Now, you know, other people will come and they'll be able to do something better. You know, Jesse Jackson will come here and he'll go through, you know, we have to do this that or the other. And he's probably right, but I'm a poet. And I just think when I keep looking around, we're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It's a mass cultural breakdown that's happening. It started in the West, and it's going all the way. And I think that we need to learn to be there for each other. And I think that we have to practice that. But I think that we can do that. I think that white Americans can give up that control over black Americans. Because nobody's been a fitting now. I think we need a new idea. That's what I'm trying to say. And I think that it's up to those of us who are young and who are thinking about things. You know, before you say, well, I'm 22, I got to get married, I got to get a master charge, I got to buy a new car. You know, before all that happens, think about doing something else with your life. Because none of it's guaranteed.
You know, you may make lots and lots of mistakes. You know, you find yourself in the middle of chilly someplace thing. And what am I doing here? You know, in Zaire, you know, scared to death. I'd rather you be scared to death there than happy in Midland when you're 25. You know what I mean? Have you run across any inspiring poets, playwrights, young black writers? I run across a number of them because... Did he submit manuscripts to you? Well, I'm not to be submitted to. I'm not a publisher. I try to be as encouraging as I can be. And I think that right now, the publishing field is so very, very tight. For those of you who are trying to publish, it is simply a matter of money. And the commercial press is simply, well, not make a commitment to young writers. What pleases me about that is that they have been so very clear that we who are now young writers recognize that we have to do it ourselves. I came up in the 60s when we did it ourselves. I formed a small press black dialogue. I published myself. I published other people. And until I actually went bankrupt. One of the things you learn in business, if you're intimidated by not having money, you won't do business. I thought, do it like everybody else does it.
You know, Ross Perot didn't have any money. So why should I? You just keep doing it. He haven't had a product that made a whole lot more money than black dialogue and his poetry. But you let somebody else finance that business. And when the deal comes down, you default it up or sell it. Is that simple? I think that the university presses have been very helpful to young poets. For those of us, our young writers in general. For those of us who are writing right now, we're finding that Indiana University has a press that is now viable. Our neighbor in Arizona has a great press. Arizona, New Mexico. Both have two great poetry presses. Those of us who are women, there's bitch and there's the new feminist press. Both coming out of San Francisco and they're doing, I think, a very, very fine job. Howard University Press for those of us who are black is looking for manuscripts bound about black people. They're looking for serious manuscripts. So that I'm kind of cheered in the fact that the majors have now made it so very clear to young writers that they are not interested. That the young writers are now gearing themselves up to saying, how can I get my own work out? I'm not going to wait. I'm not going to send it into random house and be rejected. I will go and do something myself.
And I think that one of the things that it's what I've always done and it's what I love is that we have to take our work around. We have to come and say, hi, I have a point. May I read it to you? And of course, what's going to happen is that you're going to run into this big lugs is going to say, no, you know, and your feelings are going to be hurt. And if we're serious about writing, we can't leave it all to Judith Kranz, you know, and Philip Roth, and Truman Capote, and go off a doubt because they're not doing anything. They're not writing literature. What they're doing is saying, I'm putting this book out, how can I make a movie out of it? And I think that that's an awful thing to happen. I think that those of us who care about literature and ideas have got to go and let people know that we care. Because I don't do Mike Douglas. You know, I did Mike Douglas once. I've done this tonight's show twice. You know, they don't like me. You know, I'm no fun. You know, people like me. You've never seen anybody make sense on those shows. People like me are no fun. You know, oh, you're really going to be serious. You know, I've done Don and you. But they really, and he's the most serious of the host. Some of your poetry has been put to music. Why haven't you put any latest poem to music? Just haven't felt like it. I don't like the record industry. I think the scum of the earth works in that industry.
And it's true, you know, the most insensitive people. I just haven't had the time of the energy. I've been in Cincinnati as opposed to New York. And I'm there because my dad has had a stroke and it requires a certain amount of time for me. You don't make a record in two days. You know, you can't self-take a long weekend and go up and make a record. I am thinking about doing a record. I talk to my old producer and I talk to my choir director because I have some things that I do want to put on record. But I just really haven't had the time. I haven't had the desire enough to make the time. Somebody said, well, you make time, you know, and that's true. I just haven't felt like making the time because I'd have to be up there any place from 30 to 45 days. And I'm fairly quick with making records. I don't do a lot of fooling around. I can go from, you know, inception to remix to pressing to test pressing in a fairly short amount of time. But you're still talking any place between a month, a month and a half, you know, 30, 45 days. Maybe 90 days would be better because you got to get away from it and listen. I just haven't had that kind of time to devote to something that marginal to my life. Does the environment have any effect on the way that you write?
Well, I sort of carry my environment. Every place that I stay for any length of time has a typewriter. And that's very, very important to me. In other words, you don't love me if you don't have typewriter in your house. That's impossible. That's for my friends to my various family members. I'm never without a typewriter so that I carry my environment to that extent. I drink a lot of coffee and I prefer a rocker. I write on a rocker. I have a rocker. And other than that, I'm pretty well relaxed and let's something. I can't work in mess. You know, I don't have many junky friends and no junky relatives. I cannot function in mess. I'm like all other writers. I'm a procrastinator for those of you who write all writers for procrastinate. So if you can look and see just a little speck of dust on the furniture before you sit down and write your garden, you know, anything to keep from writing. So it's important order is important to me. But as long as things are in order, I can function. Are you proud of the women's movement? As opposed to well. Men's movement. The men's movement has become a little tired in terms of what we've been doing the last four or five hundred years. Women could do a lot better.
I think that women still don't basically cheer for women. I just wrote an article on abortion because I do have strong feelings. And I just try to say, you know, we who are men and men oppose women. You know, I'm sure I'm gonna get letters about that. But I think that we who are women have also got to learn to let a lot of control go. That I think I'm lucky because my mother's a little crazy. She always was. She was the odd one in her family. You know, she never did anything right in on top of everything else into marrying my father. So it's not what the family called a good marriage. You know, it's that kind of thing. So I think I'm lucky that I was her daughter as opposed to some of the other people's I could have been. But I think that mostly we who are women still want to say, well, I did it that way. And that's the way you should do it, rather than admitting, you know, well, it worked for me. I didn't work for me, but you can try something else. I'll be here for you, you know, and I think that women have a lot of growing up to do. We still have basic questions of war piece that we who are women need to have opinions on as women. We still send our sons off to war, and we still say it's great. You know, I saw Carol Burnett, who I have a great deal of respect for as a comedian, but also as an actress.
I saw her in friendly fire last year, and I was so happy that Carol took that role, because there was no way that you could look at friendly fire and not understand that this. This is America's vacant folks, you know, and I think that her evolution, she played a woman whose son was killed in Vietnam by American forces, which is called friendly fire. Now, if that made a difference, you know, understand, I mean, it's not raining today. That didn't matter that he was killed by our forces, or that he was killed by the enemy. It didn't matter. The point is that her son died, and Burnett was a perfect person to play that role. She had a lot of guts, because I'm sure she got a lot of letters from people who thought the Carol Burnett show was funny, and why was she being unpatriotic? You know, the way they treat Jane Fonda is something. I am very proud of those women. I am very proud of Vanessa Redgrave, that she just has the guts to say, you know, I really think that we ought to hear what the PLO has got to say. I'm going to be a part of this. I'm going to make them available. On the other hand, I'm also going to play the hell out of fan-a-lan. I'm going to play a great person because I'm an actress. And no matter what anybody says, I do what I do.
You know, I like that. I like the women that get out there and do it. I mean, Jane Fonda could say, you know, I'm shooting Jane Fonda playing monopoly. I'd be sitting right there in the theater saying, wow, did you see the way she lifted that piece? You know, because she's a great actress. Sessley Tyson, I have a lot of respect for Sessley speaking of actresses in that same way that they're going to do things and have respect. But I think the movement overall, I'm not happy with it, because I think it is juvenile. I think it's narrow-minded. You know, women ought to have something right now. I mean, Gloria Steinem should have something to say about El Salvador. She's trying to deal with, you know, how to get more... And I'm not against women having, you know, equal pay for equal time. I mean, I'm not saying that that's not significant, but compared to what's happening. There are women in El Salvador who are weeping, because we have sent weapons to kill their children. And we too will be weeping soon, because our children will follow the advisors. There are bigger questions than how to get into the executive boardroom. You understand what I'm saying? And I think that we who are women have got to approach the world for who we are. You know, not just, you know, can I make another buck, but what's the difference between us and anybody else?
We have an obligation, and the joy I think of being black is that we who are black recognize that we will not get into the boardrooms, so that we are free to begin to reconceptualize the world. We will not marry the chairman of the board. I don't have the problems that Mary Cunningham has. It's not my problem, you know. I have a great deal of sympathy for Mary Cunningham. I think she made a bad choice of a lover, you know, in terms of the business where, you know, we're talking about it with Aggie at Bendex. But that's not a real problem, where Mary Cunningham is going to work, it's not a real problem. We do have some real problems in the world. And I think we who are women have the obligation, the responsibility to reconceptualize, to try something new, because we've never benefited from the old system. Has the black problem slogan taken on a new meaning in the 80s? I don't know, I got a collection of buttons at home whenever I get broke, I'm on a cellar. It's true, I've got all my buttons from the 60s, free, whoever, you know. I think the people want to be free, and I think that we want to deal with equality. If that's what you mean, of course it's relevant.
I just think that we, who are veterans of that era, and I think that I'm not alone in this, we haven't been calling any veterans administration meetings, you know, that kind of thing. But I think we're also seeing what, what a lot of our fellow civil rights people got into immediately was ecology, was health food, was, to some degree, personal expression, you know. And a lot of it became, I think, to some degree unhealthy, you got into TM, and beginning to think all you had to do was get your mantra and everything was going to be all right. But on the other hand, I think that what they're saying is that we are indeed the new frontier is the human spirit. And we have to get into it to some degree, and I agree with that. And I think that we're also recognizing, I am into all mammals are the same. You know, if I have any cliche expression, it is clearly at this point, all mammals are the same. I just can't see that my relationship with my child is any different from a mother's worst relationship to her child, and if you've ever seen a mother wolf watch your baby die from eating poison, you know, that that's horrible. What's the difference between that, that we poison a wolf because it eats a sheep, and we strangle a black child because it's on the street.
I don't understand the difference. You understand what I'm saying? And I think that I would be incorrect to, it's not even my heart to assume that somehow another, because I'm a human who walks upright, I am different and special from other mammals. I don't see it. I think that if this generation and we're in danger of that, sees the last of the blue whale, we will have to pay the same price for the blue whale that we pay for the American Indian that we pay for slavery. We're simply digging a hole, you understand? And I think that at some point everybody recognizes that bygones or bygones are as Ronald Reagan likes to say, we turn the page, and we try not to dwell on the past, but we bills become due. And that due date is not on what your great grandfather bought, it's on what you buy. And I think that we have an obligation to try something better. I have built my tower on the wings of a spider spinning slippery day dreams of paper doll fantasies. I built my tower on the beak of a dove pecking peace to a needing woman. I have built my dreams on the love of a man holding a nation in his palm asking me the time of day.
I have built my castle by the shore, thinking I was an oyster clam shut forever. When this tiny grain I hardly noticed crept inside and I spit around and spit around and spun a universe inside with a black pearl of immeasurable worth that only I could spin around. I have borne a nation on my heart and my strengths shall not be my undoing, because this castle didn't crumble and losing my pearl made me gain and the dove flew with the olig branch by Harriet's route to my breast and nestled close and said, you are mine. And I was full and complete by emptying my wounds and a sea of old, what a pretty little baby. I have built my tower on the baby, my own, what a pretty little baby. I have built my tower on the beak of a dove pecking peace to a needing woman. I have built my tower on the beak of a dove pecking peace to a needing woman.
We've been speaking with writer and poet, Nikki Giovanni. Technical producer for In Black America is Cliff Hygro. I'm John D. Hanson. Join us next week. You've been listening to In Black America, Reflections of the Black Experience in American Society. In Black America is produced and distributed by the Center for Telecommunication Services at UT Austin, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Texas at Austin or the station. This is The Longhorn Radio Network.
- In Black America
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Guest: Nikki Giovanni
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- MLA: “In Black America; Nikki Giovanni: Portrait of a Contemporary Writer.” 1981-03-19. KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 9, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-5t3fx75180>.
- APA: In Black America; Nikki Giovanni: Portrait of a Contemporary Writer. Boston, MA: KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-5t3fx75180