Nikki Giovanni

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Suzanne Juhasz (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6410

SOURCE: "'A Sweet Inspiration … of My People': The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni," in Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition, Harper and Row, 1976, pp. 144-75.

[In the following excerpt, Juhasz reads Giovanni's poetry as a record of her attempts to meld her roles as a black, a woman, and a poet by defining those roles "in terms of two primary factors … : power and love. "]

In 1972 I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read her poetry at Bucknell University, a small, private, expensive upper-middle-class school in central Pennsylvania. The Black Student Alliance had turned out in full force (some seventy-five people) to pay tribute to this most famous of black poets, the "poet laureate of Chicago." The reading was about blackness, both in the subject matter of the poems and in the ambience of the event itself. The black students were dressed in their finest, not in the jeans they daily wore (the uniform of the white middle-class students to whose school they had been brought), proclaiming that this was their poet and their evening, that tonight we whites were the guests. It was a moving experience, but it was also a full room with poor ventilation, and in spite of myself I grew drowsy. Then Brooks read a poem that woke me abruptly, electrifying me and the rest of the audience with its urgency, its humor, and, above all, its sound. I admit to having thought: now she's really writing what before she was only talking about—and at her age! But it was not her own poem that Brooks had just read. It was her tribute as one black woman poet to another, younger one; a poet who was able to say what she said in the way she said it because Gwendolyn Brooks had lived and written; yet it was a poem that Brooks herself could never have written. It was Nikki Giovanni's "Beautiful Black Men." The differences between these two poets and the links that bind them are the subject of this essay on the black woman poet. Gwendolyn Brooks is the first black woman poet to achieve prominance in twentieth-century America; Nikki Giovanni is one of the most recent. Their sisters include Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Alice Walker, and Johari Amini.

The black woman suffers from not a double but a triple bind. Being doubly oppressed, because of race and sex, she experiences conflict between being poet and woman, poet and black, black and woman. Frequently, she must deal with the issue as one of priorities (which comes first: poet, black, woman?) and of identities (is she a poet who happens to be a black woman, a black who happens to be a woman poet, a woman who happens to be a black poet?). Is it possible to be a black woman poet?….

"Nikki, / isn't this counterrevolutionary…?"

Nikki Giovanni is one of those "young Africans"; one of those young black poets who come to their craft with that political consciousness regarding the source and purpose of their writing that Don Lee has articulated. She writes: [in Gemini]

Poetry is the culture of a people. We are poets even when we don't write poems; just look at our life, our rhythms, our tenderness, our signifying, our sermons and our songs. I could just as easily say we are all musicians. We are all preachers because we are One. And whatever the term we still are the same in other survival/life tools. The new Black Poets, so called, are in line with this tradition. We rap a tale out, we tell it like we see it; someone jumps up maybe to challenge, to agree. We are still on the corner—no matter where we are—and the corner is in fact the fire, a gathering of the clan after the hunt. I don't think we younger poets are doing anything significantly different from what we as a people have always done. The new Black poetry is in fact just a manifestation of our collective historical needs.

She also comes to her art knowing that she is as female as she is black and that somehow she must, in her own life and art, express how these aspects of herself come together and define her. She has always defined herself as a black woman, seeing Women's Liberation as a white woman's movement; seeing black women as different from both white women and black men: "But white women and Black men are both niggers and both respond as such. He runs to the white man to explain his 'rights' and she runs to us. And I think that's where they are both coming from…. We Black women are the single group in the West intact." But her ideas about the black woman's role in the movement have changed over the past several years, I think, moving from a more traditional view (black womanhood comes second to black revolution) to one that is stronger and more individualistic. In Gemini she writes: "I don't really think it's bad to be used by someone you love. As Verta Mae pointed out, 'What does it mean to walk five paces behind him?' If he needs to know he's leading, then do it—or stop saying he isn't leading." Yet even at that time, her pride in black women undercuts such a position.

Because it's clear that no one can outrun us. We Black women have obviously underestimated our strength. I used to think, why don't they just run ahead of us? But obviously we are moving pretty fast. The main thing we have to deal with is, What makes a woman? Once we decide that, everything else will fall into place. As perhaps everything has. Black men have to decide what makes a man.

Two years later, in A Dialogue, she argues passionately with James Baldwin: "Black men say, in order for me to be a man, you walk ten paces behind me. Which means nothing. I can walk ten paces behind a dog. It means nothing to me, but if that's what the black man needs, I'll never get far enough behind him for him to be a man. I'll never walk that slowly." Baldwin tries to maintain that black men need black women to give them their manhood because the white world takes it away from them. "They've got you; they've got you by the throat and by the balls. And of course it comes out directed to the person closest to you." He says that the woman's role in this civilization is to understand, "to understand the man's point of view," "to understand that although I may love you, in this world I can't come with nothing." He needs to be her provider, because only with her can he act like a real man. But Giovanni refuses to allow the man to define her and her role any more. "I've seen so many people get so hung up on such crappy, superficial kinds of things that, for lack of being able to bring a steak in the house, they won't come. I can get my own damn steak." She redefines him: "If the man functions as a man he is not necessarily a provider of all that stuff; "I'm looking for beauty in the eyes of those I love or want to love, you know? I'm already deprived of almost everything that we find in the world. Must I also be deprived of you?"

… black men—to me, as a woman, which is all I can say—have to say, Okay, I can't go that route; it doesn't work. And it's so illogical to continue to fight that, to continue to try to be little white men. Which is what you're still trying to be. We have our dashikis and your hair is growing, but you're still trying to be little white men. It doesn't work…. I demand that you be the man and still not pay the rent. Try it that way.

As a woman, as a black, as a black woman, Giovanni defines herself in terms of two primary factors, which she sees as related: power and love.

I was trained intellectually and spiritually to respect myself and the people who respected me. I was emotionally trained to love those who love me. If such a thing can be, I was trained to be in power—that is, to learn and act upon necessary emotions which will grant me more control over my life. Sometimes it's a painful thing to make decisions based on our training, but if we are properly trained we do. I consider this a good. My life is not all it will be. There is a real possibility that I can be the first person in my family to be free. That would make me happy. I'm twentyfive years old. A revolutionary poet. I love.

In the relatively brief (I am discussing a five-year period, 1968 to 1972) evolution of her poetry, she develops these attitudes in formal and thematic terms, maturing as a black woman poet.

"Where's your power Black people"

Power and love are what are at issue in Nikki Giovanni's poetry and life. In her earlier poems (1968-1970), these issues are for the most part separate. She writes of personal love in poems of private life; of black power and a public love in political poems. She won her fame with the latter.

Nigger
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
kill
("The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro" [in Black feeling … ])

In poems such as the above, Giovanni speaks for her people in their own language of the social issues that concern them. Her role is that of spokeswoman for others with whom she is kin except for the fact that she possesses the gift of poetry: "i wanted to be / a sweet inspiration in my dreams / of my people …" ("The Wonder Woman" [in My House]). The quotation is from a later poem in which she is questioning that very role. But as she gains her fame, the concept of poet as "manifesting our collective historical needs" is very much present.

In defining poetry as "the culture of a people," Giovanni, in the statement from Gemini quoted earlier, uses "musician" and "preacher" as synonyms for "poet." All speak for the culture; all speak, with the emphasis on the sound they make. Making poems from black English is more than using idioms and grammatical idiosyncrasies; the very form of black English, and certainly its power, is derived from its tradition and preeminent usage as an oral language. So in Giovanni's poems both theme and structure rely on sound patterns for significance.

i wanta say just gotta say something
bout those beautiful beautiful beautiful outasight
black men
with they afros
walking down the street
is the same ol danger
but a brand new pleasure

In the opening stanza of "Beautiful Black Men (with compliments and apologies to all not mentioned by name)," [in Black feeling … ] the idiom ("outasight") is present, so is the special syntax ("they afros"), but more centrally are the rhythms of speech employed to organize the poetic statement. The statement is political, because the poem, like many of hers from this period, is meant to praise blackness: in praising, to foster, to incite. For the proper pride in and achievement of blackness is revolutionary. The poem is not a treatise, however; it is an emotionally charged utterance that, as it develops, creates through its own form the excitement about which it is speaking. In the first stanza, the repetitions, the emphases that the pause at line breaks creates, the accelerations within lines because of lack of pauses, all achieve the tenor of the speaking voice. As the poem progresses, the excitement that the speaker feels as she describes her subject is communicated by her voice on the page:

sitting on stoops, in bars, going to offices
running numbers, watching for their whores
preaching in churches, driving their hogs
walking their dogs, winking at me
in their fire red, lime green, burnt orange
royal blue tight tight pants that hug
what i like to hug

The beautiful men are catalogued in action, they then turn and focus on the speaker herself (all of them "winking at me"), and finally they merge into an essence of color, clothing, and sexuality. The verbal process consistently builds image upon image as it accelerates pitch.

jerry butler, wilson pickett, the impressions
temptations, mighty mighty sly
don't have to do anything but walk
on stage
and i scream and stamp and shout

Giovanni becomes quite literally a spokeswoman: she speaks out for black women, appreciating their men now embodied in the musicians who present publicly the image of the black man as a powerful and beautiful star. She raises her voice in praise, screaming, shouting her response.

see new breed men in breed alls
dashiki suits with shirts that match
the lining that complements the ties
that smile at the sandals
where dirty toes peek at me
and i scream and stamp and shout
for more beautiful beautiful beautiful
black men with outasight afros

A sense of humor is never lacking in Giovanni's poetry—serious purpose does not negate the ability to laugh! Here she mocks with affection the black male's love of splendor as it accompanies his dislike of cleanliness. What comes through in her tone is love as well as clear-sightedness, both qualities giving her the right to appreciate "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful black men." From wanting to say, having to say, something about beautiful black men, the poem moves, gathering speed and intensity as it goes, to a scream, a stamp and a shout that impel the person reading to likewise shout, likewise praise—to feel as the speaker feels.

Such a feeling is not separate from the one called for in poems like "Poem (No Name No. 2)":

Bitter Black Bitterness
Black Bitter Bitterness
Bitterness Black Brothers
Bitter Black Get
Blacker Get Bitter
Get Black Bitterness
NOW
(Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement)

—or in "Of Liberation":

BLACK STEP ONE:
Get the feeling out (this may be painful—endure)
BLACK STEP TWO:
Outline and implement the program
All honkies and some negros will have to die
This is unfortunate but necessary
(Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement)

For the sound and the feeling go together to create the needed power:

Honkies always talking 'bout
Black Folks
Walking down the streets
Talking to themselves
(they say we're high—
or crazy)

But recent events have shown
we know who we're talking
to
("A Short Essay of Affirmation Explaining Why [with Apologies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation]," Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement)

In these early poems, Giovanni is concerned about the political, public implications of her own life, as well; of the fact of her womanhood:

it's a sex object if you're pretty
and no love
or love and no sex if you're fat
get back fat black woman be a mother
grandmother strong thing but not a woman
gameswoman romantic love needer
man seeker dick eater sweat getter
fuck needing love seeking woman
("Woman Poem," Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement)

Using techniques similar to those with which she calls for black power, she can evoke the powerlessness of women. In "All I Gotta Do" [in Re:Creation] phrases that repeat, that halt at line breaks and recur in changing but always inconclusive combinations create Giovanni's frustration at the gap between her individual needs and the means (or lack of them) allotted her by society for fulfilling them. "All i gotta do," "sit and wait," "cause i'm a woman," "it'll find me"—wanting it, needing it, getting it, having it—these are the formulaic phrases. Their arrangement makes the poem.

all i gotta do
is sit and wait
sit and wait
and its gonna find
me
all i gotta do
is sit and wait
if i can learn
how

In stanza 1, the formulaic phrases are used to set out society's rules. The rules do not seemso difficult, the opening phrase attests—"all i gotta do," that's all. Yet a change is rung (through parallel structures) between the hoped-for results (if the game is properly played) that it will "find me" and an inherent difficulty in playing properly: "if i can learn / how." The single word "if," because its setting is so spare, controlled, simple, carries enormous weight: weighing by its problematic stance the unnatural societal rules against the natural woman.

what i need to do
is sit and wait


cause i'm a woman
sit and wait
what i gotta do
is sit and wait
cause i'm a woman
it'll find me

In the second stanza, the phrase "sit and wait" occurs three times, a drumbeat behind "need to do," "gotta do," with their causal relation to the central fact supporting the whole enterprise: "cause i'm a woman." Everything follows from that irrevocable fact—especially the end result, "it'll find me": passivity is absolutely necessary for success.

you get yours
and i'll get mine
if i learn
to sit and wait
i want mine
and i'm gonna get it
cause i gotta get it
cause i need to get it
if i learn how

"Sit and wait" continues into the third stanza to remind us of the rules. Another person has been introduced into the poem, someone who does get "his." The urgency of the speaker's own desire for getting is now underlined: "want," "gonna," "gotta," "need to"; and it comes smack up against the terms for carrying desires through: "cause," "cause"—"if."

thought about calling
for it on the phone
asked for a delivery
but they didn't have it
thought about going
to the store to get it
walked to the corner
but they didn't have it

Giovanni's irrepressible humor, the ability to see the comic element present in any life-and-death situation, bubbles to the surface in the fourth stanza, providing, as humor often does, both momentary relief and incisive insight. Calling on the phone, asking for a delivery, walking down to the corner store—acts such as these lead to frustration only. Stores aren't where "it" is found, and, more importantly, one is not supposed to ask.

called your name
in my sleep
sitting and waiting
thought you would awake me
called your name
lying in my bed
but you didn't have it
offered to go get it
but you didn't have it
so i'm sitting

The "you" referred to previously (as having gotten his) now reappears—very obviously a he. "Called your name" becomes a repeated action in the fifth stanza, seemingly a less active kind of initiative-taking than going to the corner store. But it, too, proves unsuccessful, because it is too overt: if asked for it, he doesn't "have it." In such a situation, one should never then offer "to go get it"! "Sitting and waiting," as it repeats and repeats, becomes more and more a plaintive accusation.

all i know
is sitting and waiting
waiting and sitting
cause i'm a woman
all i know
is sitting and waiting
cause i gotta wait
wait for it to find
me

The final stanza is formed by the now-familiar formulaic phrases alone—combined, repeated, repeated, combined—and it is this form that creates the poem's concluding sadness, bitterness, and resignation. "Sitting and waiting" is twice repeated and once reversed, "waiting and sitting." Each phrase is allowed a line to itself, so that the importance of the act is tied to its ceaselessness.

The poem began with the line "all i gotta do." This stanza reorganizes these key words, presenting an opening phrase, "all i know" (the lesson, through the act of the poem, has been thoroughly learned), throwing "gotta" into the seventh line and changing "do" into "wait," thus firmly equating action with nonaction: "cause i gotta wait." The sense of unwavering causation, a train of rules and results whereby society is created (implicit throughout the poem is the double meaning of the word "gotta," linking rule and reward—to have to, to achieve), is finally underlined by the balancing of "cause i'm a woman" with "cause i gotta wait": woman equals waiting. The poem's speaker has learned her lesson: the word "if" no longer appears. What she waits for, "it," has never been defined. It need not be, for the poem has demonstrated that whatever she might want (with whatever degree of intensity) must find her. In the opening stanza, this idea was expressed with an optimism ("its gonna find / me") that was, however, almost immediately undercut by "if i can learn / how." In the last stanza, the uncertainty is expressed with total resignation: "wait for it to find / me." "It" may or may not come, but there is nothing the speaker can do about it. Exactly the opposite is required: the less she does do, the more possible becomes the awaited reward; the workings of society are totally out of her hands. The "me" of the poem's last line is alone and alien.

That "me," that lonely woman, is responsible for many private love poems. She seems to have little to do with the spokeswoman who is the black (political) poet. She writes poems like "Rain" from Re: Creation.

rain is
god's sperm falling
in the receptive
woman how else


to spend
a rainy day
other than with you
seeking sun and stars
and heavenly bodies
how else to spend
a rainy day
other than with you

These love poems are private and describe the woman enacting rather than criticizing the socially prescribed female role. They speak for Giovanni only and are not meant to incite anybody to any kind of revolution. Such a private/public dichotomy in her work may be neat, but it contains too great a degree of ambivalence for a woman poet like Giovanni to feel comfortable with it or to maintain it for long. How can the woman who sees herself as a sweet inspiration of her people and the woman who has been trained not only to sit and wait but also to need and to value interpersonal, private relationships be the same poet? In "Adulthood" (Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement), she writes about going to college and learning that "just because everything i was was unreal / i could be real"—not from "withdrawal / into emotional crosshairs or colored bourgeois / intellectual pretensions," "But from involvement with things approaching reality / i could possibly have a life." What about not merely black reality, but her own reality? And what is the relation between them? Especially as through her poetry she becomes a genuine public personality, she needs to ask these questions. And what about the revolution?

"dreams of being a natural / woman"

A poet may be musician, preacher, articulator of a culture, but she or he is also a dreamer. In a series of poems about herself as dreamer, Giovanni explores the conflicting and confusing relations between her roles as poet, woman, and black.

In "Dreams" (Btock feeling, Black talk/Black judgement), she describes her younger years—"before i learned / black people aren't / supposed to dream." She wanted, she says, to be a musician, a singer, a Raelet or maybe Marjorie Hendricks, grinding up against the mike screaming "baaaaaby nightandday." But then she "became more sensible":

and decided i would
settle down
and just become
a sweet inspiration

(The significance of the black singer—the musician as articulating the culture—appears throughout her work, as in "Revolutionary Music" [in Black feeling …]: "you've just got to dig sly / and the family stone / damn the words / you gonna be dancing to the music" … "we be digging all / our revolutionary music consciously or un / cause sam cooke said 'a change is gonna come.'")

A few years later, in "The Wonder Woman" (My House), she must deal with the fact of having become that sweet inspiration. "Dreams have a way / of tossing and turning themselves / around," she observes; also that "the times / make requirements that we dream / real dreams." She may have once dreamed of becoming a sweet inspiration of her people:

… but the times
require that i give
myself willingly and become
a wonder woman.

The wonder woman is a totally public personage who cannot—must not—integrate her personal needs and experiences into that role if they do not coincide. Giovanni makes this clear in poems about female stars, like Aretha Franklin, and in poems about herself, such as "Categories" (My House).

"Categories" goes on to question even black/white divisions (political and public), if they can—and they do—at times violate personal reality, describing in its second stanza an old white woman "who maybe you'd really care about" except that, being a young black woman, one's "job" is to "kill maim or seriously / make her question / the validity of her existence."

The poem ends by questioning the fact and function of categories themselves ("… if this seems / like somewhat of a tentative poem it's probably / because i just realized that / i'm bored with categories"), but, in doing so, it is raising the more profound matter of the relations between society and self. The earlier "Poem for Aretha," 1970 (Re: Creation), begins with a clear sense of the separation between public and private selves:

Again Giovanni explains the significance of the musician/artist to society: "she is undoubtedly the one person who puts everyone on / notice," but about Aretha she also says, "she's more important than her music—if they must be / separated." (It is significant that the form of both these poems is closer to thought than speech. No answers here, only questions, problems.)

One means of bridging the gap between public and private is suggested in "Revolutionary Dreams," 1970 (Re: Creation).

i used to dream militant
dreams of taking
over america to show
these white folks how it should be
done
i used to dream radical dreams
of blowing everyone away with my perceptive powers
of correct analysis
i even used to think i'd be the one
to stop the riot and negotiate the peace
then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she's natural
i would have a revolution

"Militant" and "radical" are poised against "natural" here, as they were in "Categories." But this poem makes the connection to gender: the "natural dreams," of a "natural woman" who doeswhat a woman does "when she's natural." The result of this juxtaposition is "true revolution." Somehow the black woman must be true to herself as she is to be both a poet and a revolutionary, for the nature of the revolution itself is in question. Revolutions are not only in the streets, where niggers must be asked if they can kill. Revolutions do not occur only in male terms, as Giovanni had begun to understand, humorously, in "Seduction" (Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement), in which the male keeps talking politics ("The Black …"; "The way I see we ought to …; "And what about the situation …"; "the revolution …") while she is resting his hand on her stomach, licking his arm, unbuckling his pants, taking his shorts off. The poem is, however, set in some hypothetical future: "one day." It concludes with that future:

then you'll notice
your state of undress
and knowing you you'll just say
"Nikki,
isn't this counterrevolutionary…?"

The implicit reply is no, but it is not until her 1972 volume, My House, that Giovanni can make this answer with selfconfidence. In the poems of Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement and of Re: Creation, the doubts are present, and possibilities for solution occur and disappear. However, My House as a book, not only the individual poems in it, makes a new statement about the revolution, about the very nature of political poetry, when the poet is a black woman.

Earlier, in "My Poem" (Black feeling, Black talk/Black judgement), she had written:

the revolution
is in the streets
and if i stay on
the 5th floor
it will go on
and if i never do
anything
it will go on

Perhaps, but it will not be the same revolution, she has realized; and she has also come to understand that it will take place, as well, on the fifth floor.

In "On the Issue of Roles," Toni Cade, editor of one of the first collections of essays about being black and female, The Black Woman, makes a comment that seems to me to be a valuable gloss to the statement of Giovanni's My House.

If your house ain't in order, you ain't in order. It is so much easier to be out there than right here. The revolution ain't out there. Yet. But it is here. Should be. And arguing that instant-coffee-

ten-minutes-to-midnight alibi to justify hasty-headed dealings with your mate is shit. Ain't no such animal as an instant gorilla.

Ida Lewis points [in the introduction to My House] with a different vocabulary to the same phenomenon: "A most interesting aspect of her [Giovanni's] work is the poet's belief in individualism at a time when the trend in the Black community is away from the individual and towards the mass." In My House, Giovanni is trying to be a natural woman doing what a woman does when she's natural—in doing so, dreaming natural dreams, having a revolution. She is integrating private and public; in doing so, politicizing the private, personalizing the public. This action is occurring in poetry.

My House is divided into two sections, "The Rooms Inside" and "The Rooms Outside." The inside rooms hold personal poems about grandmothers, mothers, friends, lovers—all in their own way love poems. "Legacies," in which the poet describes the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter, is a very political poem.

Black heritage is explained in personal terms. The little girl in the poem recognizes an impulse to be independent, but the speaker recognizes as well the importance of the old woman, of her love, to the grandchild in achieving her own adulthood. Although the poem ends by observing that "neither of them ever / said what they meant / and i guess nobody ever does," it is the poem itself that provides that meaning through its understanding.

Overtly political are poems like "Categories" or "The Wonder Woman," but also political are the gentle love poems ("The Butterfly," "When I Nap"), and indeed all the poems that are about Giovanni as private person; for in various dialogues and dialects they all make this statement:

… i'm glad
i'm Black not only
because it's beautiful but because it's me
and i can be dumb and old and petty and ugly
and jealous but i still need love
("Straight Talk")

The poems of the rooms outside are not calls to action from the public platform; they are dreams, some funny, some apocalyptic, of old worlds and new. In each of these poems, My House's equivalent to the earlier poems of black feeling and black judgment, the poet stresses the element of personal vision.

This artist has begun to learn—through a process of coming to terms with herself as black woman, black poet, that art can create as well as reflect reality, as revolutions do.

It is fitting to the purpose of My House that its final poem, which is in "The Rooms Outside," is "My House."

i only want to
be there to kiss you
as you want to be kissed
when you need to be kissed
where i want to kiss you
cause it's my house
and i plan to live in it

The first stanza follows Giovanni's familiar oral structure. Phrases stand against one another without the imaginative extensions of figurative language: word against word, repeating, altering, pointing. A love poem, to one particular lover. It starts in a tone reminiscent of both "Beautiful Black Men" and "all i gotta do"—the woman is there to adore her man: "i only want to / be there to kiss you"; "as you want"; "as you need." But although the gentle tone persists, an extraordinary change is rung with a firm emphasis on the personal and the possessive in the last three lines: "where i want to kiss you," "my house," "i plan." She is suiting his needs to hers as well as vice versa.

i really need to hug you
when i want to hug you
as you like to hug me
does this sound like a silly poem

In terms of one (important) action, hugging—touching—the point is clarified. The woman of "all i gotta do" has forgotten, or chosen to forget, the rules!

i mean it's my house
and i want to fry pork chops
and bake sweet potatoes
and call them yams
cause i run the kitchen
and i can stand the heat

Nonetheless, she makes it clear that she is still very much of a woman, using the traditionally female vocabulary of cooking and kitchens to underscore her message. But this woman is active, not passive: she means, wants, bakes, calls, runs. She orders experience and controls it. The element of control asserts itself not only through direct statement—"cause i run the kitchen"—but through vocabulary itself: "i mean"; "[i] call them yams" (in the latter phrase asserting blackness itself through control of language: "yams" and not "sweet potatoes"). She controls not only through need and desire but through strength, ability: "i can stand the heat."

i spent all winter in
carpet stores gathering
patches so i could make
a quilt
does this really sound
like a silly poem
i mean i want to keep you
warm

For love is not unrelated to action, strength, control. All of these qualities can be directed to that end in a significant way: "i want to keep you / warm." Gathering patches; no longer waiting for "it" to find her. And making poems about gathering patches—is that silly?

and my windows might be dirty
but it's my house
and if i can't see out sometimes
they can't see in either

The house and its elements are beginning to assume symbolic proportions, surely emphasized by the fact that the poem has been continually calling attention to its existence as a poem. The house is a world; it is reality.

english isn't a good language
to express emotion through
mostly i imagine because people
try to speak english instead
of trying to speak through it
i don't know maybe it is
a silly poem

I am making a message, both poet and poem are insisting; and now they explain how messages work. "Trying to speak through" language rather than speaking it means that word and thing are not identical: that words are not yams, and thus language frees the poet to create realities (dreams) and not just to copy them. So that somehow this not-very-silly poem is carrying out a revolution.

i'm saying it's my house
and i'll make fudge and call
it love and touch my lips
to the chocolate warmth
and smile at old men and call
it revolution cause what's real
is really real
and i still like men in tight
pants cause everybody has some
thing to give and more
important need something to take

and this is my house and you make me
happy
so this is your poem

The act of naming, of using language creatively, becomes the most powerful action of all—saying, calling. Calling fudge love, calling smiling at old men revolution is creative (rather than derivative) action that expresses more than her own powers as woman and poet. In "Seduction" there was a significant gap between language (rhetoric) and action, between male and female. In that fable, men and words were allied and were seen by the woman poet as impotent. The woman was allied with action (love), but she was, in the poem, mute. The man calls her action "counterrevolutionary." Now, in "My House," the woman's action, love (an overt expression of the personal, private sphere), is allied to language. Giovanni brings her power bases together in this poem, her dominion over kitchens, love, and words. No longer passive in any way, she makes the food, the love, the poem, and the revolution. She brings together things and words through her own vision (dream, poem) of them, seeing that language (naming) is action, because it makes things happen. Once fudge has been named love, touching one's lips to it becomes an act of love; smiling at old men becomes revolution "cause what's real / is really real." Real = dream + experience. To make all this happen, most of all there must exist a sense of self on the part of the maker, which is why the overriding tone of the poem is the sense of an "i" who in giving need feel no impotence from the act of taking (both become aspects of the same event). Thus this is her house and he makes her happy, thus and only thus—"cause" abounds in this poem, too: this, her poem, can be his poem. Not silly at all.

In bringing together her private and public roles and thereby validating her sense of self as black woman poet, Giovanni is on her way towards achieving in art that for which she was trained: emotionally, to love; intellectually and spiritually, to be in power; "to learn and act upon necessary emotions which will grant me more control over my life," as she writes in Gemini. Through interrelating love and power, to achieve a revolution-to be free. She concludes her poem "When I Die" (My House) with these lines:

These words of poetry explain the way to enact a dream, one that is "a real possibility": "that I can be the first person in my family to be free … I'm twenty-five years old. A revolutionary poet. I love."

Wherever Nikki Giovanni's life as poet will take her, she will go there in full possession of her self. Rather than reiterating the fact of Gwendolyn Brooks in that admirable achievement, let me conclude with Giovanni's poem "For Gwendolyn Brooks."

brooks start with cloud condensation
allah crying
for his lost children

brooks babble
from mountain tops to settle
in collecting the earth's essence
pure spring fountain
of love knowledge
for those who find
and dare drink
of it
(Re: Creation)

Introduction

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Nikki Giovanni 1943–

(Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni) American poet, essayist, children's author, and editor.

A strong yet controversial figure in American poetry, Giovanni came into prominence amid the social upheavals of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Though originally recognized mainly for its militant, revolutionary, Black-Power stance, Giovanni's poetry explores a full range of themes—from childhood and family to sexuality and romantic love—and draws images and rhythms from sources as varied as the Bible, hymns, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, popular music, and colloquial speech. Never quite becoming a manifesto, but being much more than mere reporting, Giovanni's poems are highly personal statements of rage and love, capable of tenderness, humor, and irony. Energetically individualistic—even to the point of contradiction—Giovanni's poetry attempts to transmit the voice of an active witness, a witness who not only observes but also creates—and is created by—life's changing circumstances.

Biographical Information

Born to middle-class parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, Giovanni soon moved with her family to the predominantly black community of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. In her work, Giovanni typically portrays childhood as a positive experience, reflecting the fact that, in her various reminiscences, she remembers her own childhood as "groovy," a time spent in a nurturing environment with a supporting family. Growing up, Giovanni was especially devoted to, and spent a great deal of time with, her maternal grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson, a proud and outspoken woman who, early in her life, moved to Tennessee from her home in Albany, Georgia, fearing a possible lynching due to anti-white views she had expressed. Though assertiveness, pride, and a deep concern for the lives of women—the intellectual and emotional heirlooms Watson passed on to Giovanni—became consistent features in her poetry, Giovanni's social and political views—typified in her reading of the radical individualist, Ayn Rand, and in her support of Barry Goldwater—were generally conservative. These views underwent massive transformation during Giovanni's studies at Fisk University where Giovanni not only accepted the radicalism she encountered in some of her classmates, but she herself became active, spearheading the effort for the reinstatement of the campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Though she received her bachelor's degree in history, Giovanni also participated in the literary scene at Fisk, attending a creative writing workshop taught by

novelist John Oliver Killens and editing a campus literary magazine. In 1969, after further schooling and social and political activism, Giovanni took a teaching position at Rutgers University, and, following the immense success of her first two books, began giving readings and lectures on college campuses nationwide. This allowed her to engage in conversations with key figures in African-American literature, including James Baldwin and Margaret Walker. Giovanni has received many awards, including Mademoiselle's "Highest Achievement Award" and numerous honorary doctorates. Giovanni quickly came to be called "The Princess of Black Poetry." In 1969, Giovanni also gave birth to her son, Thomas, an event which—like the extensive travel Giovanni engaged in the early 1970's—some critics argue had a profound effect on her poems, broadening their scope, making them less angry and more domestic. Giovanni is currently a Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Major Works

Released during the late-1960s and early-1970s when the quest for civil rights and Black liberation was being supplanted by the drive for revolution and Black power, Giovanni's early volumes of poetry—Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), Black Judgement (1968), and Re: Creation (1970)—gained immediate recognition and notoriety for their overtly militant, revolutionary content and tone; however, these volumes also include intimate poems of joy and of sorrow, hinting at thematic and emotive possibilities which grow and develop in subsequent volumes. Life changes, especially the birth of her son, and intensified introspection brought about by work on the autobiographical essays of Gemini (1971), led Giovanni to My House (1972), a volume which highlights the existence of a private and as well as a public, political life. Written mostly as lyrical monologues from various personae, the poems of My House are divided into two sections: "The Rooms Inside," which focuses on personal relationships, and "The Rooms Outside," which focuses on people as they struggle in physical and emotional realms outside of the homelike and familial. The Women and the Men (1975) continues Giovanni's interest in relationships, but also signals an increased, conscious interest in revisiting and revising her own past, including her earlier, militant tendencies. Giovanni's work finally goes full circle, for although remembrance becomes elegy in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), a volume focusing on the missed possibilities and the transitory nature of life, many of the poems in Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) manage to tap out in a new form—short paragraphs punctuated with ellipses—meditative lyrics praising those who, like Giovanni, took risks and sought change.

Critical Reception

Although it was immensely popular when it first appeared, Giovanni's poetry has long been a subject of much critical dispute. Even though early critics—very often supporters of Black liberation and/or Black power movements—generally liked Giovanni's poetry even in spite of what some saw as political naivete or narrowness, they increasingly were alienated by what was perceived to be Giovanni's gradual shift from the political to the romantic; however, critics without a direct stake in the social movements of the 60s and 70s generally praised what they perceived to be the increased scope and humanity Giovanni's poems from the mid-70s. Artistically, although critics acknowledge the fact that Giovanni has composed some strong, lyrical poems, many believe the poems suffer from not following through, from not attaining a full-enough realization. More recent criticism attempts to make way for new readings of Giovanni's work by freeing her writing from outmoded political contexts and oppressive aesthetic assumptions.

William J. Harris (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Sweet Soft Essence of Possibility: The Poetry of Nikki Giovanni," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984, pp. 218-28.

[In the following essay, Harris regards Giovanni as "a good popular poet" whose work responds to the complex events of her time yet sometimes suffers from a lack of a more complete realization.]

Even though Nikki Giovanni has a large popular audience, she has not gained the respect of the critics. Michele Wallace calls her "a kind of nationalistic Rod McKuen"; Eugene Redmond claims her poetry "lacks lyricism and imagery"; Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) insists she lacks the sophistication of thought demanded of one with pretensions of a "political seer" and finally, Amiri Baraka and Saunders Redding, united on no other issue, declare in their different styles that she is simply an opportunist. These critics illustrate the problem of evaluating Nikki Giovanni dispassionately. Her limitations notwithstanding, there is a curious tendency of normally perceptive critics to undervalue her, to condescend to her rather than to criticize her.

When Michele Wallace compares Giovanni to McKuen, she is suggesting that both are popular poets. This is true enough, but still there is a crucial difference between them: McKuen is a bad popular poet; Giovanni is a good one. He is a bad popular poet because he presents conventional sentiments in a shamelessly sloppy form. His retellings of conventional stories in conventional ways, without a trace of thought or feeling, have won him a ready audience. In essence, he is the genius of the unexamined life; he is the opposite of a serious artist who is dedicated to the exploration of his life. The serious artist deals in fresh discoveries; McKuen in clichés. Giovanni, on the other hand, is a popular poet but also a serious artist because she tries to examine her life honestly.

The popular writer is usually easy to read and topical; that is, he or she writes in a language which is direct and immediate rather than arcane or esoteric, and speaks of problems and situations that are obviously relevant to the general reader's life. This is neither good nor bad but simply the nature of the genre. Most critics, poets, and teachers are uncomfortable with the popular form. Since the language is unspecialized and the experience everyday, the critic and teacher are left virtually withvery little to say, an embarrassing situation. Therefore, even the good popular poet is often ignored: one sees more essays on Wallace Stevens than on Langston Hughes. That the good popular poet is not analyzed is not the poet's fault; rather, current critical vocabularies and even values seem inadequate to deal with him. The good popular poet faces the complexity of life in his or her poems even though he does not embody it in their form. Langston Hughes may be one of America's greatest popular poets; he writes of celebrated subjects in a direct manner with the precision, toughness of language, and emotion which derive from the blues tradition. Conversely, McKuen's poetry derives from the tradition of pop song: at best the world of sentimentality, at worst the world of cynical lies. McKuen's carelessness of form, which can be found by randomly opening any of his books, testifies to his carelessness of thought and feeling. As Pound says: "Technique is the test of sincerity. If a thing isn't worth getting the technique to say, it is of inferior value."

Giovanni is a good popular poet: she is honest, she writes well-crafted poems, and, unlike McKuen, she pushes against the barriers of the conventional; in other words, she responds to the complexities of the contemporary world as a complex individual, not as a stock character in anybody's movie about Anyplace, U.S.A. In fact, much of Giovanni's value as a poet derives from her insistence on being herself; she refuses to go along with anybody's orthodoxy. Since she is always reacting to her multifarious environment, it is not surprising that her career has already gone through three distinct stages: first, the black militant; then the domestic lover; and now the disappointed lover. Therefore, it is clear that her move from Black militant poet to domestic woman poet is not a contradiction, as some critics maintain, but only a response to her times: the seventies and eighties call for different responses than did the sixties. Unlike Madhubuti she is not doctrinaire; she does not have a system to plug all her experiences into. She examines her time and place and comes to the conclusions she must for that time and place.

Giovanni does have weaknesses. At times she does not seem to think things through with sufficient care. Furthermore, she often does not bother to finish her poems; consequently, there are many unrealized poems in her oeuvre. Finally, not unlike a movie star, she is possibly too dependent on her public personality. In other words, she can be self-indulgent and irresponsible. Paradoxically, her shortcomings do grow out of the same soil as her strengths, that is, out of her independence of mind, her individuality, and her natural charm.

Since her first book in 1968, Nikki Giovanni has published a number of volumes of poetry, including Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement (a combined edition, 1970), Re:Creation (1970), My House (1972), The Women and the Men (1975), and her most recent work, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), and even though her attitudes have changed over the years, the books are unified by her personality. Like many poets of the period she is autobiographical and her personal stamp is on all her work. There is also a consistency of style, even though there is a change of mood: the poetry is always direct, conversational, and grounded in the rhythms of Black music and speech. Her poems are also unified in that they are written from the perspective of a Black woman. Moreover, her themes remain constant: dreams, love, Blackness, womanhood, mothers, children, fathers, family, stardom, fame, and sex. In addition to her poetry books, she has published an autobiography, Gemini, two extended interviews—one with Margaret Walker, one with James Baldwin—and a number of children's books.

In Giovanni's first stage she wrote several classic sixties poems expressing the extreme militancy of the period. These include "The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro," and "For Saundra." In 1968 Giovanni spits out:

Nigger
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie

The poem these lines are taken from, "The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro," is intended to incite violence by asking for the literal death of white America. It captures the spirit of the sixties, that feeling that Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, is imminent. It is informed by the example of Frantz Fanon, the Black revolutionary author of The Wretched of the Earth, whose book Eldridge Cleaver called "the Bible" of the Black liberation movement. In it, Fanon declares: "National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood of the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon." Cleaver correctly claims that Fanon's book "legitimize[s] the revolutionary impulse to violence." No matter how romantic that moment now seems, there was then a sincere feeling that it was a time of revolution; and Giovanni, along with Madhubuti, Baraka and others, expressed these revolutionary ideas in their poems. Furthermore, Giovanni's poem "The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro" embodies more than the literal demand for the killing of whites: it also expresses a symbolic need on the part of Blacks to kill their own white values:

Can you kill the nigger
in you
Can you make your nigger mind
die

Eliot has said that poetry should not deviate too far from common speech; these Black revolutionary poets—in a sense Eliot's heirs—demonstrate that they have absorbed the subtleties of their language. For example, in the above poem Giovanni exploits the complex connotations of the term "nigger"; she uses it in this stanza to suggest the consciousness that wants to conform to white standards; consequently, to kill the "nigger" is to transform consciousness. In more general terms, the entire poem is cast in the form of a street chant: the rhythm is intended to drive the reader into the street, ready to fight. In fact, the source of much of the form utilized in the 1960s Black Arts Movement is street language and folk forms such as the chant and the dozens, a form of ritualized insult.

Giovanni's "For Saundra" provides the rationale for the New Black Poetry:

i wanted to write
a poem
that rhymes
but revolution doesn't lend
itself to be-bopping

…..

maybe i shouldn't write
at all
but clean my gun

In short, Giovanni is saying that the times will not allow for poems which are not political in nature, which do not promote revolution. In the 1960s art had to subordinate itself to revolution. Ron Karenga insisted: "All art must reflect and support the Black Revolution."

Even though such revolutionary figures as Karenga and Baraka stressed collective over individual values, Giovanni remains an individual, implicitly questioning the call for revolutionary hatred in the very titles of such poems as "Letter to a Bourgeois Friend Whom Once I Loved (and Maybe Still Do If Love Is Valid)." She feels the tension between personal and revolutionary needs—a tension that runs throughout her work in the revolutionary period. Baraka demands: "Let there be no love poems written/until love can exist freely and cleanly." Giovanni understands that there are times of hate but also realizes that to subordinate all feeling to revolutionary hate is too abstract and inhuman.

Yet Giovanni's independence can be irresponsible. At times she seems a little too eager to gratify human desires at the expense of the revolution. She confides in "Detroit Conference of Unity and Art" (dedicated to former SNCC leader H. Rap Brown):

No doubt many important
Resolutions
Were passed
As we climbed Malcolm's ladder
But the most
Valid of them
All was that
Rap chose me

Even a nonrevolutionary reader would question the political commitment of the above lines. If one is going to set herself up as a serious poetprophet—and Giovanni has—one had better be concerned about the revolutionary business at a meeting, not one's love life. This is the sort of frivolousness that Giovanni's critics, such as Madhubuti and Wallace, rightfully attack. However, at other times, Giovanni's frivolousness was refreshing in those tense and serious days of revolt. "Seduction" delightfully points out that the revolution cannot be conducted twenty-four hours a day. The poem centers around a brother so earnestly involved in the revolution that he does not notice that the poet has stripped both of them. The poem concludes:

then you'll notice
your state of undress
and knowing you you'll just say
"Nikki,
isn't this counterrevolutionary…?"

Part of Giovanni's attractiveness stems from her realization that for sanity, there must be sex and humor, even in revolutionary times.

When the revolution failed her, Giovanni turned to love and began writing a more personal poetry, signaling the onset of the second stage of her career. The literature of the seventies was quite unlike those of the hot and hopeful sixties. Addison Gayle writes about certain important differences between the sixties and the seventies in his excellent autobiography, Wayward Child:

Beyond my personal despair, there was that occasioned by the disappointments of the seventies, following so close upon the successes of the sixties, the return on almost all levels, to the old feelings of hopelessness, cynicism, and apathy, which, until the era of Martin King and Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had so immobilized a race of people.

For Giovanni, too, idealism of the sixties had been replaced by the despair of the seventies. In a poem of the seventies she asserts:

i've always prided myself
on being a child of the sixties
and we are all finished
so that makes being
nothing

The sixties stood for endless possibility; the seventies for hopelessness and frustration. However, in My House she seeks an alternative to public commitment and finds one in domestic love. Giovanni is not the only Black figure to seek new alternatives in the seventies: Cleaver found God; Baraka found Marxism; Julian Bond shifted allegiances from the activist organization SNCC to the staid NAACP. Giovanni finds her answers in "My House":

i'm saying it's my house
and i'll make fudge and call
it love and touch my lips
to the chocolate warmth
and smile at old men and call
it revolution cause what's real
is really real
and i still like men in tight
pants cause everybody has some
thing to give and more
important need something to take

and this is my house and you make me happy
so this is your poem

Giovanni has exchanged the role of revolutionary Mother Courage, sending her Black troops into battle, for the role of domestic Black woman, making fudge for her Black man. While the poem may make the reader uncomfortable—has it set the feminist movement back fifty years?—one can sympathize with Giovanni's desire to retreat into domestic comforts in the face of a disappointing world. In "My House" she declares her domesticity loudly, militantly, perhaps to give herself confidence in her new role. Later she will celebrate the domestic more quietly and convincingly. In "Winter" from Cotton Candy she observes:

Frogs burrow the mud
snails bury themselves
and I air my quilts
preparing for the cold
Dogs grow more hair
mothers make oatmeal
and little boys and girls
take Father John's Medicine
Bears store fat
chipmunks gather nuts
and I collect books
For the coming winter

Here Giovanni gathers supplies to retreat from the cold world; however, it is only for a season. And unlike "My House," this poem creates a snug place one would want to retire to; Giovanni has become more comfortably at home in the domestic world of "Winter" than in the brash "My House."

If she implicitly questioned "pure" revolution earlier, in the seventies she questions all ideologies that try to define or categorize her. In "Categories" she writes:

This suspicion of categories persists into Cotton Candy:

i am in a box
on a tight string
subject to pop
without notice

…..

i am tired
of being boxed

…..

i can't breathe

And we see in "A Poem Off Center" that Giovanni especially resents being boxed in as a writer:

if you write a political poem
you're anti-semitic
if you write a domestic poem
you're foolish
if you write a happy poem
you're unserious
if you write a love poem
you're maudlin
of course the only real poem
to write
is the go to hell writing establishment poem
but the readers never know who


you're talking about which brings
us back
to point one

She has amusingly illustrated the dangers of literary categories. It is not surprising that this maverick does not want to be fenced in by anybody—friend or foe. She will not go along with anybody's orthodoxy.

By the third stage of her career, love, too, has failed Giovanni. In the title poem from her latest book, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), she notes:

what this decade will be known for
There is no doubt it is loneliness

and in the same poem she continues:

Cotton Candy is Giovanni's bleakest book and reflects the failure of both revolution and love in the late seventies. Possibility has become stillborn.

Cotton Candy's bleak title poem provides a good example of the problems the reader faces in trying to evaluate Giovanni. Even though the poem is not a total success, it is better than it appears on casual reading. At first the title seems totally sentimental: "cotton candy" conjures up images of sticky, sappy love—it seems to catapult us into the world of Rod McKuen. In fact, the publisher exploits this aspect of Giovanni's art by giving us a sentimental soft-pink cover featuring a drawing of a dreamy, romantic woman. It's a Rod McKuen cover. Despite the poem's sometimes vague language which suggests the conventional popular poem, "Cotton Candy" has serious moments which save it from the world of pop songs and greeting cards. When we look closely at the cotton candy image we see it refers to a world of failed possibility; and the language, at least for a few lines, is stately and expressive of a generation:

The sweet soft essence of possibility
Never quite maturing

A curious aspect of Giovanni's appeal has little to do with her language per se but with the sensibility she creates on the page. It isn't that she does not use words effectively. In fact, she does. Not only did she use Black forms effectively during the sixties; in the seventies she mastered a quieter, less ethnic, free verse mode. However, on the whole what is most striking about Giovanni's poetry is that she has created the charming persona of "Nikki Giovanni." This persona is honest, searching, complex, lusty, and, above all, individualistic and charmingly egoistical. This is a verbal achievement having less to do with the surface of language than with the creation of a character, that is, more a novelistic achievement than a lyric one.

Giovanni's lust is comedie (see "Seduction") and healthy; it permeates her vision of the world. Only a lusty woman would bring this perspective to the world of politics:

Ever notice how it's only the ugly
honkies
who hate
like hitler was an ugly dude
same with lyndon

and only a lusty woman could write these joyful lines:

i wanta say just gotta say something
bout those beautiful beautiful beautiful outasight
black men
with they afros
walking down the street
is the same ol danger
but a brand new pleasure

A source of her unabashed lustiness could be the tough, blues-woman tradition. She could be following in the footsteps of Aretha Franklin's "Dr. Feelgood." The following Giovanni poem explicitly exploits and updates the blues/soul tradition:

its wednesday night baby
and i'm all alone
wednesday night baby
and i'm all alone

…..

but i'm a modern woman baby
ain't gonna let this get me down


i'm a modern woman
ain't gonna let this get me down
gonna take my master charge
and get everything in town

This poem combines the classic blues attitude about love—defiance in the face of loss—with references to contemporary antidotes to pain: charge cards.

The poem "Ego Tripping," one of her best poems, grounded in the vital Black vernacular, features her delightful egotism. The poem is a toast, a Black form where the hero establishes his virtues by boasting about them. Her wonderfully healthy egotism, which is expressed succinctly in these witty lines: "show me some one not full of herself/and i'll show you a hungry person" abounds in "Ego Tripping":

In a way 'Ego Tripping" is an updating of Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" from a woman's perspective. Hughes' poem is a celebration of the collective Black experience from the primordial time to the present. Giovanni's poem creates a giant mythic Black woman who embodies and celebrates the race across time. The poem doesn't only claim that Giovanni is Black and proud: it creates a magnificent Black woman whose mere gaze can burn out a Sahara Desert and whose casual blowing of her nose can provide oil for the entire Arab world. In a word, she is "bad!" Since it is not Giovanni speaking personally but collectively, it is not a personal boast but a racial jubilee.

Giovanni is a frustrating poet. I can sympathize with her detractors, no matter what the motives for their discontent. She clearly has talent that she refuses to discipline. She just doesn't seem to try hard enough. In "Habits" she coyly declares:

It isn't enough that the poem is hers; personality isn't enough, isn't a substitute for fully realized poems. Even though she has created a compelling persona on the page, she has been too dependent on it. Her ego has backfired. She has written a number of lively, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, often perceptive poems about the contemporary world. The best poems in her three strongest books, Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement, Re: Creation, and Cotton Candy, demonstrate that she can be a very good poet. However, her work also contains dross: too much unrealized abstraction (flabby abstraction at that!), too much "poetic" fantasy posing as poetry and too many moments verging on sentimentality. In the early seventies, after severely criticizing Giovanni's shortcomings, Haki Madhubuti said he eagerly awaited the publication of her new book, Re: Creation; he hoped that in it she would fulfill the promise of her early poetry. Even though it turned out to be one of Giovanni's better books, I find myself in a similar situation to Madhubuti's. I see that not only does Giovanni have promise, she already has written some good poems and continues to write them. Yet I am concerned about her development. I think it is time for her to stand back and take stock of herself, to take for herself the time for reflection, the vacation she says Aretha deserves for work well done. Nikki Giovanni is one of the most talented writers to come out of the Black sixties, and I don't want to lose her. I want her to write poems which grow out of that charming persona, not poems which are consumed by it. Giovanni must keep her charm and overcome her selfindulgence. She has the talent to create good, perhaps important, poetry, if only she has the will to discipline her craft.

Principal Works

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Poetry

Black Judgement 1968

Black Feeling, Black Talk 1968

Re: Creation 1970

Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement 1970

The Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis 1970

Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children 1971

My House: Poems 1972

Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers 1973

The Women and the Men 1975

Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day 1978

Vacation Time: Poems for Children 1980

Those Who Ride the Night Winds 1983

The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni 1995

The Sun Is So Quiet: Poems 1996

Other Major Works

Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices [editor] (sketches) 1970

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (essays) 1971

Truth Is on Its Way (recording) 1971

A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni [with James Baldwin] (interviews) 1973

Like a Ripple on a Pond (recording) 1973

A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker [with Margaret Walker] (interviews) 1974

The Way I Feel (recording) 1975

Legacies: The Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (recording) 1976

The Reason I Like Chocolate (recording) 1976

Images of Blacks in American Culture: A Reference Guide to Information Sources [editor, with Jessie Carney Smith] (handbook) 1988

Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles (essays) 1988

Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler [editor, with Cathee Dennison] (sketches) 1991

Grand Mothers: A Multicultural Anthology of Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions [editor] (reminiscences) 1994

Racism 101 (essays) 1994

Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance Through Poems (essays) 1996

Nikki Giovanni with Claudia Tate (interview date 1983)

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SOURCE: An interview in Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983, pp. 60-78.

[In the following interview, Giovanni discusses her work's development, considers the effects of race and gender on writing, and provides insight into her own creative process.]

Nikki Giovanni began her literary career as a poet in the late sixties during the so-called "Black Revolution," and much of her verse at that time encouraged social and political activism among Black Americans. Her later work also addresses contemporary issues, but the focus falls instead on human relationships rendered from the vantage point of a mother, a lover, and a women. Giovannni's language remains startling, energetic, enraged, and loving….

[TATE]: The black revolutionary fervor of the sixties seems to be gone. We no longer even hear the rhetoric. Does this suggest that the revolution is over?

[GIOVANNI]: I bought three new windows for my mother's basement. Have you ever bought windows for your mother's basement? It's revolutionary! It really is.

I have a problem I think I should share with you. For the most part this question is boring. We're looking at a phenomenon as if it were finished. Everyone says, "Well, what happened to the revolution?" If you want to deal with states [dialectical transitions] you have to deal with Marx. But I'm not into that. From where I am, I see a continuous black revolution going on for the last four hundred years in America. There has been a continuous revolution of black people for the last two thousand years. And it's not letting up.

When you look at the decade from 1954 to 1964, you're forced to say black Americans won their objectives. We didn't like the segregated buses. We didn't like the segregated schools. We didn't like the way we were treated in stores. We didn't like the housing patterns. We didn't like the number of doctors or lawyers we had. We didn't like our lack of professionals. We won. But looking at the late seventies, there's no way you can consider the Bakke decision to be favorable. It was 5-4. It was really a bad decision. Close cases make bad law. There's no question Bakke should have come in 9-0 either way, if it's going to be definitive. Then you would have had a law. You don't have a law now.

I'm looking for a riot. I'm living in a city that kills cops like people kill flies. Cincinnati, Ohio is leading the nation in the number of policemen killed. We're number one. The black community seems to be saying, "Well, you can play Nazi, but we ain't playing Jew." And black folks have been shooting back. We're saying, "Wait a minute. Who do you think you're playing with?" Nobody's going back to 1954. No matter what the rollback is. It's not even going back to '64. No matter what "let's take the breather" is.

When people start to say "What happened to the sixties," we've got to remember, "Hey, this is the eighties and what are we going to do now?" Where are we going because it's going to continue. My generation didn't start the bus boycotts. But we decided where they should go. Now it's time again to decide on a direction. We weren't the first generation to say "This ain't right." But we were the first to know we had to fight in terms of our bodies. We recognized we were going to have to go to jail, and we were going to have to get killed. And all of that is really sad. We were going to get beaten; our houses were going to get bombed. But we went on the line. I mean bodies, a lot of bodies. I'm not the first poet, neither is Carolyn Rogers nor Gwen Brooks, to say, "Hey, this is intolerable." Neither was Langston Hughes, nor Claude McKay. We're talking about a struggle for freedom that keeps going on and on. People are tending to approach the whole problem like, "Oh! Wow! It's all over. It's been done." This is not a movie!

Sure the militant posture has left contemporary writing. First of all it was boring. That's a very serious word for me; I use it a lot, I realize, but what do you want? You want me to rewrite "Nigger can you kill/Can you kill/Nigger can you kill?" I wrote it. It's not just that it's written, but I wrote it. And I wasn't even the first person to write it. Nor will I be the last. But I did it my time. Now it's time for me to do something else.

Your earlier works, Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment and Re: Creation, seem very extroverted, militant, arrogant. The later work, The Women and the Men and Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, seem very introverted, private, lonely, withdrawn. Does this shift in perspective, tone, and thematic focus reflect a conscious transition?

I'll tell you what's wrong with that question. The assumption inherent in that question is that the self is not a part of the body politic. There's no separation.

I'm not a critic of my own work. It's not what I'm supposed to be about. I think literary analysis gives academics something to do. Books are generally amusement parks for readers. They will ultimately make a decision about which book to ride. But as for critics, they have to write a book as interesting as the one they're criticizing or the criticism is without validity. If they succeed, then the book they're writing about is only their subject; it is not in itself necessary. The critics could have written about anything. And after all, they've got to have something to do. It's Friday and it's raining, so they write a critique of Nikki Giovanni. It's not serious. And I'm not denigrating myself; it's just that it's no more serious than that.

Is there a black aesthetic? If so, can you define it?

It's not that I can't define the term, but I am not interested in defining it. I don't trust people who do. Melvin Toison said you only define a culture in its decline; you never define a culture in its ascendancy. There's no question about that. You only define anything when it's on its way down. How high did it go? As long as it's traveling, you're only guessing. So too with the black aesthetic.

As the black-aesthetic criticism went, you were told that if you were a black writer or a black critic, you were told this is what you should do. That kind of prescription cuts off the question by defining parameters. I object to prescriptions of all kinds. In this case the prescription was a capsulized militant stance. What are we going to do with a stance? Literature is only as useful as it reflects reality. I talk about this in Gemini; I also say it's very difficult to gauge what we have done as a people when we have been systematically subjected to the whims of other people.

One essay in Gemini discusses the effects of slavery on Phillis Wheatley's life and work.

You talk to Margaret Walker about Phillis because I would like to be very clear about her. There is nothing wrong with the poems she wrote. And I dare say, from what I see of history, there was no particular reason why Phillis Wheatley didn't mean exactly what she said. There is no reason for me to reject what Phillis Wheatley had to say about her experience. And I don't. People get upset because she talks about Africa in terms of how delighted she was to discover Christianity. Well, from what little I know, she might have been damned delighted. Life for an African woman can be very difficult even today, and she was writing in the eighteenth century. We can't talk about freedom for the African woman now. That's a battle yet to be fought.

I just want to be clear on Phillis because I think she gets a bad rap. People haven't read her and don't know a damn thing about her and don't want to empathize with her life. I think she had a difficult life. If she could say she was delighted to be on these shores, then we have to look at that.

Critics should do one thing and that is understand the work. It doesn't make any difference whether they are white or black, they should try to understand the work. I've been so consistent on this point that I would just like to point out my consistency. (People never read what I say, and I don't know where they get what they come up with.) I can both read and appreciate literature, as I was taught to do. I can do this with Shakespeare, though I am not a great lover of Shakespeare. Therefore, it is incomprehensible to me that Robert Bone, a white critic, can't read and appreciate Nikki Giovanni, a black poet. I think I'm probably brighter and more sensitive than he is, and I'm saying Bone because he's the first white critic who comes to mind. I have not created a totally unique, incomprehensible feat. I can understand Milton and T. S. Eliot, so the critic can understand me. That's the critic's job.

We have made literature in the Western world a big bugaboo. I remember when I was in a humanities class, we read Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie because it was short enough to be put intoa six-week course. But if you're going to read Dreiser, there's only An American Tragedy. He didn't write anything else! If you're going to read Tom Wolfe, you're going to read Look Homeward, Angel. That's what you're going to have to do. If you're going to read Thomas Mann, you're going to read The Magic Mountain. But we generally don't read a writer's best work. So people end up not liking literature. And they are discouraged, absolutely discouraged from reading literature because we've given them the worst but what was most convenient. What we've been taught for the last five generations of public education is expediency. And that's what we are dealing with right now. Kids say, "If I'm going to read shit why should I read?" That's exactly what it comes down to. Why should I read the worst of some author? Because it's safer; it's sanitized, and he or she didn't use bad words. And all of us let this happen, because we have our jobs or whatever.

Poetry is the most mistaught subject in any school because we teach poetry by form and not by content. I remember reading Edna St. Vincent Millay—and nobody was reading Millay, you know, except me and the teacher. I really liked "I Burned My Candle at Both Ends," and I wanted to discuss the poem in class. But I was told, "We don't discuss that." It had nothing to do with the fact of how one can read Edna St. Vincent Millay and not read that ooem. But we did! Another time I was reading The Well of Loneliness [by Radclyffe Hall] and I wanted to do a book review on it. Miss Delaney said, "My dear, we don't reviev 'ooks like that." What the hell! If you can't review what yov vant, if schools aren't interested in teaching literature 01. the level of serious reading, how are we going to get a critic?

I read an article called "The Great Literary Hoax" in Atlantic magazin. The guy says every book that comes out is treated as a literary event. Of course, they mostly aren't. If you look at the Nobel list and the Pulitzer list, you'll be lucky if you find two books worth reading. I'm serious! You're a Ph.D. and I would bet that you haven't read ten books on both lists. Nobody does. You know why? Because they're shit. These books get awards because they're safe. But they're shit. The National Book Award list isn't a whole lot better, but at least I was able to read ten or so books on that list. I can't say that for the Pulitzer Prize list. These lists don't reflect our best literature. They don't support excellence in any way, shape, or form. Mediocrity is safe.

If there were just one critic, and it doesn't matter what color, race, none of that, who looked at literature and decided he or she was going to write a book saying what was really great for whatever reason, it would never see the light of day. The critic controls nothing. He or she has to submit their book to a publisher. For example, you have to submit your book to an editor who will probably be Jewish and won't like the fact that you're black. If you were white, you would have to submit it to an editor who probably won't like the fact that you're a woman. Even if you were a white man, you would have to submit it to an editor who probably can't read. Winning is very hard. And I'm just being serious. I'm not saying give up because I'm not a give-up. Something's got to change. Sure, people say what's the point in trying. But of course, there's a point in trying. At some point those of us who are about what is called "truth" have to be as willing to fight for our reality as those who are fighting against us. I could grow up in America and think the Civil War was an awful thing, and I grew up black in Tennessee. And it might be a long time before I'd realize, hey, you motherf—ers are crazy! This is me you're talking about. I know we're talking about a lot of different things here; it's all got to be connected. Otherwise I could answer yes or no.

Writers have to fight. Nobody's going to tell you that you're going to have to change three words in your book. It doesn't come down like that. People think, "Oh, they're going to mess with my work." They're not. It never happens like that. It's just going to be that you get no response. We who are interested have to be as willing to fight as those who fight against us. "Life is not a problem," as I said in Cotton Candy [on a Rainy Day]. "It is a process," and we have to make choices. We frequently act like life is a drama, think there's a problem to be resolved with a climax. So we're always dissatisfied because there are no answers.

Is there validity to "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" and "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, " and the subsequent criticism these works incite?

Evidently there is validity or it wouldn't fly. You're essentially asking does it have a motor? It's got to have a motor or it wouldn't fly. Otherwise it'd just sit out on the runway. I have problems with this man-woman thing because I'm stuck on a word. The word's "boring."

I can't think of anything that could interest me less. I've turned down a lot of contracts on this topic. The man-woman thing is a boring subject. It's essentially a dead end. It's going to come down to one of two things: either you're going to take off your clothes or you're not. Men and women do that. Show me a man and a woman and that's what's going to happen. You show me a man without a woman and something else will happen. Show me a woman without a man and something else will happen. But as long as there are men and women, there's no race; there's no color; there's no age. As long as they're men and women, they're going to do what men and women have been doing for the last two million years. This man-woman thing is not even a case of making a mountain out of a mole hill. We don't even have a mole hill yet! It's sort of like cotton candy. We're just spinning around.

I remember in Harlem there used to be these "Save Our Men Meetings" and I was invited to one. I try to get along with people. I'm not as difficult to get along with as people think. I went to the Save Our Men Meeting, and I said, "What are we talking about? Which men do you own? Save my car, yeah. I've got a Peugeot out there on the street, and I'd like to save it. I'd like to save my record collection because I really like it. But I don't have a man." I have a relationship with a man, and he has a relationship with me. Certain things are going to happen to make it either a good or a bad relationship. If it's a good relationship, everybody's happy. If it's a bad one, there's going to be a change.

I'm not inextricably tied to black men. Black women who say "I don't want anybody but a black man" are saying they're afraid because there are men other than black American men. There are men all over the world. If you can't find one, try another. You could just be out of sync. If you're fat and you're living in Paris, you're going to have a problem with men. Because French men like their women thin. Hey, try the Caribbean, where they like them fat.

I loved "For Colored Girls." First of all Ntozake is an extremely bright, sensitive, good poet. She writes exceptionally well. She has a lot of developing to do and that's not meant as a negative comment. I don't see how anybody could take it as a negative statement. Furthermore, I don't see how anybody can be overly sensitive about her work. It's really a case of if the shoe fits, you simply have to wear it. I mean that's all she's done. She said, "Here I am. " Ntozake's naked on that stage. She's naked in that book. And if you don't like it, lump it. "For Colored Girls" is not a love poem. I love it. It's one of my favorite poems. But it's not a love poem.

Ntozake's naked on that stage, but not because she's writing from experience. I resent people who say writers write from experience. Writers don't write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't. I want to be very clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy. We cheapen anything written when we consider it an experience. Because if it's someone else's experience we don't have to take it seriously. We really don't. We could say, "That's what happened to Ntozake. Isn't that a shame?" No, that's not what happened to Ntozake! I don't know whether it did or it didn't. That's not the point. The point is that's what happened; that's what still happens. Writers write because they empathize with the general human condition.

I wrote a poem about a black man, and Don Lee wrote the most asinine thing I've ever read. His criticism was that Nikki Giovanni's problem is that she's had difficulty with a man. Kirkus Review's critical response to The Women and the Men was "Oh she's just in love." If Kirkus never reviews another book of mine I'll be more than happy. My life is not bound in anything that sells for $5.95. And it will never be. No matter what you're seeing, it's not me. If I'm not bigger than my books, I have a problem. I have a serious problem. I don't take my books personally because they're not personal. They reflect what I have seen, and I stand behind them because they are about reality, truth. I'm not America's greatest writer, but I'm credible.

The truth I'm trying to express is not about my life. This is not an autobiography we're talking about. Gemini is barely one, and it comes close. It was what I said it was, an autobiographical essay, which is very different from autobiography. Even autobiographies are not real because we only remember what we remember. And the truth has to be bigger than that, and if it isn't there's something wrong with your life. What we remember is only a ripple in a pond. It really is. And where does the last ripple go and who sees it? You never see the end of your own life. We put too much emphasis in the wrong places. And what we do to writers, particularly, is we try to get away from what is being said. We brand them. Of course, I'm back to the critics again.

The point of the writer is to remind us that nuclear energy, for example, is not just some technical, scientific thing, not that Pluto is the last planet and it's freezing, but that such things are comprehensible to the human mind.

We've got to live in the real world. If we don't like the world we're living in, change it. And if we can't change it, we change ourselves. We can do something. If in 1956 I didn't like the way the world was, it was incumbent upon me to at least join a picket line. I didn't have to join a picket line happily. I didn't have to join it with full knowledge of what this could mean to me. None of that was required of me. It was only required that I try to make a change so that ten years later I'll be able to go to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I'll be able to walk down Gay Street without having to move aside for some cracker. And in ten years we did. That was a limited goal, but I won. All I'm trying to say is, okay, if you can't win today, you can win tomorrow. That's all. My obligation is to win, but winning is transitory. What you win today, you start from ground zero on the next plateau tomorrow. That's what people don't want to deal with.

You're only as good as your last book. And that's what writers have a problem with. You say you wrote a book twelve years ago. Hey, I'm real glad, but I want to know what you are doing now. I complained about [Ralph] Ellison in Gemini in this regard. And I think it's a valid complaint. God wrote one book. The rest of us are forced to do a little better. You can't live forever on that one book. No matter how interesting, or how great, or how whatever, you are forced to continue, to take a chance. Maybe your next book won't be as good as your last. Who knows?

A lot of people refuse to do things because they don't want to go naked, don't want to go without guarantee. But that's what's got to happen. You go naked until you die. That's the way it goes down. If you don't want to play, you're not forced to. You can always quit. But if you're not going to quit, play. You've got to do one or the other. And it's got to be your choice. You've got to make up your own mind. I made up my mind. If you're going to play, play all the way. You're going to sweat, and you're going to get hit, and you're going to fall down. And you're going to be wrong. Probably nine times out of ten you're going to be wrong, but it's the tenth time that counts. Because when you come up right, you come up right beautifully. But after that you have to start again. We as black people, we as people, we as the human species have got to get used to the fact we're not going to be right most of the time, not even when our intentions are good. We've got to go naked and see what happens.

Do women writers record human experience in fundamentally different ways than men?

I think men and women are different. I think most of these differences have to do with what would have to be considered as conditioning. A woman writer was expected to write little love stories. She was expected to deal with emotions. Women were not really allowed to encouraged to do anything else. So women's published works went down in a certain way. If you were a woman, and you were identifiably a woman, and you sent a manuscript to a publisher, it was not going to be about Buck Rogers because women didn't write science fiction. It wasn't Executive Suite [a popular novel published in 1977 by Cameron Hawley], not that Executive Suite is a great novel. But women weren't supposed to write business novels. They were supposed to write little homely, lovely novels that were quite safe, and they sold for a quarter and everybody lived happily ever after.

Do you see an evolution in Afro-American writing in terms of theme, craft, perspective?

There has never been a time since we discovered literature that we have not both petitioned white writers and recognized their basic bestiality. As black Americans living in a foreign nation we are, as the wandering Jew, both myth and reality. Black Americans have no home now or ever. We have been here too long to go any place else. I'm not saying we cannot migrate. Twenty of us or 20,000 of us can certainly go to Africa. We can go, but Africa would be a new experience, and we would also be strangers there. This is what black Americans reject. And it's probably human nature to reject the fact that we will always be strangers. But our alienation is our great strength. Our strength is that we are not comfortable any place; therefore, we're comfortable every place. We can go any place on earth and find a way to be comfortable.

I'm always saying to the kids—and it's a big joke—that if I were anything from outer space, I would make a point to come into a black community because that's the only place where I would at least be given a chance. The first response of black people would not be to shoot me, stamp me out, poison me, or somehow get rid of me. They would be curious about me. They would not do what your average cracker would do which is to wipe me out.

We who are black have to recognize our basic powerlessness, and that's a strength. It's not power; it's strength. We have nothing to protect. What was especially great during the period between '68 and '74 was the mass consciousness that there was nothing for us to protect. We said if the best you have to offer is Richard Nixon, then go to hell! That attitude blew the country's mind. The country said how can we get back to those people. The country sent a lot to us. It sent the women [women's liberation]. It sent "the man." It offered jobs. But you don't hear blacks saying "God Bless America." In fact, nobody cares if the flag goes up or down. When you hear the national anthem, you know we're going to play ball. That's all the anthem seems to be for—to open a ball game. When they finish singing it, the proper expression is "play ball."

Black American consciousness has finally assumed dominance all over the world. I'm serious about this. We're setting the tone. If we function well, we will continue to set it. There's little alternative to the black American consciousness. The alternative is essentially destruction.

We talk about what writers should be doing. Well, we've got to look beyond the block. We've got to do a lot of thinking. You asked a question a while back about my evolution as a writer. A lot has happened. I don't want anybody to think it's just me. It's all of us. It has to do with the way we conceptualize the world. We are earthlings. When Viking II took off we became earthlings. Nobody knows what an earthling is, and how an earthling relates to other earthlings. Is a whale an earthling? If it is, do we have a right to kill it? Is a baby seal an earthling? If it is, is it all right to hit it in the head? And if it's all right to hit a baby seal in the head, which it is, then it's perfectly all right to napalm the Vietnamese. It's also all right to shoot elephants because they're eating up tree bark. We don't have to draw the line. Then it's okay to shoot blacks because they want some land. And if it's not all right, then who's going to stop it?

The choice is between what we do and what they do. As blacks—and I've been consistent on this point—we are not seeking equality. We're seeking superiority. I happen to be a black American chauvinist. I think black Americans are potentially the political tone-setters of the world, though our interest in power has been very low. If black Americans were as interested in power as we are in basketball, we would dominate. There's no question about it. We can do anything we want to do. We ought to quit listening to what people are saying about us. We were talking earlier about Black Macho. Hey, they won't even be real. Who will remember? Hey, it's the latest chewing gum. It's Mellow Yellow, the fastest soft drink in the world. So when you look at what we've done as a people, you see we've taken our consciousness and used it for survival.

The fact that we have survived says something for humanity. We are a part of the oldest people on earth, and as black Americans we are also the latest distinct group. Black Americans are different. It's the attitude. The black American attitude is a strange thing. It can really get you. It bothers me sometimes. Everything is so "f—ing laidback." But that's a black attitude. Laid-back is not a country or Western attitude. Laid-back is a colored attitude; it always was. It's an attitude blacks have adopted to survive because if we couldn't take it easy, we couldn't take it at all. If we stayed hot, we'd burn up. I'm a hot person and therefore a bit apart from that attitude. I stay hot. I think things can be changed. If you were to look at my personality you'd see I'm always hot. I can't take intolerable situations. Somebody's got to go down. You or me. It "don't" matter. But my attitude, in effect, is not necessarily atypical, if you put me in the group. The group as a whole learns to take it easy. I'm not worried that the white boys are playing with DNA because I'll change them before they change me. I come from a people who learned how to run with hot people.

What makes a poet different from a John Doe who's cleaning gutters?

The fact that I write poetry and do it well makes me different. I dare say I probably wouldn't clean gutters nearly as well. Though if it came to cleaning gutters, I could do it. If I am a better poet, it's because I'm not afraid. If artists are different from ordinary people, that's because we are confident about what we are doing. That's the difference between what I would consider to be a serious artist and those who are in it for the fun. A lot of people are always into thinking they can become famous. Kids are always asking how one becomes famous. Well, I don't know. You know if you're talking fame, you're not a serious person.

If you didn't think this book is important and that you could do it, you wouldn't be here. You think it's important. I don't have to think it's important and I'm part of it. Margaret doesn't; Gwen doesn't. Nobody has to think it's important but you. It's your book; it's not my book. What people have to realize is, the difference between those who are serious and those who are not is simply that the former take it seriously. It wouldn't matter to you if nobody else took your book seriously. If it did, you wouldn't write it. You wouldn't care if all of us wrote you back and said this is not a serious project. You'd just go out and find yourself fourteen other writers. But we didn't respond to you that way because you take it seriously. But if you had written and said what you think we should do, you wouldn't get a response from anybody. You know people write me and say, "I want to be a writer. What should I write about?" How the hell should I know what one should write about?

Nobody's going to tell me what to write about because it's about me dancing naked on that floor. And if I'm going to be cold, it's going to be because I decided to dance there. And if you don't like to dance, go home. It's that simple. So the artistic attitude is that you take your work seriously. However, we writers would all be better off if we didn't deceive ourselves so frequently by thinking everything we create is important or good. It's not. When you reread something you need to be able to say, "Gee, that wasn't so hot. I thought it was really great ten years ago." But sometimes you can say, "Hey, it's not so bad."

What about the prose?

I don't reread my prose because I'm kind of afraid. I suppose one day I will. At least I would like to think so. But I'm very much afraid to be trapped by what I've said. I don't think life is inherently coherent. I think what Emerson said about consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds is true. The more you reread your prose the more likely you're going to try to justify what you've said. I don't really object to being an asshole. I don't take it personally.

If I never contradict myself then I'm either not thinking or I'm conciliating positions and, therefore, not growing. There has to be a contradiction. There would be no point to having me go three-fourths of the way around the world if I couldn't create an inconsistency, if I hadn't learned anything. If I ever get to the moon, it would be absolutely pointless to have gone to the moon and come back with the same position.

That's been a quarrel I've had with my fellow writers of the sixties. If you didn't learn anything what was the point of going through a decade? If I'm going to be the same at thirty-eight as I was at twenty-eight, what justifies the ten years to myself? And I feel that's who I've got to justify it to—ME.

Though I don't reread my prose, I do reread my poetry. After all that's how I earn my living.

How do you polish the poems?

A poem is a way of capturing a moment. I don't do a lot of revisions because I think if you have to do that then you've got problems with the poem. Rather than polish the words, I take the time to polish the poem. If that means I start at the top a dozen times, that's what I do. A poem's got to be a single stroke, and I make it the best I can because it's going to live. I feel if only one thing of mine is to survive, it's at least got to be an accurate picture of what I saw. I want my camera and film to record what my eye and my heart saw. It's that simple. And I keep working until I have the best reflection I can get. Universality has dimension in that moment.

Do you have a particular writing methoda special place, a special time for writing?

One thing for sure I can say about me is that if my book is going to bust, it's going to bust in public. It is either going to be so bad or so good. That's true of most of my books. Nothing is ever half way with me. It's shit or it's great. That's my attitude. I think that's the only way to go. Now other people are much more cautious. They'll do the safe thing and handle it right. Jean Noble put twelve years into Beautiful Are the Souls of My Black Sisters. Jean's book is beautiful, and I'm glad she did. Alex put twelve years in Roots. I couldn't be happier he did. I'm glad for Alex; I'm glad for me because I've got galleys. But I could no more put twelve years into anything. Nothing is worth twelve years to me. I can't grow a garden. I can't see waiting that long just for some vegetables. Some people can do it; I'm not one of them. I believe in accepting the limits of my competency.

That's weakness. Yeah, I'll admit it. I just don't get a thrill out of seeing tomatoes grow. I do get a thrill seeing my poems, and I will take the time for them. But if after a year I was working on a poem, not a book but a poem, I would say something's wrong with either the poem or me. That's probably not the best way to be a writer. I wouldn't even want to consider myself an example. I'm essentially undisciplined. I do a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, but I wouldn't recommend my writing method. On the other hand I can't be like Hemingway and get up at six o'clock every morning and write for two hours. He had a wife who got up and cooked his breakfasts. I don't have time to sit there and write for two hours whether I have something to say or not. I write when it's compelling.

I'm not good at moving. I understand why Andrew Wyeth felt that if he left Brandy wine he wouldn't be able to paint. It's very difficult for an artist to move. Richard Wright moved to Paris, and people said his work suffered. He didn't live long enough to re-establish his connection with his new place. I think people really overlook this. I never knew Wright, but I'm sure there was a lack of connection. It was very difficult for me to move from Cincinnati to New York. And it was equally difficult for me to move from New York back to Cincinnati. I have to feel at home in order to write. No matter what kind of little shack home is; I have to be at home. I'm very territorial.

How do you regard your audience?

I have always assumed that whoever is listening to a reading of mine, whether it be from my first book [Black Feeling, Black Talk] to the most recent, whether a kid or a senior citizen, deserves to hear my best. I think a lot of writers make the assumption that the people in the audience are not generally very bright. So they don't give them their best because they think they won't understand it. I also think there ought to be improvement in every subsequent piece of work.

We were talking about my writing habits. If my next book isn't at least an emotional improvement over my last book, I would never submit it to a publisher. I like to think there's growth. If there's no growth, there's no reason to publish. But I think the people who read me are intelligent. That's one reason I continue to be read because I do make this assumption: if you're reading me, you've got something going for yourself. That's arrogant. Writers are arrogant.

I would really feel badly if somebody said, "Well, I read you in '69 and I'm glad to say, you haven't changed. That would ruin my day. That would send me into a glass of something, and I don't drink. I'd have to say who are you and what have you read because I think I've changed. I mentioned Don [Lee] earlier; he doesn't really understand my work. Michèle has not read me. There's no way I can be convinced that Michele Wallace has read me. She quoted the wrong books. I have written fifteen books. You can't quote the last book as if it were the first. You can't make a critical judgment based on one book. It doesn't work. She was not only quoting out of context in terms of time, she was quoting out of context in terms of the books. "Black Macho" is bad history.

We were talking about the sixties. I think what happened to a lot of writers—as well as some other people—was they decided what they wrote in '65 was right, and they began to repeat it. If I've grown, and I have, if I share that growth, and I do, then my readers are allowed to grow. I expect growth. I expect a better question from my audience this year than last year. I really do. If I don't get it I'm prone to say, "I'm really bored with you people." I expect intelligence, and I think I have a right to expect it. I don't care if they're paying me. I expect them to be as interested in talking to me, whether they're asking a question or making a statement, as I am in talking to them. And if they're not, one of us is in the wrong place. And since I don't make those kinds of mistakes, it's simple. They can say, "You can't put that on us." I say, "Sure I can, because if I don't who will?"

I have a heavy foot. And the advantage of that is not necessarily that I speed. It's that I will go in the wrong direction fast enough to recognize it and turn around and still beat you. We're going to make mistakes. It's not what so-and-so says that defines a mistake. It's what I decide is an error: that was wrong; that was dumb; that was insensitive; that was stupid…. But I've got to go on and try again. That's the only thing we really have to learn.

I'd like to beat the winners. That's the only fun. I wouldn't want to be the only black poet in America. It's not even interesting. I want to be among the best. And it's going to take a lot of poets because we don't even have enough to make a comparison. I'm looking for a golden age, and I would very much like to be a part of it. But there's no race now. In twelve years I produced fifteen books. That's not bad. I would like to have a little more attention.

I'm looking for a golden age, and the only way that's going to happen is for a lot of people to have a lot of different ideas. We don't need just one idea. That's my basic quarrel with some writers, and it remains. We don't need somebody telling us what to think. We need somebody to encourage us to think what we want to think. That was the problem with the black aesthetic. That's why Negro Digest went out of business—because it was boring.

On this level you critics do bear responsibility. I'm going to be very clear about this. You critics really praise what you understand. The fact that you understand it is almost suspect. Because once you get the critics all saying, "Well, that's really good," then you have to know something's wrong. If the ideas and concepts of a work are all that comprehensible, then the work hasn't broken any new ground. There has to be something new. That's why Toni Morrison is so great. Alice Walker's Third Life of Grange Copeland is great.

That book comes down to Grange, the father, who has to decide that Brownfield is not worth living. Before he will let Brownfield destroy the future, he will kill him. Only Grange could have killed him. He created him and it was an error. That's why pencils have erasers. He said I have made a mistake, but it cannot continue. Now that was a hell of a statement Alice made. A lot of people didn't like it. They can jump on Ntozake, but Ntozake didn't kill him. Alice killed him. She said Brownfield must die. Even he recognized that he shouldn't live, but he didn't have the strength to kill himself. It was up to his father. In Toni's Sula it is the mother who says, hey, you're a junkie; you've got to go. You're my own and I'm going to take care of you. In Song of Solomon, which was comprehensible on most levels, you have Milkman and if anybody should have killed his mother, Milkman should have killed his. Toni made a statement about flying away that people haven't dealt with yet—Milkman's act of wanting to just fly away. We know he didn't. He couldn't have. So where was he? Where is he? That's like the end of a horror movie. Toni made a statement in Solomon, but since it is easier to deal with than Sula the statement got obscured. Sula disturbed the critics because in the beginning there are two women and at the end there is Nel who remarks that "they were girls together." That's a hell of a statement because black women have never been allowed to say they were girls together in print. Critics have not gotten to Toni yet. They just don't understand Toni. That's probably one of the reasons she is very hesitant to talk to people. I don't blame her. If I wrote a book like that I wouldn't give interviews either. Because somebody is bound to ask a dumb question that shows he or she missed the point of the whole book. "Tell me, Ms. Morrison, why do you think Nel missed Sula?"

In terms of American writers, for the three novels Toni's written, let alone any to come, Toni's in. Who else is writing? Who else is doing it? There's no question. It's black women. What's happening with black women is great. Black women are flying. Ask a black woman what is she doing? She'll say, "I'm going to do what I have to do, and I'm really happy for you; I wish you no harm, but I've got to go." I think we are beginning to unleash a lot of energy because there's going to be competition, especially among black women writers. We haven't gotten to the point where black menand women compete, despite what you hear. The competition is among ourselves. What you're seeing in the media isn't important. Very few black women are writing out of respect or concern for what white people think. I don't care whether the [New York] Times reviews me or not. If it can review Michele, it doesn't need to review me. If the Times can review Michele, there's no way it can review Jean Noble. It had to make a choice, so it took what it understood.

If you look through Cotton Candy you'll hear a lot of music. 'Cause if you're in trouble, you don't whistle a happy tune and hold your head erect. You hummm. You hum a basic gospel tune. Can you imagine what a slave ship must have sounded like? Imagine what a slave ship must have sounded like to the women. All the slave-ship stories we've heard so far have been from men. All the men heard was the agony of the men. That's valid. But just imagine what a slave ship must have sounded like to a woman. The humming must have been deafening. It had to be there. The hum, the gospel, the call-and-response came over because it's here. The men didn't bring it over. I'm not knocking the men. They brought the drum for sure. But they didn't bring the hum; they didn't bring the leader-call; they didn't bring the field hollers, because they didn't know them. They were not field men. They were hunters. Hunters don't make noise. So what we're hearing in the music is the women. People have just continued to overlook the impact of the women. We women won't. We women were the ones in the fields in Africa. The music is not something we learned on these shores. We were communal even then, and as we got into bigger fields, we would call to one another. If you didn't answer back, we went to see about you. The hum, the holler, the leader-call are women things. The men didn't do them. Black men were out hunting in Africa, but in America they were in the fields with the women. They learned the women things from women. So what you're hearing in our music is nothing but the sound of a woman calling another woman.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992, 192 p.

Substantial overview of Giovanni's poetry from its beginnings through Those Who Ride the Night Winds.

Giddings, Paula. "Nikki Giovanni: Taking a Chance on Feeling." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, pp. 211-17. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Overview of earlier work which critiques Those Who Ride the Night Winds as being overly-simplistic for the older Giovanni.

Giovanni, Nikki. "An Answer to Some Questions on How I Write: In Three Parts." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, pp. 205-10. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Provides insight into Giovanni's creative process and habits.

Lee, Don L. "Nikki Giovanni." In Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960's, pp. 68-74. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971.

Reviews Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, appreciating many of the poems but finding the longer, militant poems overly-simplistic.

McLain, Ruth Rambo. Review of Re: Creation. Black World XX, No. 4 (February 1971): 62-4.

Expresses regret over the fact that Giovanni's latest collection of poems is "too clean," the work of a "tamed Panther."

Salaam, Kalamu Ya. Review of My House and Like a Ripple On a Pond. Black World XXIII, No. 9 (July 1974): 64-70.

Claims My House is sentimental and romantic, and views Like a Ripple On a Pond as a lesser version of what Giovanni already did with Truth Is On Its Way.

Interviews

Bonner, Carrington. "An Interview with Nikki Giovanni." Black American Literature Forum 18, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 29-30.

Discussion of Those Who Ride the Night Wind, Giovanni's supposed trip to South Africa, and the situation of Black writing at the time.

Fowler, Virginia C, ed. Conversations with Nikki Giovanni. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, 220 p.

Collects interviews with Giovanni from throughout her career.


Additional coverage of Giovanni's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 19, 64; Black Literature Criticism; DISCovering Authors; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 18, 41; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 41; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; and Something About the Author, Vol. 24.

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