“Words are Weapons of the Strong”: An Interview with Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni’s prolific career spans four decades, starting with her first book of poems Black Feeling Black Talk in 1968. A widely-read poet, memoirist, commentator, and educator, Giovanni places an emphasis on the power of the individual to effect change in his or herself, as well as in others. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards, was a National Book award finalist, and her books have made the bestseller lists — a rare feat for a poet. She is also University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech.
In June Giovanni traveled to Pittsburgh to participate in the annual Cave Canem poets retreat, and made a surprise onstage appearance at the African-American poetry organization’s annual reading at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
In this interview, conducted via email, Giovanni discusses her views on censorship, discusses voter suppression in the wake of the upcoming presidential elections, talks about the tribute she’s organizing to celebrate Toni Morrison’s legacy, and offers a message to young black poets.
You made a surprise appearance at this year’s Cave Canem reading and read “Ego-Tripping” and “Tennessean by Birth”. What is your take on the Cave Canem idea and the space it provides young black poets?
I think Cave Canem is a great idea and a much needed one. I’ve known most of the poets who have worked to provide this place for Black poets and I am so pleased for all of us in the poetry community. I have been trying for a few years to be a part of the workshops but I had European commitments during the summer. This was a wonderful visit and I hope I behaved myself and will be invited back again.
Lets talk about your latest book, Bicycles: Love Poems. You told Bill Moyers in a 2009 interview that “love and life and bicycles are about trust and balance.” Why is love so radical, and why a book of love poems now in a time when, as Cornel West has expressed, we are experiencing a pervasive lovelessness in our communities?
All poets are, or should always be, in love. It doesn’t have to be someone nor does it need to be about hormones and physicalities. But it has to be about love. “Loveless writers” should be, and in fact is, an oxymoron. We love because it’s the only adventure. If Cornel is correct then we all need to find another calling.
Earlier this year we reported on the Librotraficante movement, a book smuggling caravan supported by Chicano writers and activists that’s bringing banned books back into Arizona as a response to the Tucson Unified school district’s decision to remove several works from the curriculum including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Opressed, as well as classics of Chicano literature and history. In “Ocupando Mi Voz”, a poem dedicated to the movement, the poet Carmen Tafolla speaks of “the power of words to re-define our lives”. Could you talk about what makes words and history so dangerous to some?
The power to control what you think and what you say is the power to define you. Words are the weapons of the strong; swords are the weapons of the weak. It’s why Jesus didn’t mind climbing up the cross. He knew he would win. So do we all.
Have you experienced censorship first-hand or has any of your work ever been banned?
My book, My House, was banned by Sarah Palin in Alaska when she attacked the libraries. I really didn’t understand why, because it’s such a nice book. I did, however, take this as a badge of honor. Also during the dark days, which actually are the white days, of South Africa all my books were banned, but that was more understandable because my poems were calling for justice. The Oakland School Board, before The Black Panthers successfully elected a Black mayor, banned my first two books: Black Feeling Black Talk, and Black Judgement, but that was soon cleared up. There may have been other unhappinesses connected with censorship but I haven’t dwelled upon it and now cannot recall.
Censorship, as the sign says, is bad for your health. I am totally against it. But, and this is a question you did not ask, can anyone anthologize or record or perform for a set price? Sometimes publishers, and sometimes families, who had absolutely nothing to do with the work, can hold up or deny another generation access to artistic work by refusing permission or in some cases making permission fees so high they cannot be met. The Gershwin family, for instance, has continually held up the release of the film Porgy and Bess; The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot is prohibitively expensive and now does not appear in many anthologies; and I personally had a very hard time getting permission to anthologize Countee Cullen’s “Incident” when I published my anthology on the Harlem Renaissance. And there are many other tales out there. It should be stopped.
And just one more thing that you didn’t ask about, but that the art world needs to address: What happens to paintings when the painter dies? There have been too many cases of the works of art being taxed at their artistic value but they were deducted at their paint and board value. In other words, the painter can only take off what he paid for paints but the tax guys tax at what he created. Many has been the time the family has destroyed work because they could not afford the taxes. That is something the art world needs to be upset about. The Republicans worry about inheritance tax…well this is an issue. Where is their voice? I think it’s silent because they think art comes with a velvet cloth and numbers.
According to you, the hip hop generation—which you have embraced—got President Obama into office. What’s your assessment of both of them so far?
There is nothing not to love about this younger generation. I’m not qualified to be a critic but I am an admirer of them. It’s great to see young millionaires who are such nice people. That younger generation is all right. I feel it is totally safe to grow old.
I wish the President had tried a bit harder to take care of and recognize his core base. I am not despairing but I think he could have, and should have, done a better job. Tomorrow is not promised, though some would like to live their lives as if it were.
The government is investigating the new voting measures being implemented in several battleground states that some say amount to voter suppression of a largely African-American and minority electorate. Could you comment?
This is one place the government needs to strongly step in. The Attorney General needs to make clear that voting is a right and the government will support everyone’s right to the ballot. The right to access to the ballot is absolutely essential. If we need to see soldiers standing at every polling place that would be a better use of them than seeing them overseas committing suicide because of the horrible acts they have participated in or witnessed.
You taught Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho in your poetry class. In your address to the student body at the memorial you said: “We know we did nothing to deserve it.” What, if anything, can you say about the recent spate of mass shootings across the country?
I expect the President and those running for the highest office in our nation to call for gun control. The Second Amendment says nothing at all about a person having a right to an assault weapon. These people are not in any sense what we think of as crazy. They are evil, which I was reared in the Baptist church to recognize and resist.
What are your thoughts on the Occupy movement, the Spanish Indignados, the sweeping change brought about by the Arab Spring, the unexpected rise of leaderless movements?
Good for the people. We finally have understood that we move as a mass individually. If there is no head there is no head to assassinate. Occupy is a great movement. I am so proud of my generation and what was started when Rosa Parks said: No.
Could you tell us about the book you are currently working on, the book about your fight with lung cancer?
I am late on this book. I keep trying to understand when this book begins. I must say, though, that I am encouraged by the late Alex Haley who was a dear friend. He was twelve years late on Roots. I still have a few years to go.
At the Cave Canem reading you said we should thank and celebrate those who are important in our lives while they’re still alive. Any details on the event you are organizing to recognize Toni Morrison and her work at Virginia Tech?
I am pleased to announce Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Rita Dove, Joanne Gabbin and many others will be at Virginia Tech in Burruss Auditorium on Tuesday 16 October at 7:00pm, celebrating Toni. The event is entitled Sheer Good Fortune from Morrison’s dedication in Sula: “It is Sheer Good Fortune to miss someone before they are gone.” It is free, though tickets are required. I am walking on tip-toe with a big smile on my face because it’s a dream come true for me to be able to say I love you to those who are living. We always wait until they are gone, then we cry over a casket. Not now. Now we celebrate while they are here to celebrate with us.
What is your message to this young generation of black poets?
My message is a simple one: Believe in yourself. It’s really that easy. There is someone who wants to hear your story. If you are honest, honest people will find you. You really can’t let others determine what you write or how you address issues. Writing is a calling and the passion we bring to our work is the reward we receive.