With her incomparable style and humour, in riff-inspired digressions that are both funny and moving, Nikki Giovanni shows us an associative poet’s mind at work as she blends details of a domestic life with touchstones on the culture that has influenced her. In between long dives into, among other subjects, the commissioning of a poem for Mother’s Day and her attempt at not writing anything “tacky,” to what happens when Black men are made into an enemy in the culture, Giovanni performs three pieces: “A Poem for Langston Hughes,” “Hands for Mother's Day,” and “Ego-Tripping.” This episode shows us why Nikki Giovanni is truly an original talent.
Works by Nikki Giovanni
A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1969-1998
Lincoln and Douglass: an American Friendship
Bicycles: Love Poems
Vacation Time: Poems for Children
Nikki Giovanni: “Martin Had Faith in People” (link opens article from The Atlantic)
About Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni: a Literary Biography
Poet Nikki Giovanni on the Darker Side of Her Life (link opens an NPR article)
About the Host
Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.
Music is by Yuka
From the Archives
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.
Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.
Writers Off the Page: Episode 11
Nikki Giovanni: Soothing the Longings
OPENING MUSIC SEGMENT (2-3 seconds)
Randy Boyagoda: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA produced by the Toronto Public Library. I'm Randy Boyagoda. In this episode, poet and poetic rambler extraordinaire Nikki Giovanni reads a total of three poems … eventually.
TEASER: I saw a photograph once of the mother of Emmett Till, a slight brown woman with pillbox hat, white gloves, eyes dark beyond pain, incomprehensibly looking at a world that never intended to see her son be a man. That same look is created each year, without the hat and gloves, for mother seals are not chic, at the Arctic Circle. That same look is in vogue in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Buffalo, for much of the same reason. During one brief moment, for one passing wrinkle in time, Nancy Reagan wore that look, sharing a bond as yet un-consummated with Betty Shabazz, Jacqueline Kennedy, Coretta King, Ethel Kennedy. The wives and mothers are not so radically different
Randy Boyagoda: You might miss it in the scintillating swish and pop of her delivery, but early in “A Poem for Langston Hughes,” which you’ll hear in a moment, Nikki Giovanni declares “words are fun.” In fact, it’s probably fine if you miss that, because you’ll be convinced of this anyway, believe me, in listening to Giovanni read three of her poems while reflecting on whatever else happens to be on her mind. In between these poems, there’s a lot that happens to be on her mind, at any given moment, particularly about race and gender in America, which attest to her career-long interest in doing justice to Black experience and the lives of women, over and against the injustices enacted upon them, whether by a racist legal system or modern appliances like irons and washing machines. Not unrelatedly, Giovanni also has a wicked sense of humour leavened by grinning mercy about the limitations of needy men, upright or otherwise, violent rappers or rabbit-killing cave men, these days and millennia ago. Few poets have been as capable as Giovanni, in modern literary culture, of bringing a serious and seriously playful eye to such a spectrum of concerns and subjects, and in doing so to such a spectrum of success. She grew up in Cincinnati and Wyoming and Knoxville, and earned a degree from Fisk University in Nashville, though not without being expelled first and despite never finishing high school. In 1968 she moved to New York, where her self-published first collection of poems sold ten thousand copies. She had her book launch at New York’s legendary Birdland jazz club, commanding an audience in a venue otherwise headlined by the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Four decades later, after helping found a publishing company, writing children’s books, recording spoken-word poetry albums that earned Emmy and Grammy Award nominations, and working on a TV show that showcased Black culture, she published a collection of poetry about loss, within a grieving family and also within a grieving nation dealing with another mass shooting The collection was also about the only durable answer to loss — love. The book became a New York Times bestseller. In all of this, and in her on-stage whirligig monologue style, Giovanni amuses, beguiles, even transfixes you with her supreme self-possession. You follow her every word even if you have no idea where she’s going, even when she tells you where she’s going. This is especially the case, as you’ll see, with her extended, elaborate, very funny explanation of the thinking that went into a poem she wrote for Mother’s Day, at the invitation of the Los Angeles Times. You have to wait a while for the poem itself, and you begin to think she’s forgotten her promise to read it to us, but in the end, it’s there, and it more than proves her point that the only thing she couldn’t do, in writing a poem for Mother’s Day, is write a tacky poem. “Hands for Mother’s Day” is not this. Indeed, there’s never been anything tacky about Nikki Giovanni. Instead, there’s as tactile a sense as you can get, from hearing a writer reading her work and telling us about her work, that words are powerful, yes, and equally so, that words are fun.
Nikki Giovanni (NG): Diamonds are mined, oil is discovered, gold is found but thoughts are uncovered. Wool is sheared, silk is spun, weaving is hard but words are fun. Highways span, bridges connect, country roads ramble but I suspect, if I took a rainbow ride, I could be there by your side. Metaphor has its point of view, allusions and illusions too. Meter, verse, classical, free, poems are what you do to me. Let's look at this one more time, since I've put this rap to rhyme. When I take my rainbow ride, you'll be right there at my side. Hey bop, hey bop, hey re re bop.
NG: That's a poem for Langston Hughes. Because Langston was always doing those "Hey bop, hey bop, hey re re bops." I wrote a poem, that I'd like to share, it's kind of a long poem, wrote a poem for Mother's Day. And I used to laugh and say that I couldn't write poems that people asked me to write, but I've been noticing lately that I've done quite a few that was written because USA Today called me. And that's... USA Today never does poetry, they're a strange group. But you know, mag paper. And...
NG: They are, I shouldn't laugh at them because I have a lot of friends there, but they called and said, "You know, we need a poem", and I said, "Oh yeah, okay when do you need?" We're gonna do Poetry Verse." "Yeah, yeah. When do you need it?" They said like, "48 hours." Are you kidding? Cause, I mean they do things like that, "Yeah, we need it tomorrow." I say this too, in case we haven't notice, "The fax is not a friend." A lot of people think these are time-savers and they say things to you like, you know, "You ought to get a fax." but it's not what it is, it's more pressure. And when you think about things, many things…and I... You can't see probably... One scar, I know you can't see. The one that goes this way, is from an iron. Iron is not a friend of woman.
NG: But... No, that's true. I came in here last night. I came into Toronto last night. And this is a linen skirt, it's not, except... No, but it was wrinkled... So I called downstairs and I asked for an iron board and an iron. Because I was gonna press it so I could look as nice as one good could under these circumstances. I plugged the iron in, I pressed my skirt, I press my thing, I'm putting it back but the ironing board is shaky. And see, this is why I don't iron. These things are not friends. If they wouldn't have them, nobody would expect that my skirt should not be wrinkled.
NG: You see. It's true. No, we keep saying to the housewife, "Look at what we've done to make your job easier." There's not a damn thing that that's done, that has made our job easier. The washing machine means you have to wash all the time because when it used to be you had to wash by hand, you just washed like once a week, or once every other week. Your blankets got washed once a year. But now it's like, "Well, I gave you washing machine.” I mean, no, it's terrible, it drives you. Doesn't it? I'm telling you, it drives you crazy. None of these things are friends, but that's not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to do...
NG: Now I'm gonna do a whole thing on it, 'cause it really I know the vacuum cleaner is a positive enemy, because strangers will come in your house and, "Girl, ain't you got no vacuum?"
NG: No. You're expected to do everything. These things didn't exist. People would have been happy. You think Little House on the Prairie had to be bothered with that? They were glad she had a floor.
NG: I had a request from the Los Angeles Times speaking of LA, to do a poem for Mother's Day, a couple of years ago. And they called me like in August or so, and so it was really good because I had until May to work on the poem. And I don't basically believe in writer's block. If you would ask me, I'm sitting there and you say, "Well, Miss Giovanni or Nikki, whatever you call me, how do you handle writer's block?" I would automatically say, I don't believe in it. I think people can't write, because they don't have anything to say and there's nothing wrong with that. People always think you should have something to say all the time. Research will obviate writer's block, it's just so basic.
NG: But I'm sitting there. Trying to write a poem on Mother's Day, and it hits me, I'm having a writer's block. It was like a wall was out there, it's like total. And it really bothered me, because it's one of the things I thought, "Okay, I can write a Mother's Day poem, that's not hard." I do think that our vision of ourselves has a lot to do with things. And just to kinda share a vulnerability, if not total craziness, the one thing that I hope nobody ever gets to say about me is I'm tacky. I'm not, I said that to my son. No, of all the things, you don't mind being a lot of things, you just don't wanna be tacky. And most Mother's Day poems are truly tacky, embarrassingly so. You get that, "Here is for the many days you get... "
NG: I say, "Oh, God. I can't do something like that. How would I explain that? It's so tacky." And being a '60s person you always had those poems, someone used to a long time, "Oh, mother dear you mean so much to me." And I, "Oh." And so, I know that I was just blocking it, because I couldn't do a tacky poem. I was having a real problem. And the room in which I write has no... I lived in my mom's home at that point. My dad was sick, that's a long story. But the room in which I write only has one window, and it doesn't have a phone, doesn't have a clock, and it's really nice. And so I was sitting over there, and I was hassling myself.
NG: You know how you finally... Those of you who write or do anything, you know how you're hassling yourself. And I thought, "I can't do it. That's it, I've failed." And I went to bed, and I'm a midnight smoker, which I know you're not supposed to do, but you know how you light a cigarette in the middle of the night in bed, and it dawned on me, "Dummy, you are a mother. You have a mother. You have a grandmother." And there was a quarrel in the family. I think I remember my great grandmother, she died when I was three. My mother says I cannot possibly remember, I only remember the stories. I say I do but nonetheless, I have an image. And so, the first thing is like, "Okay, what's important to you about your mother?" Now my mom is like 4'11", weighs about 90 pounds. That's true, she's teeny tiny, and her hands are always cold.
NG: So no matter what's going on, it's dead of summer as hot as anything, you go and you scrape your knee, your mother will put her hands on you, and her hands are cold, and it's wonderful. And I've always thought, "No matter what's wrong with me, if I can get to my mother, and she can touch me, I'll be alright." So it was hands. I thought about my grandmother's hands. My grandmother is a bigger woman than my mother. My mother actually takes after her father's side of the family. My grandmother is a bigger woman, and my grandmother was born like 1890. So she grew up cooking what we would now call from scratch. She had yeast and she would make her bread, 'cause my grandfather thought it was positively uncivilized to sit down to a meal that didn't have hot bread.
NG: And so, she always had this wonderful smell of yeast where she would be doing some kind of yeast bread or something. And of course, she washed herself. She herself washed. And so she would use what some of you may remember, it's called Tag Soap, it's a brown soap. And that's what they used to wash with on a washing board. And so, I've always said anybody that could put together the smell of yeast and Tag Soap would have an odour that the world would want, 'cause it's the most comforting thing to me. Now I don't have good hands. I'm always doing something with them, I have calluses as I look right now, they look a bit on the dry side, and I had just torn a fingernail, so I cut them all down. My sister of course has great hands. I'm a baby sister, and I don't know if any of you have baby sisters, but baby sisters always get told what to do. And if you have a big sister who has great hands with great fingernails and always looks wonderful, then you can see the kind of trouble I'm in, because there's always something wrong as I look down at them right now. There's always something wrong with my hands. My sister of course thinks that I should feed my cuticles, and she's always sending me things to feed them with.
NG: And she does. And I'm dutiful. I try to be dutiful. So Gary... Her name is Gary... Gary will call me even now, "How are your cuticles, are you feeding us?" "You know it's really funny you called. I was just sitting here just now feeding them, they're doing great."
NG: 'Cause what you gonna tell your older sister, you do what you're told to do. But I realized it was hands. It was hands that made all the difference at least to me and to the women that mean something to me, it's been hands. And so I started thinking about hands and as most of you know who write poetry, the first thing you do when you finally realize you have a subject is you go look it up. Now of course this is a couple of years old, and we are thank God in the process of changing our views. I do believe in evolution. I don't have that problem. We had an idiot from the radical right on TV today saying things like, "They trying to teach my kid evolution." I hope so and I hope that he evolves. I don't have any problem. I do.
NG: I believe in it. But when you start to read the old anthropology books, you still recognize that we are considered that human beings stand upright, because human male wanted to hold a weapon. That's illogical. Human beings, as we stand here in 1994, have not anticipated if we could ever learn as a species to anticipate, we would at least move to peace on earth. We do not anticipate, we respond. I'm just talking about human beings, it's not personal, it is our species, we respond out of necessity. Logic tells you the only person who needed to stand up in fact is human female, because she's having human infant. And if you get into co-evolution which I'm into, I don't have any problem with that at all, 'cause it's so logic, you only do one thing in one place anyway. If you looked at woman in the cave and woman on the savanna, you realize she's got the same problem. Woman on the cave is sitting there trying to figure out, "How do you feed this thing." If you don't have hands, what do you do, like mother what, cat, you stretch out and the baby slithers up, grabs the tit and eats. I don't think so. I mean the caves are cold, and you can... No they are, no matter what the Flintstones tell you. They're cold and they're damp.
NG: No, it's all totally illogical. And then one can see the conversation cave to cave, "Hey, Bertha, how you feeding yours, girl?" And you can see what's gonna happen because obviously this is uncomfortable. So human female in the cave is gonna have to think of, "I gotta find another way to handle this. This is not working." Plus it makes her vulnerable, and you know that vulnerable human beings get eaten, so that's a whole another discussion. But if we look at... Well, that's true. If we look at woman on the savanna, we know, and I'm sure she also recognized that the giraffe is only vulnerable once a day to the lion when it goes to eat, otherwise lions as you know don't bother giraffes and that's because it has to spread out.
NG: So if we look at human female on the savanna, she's in tall grass trying to figure out a way to feed human infant, it's not gonna work. Human female is gonna say, "Bye Cracky, I gotta find a way to hold this thing up where I can watch out." And she's gonna do what anything else would do. Ultimately she's gonna realize, "If the kid is eating here, I have to find a way to hold it there," and she's gonna make use of her arms. Now luckily for all of us, I think, as she's holding human infant in her arms, she is also noticing that the little digits move around and around and around. She noticed something that every woman in this room knows, when she patted it together, she got a better performance out of human male.
NG: She noticed that. But we all know that. For those of you who have husbands, lovers, boyfriends, brothers, he gets up in the morning and makes toast. If you don't go, "Honey, you make the best toast on Earth."
NG: Now you know that's true. He will never fix toast again.
NG: So, we know the cave woman that's noticing, "Johnny got a rabbit, Johnny got a rabbit."
NG: You know that he's coming home on all fours, a little rabbit in his mouth, and he's strutting.
NG: You know that.
NG: It's the nature.
NG: You know that in the evening, after she has cooked the rabbit, because she's not gotten to cooking, you see what I'm saying? They're sitting down by... This is gonna be her evolution 'cause it's right. She's sitting by the fire. He is, of course, still stressed out, he hasn't learned to sit yet. But she is...
NG: We'll teach you. She's using her hand, and she's stroking him, "John, the children and I are so lucky to have you." And you know that every day he goes out and hunts he's gonna make sure that these people, 'cause he likes it. You can see, and I think it's probably fair to say the human male and human female are competitive. It's the nature of the thing. I don't think anybody objects to the competition, it's just, we wanna keep it fair. But you can see that one day they went out and they were supposed to be hunting in their caucus. And, "Hey, man, you gonna stand?" He says, "I ain't gonna stand. I'm quick like I am, I'm not gonna give it up." And you can see one of them, probably what we call a little nerd, says, "Well, I think the girls have a point. I'm gonna stand now, and I'm going on back." And we're glad, because when he came back, he made a giant step for mankind, of course, the rest of them were bred out. And all we're saying is that...
NG: Well, of course. All we're hoping is that in the next couple of years, human male will continue to follow the evolutionary progress of human female as we continue to evolve as a decent species. I wrote a poem... [chuckle]
NG: It's only fair. I wrote a poem called "Hands". "I think hands must be very important. Hands plaid hair, knead bread, spank bottoms, wring in anguish, shake the air in exasperation, wipe tears, sweat and pain from faces, are at the end of arms which hold. Yes, hands, let's start with the hands. My grandmother washed on Mondays every Monday. If you were a visiting grandchild or a resident daughter, every Monday morning at 6:00 AM, mostly in the dark, frequently in the cold, certainly alone, you heard her on the back porch, starting to hum as Black, Christian ladies are prone to do at threshold. Some plea to higher beings for forgiveness and the power to forgive. I saw a photograph once of the mother of Emmett Till, a slight brown woman with pillbox hat, white gloves, eyes dark beyond pain, incomprehensibly looking at a world that never intended to see her son be a man. That same look is created each year, without the hat and gloves, for mother seals are not chic, at the Arctic Circle. That same look is in vogue in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Buffalo, for much of the same reason. During one brief moment, for one passing wrinkle in time, Nancy Reagan wore that look, sharing a bond as yet un-consummated with Betty Shabazz, Jacqueline Kennedy, Coretta King, Ethel Kennedy. The wives and mothers are not so radically different.
36:55 NG: It is the hands of women which massage the balm, the ointments, the lotions, into the bodies for burial. It is our hands which cover the eyes of small children, soothe the longings of the brothers, make the beds, set the tables, wipe away our own grief to give comfort to those beyond comfort. I yield from women whose hands are Black and rough. The women who produced me are in defiance of Porcelana and Jergens lotion, are ignorant of Madge's need to soak their fingernails in Palmolive dish washing liquid. My women look at cracked, jagged fingernails that will never be adequately disguised by Revlon's new spring reds. We, of the unacceptably strong, take pride in the strength of our hands. Some people think a quilt is a blanket stretched across the Lincoln bed or from frames on a wall, a quaint museum piece to be purchased on Bloomingdale's, 30-day, same as cash plan. Quilts are our mosaics, Michelle Angelo's contribution to beauty. We weave a quilt with dry, rough hands. Quilts are the way our lives are lived. We survive on the patches, scraps, the leftovers from a materially richer culture, the throwaway from those with emotional options.
NG: We do the far more difficult job of taking that which nobody wants, and not only loving it, not only seeing its worth, but making it lovable and intrinsically worthwhile. Though trite, it's nonetheless true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, perhaps pitiful would be more accurate, though that too is not profound. The more we experience the human drama, the more we are to understand that whatever is not quite well about us, will also not quite go away. Sometimes, when it's something like Mother's Day, you really do wish you were smart enough to make the pain stop, to make the little hurts quit throbbing, to share with Star Trek's Spock the ability to touch your fingertips to the temples and make all the dumb, ugly, sad things of this world ease from memory. It's not at all that we've failed to forgive others for the hurts we have received; we cannot forgive ourselves for the hurts that we admitted. So, of course, we use our hands to push away, rather than pull closer. We look in vain for an image of mothers, for an analogy for families, for a reason to continue. We live, mostly because we don't know any better, as best we can.
NG: Some of us are lucky; we learn to like ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to care about others. Some of us, on special occasions, watch the ladies in the purple velvet house slippers, with the long, black dresses coming from Sunday worship, and we realize man never stood up to catch and kill prey. Man never reared up on his hind legs to free his front parts to hold weapons. Woman stood to free her hands, to hold her young, to embrace her sons and lovers. Woman stood to applaud and cheer a delicate mate who needs her approval. Woman stood to wipe the tears and sweat, to touch the eyes and lips. That woman stood to free the arms which hold the hands which hold."
NG: I was born in the Congo. I walked to the fertile crescent and built the Sphinx. I designed a pyramid so tough that a star that only glows every 100 years falls into the centre, giving divine, perfect light. I am bad. I sat on the throne, drinking nectar with Allah. I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe to cool my thirst. My oldest daughter is Nefertiti. The tears from my birth veins created the Nile. I am a beautiful woman. I gazed on the forest and burned out Sahara Desert. With a packet of goat's meat and a change of clothes, I crossed it in two hours. I'm a gazelle, so swift, so swift, you can't catch me. For a birthday present, when he was three, I gave my son Hannibal, an elephant. He gave me Rome for Mother's Day. My strength flows ever on. My son Noah built New Ark, and I stood proudly at the helm as we sailed on a soft summer day. I turned myself into myself and was Jesus. Men intone my loving name. All praises, all praises. I am the one who would save. I sold diamonds in my back yard. My bowels deliver uranium. The filings from my fingernails are semi-precious jewels.
NG: On a trip north, I caught a cold and blew my nose, giving oil to the Arab world. I am so hip even my errors are correct. I sailed west to reach east and had to round off the Earth as I went. The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid across three continents. I am so perfect, so divine, so ethereal, so surreal, I cannot be comprehended, except by my permission. I mean, I can fly like a bird in the sky.
Randy Boyagoda: Yolande Cornelia Giovanni was born in 1943, in Knoxville Tennessee, to parents who were both teachers. Her sister started calling her Nikki, at a young age, and the name stuck as her family moved around America. She graduated in 1967 from Fisk University and moved to New York a year later, and began publishing poetry that established her as a major voice in the Black Arts movement. For decades, while teaching at universities including Rutgers and Virginia Tech, her work has enjoyed popular success, critical acclaim, academic attention, and literary-cultural accolades, including nominations for the National Book Award, an Emmy Award, and a Grammy Award. She has also been honoured by the NAACP seven times and received the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award and the Langston Hughes Award for Outstanding Poetry.
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick. This episode was produced by Gregory McCormick and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou and Michelle De Marco, and marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.
For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit writersoffthepage.ca where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in the TPL’s collections. For all of Toronto Public Library’s podcast series, check out tpl.ca/podcasts.
Music is by YUKA.
I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode of Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.