Nikki Giovanni still paying attention at 78

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Renowned poet  to be featured  at Leimert Park  Village Book Fair

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Nikki Giovanni has been an unapologetically outspoken Black activist who refuses to hold her tongue when it comes to advocating for Black people since 1968, when she published her first book of poetry.

For decades she has talked the talk and walked the walk, and today at 78, the New York Times best-selling author and beloved poet, is still feisty with a lot to say and a thousand ways to say it.

Giovanni will participate in a virtual conversation with USC Annenberg Associate Professor Miki Turner as part of the 14th annual Leimert Park Village Book Fair’s National Book Month celebration. The conversation takes place at 11 a.m. and requires registration.

Cynthia Exum, founder and executive producer of the book fair, called Giovanni one of America’s foremost poets and writers whose body of exemplary literary work “has inspired us all.”

“We are honored, very honored to present this intimate virtual talk with a living legend,” Exum said.

The Leimert Park Village Book Fair, the largest African-American book fair on the West Coast, is a family-oriented event. It is set to run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and also requires online registration.

This year’s event boasts more than 100 festival participants including authors, exhibitors and special guests.

During a phone call from her home in Virginia, Giovanni said she was delighted to take part in this year’s festival.

“These days, I say yes to everything I can,” Giovanni said. “Los Angeles has been a good community for me. I have a relationship with the West Coast. 

“I’m pleased to be remembered. I’m glad people remember me.”

Who could forget Giovanni, whose writing career includes eight nonfiction books, 10 spoken word albums, and 12 children’s books? 

She has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, essays and edited anthologies. Her autobiography, “Gemini,” was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award.

Her list of achievements is impressive. Giovanni, who received her bachelor’s degree in history from Fisk University, is a distinguished professor in the department of English at Virginia Tech. She was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has used her work to raise awareness of social issues, particularly those of gender and race.

In 2004, her album, “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection,” was a Grammy finalist for the Best-Spoken Word Album.

Her latest book is “Make Me Rain: Poems and Prose,” a deeply personal tome that speaks to the injustices of society.

“I love my recent book,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten to the point and age when you think about things you never thought about before. You don’t say something you don’t believe. I have begun to understand things I didn’t understand before.”

In the book, Giovanni writes about her relationship with water.

“The book has a lot to do with water,” she said. “The last two books I’ve written have dealt with water. You can live a long time without food but only a couple of days without water. 

“Rain is water. It changes all the time — into ice, snow, and even turns the wind. I would love to be water. Then I would always be useful and someone would always love me.”

A devoted teacher, Giovanni tells her students if they are really interested in writing, “to start listening to jazz, which was built on gospel and spirituals.”

“Listen to Thelonious [Monk] and you can write in a different way,” she said. “My advice is make sure you’re listening to jazz from people like McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, [John] Coltrane, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. It will change the way you approach your writing.”

While she encourages students of all ages to express themselves creatively through writing, surprisingly she said she doesn’t write for her readers. She writes for herself because she wants to know “what’s the next step.”

A prolific writer who believes book fairs will always be around, and that hard copy books “might be in trouble because of Kindle,” Giovanni describes herself as “the world’s laziest writer.”

“I do a lot of thinking,” she said. “I really don’t have a process. I do a lot of reading. As things come to me, I write.”

For most of her life, Giovanni has worn many hats, but her most important role to date is “words.”

“Words are your weapon,” she said. “Anything else I do has to be spun around those words. Be careful how you use them. Know what they mean. Don’t let people use words against you. It doesn’t matter.”

While she spends most of her time writing, Giovanni is also an avid reader. One of her favorite authors is her friend, the late novelist Toni Morrison.

“Everybody who has sense reads Toni Morrison,” said Giovanni who last August was named the 2021-22 writer-in-residence in the Toni Morrison Writing Program at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. “When I was asked, I wanted to put it together the way she would have liked it. Tell the truth as you see it and don’t be afraid.”

She hopes the program is beneficial to young writers.

“I am an old woman,” Giovanni said. “I’m in favor of old age. My hope is that the program encourages young writers. 

“I don’t want them to worry about winning Pulitzer Prizes, just write your book. You don’t have to be great. Just be the best you can be.”

Giovanni also likes to read the works of young adult writers like Renée Watson and Kwame Alexander, and has recently started reading about physics because “There is a theory that the universe started with sound.”

A rebel who insists she came by her activism honestly, Giovanni has always been a nonconformist.

“I lived with my grandparents who were very political,” she said. “Especially my grandmother. She’d be out there cursing people out. She worked with the Quakers. 

“My grandfather was more smooth. If you knew my grandmother, you’d know I didn’t decide to be aware, she decided.”

Giovanni, who went to Fisk with activist Diane Nash and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, appreciates her upbringing and the self-assurance her grandparents instilled in her. She has no time for regrets, and to this day is “not going to have people tell me what I can do.”

You name it, Giovanni has an opinion about it.

She’s not a fan of former President Donald Trump and has some choice words unsuitable for print in describing him.

When it comes to what’s happening in Texas surrounding abortion rights, Giovanni said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right.”

“Women should own their own bodies,” she said. “You care about the unborn, but not the born. You don’t mind shooting a man coming out of his garage, or a woman sleeping in her bed, or a 14-year- old boy. “What I do with my body is my business. Until men can get pregnant, they need to stay out of it.”

She waves off the notion of declining literacy rates in the U.S. across the board.

“I disagree that literacy rates are on the decline,” she said. “One of the things that has been really helpful is music and rapping. Literacy is not always reading a book. If you look at young adult writers, we see people like Jacqueline Woodson. There are many young Black writers out there.”

When it comes to the current climate in the country compared to the tumultuous 1960s, Giovanni said, “Everybody keeps wanting America to be happy and safe.”

“I don’t think either one is possible,” she said. “The nature of people is not safe. Since 1812, we’ve had regular wars. We have to find a way to give the people coming home from war a place to live. 

“Everybody has been singing and dancing. It never has been and never will be happy and safe. Somebody needs to call a fool a fool.”

Giovanni believes the most pressing and important political issue in America right now is “accepting and embracing immigrants.”

“I’m disappointed that Biden sent the Haitians back to Haiti,” Giovanni said. “That island is in trouble. People are standing on our shores and there are people on horses with whips treating them like animals. America is a quilt made up of different people. Somebody needs to tell the scared white people to get over it. 

“People call white people privileged. There is nothing privileged about being white. There is no privilege in hatred.”

Giovanni has learned a lot in her eight decades on earth. She said the “most important” thing is to “pay attention.”

“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Giovanni said. “We are being overwhelmed with false information. So much is coming at you. I tell my students to pay attention. It’s important for their writing. 

“Writing is what’s important to me. What am I saying and what kind of sense does it make?”

For decades, Giovanni, who is currently working on a new tome called, “The New Book,” has been revered as a powerful poet and activist. She doesn’t buy into the “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” scenario or the love, adoration and respect she’s received over the years.

“People are just nice,” she said. “I enjoy talking to people. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy life. It’s a good idea. I recommend it.”

For more information about the 14th annual Leimert Park Village Book Fair, visit www.leimertparkbookfair.com.  

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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