Nikki Giovanni Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
The author Nikki Giovanni was interviewed by Scholastic students in 2002.
How long have you been writing?
Since college, a long time, 30 years.
What inspired you to become a writer? How do you teach children that poetry does not have to rhyme?
I'm fascinated by people, by human beings, and that's what got me interested in writing. I think students already know that poems don't have to rhyme. You just have to remind them that poems are about beauty and emotion; in other words poems are about feelings.
Where do you get the inspiration to begin writing your poems? Once you begin writing do you find it easy to finish a poem?
Yes, I do. Like most writers it's more difficult to begin a poem than to end one. But I have to have the information; it's information that begins a poem.
Where did you grow up in Ohio?
What was your childhood like - did you enjoy reading and writing poetry as a kid?
At what age did you write in hopes of being published? I had a really nice childhood; I had great parents. I earned my allowance by washing dishes, and in the summer I earned my allowance by working in daddy's garden. I'm not good in the garden; I once pulled up all the peppers - I thought they were weeds. I definitely enjoyed reading, I didn't write much poetry when I was a little girl, but I've always been a big reader. I did not think about publication until after college.
The information you use to write poems, is it based on personal experience or other things such as facts?
I hope it's based on facts, but I've personally experienced it to some degree. I think it's important to do research, and research mostly is going to come from books, so all of your reading is potentially helpful to your poetry.
Why do you mix poetry with music?
Poetry and music are very good friends. Like mommies and daddies and strawberries and cream - they go together.
Did you dedicate a poem to Tupac Shakur? What was the name of it? Why?
Yes, the name is "All Eyes on You." I thought it was such a loss to the art community, the black community, and the American community. I wanted to grieve.
You said you wanted to grieve for Tupac. Did your poem entitled "The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr." come from the same place of wanting to grieve or was it more of a statement about how so often African-American leaders are more admired dead than alive?
Those poems come from two different places and the King poem is much more a political poem in my opinion, but I'm not a critic.
Who or what inspired you to write?
I'm just totally fascinated by people.
What is the most difficult poem you have written? Is it your favorite? Which poem has been your most popular?
My most popular poem is "Ego-Tripping." I've worked on all of them, and just hope they all turn out well.
What inspired you to write "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day?"
I think life is cotton candy on a rainy day. For those who grew up with cotton candy the old-fashioned way, it is very delicate. Pre-made cotton candy that has preservatives is not nearly as good or true. True cotton candy is sugar, color, and air and it melts very quickly. That was the metaphor - it can't be preserved, it can't be put aside, it can't be banked. It has to be experienced, like life.
Do you sit down and think about writing, or do you just get sudden inspirations?
I sit down and think about writing specific poems at specific times.
Which of your books is your personal favorite?
I like them all.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I play a little tennis; I like to cook; I like to read, and I love listening to music. I'm also a bird watcher. I spend a lot of time learning about bird watching.
What books did you read growing up?
I read from my mother's library mostly. So I read a lot of romantic novels, but I've also always been a lover of science fiction and those are two main areas, science fiction and Victorian novels.
Can you give us some suggestions to increase students' interest in reading and writing?
My main suggestion, and don't laugh, we should read to the students. My students and I in my Introduction to Creative Writing Class (college level) read Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. I had thought they wouldn't want to hear a story being read, I really did. It turned out to be one of our really wonderful experiences. If you want students to read - read to them.
Do any of the artists you listen to inspire your poems?
Yes, but looking at my earlier work you will see the Gospel influence; I grew up in the Baptist church. And moving into My House poems you'd see the jazz influence.
Have you worked with any other choirs after the one with James Cleveland?
I worked with the New York Community Choir under the direction of Bennie Diggs. I had the pleasure of knowing Reverend Cleveland, and he used to say I stole his song (laughing). James is a great man.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
Sixteen? Seventeen? A teenager.
Why did you write "Ego-Tripping?"
Because I wanted to give something to girls. Boys have everything to support their independence and area of wonderfulness; they have baseball players and astronauts. I wanted the young women to know that we too are wonderful, everything that happened we did it. I love that poem. I must add if I may, the joy has been that the boys have liked it also. Hearing boys recite it has been wonderful to me, which means that things that are born of love - bring love. That poem came from a lot of love.
What do you like about poetry?
I like being able to express my thoughts. That's what I like most about it.
On the average, how long does it take you to write a poem?
I'm a professional writer so I don't want to approach a young writer on that level; it gives them a false sense of possibilities.
What part of poem writing do you like the most?
What was your first published poem?
I don't remember the first poem, but the first book was Black Feeling, Black Talk.
How did you go about getting your first poem published?
I think I just submitted it to the magazine or newspaper. I formed a publishing company to publish the first book; it's a business situation. That's how we did it, and sold the books. You have to separate business and art. I didn't want to go to a publisher because I didn't want to be rejected. I still don't have an agent. I'm a poet - poets don't need agents.
Do you write a "rough draft" or do you submit your poetry as it first comes to you?
Probably right now, neither, I work on the computer so I make the edits right there. I'm not in school, which makes a difference. I don't write drafts; I write on the computer.
As an African-American poet, did you face any problems with getting your work published?
As an African-American poet I avoided the problem by creating my own company, so if there was a problem, I didn't know about it.
Who inspired you to start writing?
I don't believe in role models and inspiration, I just don't believe in it. I never did, but I had a terrific grandmother who was always very interested in what I was doing. I know my grandmother was a great influence and inspiration in that degree, but I reject that notion that someone winds you up and starts you on your way.
Why do you write poems for young people?
Because I was once young (laughing). I have a great respect for young people. And I wanted to share what I remembered that might be interesting or helpful.
Did you read the Harry Potter series? If so what do you think about them?
Every one of them twice. In Quilting: The Black Eyed Pea, there is a review of the Harry Potter movie. I'm a big Harry Potter fan; the books are great. I wanted the werewolf to come back. In the battle, we knew that Dumbledore was going to make peace with the giants in the struggle, but I want the werewolves too. I think the werewolves were on our side.
Why did you pick Ashley Bryan to illustrate "The Sun Is So Quiet?" Is he your favorite illustrator? How do you work together if he lives in Maine and you live in Virginia?
Ashley and I share a mutual friend; her name is Connie Harris and she was formerly the head of the Children's Library Section in Cincinnati. It's probably fair to say that Connie brought us together. And I do love his work. I've worked with a lot of people, but Ashley is one of my favorites. Distance doesn't matter. There is no distance - long distance - especially with the Internet.
How do your children influence your poetry?
I only have one child. His name is Thomas, and I think my relationship with Thomas encouraged me to look again at the needs or interests of children.
What are some of your goals for the future?
I hope to travel more. I enjoy traveling, that is a goal. I'm interested in retracing Darwin's steps - the naturalist, that's a goal. Everything else is a hope. I would hope to go to Mars, but it's not likely.
Do you prefer teaching poetry or writing it yourself?
That's like asking if I prefer cooking or eating, they are part of the same process.
Do you sometimes get frustrated when you are writing?
Yes. I think everybody does, it's not something to be unhappy with yourself about either.
Was there anything else you wanted to be besides a poet?
Not actually, maybe if I'd been a little better I could have been a professional tennis player, like Venus Williams. That would've been a dream. I also liked to paint, but I had to recognize that I would never be a professional painter. You have to recognize these things and move on. But if I were 12 years old today, I'd want to be an astronaut.
What are your favorite movies, poems, and books?
My favorite movie is one that your parents probably won't let you see - The Godfather; it's a terrific film. One of my favorite books is The Lies of the Cell by Louis Thomas. But I also like Sula, by Tony Morrison, a lot.
Do you get nervous when your poems are about to go out to the public?
No (laughing). By the time they are about to go out, I know they are ready.
About how much time a day do you spend writing your poems?
Quite a bit lately because I'm working on a book, but once the book is finished less because I'll be working on my research. I don't write every day.
Did you go to college for this? Or did you plan on doing something else?
I went to college as a history major, liberal arts. I made preparations, not plans. I still think that's important.
Do you think you will continue writing throughout the years?
I hope so.
Who is one of your favorite poets?
I like a lot of poets. I loved the work of Robert Louis Stevenson when I was growing up because I love children's literature, but now, I don't even know who I DON'T like. I read a lot and enjoy it.
What advice do you have for young people who want to be poets today?
The most important thing is to pay attention. The next would probably be to read; it's so important to pay attention. It keeps you from being bored, and I might add it keeps you from being boorish.
How would you encourage middle-school students to feel comfortable writing poetry as a form of creative expression?
I'd be sure to praise the creativity because even on the college level, which I teach, praise is going to get you better work. Its not that you don't want better skills, like spelling, but it can't be the divining decision. Try to look into what the children are sharing. Start every sentence with, "That's really good. Now tell me . . ." Kids are very nervous about being criticized, start them off from a very positive point. I'm pleased that you all asked questions today - that's not easy to do. I'm glad we had an opportunity to interact closer.
This article was updated in March 2008.