MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy New Year to you. Welcome to 2014. With the new year, we often find it helpful to reflect on the past to help us think about the future. Today, we decided to hear, again, from three remarkable and inspiring women. Later in the program, we'll hear from Elizabeth Smart, the young woman from Utah who was kidnapped from her own home as a teenager and held captive for nine months until she was rescued. And we'll hear again from Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived an attempt on her life by the Taliban. But we start today with the award-winning writer Nikki Giovanni. She's one of the best-known and most celebrated poets of our time. She's known for her accessible and beautiful writing about home, family, friends and even food. Nikki Giovanni is the university distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech. She's also the author of 28 books. Her latest "Chasing Utopia" is a combination of essays and poetry. I spoke with her when the book was first published last year, and she began by telling me how she chose the title "Chasing Utopia."
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, it really is that my mom died now in 2005. And so it's been a while, but, you know, losing your mother, even though it's the right order of things, is sad. I was a mother's child. And I stayed very, very sad. And I finally said, you know, Nikki, you have to get out of this. And mommy, every day - we knew that mommy was dying when she said no she didn't want a beer because every day of her life, she drank a beer. And so I said to myself, well, I'm missing mommy, why don't I have a beer? But I really - I hate to say it, Michel, I just don't like beer. And so it was like, OK, if you're going to drink a beer, then you ought to drink the number one beer in the world. So I went and looked it up. Well, it turns out it's Utopias, which is actually a beer by Sam Adams. So I called a man at my local store, Keith (ph), and he said, Nikki, we never get Utopias. You know, we're a small market, they never sell us any Utopias. Well, I started to do what I do when things don't go well. I just started to complain. You know, everybody starts going - why can't I find a Utopias? And I happened to be on NPR actually, and the guy who makes Utopias heard it. And he actually sent it to me. But in the meantime, I had been to a government agency. I've been every place, you know, and everybody was like, oh, you'll find utopia. And I was like, no, it's a beer for Christ's sake. So it's been really fun learning about beers, and it makes me smile because I think of my mother. And I know that she's sitting in heaven, you know, kicking back. She's a Bud Light person.
MARTIN: She's a Bud Light - not even a Utopias? What?
GIOVANNI: No. She couldn't afford Utopias.
MARTIN: Maybe her tastes will change in heaven. Would your mom have enjoyed Utopia, or would that be too rich for her blood?
GIOVANNI: Oh, no. Mommy would've enjoyed it. Mommy enjoyed anything. But, you know, I could take my mother a glass of water and she would - and that's what I loved about her. She would like, oh, I've never had water this good. What did you do to the water? You know, my mother always made me feel incredibly competent. And I don't think anybody else has taken that place in my life actually.
MARTIN: So is that what got you started? Or is it only after you started writing it that you realized that is what it was about is kind of your sadness about losing your mom and working your way through it?
GIOVANNI: Well, I mourned my mother in a book called "Acolytes" because mommy died in June, my sister Gary Ann died in August and my Aunt Ann died in October and my good friend Rosa Parks died and - I didn't know her that well but - Mrs. King died. So I lost a lot of support all at once. I realized I had written the book and I sent it to my editor Don Davis, and the note was, either take it or not. I don't want to discuss it. And I didn't. And we did "Acolytes." So "Acolytes" helped me get through a really bad period. But mommy was a storyteller, and so, yeah, mommy would've enjoyed this book. And one of the things about this book - and I realized I'm also working toward some of the darker side of my growing up because when mommy was here, there were things that I didn't think I had any right to talk about because they were her story not mine. But now that she is not here, I think that some of my story can come out in a different way.
MARTIN: You have an interesting thing about that whole question of telling people stories. Right at the beginning, where you talk about the whole question of asking people personal questions.
MARTIN: Can I ask you about that? Because you're known as a truth teller. I mean, you're known as a person who will say, you know, whatever if you feel it needs to be said. So talk to me about that kind of reticence around telling stories.
GIOVANNI: Well, with friends mostly, I think that if they want me to know something, they'll tell me. And so I'm not the friend that will ask, and I'm still not. And if I want you to know something, I tell it. I think I am a truth teller. But then the truth is - it's out there in another kind of way. If I knew that you picked your nose, I wouldn't say, you know, I know you pick your nose, Michel, you know, because that's really none of my business. You see what I'm saying? But my father had a bad habit of - well, he was an alcoholic. And so that meant that there would be times that he would actually hit my mother. And that was just something that I wouldn't have said while mommy was alive because that's not my story, that's mommy's story. But I watched it. And having watched it, it now has become something that I can deal with 'cause I know I'm not the only little girl in the world that ever saw her father hit her mother. And so I'm beginning to go into a part of I guess my life, Michel, that I can share with other people because it's not my shame.
MARTIN: Can you pick a poem to read that speaks to some of what we're talking about here?
GIOVANNI: Well, one of the poems that somebody mentioned ' cause - and I'm going to read it right now, if you don't mind - it's called "Werewolf Avoidance"...
GIOVANNI: ...Which is sort of different. But I love that poem.
MARTIN: OK. Yeah. Let's do it.
GIOVANNI: I've never blogged before, so this is new territory for me. I do poet, though, and that is always somewhere in the netherland I think. Poetry is employed by truth. I think our job is to tell the truth as we see it. Don't you just hate a namby-pamby poem that goes all over the place saying nothing? Poets should be strong in our emotions and our words, that might make us difficult to live with, but I do believe easier to love. Poet is garlic. Not for everyone, but those who take it never get caught by werewolves.
MARTIN: That is great. Thank you. Thank you for that.
GIOVANNI: Yeah, we're all - the whole family is foodies, by the way.
MARTIN: Oh, I know. I love the one about biscuits dropped or baked.
GIOVANNI: Oh, my. Yes.
MARTIN: Do you like that one?
GIOVANNI: : I do. And again, my grandmother and my mother, we all had sort of specialties. And one of the things that I've learned to dislike - not seriously, but just kind of dislike - is holidays because now there's nobody but me, and it's just no fun. You know, you don't want to make a turkey by yourself. You know what I'm saying? And so I've just gotten in the habit of going someplace, you know, where somebody else will do it, and I'll eat crab or, you know. And what I need is more friends. I think poets spend too much time alone. But then if we didn't do that, we wouldn't write. We'd end up laughing with our friends all the time.
MARTIN: Well, about that, there was another poem that I wondered about - "Poets." It's a little - not sad, but it's a little intense. I don't know how you feel about that.
GIOVANNI: Oh, sure. Poets shouldn't commit suicide. That would leave the world to those without imaginations or hearts. That would bequeath to the world a mangled syntax and no love of champagne. Poets must live in misery and ecstasy, to sing a song with the katydids. Poets should be ashamed to die before they kiss the sun.
MARTIN: You know, and I love it ‘cause it's hopeful. It's turned toward the sun, but it does make you sad because it does make you wonder whether, you know, you've entered a phase of life. There have been so many losses and sadnesses, are you starting to feel like the world has gotten smaller?
GIOVANNI: Well, the world gets smaller, but, you know, one of the advantages of people my age - I really love my age. I so recommend old age. It's such a wonderful thing. And I grew up in the Baptist church, and so you didn't ask the Lord to solve a problem. You asked the Lord to give you the strength to handle it, to find some comfort in it. You never said, you know, Lord, pay my rent or give me my car payment or something. You said, Lord, let me understand walking is good. And so when you deal with the old people - you know, if you deal with people my age and people my grandparents' age, all we ask for was the grace to come through it. And I think that I'm just really lucky to be a part of that generation and to have come through the generation that says we can handle it. It is well with my soul. No matter what else it is, it is well with my soul. And that's what that's about. Life is good. You find a way.
MARTIN: Is life good? I know you've also been through some - not so much a personal trauma - but your university has been through a trauma. It's been how many years now since that terrible shooting? And I know that you love Virginia Tech.
GIOVANNI: I do.
MARTIN: And I know that you cared very deeply about how much people were hurting and wanted to help them heal. Do you feel that you're healing? And do you feel that the community is healing from this?
GIOVANNI: I think Tech is because, you know, we are a university, so we turn over and turn over and turn over. I think that we'll always remember this. But, you know - I hate to say it - but you pick up the paper every day and there's some level of tragedy of gun violence. I don't know what it takes to make people understand guns are not a good idea. This is not the frontier anymore. We're not, you know, riding on our ponies across the Wild West, you know, shooting coyotes or something crazy. This is a modern world, and we have to get along with each other. We have to stop this killing. It's just not a good idea. Killing isn't a creation. Killing is a lack of creation. It's a lack of imagination. It's a lack of understanding who you are and your place in the world. Life is an interesting and a good idea. Making love is a good idea. Good food is a good idea. Good wine is a good idea. And so these are the things we participate in. And these are the things that we create. But, you know, your regular killing and stuff, that's ridiculous.
MARTIN: What is keeping you productive and motivated at this stage of your career?
GIOVANNI: First of all, you know, life is such a good idea. I don't - I really just don't understand why people don't enjoy it. And then at my age, everybody is married, so I can fall in love with anybody I want to because who's single? Nobody. So you fall in love with a lovely married man - if it's good enough for "Scandal," it's good enough for me. I love it. And, you know, then you get to write these love poems, and that's a lot of fun. And of course, you don't have any idea of what you actually look like, so you really think you look like you're about 30. And, you know, you go and get your wardrobe together and life is just fun. What is the downside of 70? I'm not seeing it.
MARTIN: Nikki Giovanni is an award-winning poet, professor and author. Her latest collection "Chasing Utopia" is out now. And she joined us from Roanoke, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.