Poet Nikki Giovanni Out With 100 Best African American Poems

Renowned poet Nikki Giovanni is back with a latest anthology entitled “100 Best African American poems.” The book features a wide range of poets from Langston Hughes to Tupac. Host Michel Martin discusses the anthology with Giovanni and one of the younger poets featured in the collection, Kwame Alexander.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally today, we'd like to ask you to listen to a few lines from a new anthology of poetry.

Ms. NOVELLA NELSON (Actor): (Reading) Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature's law is wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems, but it's keeping its dreams. It's learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete, when no one else ever cared.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The voice belongs to actress Novella Nelson. The words belong to the late Tupac Shakur - that's right, Tupac Shakur. And they are just a few of the lines from the new collection, "The 100 Best African American Poems."

Who else but Nikki Giovanni - herself a multi-award-winning poet, writer and activist. Her new collection features poets across regions and, of course, generations. Nikki Giovanni is with us from the studios of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where she is a university distinguished professor.

Also with us is one of the poets featured in the book, Kwame Alexander. He's author of 16 books and producer of Capital BookFest, a literary festival held in three different cities: Washington, D.C., Charleston, South Carolina and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He's here with us in Studio 4B.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. KWAME ALEXANDER (Author; Founder, Capital BookFest): Thank you for having me.

Professor NIKKI GIOVANNI (Virginia Tech University; Poet, Writer): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Nikki Giovanni, Professor Giovanni, I think we all agree...

Prof. GIOVANNI: Nikki.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you. I think we'll all agree that you are not shy. But even you had to admit that this was a hard task. In fact, the title even has an asterisk, and it says in really small type: 100, but I cheated.

Prof. GIOVANNI: But I cheated. Yes. The 100 best, and there's a little red asterisk, but I cheated. I wanted to find a way to stuff poems in. And so what I did was, really, a spreadsheet, and just kind of said well, can I stick this in? Can I stick that? And, of course, nobody knows 100 poems, let alone the number of poems we would need to know. So I called on my former student, actually, Kwame Alexander, because I know that Kwame does know the young people.

I'm really good up to Tupac, but beyond that, I needed somebody who knew the young poets. And so we - I invited Kwame to be a part of the board, and I asked Mari Evans and my good and dear friend, Val Gray Ward, who was an actress and the voice of the Harlem Renaissance, and I asked them all to send me poems that they thought I should know. The first 50 were really easy, because we all had overlaps. And then we had to start to eliminate, which was really hard, because there's so much talent out there.

MARTIN: Oh.

Prof. GIOVANNI: But a fourth of the book is young people.

MARTIN: Just a little bit more on that before we bring Kwame Alexander into the conversation. I know many people will say Langston Hughes, check. Gwendolyn Brooks, check. But Tupac - I mean, talk to me about that.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Oh, well, first of all, Tupac is a great kid. And as you probably know, I have a Thug Life tattoo on my left arm, because I was totally distressed at the death of that young man and wanted to find a way to express it. Well, Tupac, as you know, had Thug Life on his abdomen, but nobody wants to look at a 67-year-old woman's abdomen. So I put it on my arms, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I'm sure I could find any number of people who would look at your abdomen. But I take your point.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Oh, that is so kind of you, and we'll talk when the show is over. Give me his name. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you were saying?

Prof. GIOVANNI: Tupac was important to me, and Tupac is important culturally to black America. He was a wonderful young man, and I did want to find some solidarity with his generation.

MARTIN: So Kwame, talk to me about this. First of all, I'd like to ask, I think there are - some people think of Tupac as a rapper, as opposed to as a poet. Or Kanye West, for example, many people think of him as a rapper, as a poet. For you, they're poets.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Right.

MARTIN: What do you think?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Nikki and I had this discussion before, and I think we may disagree a little on it. I do believe that rap and poetry are cousins. I had the opportunity to spend three days with Tupac Shakur in Charleston, South Carolina back in 1993, and he was - he actually embodied a poem. He was a walking poem. He was concise. He was rhythmic. He really became a rapper much later after having been a poet, after having written poetry. I wouldn't necessarily think that a lot of the rappers today began their careers as poets like Tupac did. But certainly, now, there are some rappers who are very poetic, whether you look at Common or Kanye or many of these rappers.

MARTIN: But what's the difference?

Prof. GIOVANNI: Mos Def.

MARTIN: Talk about the difference.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Definitely Mos Def. Oh, yeah.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Mos Def is good.

MARTIN: But - tell me what do you think is - I mean, Jill Scott, for example, who many people think was an R&B singer, started as a poet. But Kwame, I'm going to ask you to press you on this question: What is the difference? And then Professor Giovanni, Nikki, I will ask you the same question.

Mr. ALEXANDER: I'm going to, I guess, give you the difference that I think, but I don't think necessarily one is better than the other. I want to be clear on that. I think that if you look at a rap lyric and you put it down on the page, it may not resonate or connect much as it does on the stage. And I think that a poem, as Nikki would like to say, a poem that behaves I think is going to resonate and connect on the page and the stage.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. Okay. Professor Giovanni, teach us about...

Mr. ALEXANDER: We're having class here.

MARTIN: Yeah, we're having class. Yes. School us. What do you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GIOVANNI: No, no, no. I was going to say, I actually - I see that I've taught Kwame very well, and I totally agree with him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GIOVANNI: I think that he nailed that. You know, he is one of my first students. Like all lyricists, some lyricists are poets and some lyricists, you know, you have to have the song.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Right.

Prof. GIOVANNI: You can't just read it.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Right.

Prof. GIOVANNI: You know, and I think that that's actually the difference. You can read Cole Porter, for example. And you could read a lot of Stevie Wonder. You know, "All in Love is Fair," I mean, you know, you can read it. But then there are other people that you have to have the music, because it won't hold up.

Mr. ALEXANDER: And were not going to read Lil Wayne. I mean, we're just not going to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: I mean, we love, you know, his swagger and we love his voice, but we're not going to read it and get something from it that's going to move us.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Right. I agree.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's my feeling.

MARTIN: No comment.

If you're just joining us...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are speaking with Nikki Giovanni. She has edited a new collection of poetry called the "100 Best African American Poems," but she cheated a little bit. Also with us is one of the featured poets in the collection from the new generation, if we can call it that, Kwame Alexander.

Kwame, two of your poems are featured in the book, and one of them happens to be about Nikki Giovanni. Can you read that for us?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Sure. Nikki has done a great deal for my literary and writing career, as it were, and I was very thankful and grateful for what she's done. And so I sent her this poem in a hand-written note because, as you know, Nikki doesn't email. We write letters. So this is a piece that I wrote for her.

(Reading) Nikki, if you were a song, I'd call you jazz, clap for you, snap to you, sing with you, swing with you. I'd color you Ellington, elegant and essential in my life.

MARTIN: Well, that is very lovely.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Isn't that wonderful?

MARTIN: Yeah. That's very lovely.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Nikki Giovanni, how did that make you feel when you received that?

Prof. GIOVANNI: Oh, I was thrilled, and I said to myself: If I get an opportunity, I'm going to put it in something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GIOVANNI: And there are 221 poems in this book - 220 of them are within the body of the book itself. I only have one living aunt right now. My mom and my sister and my Aunt Ann all died within four months of each other. And so I went from being a baby in the family to being the elder. But my Aunt Agnes, who is 88, is still with me, and I dedicated this book to Aunt Agnes.

I've always loved this poem by Mari Evans, "The Aunt." And so I used that as my dedication. So that is the 221st poem in this book. I love this book so much because I called my sorority sister Ruby Dee, and my sorority sister Novella Nelson, with whom we opened the show. Actually, I called Ruby first, to be honest, and I said Ruby, what do I have to do to get you to come to Virginia Tech? And, you know, Ruby's got that voice - just ask me. And so we said, yeah, let me send for you. And then I called Novella. I said, Ruby's coming down. Why don't you come down?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, so that's how it worked.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Oh, yeah. Novella came and, of course, you know, Novella's incredible. There's a CD that goes with this. And it's so wonderful because Ruby Dee and I together were reading "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon." And it's just - it's so unique to have the two of us reading together. Of course, I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to read with Ruby. I mean, it's just - it was an incredible experience for me. The CD is a very special and very wonderful thing all in itself.

MARTIN: Thank you for mentioning that, because we were going to mention that. Can I just say I'm sorry for those losses that you were telling us about? I don't want to just sort of glide right past that. That...

Prof. GIOVANNI: Oh, thank you. No, no. You know, it's a natural order of things. And I think I'm very fortunate in that I have work. And anybody who's lost their mom is sad, but to lose Mommy, Gary and Aunt Anto as quickly as we did was an incredible hole in my heart, and I just kind of went back to work. And, you know, nobody takes the place of these people, but people love you and they reach out to you. And it's just very - it remains the natural order of things.

MARTIN: You were talking little bit about your family and some other things, and you said the natural order of things. So if you would, just read a little bit of the poem, "Nikki-Rosa" for us. I think this is one that many of your fans hold close to their hearts.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Yeah. Okay.

(Reading) Your biographers never understand your father's pain as he sells his stock and another dream goes. And though you're poor, it isn't poverty that concerns you. And though they fought a lot, it isn't your father's drinking that makes any difference, but only that everybody is together and you and your sister have happy birthdays and very good Christmases. And I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me, because they never understand black love is black wealth and they'll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while, I was quite happy.

MARTIN: Nikki Giovanni is the editor of a new anthology of poetry. It's called the "100 Best African American Poems" - although, as we mentioned, she cheated. She joined us from the studios at Virginia Tech University. Also with us is one of the poets featured in the collection, Kwame Alexander. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ALEXANDER: You're welcome.

Prof. GIOVANNI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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