FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Poet Nikki Giovanni has spent 40 years writing poems that fuse the political, the personal and the imagination. As a member of the radical 1960's Black Arts Movement, Giovanni explored the world through a black nationalist's lens. Today, Giovanni has an international fan base and a position as a tenured professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
She doesn't have her Afro anymore, but she hasn't lost her edge. Giovanni proudly sports a tattoo that reads, thug life, in honor of slain rap star Tupac Shakur. She mourned Tupac's death and some tragedies much closer to home.
In April, Giovanni's former student, the 23-year-old Seung Hui Cho went on a shooting rampage killing 32 people and himself on the Virginia Tech campus. The next day, Giovanni was called on to address the grieving campus community.
Dr. NIKKI GIOVANNI (Writer, Poet, Activist): We are alive to the imagination and the possibility. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. GIOVANNI: If they have called and said we need you to sweep up Lane Stadium, I would've gone over there and swept it because everything was so horrible and so - we had no way to qualify the information that was coming to us. So I said yes, but I was being upset because I knew the shooter and I knew some of the victims. And I didn't want to find myself anchoring complication and stumbling. So I thought, you know, go write something down.
And I had - as it unfolded, I was out of town. I was actually in San Francisco coming back. And so when I got there, the magnitude of the tragedy begin to unfold. And my first thought was like, no, no, we are Virginia Tech. And so I really held that thought. And when I sat down, I thought, you know, jot down something, Nikki, because it's very emotional. I had - my first thought was this isn't good enough.
And I had just, you know, you wanted it to be great. I wanted it to be, you know, Appalachian spring, you know, Kiplingesque, you know. And so it was a 2 o'clock convocation so I just ran out of time. And I said, you know, read what you have. I had no idea that it would do what it did and I'm very glad. I gave it to Virginia Tech, and I'm glad that they've used it for fundraising, and I'm glad that it was taken - I'm probably the only person on earth that didn't see it.
It's been on the Internet and things, but I - I just haven't had the heart to look at it right now. Maybe I will one day. I have a box at home with all of the - from the beginning to right now actually of the tragedy. I just haven't wanted to look at it.
CHIDEYA: And Seung Hui Cho was someone who you saw in a teacher-student role. Do you think the university could've done anything differently since he, by many accounts, just looked troubled, looked angry, looked…
Dr. GIOVANNI: You know…
CHIDEYA: And had a psychiatric record.
Dr. GIOVANNI: Well, these were things that became - this is hindsight and I requested that he be taken from my class because of his behavior, because he was taking photographs of students below desk level, and because he wasn't participating in the class. I don't know what we could've done different. And I've taught weird students. I've taught students that were clearly psychotic. I taught one student who has a psychiatrist. He's a privileged young man, and his mother had hired a psychiatrist, and she would call me every day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. GIOVANNI: I teach Tuesday, Thursday. And every Tuesday and Thursday, she would call and ask how he's doing, you know. I'm just like, you know, you can't keep doing this. But you can't kick out people out of school because you don't like them, and you can't kick them out because they appear to be weird. You can function with behavior. And his behavior was unacceptable in my class, but different people approach things differently.
So I'm not sure. I do know this, that there isn't a student, there isn't a faculty member at Virginia Tech, there isn't an administrator who would not have taken the bullet to stop it and probably - to do all we could to prevent it. So I'm not sure what else we were supposed to do. And I don't think that tragedies are preventable.
CHIDEYA: You've been at Virginia Tech for two decades now. You are, it seems to me, a rebel, not just in the past, but in the present. How did a rebel end up at one of these storied and more calm universities?
Dr. GIOVANNI: Well, obviously, we're not as calm as people think. But I was born in four hours due west of Virginia Tech. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, knowing Appalachia and I grew up in Appalachia and loving the mountains. So coming - when we got an offer from Virginia Tech, it truly was an offer, I guess, I could have refused it, but I surely didn't want to. And ultimately, I moved my mother and my sister to Virginia. And we all live right there in Blacksburg. Mommy and Gary(ph) have both passed. But it's a lovely community.
And I think that of all the things that have happened - and there's been some sadness this year - but, you know, we have our biggest freshman class which says something about how the Hokie nation conducted itself. And I think we showed the world why we are who we are.
So I'm very proud to be a part of a - of the Hokie nation. When I was flying out here just this morning, I had on my Virginia Tech t-shirt. And as I walked to the plane, a couple of people shouted, go, Hokies, you know? So it's very nice.
CHIDEYA: Do you ever miss being, I guess, a little more close to the ground? Do you - well, let me phrase it this way: Do you find - and, obviously, we've been talking about the shootings which are this huge tragedy, in a way, takes the university in one specific context? But for the 19 years before that, did you ever find yourself thinking, you know what, I wish I could push the limits a little more. Did you ever feel restricted by moving your work into a university setting?
Dr. GIOVANNI: No. You know, all of my friends have retired. And it's really funny now because they can come down and visit me. I was like, how can you do that in the middle of the week. And it's like, no, I'm retired. They've been retired because they took jobs at first. I took job - I took a job at last. And it's nice. I think I was like 44, 45 years old before I took a job.
My writing, I think, has been very good. I've been extremely pleased myself. I'm not as distracted. So writing-wise, I guess the term would be prolific. I've written a lot and I've - I'm doing - it's good work.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned your grandmother. Did you ever read the poems that - I mean, did you write poems as a little girl, and if so, who did you read them to?
Dr. GIOVANNI: When I was in school, you wrote. And I'm sure I wrote things for grandmother and for my mother. But I'm not a big fan of child writers. I mean, everybody says, you know, I have a 4-year-old and she's written 800 poems. Well, I'm glad, but writing is the art of maturation.
CHIDEYA: Let's flash forward a little bit to the Black Arts Movement. People in the movement included Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Larry Neal, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez. Is there a night that you remember or a day that you remember or a poetry reading that you remember from that time? And just give me a little moment or a little taste of it.
Dr. GIOVANNI: On my 30th birthday, which was wonderful, I had that reading with the gospel choir. We were introducing the "Truth Is On Its Way" at Lincoln Center. And that was unusual because no poet had performed in Lincoln Center like that, and I had no choice but to sell out because if I hadn't sold there wouldn't be any other black people in Lincoln Center producing, but I produced that. And that was followed about a month and a half later by a group called LaBelle: Patti LaBelle and Nona and Sarah. And they did the Metropolitan Opera House.
So it was really just wonderful because the Met had never seen anything like LaBelle, and they introduced black - they introduced "Nightbirds" there, you know. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? So it was really just - that whole period was just a rich period.
CHIDEYA: I got a chance to be part of a writers' event at NABJ one year, the National Association of Black Journalists Convention.
Dr. GIOVANNI: Mm-hmm.
CHIDEYA: And you were there to read and you talked very much about your life, your work, and also about your admiration for Tupac Shakur.
Dr. GIOVANNI: Mm-hmm.
CHIDEYA: It seems unusual in some ways for someone who's…
Dr. GIOVANNI: For a little, old lady?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: I wouldn't go there. I would say someone who's not of the hip-hop generation.
Dr. GIOVANNI: Well, little, old lady works for me. I think that everybody has an obligation to understand and appreciate genius. I think that you have to pay attention in the words of astronaut Mae Jemison. You have to pay attention. And Tupac was obviously an important young man, charismatic. He was also very good with the poetry. And he's still - he is very much missed. But I'm glad that the other - that the younger generation did not allow a hero to be snatched from them. And you have to make sure - you can't always protect them obviously. And people do get shot down. This is America and a lot of things are resolved with guns. But what's in our hearts is what's important. And as we've kept Malcolm alive, as we have kept Emmett Till alive, we keep Tupac alive.
CHIDEYA: You wear an emblem of his life on your body.
Dr. GIOVANNI: I do. I have - on my left arm, I have Thug Life. And, of course, you know, Tupac had it on his abdomen. But I'm not in good shape so I put it on my arm because my arm's a little better.
CHIDEYA: Do you have any ambivalence about - I mean, Thug Life is something that could be taken as an insult to peace.
Dr. GIOVANNI: No. I'm not enchanted with people that try to put their own interpretations on what was- Tupac was very clear about that. And he's always going to stand with the thugs. The term we used was with my - to use a better - with my N-word, right, that he always stood with his people. And I think it's very clear what he was saying. And I would agree. I wrote a poem about that incident(ph). And I'll always rather be with the thugs than the people talking about them. I would always rather be, you know, hanging in the tree than being with the people who are looking up at it. I'd always be - I'd rather be with the man and the woman who's running than the crowd that's chasing them.
So I don't have any ambivalence about that at all. And if you look at it now, I'd much rather be with Jena Six than to be with the people who put the nooses up. I don't have any question about where I stand.
CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm. I wonder if we can ask you to read and you can choose whatever you want. But I love your poem "Ego Tripping." It's one of my favorites.
Dr. GIOVANNI: Let me see if I can find it here.
Dr. GIOVANNI: And I should have memorized the poem. I've been reading it long enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: And you're - as prolific as you are. I think it'd be a little difficult to memorize everything.
Dr. GIOVANNI: For people like me, something gets lost when you memorize it and you end up, you know, being like Mel Torme singing the Christmas song. And it's something that isn't fresh. And so I think that I deliberately have not known things so that every time I read them, I'm having to look at them again. But this is "Ego Tripping: There May Be a Reason Why."
(Reading) 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 one hundred years falls into the center, 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 pains created the Nile. I am a beautiful woman.
I gazed on the forest and burned out the Sahara desert. With a packet of goat's meat and a change of clothes, I crossed it in two hours. I am 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 a 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 sowed diamonds in my backyard. My bowels deliver uranium. The filings from my fingernails are semi-precious jewels.
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.
CHIDEYA: Well, Nikki, even your errors are correct.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Thank you so much for your time.
Dr. GIOVANNI: Oh, this has been fun. Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Nikki Giovanni is a professor of English and Black Studies at Virginia Tech. Her latest book of poetry is called "Acolytes." And she joined us from the studios of NPR West.