MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch, the time where we visit with distinguished elders who share what they know about life's pressing issues.
With us today is the award-winning poet, Nikki Giovanni, who has just published her 27th book, this one called "Bicycles: Love Poems." Along with her published work, Nikki Giovanni is also a much loved teacher. She is University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, and she was kind enough to join in our studio in Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.
Prof. NIKKI GIOVANNI (University Distinguished Professor of English, Virginia Tech University; Poet; Author, "Bicycles: Love Poems"): I'm delighted to be here.
MARTIN: Virginia Tech. So much meaning attached to that name now for those who did not have those meanings before. The first and last poem in this collection are not love poems. They are about two incidences of violence that touched this community.
Ms. GIOVANNI: Yeah, they're very sad. The first day of school, actually, we closed school because two men were killed, and the last poem here, of course, is "We are Virginia Tech," which was the April 16th tragedy. And you know, when you have a great tragedy, and we did, they essentially, Michel, functions as wheels, and I realized I had end pieces. And I don't why they were wheels, for example, and not bookends or not pyramids, or, you know, I really don't. But I saw these wheels, and I thought, OK, if I could connect them, I've got a bicycle.
And what is a bicycle? It's trust and balance, and that's what love is. Love is trust and balance. And I had also personal sadnesses because my mother - the book "Acolytes," I had written right there during doing her death. And mommy died, and my sister died six weeks later, so there was a lot of sadness, and I thought, I've got to find a way to write my way through it.
So the challenge in "Bicycles" became can you turn a metaphor into a love poem? So I had these ends, and I thought, connect them. So I was turning 65 last year, which is wonderful, and so I said, OK, 65 poems for my 65th year. And that's how we came to "Bicycles." And I...
MARTIN: That's lovely. That's lovely.
Ms. GIOVANNI: (Laughing) But it makes me smile. This is a book that makes me smile.
Ms. GIOVANNI: Yeah, when I pick up "Bicycles" because I just did crazy things, you know. I played with my class because, you know, I spent my young years in New York, and of course, we remember Howie and all of them. I'm a big "Deal or No Deal" fan...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GIOVANNI: And I was saying to my students, you know, I want to be on - I want to be "Deal or No Deal." And they were like, you can't do that. And so I thought, every time somebody said something to me, turn it into a poem, and so I turned that into a poem, which I loved.
I just had a good time. I had to buy a new car because my old car - I drove a MR2 - which is a lovely car - for 20 years, though. And I finally - I didn't have any heat. And I thought, this is ridiculous. I work every day. I'm famous. I should have heat in my car.
MARTIN: You should have heat in your car.
Ms. GIOVANNI: I should have heat in my...
MARTIN: You are famous. That's right.
Ms. GIOVANNI: And they couldn't really fix - for what it would cost to have them put heat in the car. So I bought a new car. But then the new car became a metaphor for a lover because you know, how you - yeah, you don't want anybody touching your lover. You know, you don't mind them looking, because, yeah, he's good-looking. You know, you know he's good-looking but don't put your hands on him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GIOVANNI: And so I - you know, I just had a good time doing things like that.
MARTIN: You've taught me a lot already because one of the things I was curious about is how did these ideas come to you because - particularly starting with - and forgive me, but I did not remember the incident at the beginning of the semester until you wrote about it. The shooting in April of '07 is something that I think a lot of people know but I didn't remember. And I was wondering how you joined the two and how you were able to think about love within the context of the two of them. Did they all come to you in that way, as an idea?
Ms. GIOVANNI: Well, the Marvery(ph) incident was - it was - it too was tragic. And what we know is that the only way out of any tragedy is love. And anybody that faces any tragedy, whether - I've had lung cancer, I've lost friends, as I said, my mother died - any tragedy has to be - you have to find the love or the way to love through it. You have to find what's good.
And so in my case, mommy and I had made chitlins(ph). Every year we had a chitlin party. And I tell you, the hardest thing I did was that year she died in '05, and I didn't do it in '06 because I was incredibly sad. But in '07, I made chitlins, and just literally cooked them, cleaned them and cried all the way through it, you know, because you have to find the love and you have to come back to it, and it has to make you smile. So, it doesn't hurt now. But when the situation or the tragedy occurred, I knew that we had to tie it off. And that's how I came to "Bicycles" because we have to move.
MARTIN: Do you ride a bicycle?
Ms. GIOVANNI: I do, but not, you know...
MARTIN: You look awfully comfortable with the one on the jacket cover...
Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: But that's a pretty big bike.
Ms. GIOVANNI: That's a beautiful bike. No, I ride but I'm not - I played tennis.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GIOVANNI: And that's what I do for trying to stay in shape.
MARTIN: Before we leave, though, the first piece, "Blacksburg" - and just for those who don't remember, as I did not remember, it was about a man accused of killing an unarmed hospital security guard and a sheriff's deputy and escaped, and it forced a lockdown of the campus, and he was eventually found hiding. And in the poem, you write: We will be the same. Willful ignorance will overpower indignation every time. Can I ask, do you think that that's so...
Ms. GIOVANNI: I think the - it's not necessarily so much Virginia Tech as it is the country. I mean, without beating any dead horses - I mean, look at what Bobby Rush and Roland Burris are trying to do to Barack Obama. Before the guy gets into office, they're trying to show, hey, you know, you have to come through here. You didn't give me my walk-around money. You didn't do that. You know, that's what happened. And you look at the - what the governor of Illinois. You know, he knows he's going down. It's like, well, yeah, but I can dirty you if I - and so, yeah, willful ignorance overcomes a lot.
We at Virginia Tech, we embraced our sadness. And I don't read that poem because there's no way to read that poem ever again because you can't duplicate what was. I wanted to - I gave the poem, by the way, to Virginia Tech, and I was very pleased. They raised like quarter of a million dollars with it. And I'm pleased because I didn't want to benefit. It's here because it is the emotional will that informs what's going on. I wrote it and I'm proud of it, but it's not - we at Virginia Tech are Americans, but we did do the right thing.
We had a great dean of students, Genovia Heitz(ph), and we just lost Dr. Heitz. She had a heart attack. We considered Genovia the 33rd victim there because it all fell on her, and I think her heart just couldn't handle it anymore. I mean, I know that emotionally you can't say things like that. I mean, there are medical reasons. The doctors say, no, you're wrong. It was the left ventricle that - you know. But I think that it all just weighed too heavily.
But we embraced our sadness, and I think that that has been a saving grace for this institution, and surprisingly enough, for the first time, we won the Orange Bowl, so obviously, we are coming together. No, I really love...
MARTIN: You are a Hokie. I'm surprised you're not wearing orange.
Ms. GIOVANNI: I have on orange socks, Michel.
MARTIN: Let me see.
Ms. GIOVANNI: We're on the radio here. You can't see them. I can - here we go.
MARTIN: She is wearing orange socks, and they are really orange. There's no, like, fake orange. No, they are really orange. You really are a Hokie.
Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, no. I love the school. The school has been a good partner for me.
MARTIN: Before - do you mind if I ask you just one more question about the tragedy at Virginia Tech? And I do want to talk about the other poems in the collection. But when I think pain - people wonder, at a time of such pain, it makes many people silent. And I think many people would be curious to know how you find your words to capture something that was so painful to you, as well. I mean, this - the young man who killed his fellow students and teachers was someone you had known. He was a student.
Ms. GIOVANNI: I had taught him.
MARTIN: Had taught him. And I understand the distinction. How do you go about finding your words?
Ms. GIOVANNI: That was - we faced a great tragedy, and the one thing that I say to my writing students and I would say to anybody, I have many, many faults but one of them is not - I am not afraid to make a fool of myself. And I received a phone call from the president's secretary. She said, Nikki, we need you to anchor convocation. And I said to myself, Nikki, write it because truly, some of the people I loved - one of the students I loved dearly, Maddie(ph) - and it was just, OK, write it. And I just went to my computer, and it was just like - you know, Martin Luther King used to say that open your mouth and God will let some words come out. So I'm not a big Christian, you know, a whole lot of them I don't like. But I just said, let it come.
And of course, in any time of great tragedy, you have to redefine yourself, so the first line was going to be really easy. Who are we? We are Virginia Tech. And so we were just going to do that. And I wrote it. And all I can do was this poem, and it's one of those you felt like the little drummer boy or something. All I have is this poem, and that's all I can do. I had no idea how it was going to work. I didn't have anything. I just know I have been asked as a daughter of Virginia Tech to stand up, and that was what I was going to do.
And fortunately, it did what it did. And I think as a writer, all you can do is your best. And at that point, it was going to be my best. If I had had two days to work on the poem, I probably would have ruined it because I probably would have worked with it, trying to make it a great poem. I wanted to write a great poem because it was - we all were hurting. But I didn't have time to do anything but to state, this is the situation, so...
MARTIN: Forgive me, I find myself overwhelmed by thinking about it. I'm not quite sure why.
Ms. GIOVANNI: I was just fortunate that it worked, and I accept that as a gift.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break, and we're going to continue our conversation with Nikki Giovanni in just a moment. Plus, another in our series of visits to spots around town to see how people are preparing for the inauguration. Today, we visit a shop that wants to help women of every size dress to impress. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, will Washington turn into the fashion capital of the country, at least for a day? We talk to one fashion guru who is trying to do her part to make it happen in just a few minutes.
But first, I'm going to continue my conversation with renowned poet Nikki Giovanni. "Bicycles" is her latest collection of poems. She told us that the book centers on the notion that love can heal the pain of loss.
Ms. GIOVANNI: I'm a mama's girl. And I think losing my mother has been a profound - in ways that I have not yet articulated, like going down the street or taking a - I'm always looking out on angles. But there's a lot of longing because mommy didn't ever judge me. I mean, for my mother, everything I did was wonderful. And I realized a lot of what I put into a love poem is the longing to be understood and the longing to be loved.
MARTIN: Can we persuade you to read something...
Ms. GIOVANNI: Sure.
MARTIN: That - I don't know, makes you particularly think of her? What would you like to read?
Ms. GIOVANNI: Well, that could be hard. You know what, I want to read...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GIOVANNI: If you don't mind, because this - my English class was teasing me about "Deal or No Deal" because I'm a little chubby now. People don't know that, but I - once, I used to be like 95 pounds. So I really looked good. And I was...
MARTIN: You look as big as a minute to me. I don't know what you're talking about.
Ms. GIOVANNI: Well, don't I love you for that. And I always wanted - you know, I wanted to put on my little red dress and do the dum de dum dum and I practice my, hi, Howie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GIOVANNI: I wrote this for my class. If you don't mind, I'd like to...
MARTIN: Which is it, "Deal or No Deal?"
Ms. GIOVANNI: "Deal or No Deal."
MARTIN: OK. I'm caught up. All right.
Ms. GIOVANNI: OK. (Reading) My class is not sure that I should apply to "Deal or No Deal." They think I am lucky. After all, I am teaching them. They know I am smart. They are, for example, learning. Yet, they don't want to see me make those greedy mistakes and push beyond the envelope. The banker is neither friend nor foe; he's a machine. To think you can beat him is to think you can win at Las Vegas or love. But I persist.
My dream is a red dress above my knees, high-heeled red sandals, and me coming over the top with the music booming. Hi, Howie, I will say with a lovely smile. I don't want to play the game, I want to be it. They were born 40 years after me, yet I am younger. I know you cannot go through life unless you are willing for love or money to make a fool of yourself. Where else does the ecstasy lie?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Loved it. Loved it.
Ms. GIOVANNI: And the class is like, yeah, I don't believe you did that. So I was taking almost everything that was coming in and saying, how do we turn it? How do we turn it?
MARTIN: You are fearless. It's an interesting - I think some people - I mean, of course, your body of work, at this point, is such that many people will know a lot of what you can do. But for many people, you are the poet of, you know, the politics and who, you know, brings the noise. But for others - and I hope you don't mind my mentioning that we read one of your poems at my oldest daughter's wedding. And so for some, it's just - I don't know if it's just the fact that both of those things reside in your petite little body.
Ms. GIOVANNI: I don't mind making a fool of myself. You have a second?
Ms. GIOVANNI: "So Enchanted with You." Because this is one I love, too.
Ms. GIOVANNI: (Reading) I like boiled turnips, boiled potatoes, boiled rutabagers(ph) with butter and sea salt, but not every day. I like fried Virginia flounder, fried sandabs, fried smelts, but usually only on Friday nights. I want dropped biscuits, miniature Parker House rolls, extra-thin white bread when I uncharacteristically make a sandwich. I like garlic straight off the vine, anchovies any time, and good red wines because I'm too old to drink cheap. I like to pound and grill my veal. I rub my beef in a special chili mixture. I don't really eat anyone else's ground meat. In other words, I'm normal. So this is the question: Why am I so enchanted with you?
MARTIN: Well, you know, I wanted to phone you up and say, who are you talking about?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Who are you talking about?
Ms. GIOVANNI: You have to - we learned that from Ten Pin Alley(ph). And you go back and you realize, everything has to - this is just a writing rule. I could teach you like that. Everything has to come back to second person. So I'm going like, OK, that's what I like. I like these things boiled, I like these things fried, I like these things that - and then you say, OK, now where does this lead, right? And it's a songwriter's thing. So it has to lead to some level of declaration of love. But the word that I use a lot, it's a personal word, is "enchanted" because I'm always being enchanted.
I was out in Mexico and there was a koi pond, and I was totally enchanted, and people said, you know, you're enchanted with the fish, and I was because there was an alligator that lived there, and so every day the alligator came up. Well, the alligator was eating the fish. Well, yeah.
But the thing is - and that's what we have to learn, human beings, that's what does fascinate you. You have to learn to live with that which frightens you because the fish cannot live out of the water. The alligator will eat, so you have to maximize the time that you have with each other because you don't know when the alligator is coming, and it is an enchantment.
MARTIN: Well, you've been very generous with your time, and I could talk to you all day, obviously...
Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, thank you.
MARTIN: But do you have any - in fact, most of what we've talked about today is really wisdom that you are passing on in one way or another. But is there any more wisdom you want to share?
Ms. GIOVANNI: If I could give one bit of advice to the incoming president, which you didn't ask me.
Ms. GIOVANNI: But I would definitely, if I were he, hold a dinner for the hip-hop generation. I would definitely find an event because they lifted him on their shoulders, and they carried him, and they've done a great job. Those are great kids, and I don't know why people are complaining about them. They are great kids. But he needs to have, you know, couple of the rappers come in. And the rappers need to behave, OK, so I mean, get Queen Latifah to come in and do something because that's - those are great kids.
And Tupac's anniversary, call or have a luncheon, do something that says we recognize what a wonderful generation you are because we - the world should be proud of them. And when we look now at the success of this president, number 44, coming in, we know that something wonderful has happened, and those kids believed and made it so, and they need to be applauded for that.
MARTIN: Nikki Giovanni. Her latest collection of poems is called "Bicycles," and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studio. Nikki Giovanni, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. GIOVANNI: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: You can read Nikki Giovanni's poem, "We are Virginia Tech," by going to our Web site npr.org/tellmemore.