Living Legends: An Interview With the Incomparable Nikki Giovanni

The second installment of "Living Legends" features one of America's foremost poets and intellectuals, Nikki Giovanni. Her literary works investigate a plethora of topics, from jazz to racism and are extremely individualized messages conveyed through a range of emotions. Her folksy manner makes her poetry accessible to the masses. In 1968, she became an assistant professor of black studies at Queens College and has taught at several other colleges and universities, most notably, Ohio State University and Rutgers University. Since 1987, she has been a professor at Virginia Tech.

Giovanni was very active during the Civil Rights movement and published her first book of civil rights poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk, at the age of 25. Even at 68, Giovanni seems as determined as ever to fight the good fight for equality and civil rights. She has received nineteen honorary doctorates and a throng of other awards and accolades, including an NAACP Image Award and "Woman of the Year" awards from three different magazines. Her literary works have influenced hip hop culture and she is frequently mentioned in songs by artists such as Nas and Kanye West. With a resume like hers, it is easy to see why she inspires and motivates people across the globe. Their devotion has continued to keep her literary works in print and fill the venues in which she lectures. Giovanni's spot in the pantheon of literary history is unquestioned because her poetry speaks to and for all mankind in a dialect that they can understand.

Without further ado, let's begin the interview.

ML: I remember reading an interview in which you were asked, "Would you consider yourself a legend?" and you replied, "No, I consider myself a working poet." I found your response quite fascinating. Would you elaborate on your answer?

NG: The poet Melvin B. Tolson once said "A civilization is judged only in its decline." That made sense to me. I would imagine the same is true for poets and tennis players.

ML: As you look back over your career, out of all of the poems you have written, which one is your favorite?

NG: Favorite poems are like favorite children. We definitely have them but we never tell as the others would have their feelings hurt.

ML: After 4 decades of scholarly and creative activity, you still continue to produce literary masterpieces. Where do you get your drive and motivation from?

NG: Thank you for the compliment. I am totally fascinated by people and our history as I understand and continue to explore it. People have so much to give and so far to go and yet we have given and gone a great distance. It's really just interesting to ask: why not? And see where that takes me.

ML: Over the years, you have been very supportive of hip hop culture. What do you think about the current state of the hip hop music industry?

NG: I am proud of the hip hop generation. They are good business people and, actually, good people. It's strange that the only time the major press talks about them is when someone gets killed or does drugs or something; yet these are the same press people who made heroes out of the Mafia and other crooks, you know. I like the younger generation. When you look at the career of a Queen Latifah or Jay-Z and when you see them supporting each other as with that ad for Kobe Bryant, it brings a smile to my heart. They are our future. And the future is in good hands.

ML: What is your reaction when you see international comparisons showing that American students lag behind their international counterpoints academically? How can we as a country, better educate our children?

NG: School should be eleven months of the year. School buildings should be opened and used twenty four hours a day. Schools should serve breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. No sugared drinks, no fast type food. Schools should be integrated by race and by class. Language instruction should start in the first grade. Writing, also. We also need to make sure our children travel to see things. Not necessarily long distances but at least out of the neighborhood. On a train. A boat. An airplane. In other words: war is not a jobs program. We must invest in tomorrow. And pay our teachers for teaching as we pay our coaches for coaching.

ML: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

NG: Write! Read! Write!

ML: So, what's next for you? What projects do you have in the works?

NG: In October, Maya Angelou and I are celebrating Toni Morrison and her work at Virginia Tech. We are inviting about 30 poets and writers to join us in reading from Morrison's work. I am thrilled about this project. As for me, I am working on a book about my lung cancer.

Well, that concludes the interview. I would like to thank Nikki for granting my interview request and for her contributions to the African Diaspora.