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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A conversation with Nikki Giovanni

Poster for event with Nikki Giovanni. Photo provided by UMass Boston College of Education and Human Development.

On March 19, UMass Boston welcomed acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni to campus to give a talk about life, literature and everything in between. Prior to the talk, The Mass Media sat down with Giovanni for a short interview to discuss the power of education, happiness, writing and the power of literature as a political motive.

Katrina Sanville: Being a newspaper by college students, we’re always interested in education and educators. How has your relationship to education and educators—both as an educator and someone who has seen the power of education through several people in your family—changed over the years?

Nikki Giovanni: Education comes in many forms, as we know. One of them is through sitting at the table, talking to the old folks—that’s a form of education. One of them is through going to church on Sunday; I’m a Baptist but other people do other things, and we learn a lot about the history of Black Americans through listening to and singing the spirituals. Of course, we’re always glad and I think it’s very important to have youngsters in college. We know high school is important and difficult, and it’s time that people admitted that it is difficult—teenage years are difficult. Everybody wants to act like, “Oh, isn’t that fun!” but it’s not that much fun if we admitted it.

I think that it’s good and important that we encourage and allow youngsters to come to college at least for a couple of years, because everybody’s not interested in college. Some people don’t want to go to college. Some people enjoy working on cars, and some people enjoy being a plumber, but we do want people to enjoy reading, and we do want people to enjoy and involve themselves in critical thinking. We are living in times right now where critical thinking is being criticized, and there is something called “fake truth,” which doesn’t make sense to me, and we’re having people burning books, which doesn’t make sense—a book never hurt anybody. The same people who want to burn and ban[…]—the same people who want to ban books are the same people who want to keep rifles. Rifles kill, books don’t. What I’m trying to say is that we educate through many resources, through many different ways of talking with people and getting to know about other people. […] When we think of education, we have to think of how do we educate ourselves, and what do we open—in terms of being educated—what are we open to?

KS: You talk a good bit about your determination to get to space due to the history of Black women being akin to alien encounters. What originally sparked your interest in space?

NG: Well, just look out from where we’re sitting here. You got to wonder what else is, what life form—I don’t want to say what else, because I don’t want to be disrespectful—what life form is there that we simply are not recognizing? I live in a country; we are here in a nation that does not recognize the life forms that is trying to join us. We put razor wire–what kind of sense does that make? I live in Virginia, and we’ve had five whales, juveniles by the way, we’ve had five whales to wash up on Virginia Beach and most of them are—they weren’t murdered, this wasn’t “Moby Dick”—but most of them were killed because they were hit by boats, or they were ingesting plastic, and they don’t recognize plastic so they’ve killed themselves. You say what made me interested, well how could you not be interested in the life around you?

KS: What advice would you give to young writers looking to get into poetry but find the genre to be a bit daunting? What about those who have already written poems and are trying to get published?

NG: You don’t want to put the cart before the horse. A lot of—and I’m not picking on anybody particularly—a lot of people are worried about getting published and they haven’t written anything. A lot of people who have written something that is—frankly speaking—uninteresting, want somebody else to read, and want somebody else to tell them this is how it should be done. That can’t be. The first thing you have to do is learn something, which is why I’d like for you [young people] to come to college. Life is about…I don’t want to call them mistakes, because there’s no such thing as a mistake. There is only what you have learned. In order to learn something, you have to try. You can’t worry about, “Oh, if I write this book, I can sell it.” You’re daydreaming, because you haven’t written the book. If you write the book, or if you write the poem, the first thing is that it has to be as good as you can make it at that time, and then you write the next one. Then you continue to create, because that’s what you do. At some point you may or may not be published; at some point someone may or may not read it. These are not things you worry about; you worry about your creation.

KS: Besides writing, what else do you find joy or comfort in your daily life, whether that be spending time with loved ones or hobbies?

NG: Life is interesting—I don’t even know how to answer that. It’s good to be alive, I’m 80 years old, so I’m thrilled. I know I won’t live another 80 years, so every day is precious, but every day has always been precious.

KS: How has your relationship to writing changed over your life? Are there things you find to be constants or are there things that you’ve swapped out over the years?

NG: You learn something, or you’re supposed to, as you grow. I’ve been reading up on singers a lot lately. I think singers change too, one of my favorite singers actually is Tony Bennett, and the other is Billie Holliday, and both of them through their careers changed. It wasn’t just that their voice changed, it was that they changed. If I could, I would take either one of them and take the same song that they sang at the beginning of their career and follow that song, and you will hear how it changed. Songs are about how you emphasize—so is poetry for that matter, how you read a poem. You read a poem very differently when you’re twenty years old than when you read it at fifty. I think that’s what’s important is how you let yourself change.

KS: What do you think your greatest accomplishment is?

NG: I hope that I have not achieved accomplishment. I hope that I have—I have some more that I want to do. I’m learning to sing. My mother wanted to be a singer and I made a CD with Javon Jackson who plays tenor saxophone and his trio, and we did spirituals. He named it, I didn’t, it’s “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” and we’re going to make another one, I guess because I never learn, but this summer we’ll be making one called “Javon and Nikki Go to the Movies.” We’re going to sing his mother and my mother’s old movies that they—songs that they used to have. It should be a lot of fun. You have to be willing to have people laugh at you, but my biggest worry is not that somebody won’t like it, because they do or don’t, my job is to be happy with myself.

KS: Your writing has often been acclaimed as appealing to all generations through your poems, albums and children’s books. How has each genre given you a new outlet to explore your creativity?

NG: Every time you’re looking at something, you’re thinking, “How do I want to handle this? How do I want to describe it?” You keep looking at things and you keep observing, and the more you do, you find different ways to express something.

KS: You said in your documentary that you make the choice to choose happiness and choose not to focus on the grief. How do you find yourself channeling that happiness each day, and what advice could you give to people trying to focus less on the past, and more on the present and the future?

NG: I don’t really have any advice on that. Personally, I just think that life is interesting and I don’t really understand people who don’t, because there’s so much more to learn. We’ve been talking about life forms, but the reality is we are a life form. I dislike the term alien and people say that there are aliens out there. I hate those movies that are always trying to show something from outer space is coming to kill us; what I do know is that third planet from the yellow sun—they’re trying to kill us…whatever us is. I’m not afraid of the possibility of aliens, I’m interested and would like to meet one. If I woke up and walked out to my garden and a life form was sitting there and said hello, I’d be delighted. I think you have to look forward. I don’t know what to do, but I do know nothing is free and very few things are cheap, so whatever it is that you’re looking for you have to keep looking for it, but it’s going to cost you.

About the Contributor
Katrina Sanville, Editor-In-Chief