World-renowned poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni will perform a special reading at the College of Central Florida this month. Giovanni, who was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Living Legends and is the author of more than 30 books for adults and children, recently spoke candidly to Ocala Style about teaching, writing, eBooks, and more.
Let’s start with writing for children. Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are) was once asked, “What makes for a good kids’ story?” He replied, “How would I know? I just write books.” Do you agree with this?
I’m sorry Maurice let them make a movie out of that. Animated cartoon I could have seen, but the movie sucked. [laughs] It’s a classic. Why would you do that? But, you know, children are not a subspecies. Children’s literature is actually folk literature. And children are not illiterate, they’re preliterate. There’s a big difference between the two. Obviously, we would choose to share stories that make better people out of all of us. The classic stories… Max keeps speaking of where the wild things are. Max sassed his mother. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him “Wild Thing.” “I’ll eat you up!” said Max. Well, you’re not allowed to do that. So he was sent to bed without his supper. We have Max being a little boy, but we have a consequence. Max didn’t get a damn time-out. Max was punished. Because he is being punished, they’re not cruel, so ultimately Max realizes, “Is this the life I want to lead?” He goes to where the wild things are in his heart and realizes, “I want to be where someone loves me,” which is the defining moment in the book. And then he comes back to his room where his dinner is waiting. His mother has brought him his dinner. So he learned something from that. He was doing something he shouldn’t do and there are consequences for that. People love lessons. That’s why those story last. Maurice’s books have always been incredibly intelligent.
It’s fascinating that he doesn’t change his process because he’s writing for children.
That’s why you and I can read him. We, too, are learning something. I think that’s what good writing does. I’m not saying preaching, but good writing is a good narrative and people take something from it.
You’ve taught at Virginia Tech for over 20 years. After the shooting there in 2007, you gave an eloquent and memorable speech at the school’s service. You didn’t have much time to prepare it, however. Does good writing necessarily take a long time?
You know, it was totally unpredictable that anyone would do that. The shock and the tragedy… it was like if somebody was on the Titanic writing as it was going down. It’s something you’re not expecting. What comes out is just your heart. It could have been a terrible failure, but it was all I had to give. All you can give is what you have to give. I was Sully Sullenberger. I was able to land the plane in the middle of the river. That was just fortunate. I could also have crashed.
No one could ever accuse you of not being hip, Ms. Giovanni. You have a “Thug Life” tattoo on your arm in honor of Tupac Shakur. But why do you think there is such a disconnect between older and younger generations?
People are jealous of young people because they think, “Well, why do you have it all?” I’m not a fan of “You have it easier.” I’m definitely not a fan of “the best years of your life are 16.” There’s nothing happy about being a teenager. You’re just suviving. I have an enormous respect for young people because I listen to them. I’m privileged to teach them. They talk to me, and I know that there’s a great intelligence there and an incredibly good heart. Why wouldn’t we be pleased that we have a generation who’s open, who really wants to do something better than just go to work every day and come home and sit on the coach and drink a beer? I’m just incredibly proud of you all. You all are open to new friends. I look at my students and they have friends across the globe. They have African friends, Indian friends, South American friends. Most of them speak two languages. Some of my black students have white friends. When I was growing up, that was just not one of the possibilities until we got into the ‘60s. I grew up in segregated America. If it hadn’t been for the music—God bless musicians everywhere—we probably never would have crossed those divides.
It’s never good when this group doesn’t have any interaction with that group, and vice versa.
It’s good for everybody. It’s good for older people to do things with younger people, and it’s good for younger people to realize that just because you’re 67 like I am, doesn’t mean you’re in a wheelchair with a hook nose trying to do awful things to them. We could still use a lot of cross-generational. I volunteered for 12 years at a retirement center, until my mom became sick and could no longer go with me. My students would occasionally come out with me. They would be amazed at what wonderful stories they were hearing. I said, “You have a grandmother. Have you ever really sat down to talk to her?” To ask what they were like at 17, to give them a chance to tell you their story. You learn so much. You get a different view. A lot of older people don’t talk to younger people because they think younger people don’t care. We need to sit down at the table again.
I have a quote by you. You once said, “Writing is the art of maturation.” After all these years, are you as inspired as ever?
Oh my. Well, you learn something all the time. Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, said her father once told her—when she said she was so bored—“Mae, if you’re bored, you’re not paying attention.” I really like that. She said she took that as a life mantra. When she said it to me, nobody had said it to me that way, but I’ve always paid attention. I’m always looking, wondering why or why not. So I think as long as you’re excited about life… why wouldn’t you be? Life is an infinitely interesting possibility.
How did you learn to handle criticism gracefully? A lot of people have literary opinions and other kinds.
I think people are critical, and I really don’t remember what made me have the attitude but I think you have to listen to everybody. Shakespeare teaches us that the fool is always the one telling the truth. Even when you disagree with someone, you have to say to yourself, “What did they say that is right? What did they say that is not?” In my case as a writer, you get reviews. There’s no such thing as a bad review. No matter what they say, they reviewed it, right? The second thing that is important to me is have they said something about my work that’s truthful. Once, a review said I was bitter. I was reading the review and I thought, Oh no, no, no. I know myself. I’m not bitter. I try to tell the truth as I’m seeing it. Bitter is about something else. So when people say things that are truthful, I go, “Mmm hmm, that’s good. They got it.” When they say things that aren’t, I say, “No no, that’s not me.” I put it together. I have to say, I rarely read reviews because I’m no longer particularly interested in what the critics have to say. It’s not personal, it’s just that you have to work and can’t spend your life reading reviews. You enjoy your career. Roger Federer enjoys his wins. How many does he had? 800,000 but you still want to win! A nice review is something you enjoy looking at.
What have you been reading lately?
I like cookbooks. I was cheating the other day. I was down in New Orleans and I had these incredible grilled oysters. I thought, I want that recipe. But cookbooks are heavy. So in the bookstore, I wrote the recipe out. [laughs] I typed it out, and I’m going to make it tonight! But you know, I like science, Darwin, the things I find interesting. I’m finding that because I have a Kindle, I’m reading more novels. I read a lot of biographies. I just read Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. I used to carry 10 to 12 books. You sometimes took a chance on a novel. You’re carrying around 400 pages around and then maybe find out you don’t like it. So I’m a big fan of the electronic book. It’s expanded my reading in a way. My favorite book that I read this year is called The Elephant Keeper. Beautiful, gorgeous book. I read it on the Kindle and immediately knew that this is a book that I want to keep. So I went out and got a first edition. I gave a friend the book as a birthday gift. We haven’t lost the book. What we’re picking up is the casual reader will now take more of a chance at $10 per book. It also excites me because books can’t be censored or banned now. Now, ignorance is a decision because information is being made available to you. The electronic book has made that possible.
A lot of people don’t like change, though.
A lot of people didn’t like the automobile. We have to find ways to make it easier to be an intelligent human being. Certainly when I see math books here at Virginia Tech for $180… many of our students work. These are not just rich kids playing at college. You’re a math major or an engineering major, look at what you’re spending on books. If we can find a way to get a bigger screen on these e-readers and getting them in color, why wouldn’t we do that? Education should be for everybody. We can’t allow financial position to interfere with learning.
Do you think you’ll always teach?
Unless they fire me, sure. [laughs] Tech is a wonderful place. Our president is a big fan of poetry, thinking imagination will help to drive this scientific bust that we’re on. Here, the liberal arts and science are friends.
What will you read when you’re in Ocala?
I’ll be reading, I’m sure, from Bicycles. Because it’s been a long time and a lot of books, I read from a variety of the books. Just so they can learn the progression and also because they grew up with some of them—“Ego Tripping.” It’d be like Debbie Boone not singing “You Light Up My Life.”
We’re honored you’re coming to Ocala, Ms. Giovanni. Thank you for your time this morning.
I’m looking forward to it. Thank you.
WANT TO GO?
Nikki Giovanni will speak at the CF’s Fine Art Auditorium at 7pm on Sept. 9 and at the Webber Center at 12pm on Sept. 10. The event is free and open to the public. cf.edu or (352) 854-2322, ext. 1361.