Poetry News

Nikki Giovanni On Being

By Harriet Staff
Nikki Giovanni

Legendary poet Nikki Giovanni joins host Krista Tippett for a conversation on the syndicated National Public Radio program On Being, wherein they discuss politics, spirituality, and the stars. Tippett prefaces their discussion explaining, "Today, Nikki Giovanni is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder, an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating." Yes! From there: 

Ms. Tippett: You’re enjoying being in your 70s, I sense.

Ms. Giovanni: I do. I recommend it. [laughs] I do. I love it.

Ms. Tippett: And I love how you are just continuing to wrestle and change your mind, and your vision is just constantly evolving.

Ms. Giovanni: But everybody’s is. The only difference between me and most people is that I’m not afraid to talk about it. [laughs]


Ms. Tippett: One of the most striking things that just jumped out at me, all the way through your writing and writing about you and all the way to the latest volume of poetry you published in 2013 is how from the very beginning, you were held and cherished and taught by courageous, loving women. [laughs] Your mother — you were named — your first name is Yolande, so you were kind of named after…

Ms. Giovanni: Yeah, it used to be. When Mommy passed, I had it legally changed to Nikki, just because that’s what everybody knows me. I would’ve never done it when Mommy was here, because I wouldn’t want her to think I didn’t want to carry her name. I’m Yolande, Jr.

Ms. Tippett: I see, yeah. And so how old were you when you changed your name legally, then?

Ms. Giovanni: Mommy’s been dead ten years, so I was 62, something like that. 63 years old.

Ms. Tippett: And how do you say your grandmother’s name? Louvenia, Louvenia?

Ms. Giovanni: Louvenia.

Ms. Tippett: Louvenia.

Ms. Giovanni: But everybody actually calls her Emma Lou.

Ms. Tippett: Emma Lou, OK. Emma Louvenia Watson. Also, that you were all, it sounds like, foodies before the name, the word had been invented.

Ms. Giovanni: Oh, definitely. Grandmother was a foodie, and Grandmother’s friends were foodies. And, of course, I ended up living with Grandmother — not “ended up,” but was fortunate to live with Grandmother. So Mommy was a good cook, because she was Grandmother’s daughter, and my Aunt Ann was a good cook. Living with Grandmother, I learned all of their tricks. My favorite was, of course, her greens. And I’m still, still, still working on that, because making greens is one of life’s difficulties. It looks like you just clean them and stuff. Well, Mommy — well, and Grandmother, too, you pull the stems, and then you tie the stems, and you put the leaves in, and you use the stems to flavor, and then you pull it out. And so she was very good at that.

But the other thing I was laughing — and I’m laughing about this — you didn’t ask me about this, but in Grandmother’s day, you used to go to the market, and you bought a live chicken. Actually, Grandpapa did the marketing. And he would bring it home, and they’d put it in the backyard. And then, Grandmother would go out Saturday morning and wring its neck. [laughs] But you learn to do that, and I guess I have learned, too — it’s something that I’m dealing with on another kind of level. But for something to live, something else usually dies. There’s a transition. It’s not something I would’ve been able even to say to you even 50 years ago, in my 20s, I wouldn’t have. It’s really — it’s been interesting.

Listen to their complete conversation, or continue reading the transcript at On Being.

Originally Published: September 13th, 2017