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Poet Nikki Giovanni On Change: 'Approach It With A Smile'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As you probably know, this is our last week on the air and we decided to spend it speaking with some of our favorite guests from the past seven years. We're devoting much of today's program to parenting. We're hearing once more from the moms and dads who shared their trials and tribulations with us over the years. But first, we are going to get some mother wit and wisdom from poet Nikki Giovanni. She's joined us a number of time, over the years. Most recently, she spoke with us in May when her good friend, the legendary Maya Angelou, died.


NIKKI GIOVANNI: Maya had an embrace of life. And it's rare. You know, even I - I like being alive - but even I don't come anywhere near just that joy that she brought.

MARTIN: Today Nikki Giovanni is with us once again from Roanoke, Virginia. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us on this special week for us.

GIOVANNI: Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: So tell us how you came into yourself. I mean, you've described yourself as a truth teller, which you are. And I just wonder how you came into that.

GIOVANNI: I - well, I don't know. Let me answer honestly and clearly. I don't know. But I am the baby in the family and I think babies look at life a little differently because your older brother or older sister - in my case, an older sister. Your older sister is always more talented, always more beautiful, always better able to do things. And so you end up watching all the time and you watch and you watch. And some of the things that you watch, you say, oh, that's good. And some of the things you watch, you say, I don't think I would do that. And I think that as a baby - you know, if you look at the number of writers, it is amazing how many of us are babies in the family - how many of us are either only children or the youngest child because those are the people that have to watch.

MARTIN: Interesting. You know, as you know, this is a moment of transition for us. And in recent years, you've written yourself a lot about transitions that we all have to go through, losses and so forth. What do you think has been the most helpful thing to you in working through transitions?

GIOVANNI: I think, the most helpful - you say in transitions and I think you mean death. And I think the most helpful thing in going...

MARTIN: (Laughing) Well, yeah.


MARTIN: I do, but also there are also losses. There's death but there's other losses. There's losses of things that you like, like, you know, places to work or colleagues, things of that sort, yeah.

GIOVANNI: I guess so. But, to me, if right now Virginia Tech fired me, I would consider that an opportunity. And I would say to myself, OK, Virginia Tech has given me an opportunity to go someplace else and do something. The loss of my mother - my mother's death was an incredible loss to me. And what I knew I had every right, if not responsibility to - is to mourn. Now, when your mother dies - and my mother died June 24, 2005, but my sister died August 10, 2005. So we buried mommy together. But then I went from being the baby in the family to being an elder because my mother sister died, you know, within weeks of that. So I had a lot to do and a lot of it, you know, you have a house you have to sell. You have things in the house. You have - you know, it's da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. And I am a responsible individual. And I said to myself, Nikki, you have to do it because there wasn't anybody else to do it. My Aunt Ann died in October. So it was just going to be a very difficult period and it was. But I did what I was supposed to do.

But when I did get it done, I said to Alex, who is my dog. I said to Alex, you know, now we can sit down on the deck and we can mourn mommy or, in Alex's case, grandmother. (Laughing) But I got up and did that thing that I think Americans do. I was laughing about it. I got up and poured myself a glass of wine and took it out on the deck and sat down and drank it. Until it was time for - you know, to change to a nice red wine and I'd sit there and do that. Until it was dark and then, you know, you go in and you start the same thing. Finally, it was Alex who actually - and I laugh about it, because I think that you're not allowed to embarrass your dog. And finally, Alex looked at me one day - you know, about the tenth day of me doing that - and had one of those, again? You know, Nikki, you can't keep doing this. And I said to her - to Alex - I said, you know, grandmother - my mother - grandmother drank a beer every day of her life. We knew mommy was dying because she didn't want to a beer. And so I said to Alex, well, why don't we go and get it a beer and drink it for mommy. But I don't like beer and I never did. I don't know why people drink it. And so we went up to the local bookstore - to Barnes and Nobles, actually - and looked up, what is the number one beer. I thought if I'm going to drink a beer, I'm going to drink the number one beer in the world. And the number one is Utopias. It's a Sam Adams. And so I started to look for Utopias. It's $350 a pint, so you know you can't get it in your regular, you know, grocery store.

MARTIN: Exactly.

GIOVANNI: You know what I'm saying? It was just - and don't know why - but the book became Chasing Utopia. And I ended up writing this book about the loss -death - of my mother, but also about a lot of people that I love; my grandmother. Can I read you a poem?

MARTIN: Yeah, please. Would you? I was going to ask. Do you mind? Yeah, please. Yeah.

GIOVANNI: Yeah. Speaking of grandmother; my grandmother's a good cook, and I'm not a bad cook, but I'm not quite good as Grandmother.

It's called "The Right Way."

(Reading) My grandmother's grits are so much better than mine. Mine tend to be lumpy and a bit disoriented, though that's probably my fault. I always want to put one cup grits into four cups cold water, with one teaspoon salt and start them all together. Grandmother did it the right way. She started with cold water that she brought to a boil, shifted the grits slowly from her hands into the bubbles, then added her salt. She also hummed while she stirred with her wooden spoon. I wonder if I should learn to sing.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Wonderful. I love it. How wonderful.

If you're just joining us, we are speaking with the award-winning author and poet Nikki Giovanni. She's sharing some pearls of poetic wisdom with us. And we're talking - that was a poem from her collection, Chasing Utopia. We'll talk a little bit more about - I don't know - I'm hearing you, you're saying that there is losses and then, there is losses that seem like losses but they're actually really opportunities.

GIOVANNI: Well, most things are opportunities. If your car breaks down and you say, oh gosh, my car is broken down. This is an opportunity to fix the car because you love it, or to get rid of it because you've been tired of it, and get a new one. I just think you have to look at almost everything as an opportunity. But losing people is a loss, and Americans need to learn to mourn. We don't allow people to mourn. And, I think that mourning is incredibly, incredibly important. I think that it's necessary that you recognize, I am sad today and I will probably be sad for a long time. When it's something like your mother, you'll be sad the rest of your life because you won't live long enough to get - what other people will call - over it. You don't want to get over the loss of your mother any more than she would want to get over the loss of you.

MARTIN: That's so true. It's funny because people often think that great art comes out of suffering, and I get the feeling that you don't agree with that at all.

GIOVANNI: I'm not a big fan...

MARTIN: I've never asked you that question. I shouldn't presume. Let me ask you this question - what do you think?

GIOVANNI: ...No, it's a good question. I just don't think that suffering is a good idea. So no, I'm not in favor of suffering. I'm in favor of finding out, what is the message? And sometimes the message is simply, you know, you have a right to cry. And some other times, you have to really say - as I was sharing about Mommy - I have responsibilities. So despite the fact that I am incredibly sad, somebody has to get these things done. I don't have a right to be selfish about my emotions.

I had, by the way, if I may - I was diagnosed, now 14 years ago, with lung cancer. And I knew that this was serious business, most people that have lung cancer die. So the first thing I had to say to myself was, OK I need a doctor. I need good doctors. But I also knew that it made me incredibly sad, and if anybody who's listening to us has been diagnosed with cancer, it is just - you don't want to hear it - it's a very sad thing. And I said to myself, OK I know that if I allow myself to be sad, I'm going to make myself worse. So what I have to do is find time to be sad and then I have to go about my business of trying to see if I can find a way - not to defeat cancer; I would never, ever, ever use those words - but to live with it.

So what I did was, I finally said to myself, OK between eight and nine - because my first doctor's appointment was going to be 10 in the morning, something like that - between eight and nine I went into my bathroom - I have a door on my bathroom door - closed the door and I cried. I was incredibly sad. And then I took a shower, and then I went to see the doctor. And if something happened during the day that really made me - I had one doctor that actually said to me, you know, Ms. Giovanni, I don't think you're going to live - and I did have to say to him, am I paying you? You know? I really hope - if I'm paying you, send me the bill because I don't ever want to see you again, because if I die I'll be the first to know it. That's the truth. I would recognize it.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Break it down. Yeah.

GIOVANNI: Yeah, Nikki I'm - now I'm dead, Nikki - you're gone. And I just thought it was incredibly cruel of him and crazy to do that. And so I did, I paid him and I walked out of there. But I didn't - I wanted people to say, well, let's see what we can do. And the people that have carried me through this - I am now, as you know, if you do actuarial tables on cancer, I am now back to the point that I have the same chance of dying of lung cancer as if I'd never had it. And that's the best it's going to be for people like me, but that's the best it is for everybody.

MARTIN: Well, I'm so glad.

GIOVANNI: Thank you.

MARTIN: So do you have any advice for us, as we kind of transition to whatever comes next, for those of us?

GIOVANNI: Approach it with a smile. Because whatever's coming next is going to be good because you've got all of this information. You've got this talent. You've got things that you love. You have to approach it with a smile. And if you keep smiling, something else is going to happen. And you might say, well, Nikki I'm not sure what it is. Well, I don't know either, I really, really don't. But I know that - isn't that an old song? - (Singing) Good things come to those who wait - Oh, that's Duke Ellington. (Singing) I love you, love you, madly.

And what we're all trying to do is enjoy life. Life is a good idea and it's a lot of fun. And there's a reason that the first miracle if you recall - I'm a Christian - that Jesus's first miracle was in fact turning water into wine. He could just as easily have turned wine into water, but no, he had the sense to say, these people need something to drink. And I think if it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me.

MARTIN: (Laughing) All right. With that being said, Nikki Giovanni is an award-winning poet, professor and author. She was kind enough to join us from Roanoke, Virginia. And yes, we are smiling now. Thank you, Nikki. Thank you for speaking with us.

GIOVANNI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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