Nikki Giovanni on Aging Gracefully

Interview with Nikki Giovanni, poet and author of Acolytes and On My Journey Now

By Rebecca Ponton

MORE: Your new book of poetry, Acolytes (William Morrow), was written as a tribute to your mother. GIOVANNI: 2005 was a hard year. All my little old ladies — Mommy and Rosa Parks and Edna Lewis — died, and of course my older sister, Gary, so all of a sudden, I had this void in my life.MORE: How were you able to fill that void? GIOVANNI: I’m still working on it, but first of all, you’re a writer, so you have to write, you know that.MORE: Are you a person of faith? GIOVANNI: I’m a big fan of the power of prayer. You have to pray for the strength to carry on, but it’s not what you want because you want everybody to be 35 years old.MORE: Do you find comfort in your writing, solace in the poetry? GIOVANNI: I think if I didn’t have my art, I would be lost. Nobody can tell you what to do with your pain. I happen to be able to write. Between my mother’s death last June 24th [2005] and now, I completed three books. Acolytes; On My Journey Now (Candlewick Press), where I look at the Negro spirituals — I’m a big, big, big lover of Negro spirituals — and Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka and I revisited the The Grasshopper and the Ant. I just put my head down and worked. You have to deposit that pain someplace and hope that it doesn’t grow.MORE: In a recent interview, you said your 60s are "me time." What is "me time"? GIOVANNI: I’ve been driving the same car for 20 years and I’m thinking I’m going to buy a new car. I did buy a dog, a little Yorkie, whose name is Kennedy. I go down [to Mexico] once a year to observe the sea turtles hatching. If they can get beyond a day, they’ll live 100 years and you know that you’re a part of something that’s going to go way beyond you. When you have family members who are terminal, your time is not your own, so all of the sudden, you find you have your days. I exercise. I’ve always been a reader. I travel. I can pursue some of my interests. MORE: You’re still teaching full-time at Virginia Tech after almost 20 years, even though this is a time in your life when you could retire and do other things. [Editor’s note: Following this interview, in April 2007, Giovanni made news as the former professor of Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui.] GIOVANNI: First of all, I don’t think artists ever retire. People say, My best work is behind me, and I think, How could that be? You’ve had an opportunity to learn so much more, and to bring so much more passion to your work, there’s no deadline, there’s nobody looking over your shoulder, you’re not looking for tenure, you’re not looking for a bestseller, and there’s absolutely nothing to prove, and that makes your art totally free. MORE: So you feel that your best work may be yet to come? GIOVANNI: I’m definitely feeling it. One, I’m learning so much more. I have absolutely no pressure on me to do anything. The one regret is I probably lost my primary audience because you write for your mother. You want her to be proud of the book. I was very close to my grandmother, so I wanted my grandmother to be proud. I’m having to re-create my audience, which is not to say the people who read my books, but the person I write for. MORE: You were named Yolande, Jr. after your mother. GIOVANNI: Yeah, but I changed it [legally] because everything is in Nikki. I would not have done it while Mommy was still alive because I would not want her to think that I did not wish to carry her name because I do, I’m very proud of it. Even though there have been some painful experiences, this is a very good time to be alive, this is a good time in the world to see what changes are coming, so it’s a great opportunity to re-create yourself. These are our best years.Purchase Acolytes Purchase On My Journey Now Originally published on MORE.com, June 2007.

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