BALTIMORE Contradiction can be a good thing— sometimes. At least that’s a working theory of famed poet, activist, educator and author Nikki Giovanni, who for more than 30 years has held a unique place on the American stage.
“The older you get, writers have to contradict themselves. It’s incredibly important especially for poets because we write from our emotional experience and we’ve learned something,” said Giovanni, 73, whose fiery, humorous and reflective voice has informed the national conscious and charmed the hearts of millions.
This fall, Giovanni will release her latest book, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (William Morrow Hardcover, $19.99).
The new book, possibly Giovanni’s most intimate collection yet, recalls the violence that permeated her parents’ marriage and her early life, and how she came to live with the grandparents who Giovanni credits with saving her life.
“Grandpa was in love with grandma until the day he died and grandma helped me to get through a lot,” Giovanni said of her childhood.
Born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tenn., Giovanni now makes her home in Virginia. She first grabbed national attention as part of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s.
After graduating with honors from Fisk University in 1967, Giovanni traveled back to her childhood home in Cincinnati and established the city's first Black Arts Festival. She then penned the poems that are included in her first self-published volume, 1968’s, “Black Feeling, Black Talk.”
By the mid-1970s, Giovanni had established herself as one of the leading poetic voices, according to biography.com. She has won several awards including “Woman of the Year” from Ladies Home Journal in 1973 and made several television appearances, including the African-American arts and culture show, “Soul!”
During the 1980s, she spent much time touring. Giovanni also taught at College Mount St. Joseph and Virginia Tech University, where she still works as a professor.
Recently, Giovanni has produced several new works, including “Jimmy Grasshopper Versus the Ants,” “Rosa,” and “Acolytes.”
She also shared a memorable friendship with the late Maya Angelou and the two formed a bond that included friendly kitchen competition.
“We’re not competitors in terms of poetry, but we were competitors in terms of food,” Giovanni said. “We lived about two hours away and she’d call me up and say she’s making chicken and some fancy dressing and I’d say, ‘You know, you’re a good cook, but I’m a better cook and your chicken needs a little more lemon,” Giovanni said, and laughed.
Two years ago, Giovanni suffered a seizure, which not only led her to discovering the benefits of crying— as her new book suggests— but it may lead to the naming of a new disease, she said.
“It’s one of those seizures where you forget things and you have to come back into them,” she said. “My doctor said I have high blood pressure and eat too much junk. I told him that I had a seizure because I never learned to cry and if you don’t learn to cry, you can’t get all of those emotions out. I told him one day there will be a disease called ‘Nikki’ and that he would be the one to invent it.”
A good cry could help most, Giovanni argues.
“It’s a skill. You have to learn to cry. Men, in particular, need to let those emotions out otherwise they’ll be kicking the dog or something,” she said.
Giovanni, a noted activist, said she’s proud of the Black Lives Matter Movement. She said she doesn’t offer them any advice and doesn’t believe older ones should.
“I think our job was done. My generation had to take down signs that said, ‘Colored waiting rooms,’ and we took down segregation. We couldn’t take down racism so we have to allow the young ones to do their jobs,” Giovanni said.
“What I’m looking for as an old black woman is the new music. Black people have bought a sound from the spirituals to hip-hop that explains what’s going on,” she said.
“There has to be a new sound because hip-hop is now classic so something else has to come in that’s protesting. I’m hoping that I live another 10 years to hear what that is because I know it’s going to be good.”