Nikki Giovanni Interview

A legend in literature talks inspiration, food, and Virginia.

Legendary writer Nikki Giovanni has just been awarded one of the Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the poetry industry’s most prestigious awards. Oprah Winfrey named Giovanni one of her “25 Living Legends.”

Konstantin Rega: Where do you find inspiration and the drive to keep going?

Nikki Giovanni: Well, it’s what you’re excited about. I’ve always been interested in food. And I find myself going back to that lately—probably because it’s winter. So I find myself reading about soups and stews. I’m a big fan of the Food Network, too. And I’m not sure I have a bucket list, but if I do: it’s to beat Bobby Flay. 

I’m sure in another six or seven months, I’ll be writing about the flowers coming up. My home is not large, and I don’t have a lot of yard—just have two acres—so it’s such a pleasure to sit out there. When spring comes in, I watch the little animals. We have a mother rabbit and she has babies each spring. But then you worry about the cats coming. But I do have a dog. So she kind of keeps the cats away.

And a lot of that is actually my poetry. 

50 years ago, I was writing about social justice a little more, about changing the world a little more. But when you get to be my age, you kind of say, well, you know, the hell with the world. I’m gonna do what I enjoy doing. And I’m gonna talk about things that excite me, that please me. So that’s where you get food and my animals.

So it seems that you find inspiration in everything in your life.

I’ve always avoided the word “inspiration” because people sort of think that somewhere there’s gonna be a light bulb. But there is a light. And I think that’s in finding those things that interest you and exploring them. 

One of my favorite poems that I wrote, that nobody ever really pays any attention to, is called “Possum Crossing.” So when I back out of my driveway, especially this time of year, I always have to look out. But it wasn’t a possum at all. It was actually a leaf that the wind was blowing, and I was dealing with the leaf trying to live. I hit brakes to avoid it. And then I realized, “Oh, it’s a leaf.” And then I had to make myself think, “Well, is it gonna be okay?”

So there are things that interest you and I think that it’s important that you change and grow with your work. 

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I’m a writer because I can’t sing and I can’t dance. And I’m really very fond of science. And I have worked with NASA these last 10/15 years. I’m working with Dr. Robertson (he’s not an astronaut, just does some of the publicity.) but we’re talking about why don’t we have more artists in space? Why doesn’t NASA send more artists. 

I’m not interested in how do we get the rocket there. I’m just interested in what we see when we get there. Right? And I know that’s maybe lazy of me. But I don’t want to study it. I want to imagine it. 

We are the ones who first thought of it. The poets and the dreamers who saw and asked, “What are the stars saying?” And then the scientist came along and said, “Well, we can go up there and find out.” And that was the way it should be. The poets and the dreamers should always be leading.

So when you look over all you’ve done, are there certain collections or people that kind of stick out during your career?

Well, I think I’m just very fortunate. I was born in 1943. And I think there must be something really special about that. If I could figure out how to make that become, you know, Powerball or something that would be wonderful. But being born right in the middle of World War II, I’ve got to meet the older generation. And I get to meet the younger generation. I got to teach them, too. 

So with your teaching, what do you want to try and pass on to students?

Well, I really would hope that the students that have encountered me learn to trust themselves. I think that’s the main thing that any writer teaches. Trust your voice and trust your dreams. Because all of our dreams won’t come true. But some of them are worth pursuing. Some of them are worth the enjoyment of. 

There’s a clock tick. You may as well do some things that you enjoy, that make you happy, that bring something to you. Because it’s not always about winning. Right? A lot of times, it’s just about being able to do it and enjoy doing it.

Although just retired from teaching at VT, you still live in Virginia, right?

I will always live in Virginia. I was born only a few hours away in Knoxville. So I’m used to the mountains. I love the mountains. So there’s no reason why I should leave. I know that this is our home now. And I guess when I can no longer take care of myself, perhaps my son and daughter-in-law would make a decision about moving and such. 

Is there anything else about the area that you enjoy?

I think anytime you’re in a college town, it’s a rich endowment. And what we lack over here is an adult restaurant. The city or the county or whoever does it needs to invest in a couple of grown up places where there’s a white tablecloth, where people come in and say good evening to you, that sort of thing. We got a lot of pizza places, you know, the kids like their pizza.

And I know how to turn on the news so that I can find out what’s going on. But I’m a reader. And I really would love for us to have a really excellent coffee shop for old ladies like me and older gentlemen. We’ve got, you know, Starbucks and stuff. But I mean, a place to have you some good coffee and pick up a newspaper, and communicate with each other. I think that a community needs to have some places where we can come together like that. 

Communication seems to be key here. So with your poetry, what do you try to communicate?

For me there’s no message really, and I’m not “your message,” either. There are people who are. But I’m just writing what I see. I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do or how to do it. 

And where do you want poetry to go? Where do you think it’s going?

I don’t know where poetry is. But I’ve been writing children’s literature lately. It was the two classes that I taught at Virginia Tech. Right now, I’m working on a book called, A Street Called Mulvaney. Mulvaney was the street my grandparents lived on, which no longer exists in Knoxville. The University of Tennessee took over all of that property. That’s the poetry I’m working on: children’s stories. And that’s what I’m excited about. 

I don’t know what other people are going to do. And I’m not all that interested in what other people do. But I wish all of us well. I really enjoy Kwame Alexander, though.

It kinda seems the younger ones are angry. And you can see that anger. But when you get to be my age, I can’t waste my time. I can’t waste it on being angry about something I can’t do anything about. And I don’t know where they’re gonna go right now with their anger, with their hurt. 

You can always use a little love. And I’m not trying to teach them anything or chide. You have to be careful. You have to realize, “Okay, this is what I love.” That’s what’s important to me.

Find her books at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review,, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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