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  • NYS Writers Institute

Nikki Giovanni: "We need poetry because it brings the light of love"

Nikki Giovanni's new collection, Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose, published earlier this week, speaks to the injustices of society while illuminating the depths of her own heart. She celebrates her loved ones and unapologetically declares her pride in her black heritage, while exploring the enduring impact of the twin sins of racism and white nationalism.

Giovanni reaffirms her place as a uniquely vibrant and relevant American voice with poems such as “I Come from Athletes” and “Rainy Days”—calling out segregation and Donald Trump; as well as “Unloved (for Aunt Cleota)” and “When I Could No Longer”—her personal elegy for the relatives who saved her from an abusive home life. 

An excerpt from Make Me Rain.

Poetry is like a child in many ways: it grows and grows adding whatever is needed: teeth, longer legs, a mind that discriminates.

Or maybe its like a thorn tree: it grows but you have to be careful how you touch it or how it touches you. It can be beautiful but it can also hurt.

We hear poetry from the moment we are conceived. Our mothers sing songs to us in the womb while she smiles and anticipates. The old days were better than the new because then no one knew who we were so everyone could guess and smile and tell our mothers who we would be. No one knows what a good poem is, either. We read it or we hear it but it will be a long time before we truly understand what an impact the poem will have.

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A Q&A with Nikki we first published April 24.

Q: Is there anything you'd like us to read?

A: I’m a big fan of Kwame Alexander and anything he is creating is well worth reading. I also love a young writer named Renee Watson. I have been reading and re-reading them.

Q: Any words of wisdom for us?

A: If there were words of wisdom don’t you think we all would know them by now? Oh, I guess I should say look out for the lies.

Q: Is there anything we should be doing to comfort ourselves?

A: I sincerely think you should fry your chicken slowly in butter. There is no rush. And do us all a favor: No Batter.

Q: Is there any skill you'd like us to try to perfect?

A: As the t-shirt says: Be Yourself. All others are taken. Also, I think life is interesting so I think we should enjoy living it. I guess the most important part is not learning to give love but learning to accept love.

Q: How can we cope with social distancing?

A: The best part of the phone system now is you can call anyone anywhere. Do you know the young people don’t even know what a party line is or that you had to pay for long distance?

Q: What do you do to stay active?

A: I mostly dream.

Nikki Giovanni is a seven-time NAACP Image Award winner, and the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. She visited the University at Albany in October 2019 to celebrate a half century of excellence at UAlbany's Department of Africana Studies.

The photo above shows her with UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez, his wife Rosy Lopez, and NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl. See a slideshow of photos from the event. The first in the SUNY System to grant the master’s degree in Africana Studies, the Department of Africana Studies ranks first in its field nationally for graduate degree conferrals and in the top ten for undergraduate conferrals.

During her visit, she presented her book, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (paperback, 2018), a wide-ranging memoir about the joys and perils of aging; the violence of her parents’ marriage and her early life; the people who have given her life meaning; the grandparents who took her in and saved her life; the poets and thinkers who influenced her; and the students who gave her life purpose.

More about Nikki Giovanni at

Video: Nikki Giovanni at the University at Albany

Video: Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin

In November, 1971, Nikki Giovanni joined James Baldwin for a wide-ranging conversation aired on the PBS program Soul!, an entertainment/variety/talk show that promoted black art and culture and political expression. The video was recorded in London and it was later published under the title A Dialogue in 1973.

During the talk, Baldwin had this to say about the condition of being a writer:

"The very first thing a writer has to face is that he cannot be told what to write. You know, nobody asked me to be a writer; I chose it. Well, since I’m a man I have to assume I chose it; perhaps in fact, I didn’t choose it. But in any case, the one thing you have to do is try to tell the truth. And what everyone overlooks is that in order to do it — when the book comes out it may hurt you — but in order for me to do it, it had to hurt me first."


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