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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with poet Nikki Giovanni: "Social comforting"

We caught up with Nikki Giovanni, activist, mother, professor, firebrand, healer and sage, and one of the leading poets of her generation.

Nikki is "social comforting with her family, dog, and fish in their dusty mountain home" near the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Q: Any fresh news from your life?

A: I’m excited my latest book Make Me Rain is scheduled for October 2020 publication. That makes me happy because I am a jazz fan which is where the title comes from. I guess the thing that really pleases me is I get to give a shout out to Marvin Gaye on the cover photo. [His 1971 album] What’s Going On had Gaye in the rain so I have a raincoat but the sky is blue.

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.

Here's a poem, "Heritage," from A Good Cry:


(for Walter Leonard)

The folk here

Are old

There are wheel

Chairs and people


To push them

There are sad

eyed people looking

Up from beds they

Cannot stretch out


And some simply cannot

Move their heads

All will become something precious

Sapphires . . . Emeralds . . . Rubies which

Will be discovered

By other explorers who

Will polish and shape

The stones

And we will wear them

Never knowing

Whose loved one

We have


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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