Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

How to Become a Poet

BOND: But -- but Nikki Giovanni, the poet whom the world knows, and Yolanda Giovanni, the school girl whom school mates and teachers know, these are different people. I mean, they're the same but they're different people. So I guess what we're interested in is how you got from that, to this, and when did you begin to think about writing poetry. I know you talked about declamations and speech making and so on. When did that begin to seem to you to be something you could do all the time?

GIOVANNI: Well, it's something I'm still thinking about.

BOND: Or how did you begin to think about it?

GIOVANNI: In college because I think I put strange things together, I mean you know that. I'm always looking for how do you mix oil and water, you know, one of those kind of things. In college obviously you're going to get to poetry because that's the only form that allows you to do that with any kind of consistency. And so I was at Fisk, and I mean, what is Fisk if not the arts? I know Fisk has labs and stuff. Fisk is an art school. I always enjoyed the writing. But also I enjoyed the process of the newspaper, the literary magazines. It's always the story. I'm an Appalachian. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, by the way, and eastern Tennessee is known for its storytelling. I'm always proud to say it because I think she's a swell person, you know -- probably the almost famous storyteller out of eastern Tennessee is Dolly Parton. She tells stories through song. James Agee, you know. But I tell stories through poetry. Once you realize what's driving that engine is a story, then you think, "Okay then, what stories do I want to tell?" My editor is Kelli Martin who is a wonderful young lady always talks about, "Well, what is the mission of this book?" And I hadn't really thought about books as having missions. But I think when I looked at my work each book does have a mission. It's trying to tell us stories. Trying to get an idea and a thought across. And so --

BOND: But back before then, you know, for someone to say "I'm a poet" seems extraordinary to me. I've written poetry years and years ago. Years and years ago.

GIOVANNI: Look at that guy shake that thing. I'll always remember that. That's a lovely poem.

BOND: But when I was at -- when I was in college, Langston Hughes was the only living poet I knew. What -- who are models for you at Fisk and even before, when you thought about poetry as a life?

GIOVANNI: Well sure. Well, there's Gwen. I'm not a big fan of "role model" as a term, but Gwen Brooks, of course, who is a great poet and quite an honor for me to know, and actually Gwen was born -- oh no, I was born on Gwen's birthday -- but we're all June 7th babies. And of course there was Langston. But I was taught by Leslie Collins who was not a major renaissance poet, but he's a minor renaissance poet. I was taught by Robert Hayden who was an English teacher at Fisk. I was taught by Aaron Douglas, my art professor at Fisk. I mean, Fisk was so rich with -- again with the arts. And, of course, Fisk had the -- we had a lot of speakers coming in and things. So it's always around it.

But I don't -- I'm always hesitant when people talk about role models because most of life is not about what you see, but what you dream. And we were talking about Emma Stokes or Miss Delaney or my grandmother or any number of other -- Mrs. Black, you don't know and we haven't discussed -- who was in the church, the O'Neill sisters and things like that that make me cry. But the main thing is that people kept saying, "There's something more to be done." They probably did a little better job of saying it. It would be like, "Well, and what do you think?" So I always thought that my job was to think beyond what was known which means that I don't know I guess consciously when I started reading Alfred North Whitehead -- so that's what sixth, seventh grade? Something like that -- I didn't understand a lot about higher mathematics yet I thought, "Okay, if I'm reading Whitehead because I like space and I like -- we have to do something with math, right?" So I'm missing a lot about the physics but I'm getting the idea. You're going to take what you know and you're going to keep going forward.

If that's the case you going to come up with something different. This is what I'm trying to say. So it's not -- it's not a role model. It's not what has been done. It's what hasn't been done. I guess if I credited all those -- and essentially they are women -- if I credited all those women in my life, what they showed me was that, "Yeah, so you make a mistake. Big deal. You tried to do something." So if I took one thing from Knoxville, Tennessee -- in fact, I took more than one -- but if I took one thing it's like "Yeah, so you made a mistake, big deal."