Project Humanities hosts 'An Evening of Poetry and Conversation with Nikki Giovanni'

Nikki Giovanni poster

Perhaps no other poet in recent memory other than Maya Angelou shares the same respect as Nikki Giovanni.

As a poet, writer, social commentator, activist and educator, Giovanni has brought the eyes of the world upon her through her outspokenness, writing and lectures. One of the most widely-read American poets in the last three decades, Giovanni remains as determined and committed as ever to the fight for civil rights and equality.

ASU’s Project Humanities is hosting “An Evening of Poetry and Conversation with Nikki Giovanni” as part of its fall 2014 kickoff. Giovanni will also sign copies of her latest book, "Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid." The event starts at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18 at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St., Mesa. Admission is free, ticketed and open to the general public. Tickets are available here.

Giovanni spoke to us from her office at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where she is a University Distinguished Professor of English. As one of the country’s foremost “truth-tellers,” Giovanni freely spoke her mind to ASU News.

Q: There are many different art forms – music, painting, literature, acting and even standup comedy. What is particularly powerful about poetry?

NG: Poetry is, in all fairness to all other art forms, the basics. If you think about music, music is poetry with an opening and verse. But you mostly remember songs and music because of the rhythm. Of course, there are exceptions like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” I have a very smart friend who’s a mathematician and sends things into space. I recently joked with him, “Don’t you feel you owe a lot to us poets?" He said, “Why’s that?” I said, “Because it was poets who invented math … math didn’t invent poetry.” Oh, he got so upset!

Q: The civil rights and black power movements inspired your early work and poetry. How do you view racism today as opposed to say 50 years ago?

NG: It would be hard to say there’s no racism in today’s world, but clearly it’s no longer acceptable to lynch people anymore. White people just don’t get in their dump trucks and go and burn the black community down. That is gone. However, policemen are still shooting people for no reason, the same as private citizens, who are also shooting people for no particular reason. That said, the recent incident in Ferguson, Missouri, is a throwback, isn’t it? It’s the murder of Emmet Till, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and it’s so sad. I don’t usually agree with the Rev. Al Sharpton but when he asks why the police need guns, let alone or why were the National Guard giving their military weapons to the local police force, it’s a legitimate question. There’s a reason why we separate the military from the police. We’re not a Third World country, and we need to stop acting like it.

Q: You taught Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who killed 37 people and wounded 17 others in 2007. It seems as if random shootings are almost a weekly occurrence in our country.

NG: Gun Control is like the measles, and it’s become a real health hazard. Shootings in malls and schools are so common that it’s become part of our everyday lives. “What did you do today, Mommy?” “Well, I went to school, had lunch and then there was a shooting.” That’s just ridiculous. It’s not something that you want to become desensitized to. We didn’t want to become desensitized to The Black Plague, which wiped out a third of Europe. Nobody wants to become desensitized to horror, and I think we need strong leadership. In all fairness to President Obama, and I’m not anti-Obama, but he has not been courageous in the stand against random violence.

Q: I’m surprised to hear you say this given that you wrote a poem for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

NG: It does annoy me, and I’m not trying to pick on President Obama, that people want to compare him to Dr. King. There’s nothing about Obama that’s like Dr. King. Dr. King was a courageous man who raised his voice for the world, and he knew there could be a heavy price. The heaviest price Mr. Obama could have paid was that he didn’t get re-elected.

Q: In the past, particularly in the 1960s, there was no shortage of political, civic and moral leaders. Who are our leaders today?

NG: That’s the problem now isn’t it? If we didn’t have Jay-Z, Sean Combs, Kanye West or the rappers, who else would be speaking out? By the way, I think there’s something wrong when Kanye West is more courageous than the president.

Q: ASU’s Project Humanities is hosting “An Evening of Poetry and Conversation with Nikki Giovanni” at the Mesa Arts Center on Sept. 18. What is your key message going to be?

NG: Well, first of all, I love people. We all need to improve on liking each other. I’m a big fan of gay marriage and civil rights. If America is to continue being America, we have to look like it. That means we have to be inclusive of everyone – black, brown, red, yellow and white. We have to make sure we include everybody who wants to be included. America has to consciously look like America. In the end, it makes us better people.

Q: Is there a particular takeaway you want people to get that night?

NG: I’ve been shying away from takeaways lately. I’m not a leader. I’m just a poet. But I hope what people will enjoy is the fact that I’m a really good thinker. I’m also a bit of a wicked thinker. I like it when everyone, especially kids, start to think. I want to encourage the youth of today and hope it will spark someone to take us to someplace in 2050. Maybe it will be the kid who invents something crazy and wonderful, and changes all of our lives.

Q: You have a lot of exposure to our future leaders of tomorrow. Do they have the same depth as the students of the ‘60s?

NG: It’s a different kind of depth. We had a different challenge in the 1960s because our mission was very clear: racial discrimination. Today’s youth are facing global challenges that are far more complex and wider in scope. Let me say this, too: I like our kids. I have no question as I grow older, and I am already old … but if I live another 20 years on this earth, I feel that I am very safe in the arms of this generation. I think they’re a phenomenal group. The problem is people want them to be “us” and they’re not going to be “us.” They’re going to be a wonderful “them.”

If you go:

What: An Evening of Poetry and Discussion with Nikki Giovanni

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18

Where: Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St., Mesa

Information: 480-644-6500 or 480-727-7030, or visit