For a 17-year-old black girl whose failure seemed imminent, guaranteed and certain, finding Nikki Giovanni proved to be a testament of possibilities.
When I first saw a book of poetry by a black woman for sale in a bookstore, it was like looking in a mirror and seeing not a face but a reflection of a future that didn't include heartbreak, disappointment, suicide or anguish. Rather, I saw a future fraught with the hard tasks of intellectual introspection, spiritual reckoning and writing.
The writing proved to be the most difficult. The black teen-aged girl I was then knew I would, most times, be writing for my very life.
Writing made me selfish because of the solitude it demanded. And I knew early on that writing, and any recognition to come from it, would slam a wedge of jealousy between envious onlookers and myself.
But I knew there'd also be as many lovers.
In the winter of my junior year at Greenhills High School -- Nov. 19, 1982, to be exact -- I bought a $2.95 copy of Giovanni's The Women and the Men at the bookstore in Tri-County Mall. I didn't know what I was getting into.
I didn't understand what its poems said, except that it was over my head. I knew this full well, even as I thumbed through the slender book.
I bought it, anyway.
Back then, I was getting a $5 per week allowance that, along with babysitting income, went to gas, lunch, recreation, books and magazines.
Three bucks for a book set me back. Twenty years later, I still have it. Sometime between high school and dropping in and out of college, I studied it when I first thought I was a poet.
A few weeks ago, my fingers felt numb, my limbs went hollow and my pulse quickened as I prepared to dial Giovanni's phone number at Virginia Tech University. I interviewed her for a preview piece for her appearance at the University of Cincinnati (see Poetic Equations).
I was suddenly panicked by the thought of having scripted lame questions. It was too late. The phone was ringing. I'd just be charming. I'd done no real research. I was an idiot.
"Giovanni," she answered, not with anticipation but with interruption.
She was experiencing minor computer problems. Our conversation was just that -- a conversation -- from which I managed to eke a short story. I had to name that tune in about 700 words, and I could've easily gone on for 1,000 more.
That's the problem and the honor inherent in calling to interview someone who's surpassed idolatry. You've got to boil all that respect, admiration and nuance down to a digestible story.
As a journalist, I've been blessed to have met, interviewed or been introduced to real legends. I'm talking now about people on album covers in my living room who've lived what I hear coming from my speakers. I've always tried to write like a Jazz or Hip-Hop cut.
I've interviewed and/or met Jazz titans Ron Carter and Dave Brubeck, Freedom Singers founder and Sweet Honey in the Rock anchor Bernice Johnson Reagon, Classical composer John Adams, poets jessica care Moore and Saul Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Jazz/Rock drummer Cindy Blackman, Hip-Hop impresario Hi-Tek and so many others.
I've even interviewed Fiona Apple and The Fairfield Four and gotten laudatory e-mails from Chocolate Genius. I've hung out with Jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jazz vocalist Renee Marie and Jazz legend Shirley Horn, who invited me to her Washington, D.C. home for a fish dinner.
These people rock my world. But they didn't make me nervous. They didn't rattle me.
Giovanni was vastly different. It could have been because she's the only writer with some amount of history. She's not a peer writer -- she's an elder. I think it's that she's from Cincinnati and I've spent most of my significant years here developing my craft and myself.
Giovanni lives. Therefore, I know this city cannot possibly kill, stifle, extinguish or rid itself of me.
Giovanni thrives as her cornrowed, tattooed outspoken self. That means I can, too.
My own potential was palpable as I tried deciphering The Women and the Men 20 years ago. Giovanni realized herself and she remains. So, then, could I.
So, then, do I.
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