Giovanni's poems touch something in all of us


There she sits on a stool, her hands clasped and wearing black slacks and a striped shirt that seems way too big for that diminutive body. The smile is almost pixieish and mischievous, as though she knows something we don't.

It's the cover picture on Nikki Giovanni's new book, "The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni."

Tonight , Giovanni will be at the Bibelot book and music store in Pikesville on the second stop of her 10-city tour, reading poetry and autographing copies of her book to promote her latest literary effort. She's already been to Richmond, and by the time the tour ends in late February or early March it will have taken her to New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and Detroit.

"Selected Poems" is a compilation of the best work taken from six previous Giovanni poetry books. They literally span a generation, from the late 1960s, when her first volume of poetry ++ was published, to 1995's "Stardate Number 18628.190," which Giovanni wrote to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine.

The poetry volumes, five books of prose, six children's books and four works she has edited were all completed since the birth of her only child, Thomas Watson Giovanni, who graduated magna cum laude from Morehouse College in 1994 and now attends Georgetown University Law School.

"I'm really proud of him," Giovanni said during a telephone interview. She seemed almost hesitant to talk about her own life. I had to coax her to tell me why, for example, the dean of women at Fisk University kicked her out of school in the early 1960s after Giovanni had spent but a semester there.

"A lot of kids got kicked out," recalled Giovanni, 52. "She kicked the entire newspaper staff out." Giovanni was part of that staff, and she suspects that she and others got the heave-ho for printing stories the dean, Ann Cheatham, didn't particularly want to read. But she continued her literary efforts, despite a 1968 incident in which a faculty member at the Columbia School of Fine Arts told her she couldn't write.

"It's important for writers not to take these people seriously," Giovanni said of the cognitively challenged pedagogue who uttered such nonsense. "They'll depress you." We should thank our lucky stars such philistines didn't depress Giovanni. We wouldn't have gotten this exquisite volume of poetry, which Giovanni -- being the consummate artist she is -- uses to touch all of us across race, class and gender. Read, for example, her "A Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy":

Trees are never felled in summer Not when the fruit is yet to be borne Never before the promise is fulfilled Not when their cooling shade has yet to comfort

But there are those unheeding of nature indifferent to ecology ignorant of need who with ax and sharpened saw would in boots step forth damaging

Not the tree for it falls But those who would in summer's heat or winter's cold contemplate the beauty

Has anyone given us more poignant verse describing the futility most of us felt about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, or for that matter the entire depressing year of 1968? Twenty-eight years later, 1968 -- which started out with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and went straight down the toilet -- still depresses. Giovanni captures that feeling in one poem.

So if you're free from 7:30 to 9:30 tonight, you might want to stop by Bibelot and talk to Giovanni. But be forewarned: This is no shrinking violet you're dealing with here, and no feminist ideologue either. She is a professor of English at Virginia Tech, one who teaches athletes and feels strongly about what she perceives as unjust slings and arrows hurled at black male athletes.

"If you read the papers, you'd think black athletes rape women on a regular basis," Giovanni said. The athletes she teaches are "very disciplined," she said, adding what will definitely be fuel to this fire by contending that some women who cry rape are actually "crying wolf."

"Have you seen that button women wear that says 'What part of no don't you understand?' " she asked. "Men should have a button that reads, 'What part of yes do you mean?' " Society has, in its own way, made pariahs of black athletes, Giovanni believes, so don't even try to convince her that Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington in that Indianapolis hotel room.

She feels the same about rap star Tupac Shakur, who was convicted of sexually abusing a woman in his hotel room. Rock stars do the same thing Shakur was accused of doing, Giovanni asserted, but "I don't remember one rock star ever going to jail." Feminists heading to the Bibelot tonight had best prepare themselves to lock horns with Giovanni, who insists she is no kindred spirit to them.

"I've never had much of the feminist way of thinking," she said.

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