Tuesday, March 22, 2011

So Nikki Giovanni doesn't read poetry

So there's this interview with Nikki Giovanni in The Writer's Chronicle, and the interviewer, Chapman Hood Frazier, asks her in about five different ways who her favorite poets are:
  • "What are the books that have been balls of light for you?"
  • "Do you have key books that have influenced you?"
  • "If you were to create a lineage of key influences on your work, now, looking back on your evolution as a writer, who would you pick?"
  • "Do you read other poets? Are there particular poets who you read, or do you read when you are writing?"
  • "So there are no specific writers who really influenced how you write in particular?" (Seriously.)
Each time she dodges. Finally she admits that she doesn't read poetry, because she doesn't "want to get tied up in somebody else's vision": "I try to make sure I don't get influenced." The kicker is that then Frazier, who has really painted himself into a corner here, has to pretend that's some big new idea ("That's a really interesting perspective...") when he's probably been arguing with students on this point for fifteen years. I mean that is classic freshman overactive anxiety of influence right there.

I mean, who cares if she reads poetry; she's Nikki Giovanni. I just find it hilarious that Frazier pushed the issue so hard.


  1. Wow. Is she any good? (I know she's famous, but I've never read her.)

  2. Her work doesn't do much for me, personally. I go for long periods of time without reading poetry, but her reason made me laugh out loud. It's funny to think of a grand dame saying something so juvenile. And I wonder what the interviewer was -hoping- she'd say?

  3. I've never read more than a few poems. She's historically important as a black woman writer. She did redeem herself somewhat by saying she pays more attention to spoken word, but the influence excuse strikes me as a little silly. Apparently she tells her students not to read too much poetry too.

  4. Isn't the essence of being a good poet knowing how to take the good stuff from other poets and make it your own? It's good of Nikki Giovanni to admit she doesn't know how to do that...

  5. Well, she doesn't read poetry and poets don't read her.

  6. Wow! I'm always arguing with students who bring up that same stupid defense for why they don't read ANYTHING, not just poetry.

  7. I love her essay regarding tips for first year black college students but, Like Alice Walker--whose essays I often like--her poems are not happening. I've read an interview with her in which it's clear she does/didn't have a clue what blank verse is.

  8. The old blank verse/free verse confusion?

  9. Yep--wow i didnt know that's a cliche confusion!

  10. It's seemed to me for a long time that most writers seem to center themselves on one type of writing -- one genre, to use the fancy word -- though they may make efforts in other types of writing too.

    So, for instance, Walt Whitman, who also wrote lots of prose; or T.S. Eliot, who also wrote plays, essays, literary criticism, etc.; Langston Hughes, who also wrote novels, autobiography/memoir stuff, did translating (his translations of Lorca are among my favorites); to name three off the top of my head.

    Also, some writers seem to do better at teaching than at writing. I'd guess most of us who are writers can name teachers we've had whose writing we didn't find especially exciting -- if they wrote at all -- but we loved them as teachers.

    Hemingway wrote a few poems, though that's not what he'll be remembered for. Alice Walker has written poetry, though probably she'll be best known for her novels. I haven't read enough of Nikki Giovanni's poetry to have a strong opinion, though it may be her real strength lies in areas of writing other than poetry. Or maybe she's an instance of someone who's a stronger teacher than a writer as such.

    Just speculating. There are a few instances here and there of writers who worked strongly in more than one type of writing -- Kenneth Rexroth comes to mind, and Margaret Atwood. Though I don't find that happens very often.

  11. Frazier didn't just ask what poets she reads, he asks about books: what books were "balls of light" (eye-roll), what were her influences, and "So there are no specific writers who really influenced how you write in particular." Does Giovanni read *anything*?

    Mediocre writers certainly can be good editors, so they may be high-functioning workshop leaders, able to get thru each semester, pleasing their undergraduate students, but the teachers who have had the biggest impact on my writing were the teachers who read a lot and who read with the kind of depth that comes from reading experience. These were teachers who could direct me to work that would help me solve my specific writing problems.

    So, Elisa, I haven't read the article. Does she read anything?

  12. Adam, she tells him that she reads of a lot of history, and names some other nonfiction and fiction that likes. I think he kept pressing the issue because he didn't want to accept that she wasn't an active reader of poetry.

    It does seem like it would be hard to lead a poetry workshop if you weren't an avid reader of poetry -- how would you contextualize your students' work?

  13. Exactly. Context!

    My suspicion is that she's afraid less of influence and more of discovering she's not what she thinks she is--whatever that may be, and including good.

  14. I've seen her read. Maybe she had a Tupac tattoo? I remember her being really charming and fun. Not her poems. I don't remember those whatsoever. Her banter. I remember her saying not to worry about taking out student loans. That if bill collectors call you later you can tell them you'd like to set up a steady payment schedule--for five dollars a month. She talked about dress shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue too. Pretty sure she was dress shopping for a reading at the White House. I could have misremembered all of this.