Books + Comics

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Nikki Giovanni

For teaching me that poems were about more than just rivers.

Illustration by Minna

Illustration by Minna

In a 1975 interview, the poet Nikki Giovanni humbly suggested that her rise to fame in the late ’60s was simply a matter of being “in the right place at the right time.” People were hungry for a young woman’s voice, a radical African-American voice like hers, someone capable of putting so much urgency to the page.

My discovery of her work was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was in sixth or maybe seventh grade, a latchkey child perennially trolling the house for something that would enlighten me. I had taken to raiding my mom’s bookshelves for any material that would illuminate or titillate: books with evidence of some shadowy world of adulthood that was never presented in the books I brought home from the library. I had recently finished Wired, a gossipy tale of the actor/comedian John Belushi’s descent into drug addiction and eventual overdose, and I was looking for something similarly sordid. Instead I found Giovanni’s Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day.

Though it is probably safe to say that Giovanni wasn’t hoping to change the life of a perpetually sad seventh grade white girl from middle-class Minnesota when she committed her words to paper, she did just that. It was a revelation to me, this grown-up poem that not only didn’t rhyme but wasn’t boring, and mentioned zits, corns, and loneliness, loneliness, loneliness. These lines illuminated the hidden truth of girldom as I knew it:

I strangle my words as easily as I do my tears
I stifle my screams as frequently as I flash my smile
it means nothing.

I was in awe. Whoever this Nikki Giovanni was, she knew everything, and she wasn’t keeping it a secret. Is this what being a woman is about? I wondered. “Nothing an overdose / of sex won’t cure of course,” she writes in “Forced Retirement.” Was sex like that, like cocaine? In “Life Cycles,” she names private habits: masturbation, nose-picking, sitting in the dark feeling sad. Is that what being an adult and living on your own means?

And finally, I wondered: Who is this Nikki Giovanni? I examined the book’s bubblegum-pink jacket and thumbed the insides looking for a clue. I could tell she was writing about her own life, because her language was so casual and familiar. She wrote with authority, but she was fallible—she knew her true flaws, and she knew what people around her saw as flaws in her face, her work, her writing, and her determination. The poems were powerful and sweet, with an angry kind of sadness that I often felt, too, about the unjust world women lived in.

In 1967, the year that Giovanni graduated from Fisk University, she self-published her first collection of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk, which was in many ways an extension of her activism in the struggle for civil rights: she was a founding member of Fisk’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she organized a black theatrical group in Cincinnati, Ohio, and planned and supervised the city’s first Black Arts Festival. The book sold more than 10,000 copies within a year of publication (to put that in perspective, for the average collection of poetry, 1,000 would be considered a success). Her readings were often packed events.

Inspired by the elder poet Amiri Baraka’s command to African American poets and writers to create work that spoke loud and clear about their experience, Giovanni did just that and followed up with Black Judgment in 1968 (her publishing ventures left her bankrupt for a period of time). Both books are often described as radical; her words thunder and stride right off the page. In “For Saundra,” Giovanni offers a response to a neighbor who asks why the poet can’t just write a poem about a tree. Giovanni muses that there are no trees in Manhattan, and that anyway, many people had lost their lives in the struggle for civil rights—these are not tree-poem times she is living in:

maybe I shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply

Part of the reason Giovanni’s work was so popular was that she attracted an audience of people who did not usually pay attention to poetry, but who found themselves in the expression of her experiences. Her poems read like people actually spoke—they were, in keeping with the mantra of the moment, personal and political.

In 1970, she edited and published Night Comes Softly, one of the earliest anthologies of poetry by black women, and a year later she was nominated for the National Book Award for Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet. The mother of a young son, she also began writing books for children, including Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People. By the time she got to Cotton Candy, in 1978, some critics found her work too personal. She wasn’t coming across as this invincible feminist voice of black radicalism in America. Early in “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day,” she writes:

It seems no matter how
I try I become more difficult
to hold
I am not an easy woman
to want

By feeling doubtful and dispirited, she was flouting expectations of her work and what everyone wanted Nikki Giovanni to be. She was vulnerable, which is a different kind of fuck you—it was a confession that she was not a superwoman; that she was human and exhausted, that she longed to be loved.

Before I picked up Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, I thought poetry was an old thing, and mostly about rivers if it wasn’t Shakespeare. I lay awake at night worried about nuclear war and what would happen to women in America if abortion became illegal and whether boys would ever notice me. It was a relief to know that grown-up women were riled up about the same things, and that their wide-awake-at-midnight worries led them to do something about it. ♦

18 Comments

  • amanda February 26th, 2013 7:22 PM

    This was wonderful. I remember the day I discovered Nikki. I had just finished a book lent to me by my crush at the time, and it was kinda dark. My English classroom had a bunch of books lying around and I went looking for one to read, to cheer me up or just make me feel a little different, and I found Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. I probably thought “Oh, pink! And cotton candy!” and it was girly in a way Jessica already mentioned, and it was also very me. Like I said, I had just finished a book a boy lent me, his favorite I think, and now I had stepped into my territory, more introspective, smaller, lonely but clear-eyed, and I loved it. That book cuddles you. It speaks the truth, and doesn’t sugar coat it, but just feeling so deeply understood made it seem forever cozy to me.

  • jenaimarley February 26th, 2013 8:11 PM

    I think Pablo Neruda (and his Walking Around) was my Nikki Giovanni in that he taught me that poety is oh so much more than rivers.
    This is a wonderful piece. Thank you for the introduction!

    • AnaRuiz February 27th, 2013 11:29 AM

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for that comment! Pablo Neruda is my favorite poet, because he has a passion for EVERYTHING. “Ode to Things,” “Ode to Tomatoes”, “Ode to the Spoon”, are all examples of his keen awareness. “I like it when you’re silent because it is as if you were absent,” or “the night wind whirls in the sky and sings” are two of his most famous lines. And he has political, aware poems too, but these are less famous because not everyone agrees on his politics, but everyone can agree that love, as much as a spoon or a tomato, are wonderful, wonderful things.

      Anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • sarahf February 26th, 2013 9:12 PM

    literally the best thing ever is literally the best thing ever.

  • erin35 February 26th, 2013 10:19 PM

    I totally agree that she is literally the best thing ever. In my IB English class we studied her poetry for a whole semester in prep for our Orals and got to read about 100 or so of her pieces. She really opened my eyes on poetry because her style is not like many others.

  • wpaigej February 26th, 2013 11:13 PM

    I recently saw when she came to my school for Black History Month and she was hilarious, wonderful, inspirational and just so real. If you ever want to meet her she teaches at Virginia Tech!

  • Teez February 27th, 2013 10:45 AM

    I know that articles like these don’t get so many comments (such as the articles on Labelle and Dance, Dance, Revolution by Jessica, the one on the women of the Harlem Renaissance by Jamia) but PLEASE don’t stop doing them! They are so great and I think it’s a real shame they don’t seem to get as much interest as other articles…hopefully the Rookie readership will come around!

    • Teez February 27th, 2013 10:49 AM

      by ‘like these’ i meant articles on WOC

  • Teez February 27th, 2013 10:46 AM

    (oops Dance, Dance, Revolution was by Julianne my bad)

  • Serena.K February 27th, 2013 11:26 AM

    wow, definitely going to check her out. the lines you picked from “cotton candy on a rainy day” choked me up a little bit. i love vulnerability in poetry.

  • AnaRuiz February 27th, 2013 11:31 AM

    Which poem -or poems- do you absolutely recommend I read so that I can become another blissful fan of Nikki Giovanni?

    • Ren February 28th, 2013 8:54 AM

      her poem Poetry is so good it makes me feel a little sick every time i read it. what more can you ask for?

      read When I Die and then Winter Poem right afterwards – i feel like together they sum up everything pretty much everything it means to be human

      other favourites: kidnap poem, for saundra, crutches

      enjoy!

      • Paulatte March 1st, 2013 7:49 AM

        thank you! such a good selection! and ” When I Die and then Winter Poem– i feel like together they sum up everything pretty much everything it means to be human ” i totally agree!
        all I gotta do is a good poem too.

  • Ren February 28th, 2013 8:42 AM

    this article is perfect
    nikki is perfect

  • Miss Erin March 3rd, 2013 12:40 PM

    Thank you so much for this article, Jessica – this is my favorite kind of thing to read. Really really really good, just, thank you.

  • Joqn Hreno March 5th, 2013 11:15 AM

    Fantastic. I enjoy this column so much. Check out Eve Babitz. I think she is one of the best things ever.

  • Jamia March 12th, 2013 6:21 PM

    I LOVE Nikki Giovanni. I still have a copy of Spin a Soft Black song and another beautiful book of children’s poems. I met her in high school and almost DIED because of the glee my heart felt. Swoon.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 15th, 2013 11:44 AM

    She sounds amazing! I’ll have to look into her work asap.