She started off by saying she was mad. The audience, which excitedly awaited any words from poet Nikki Giovanni, seemed relieved at the news. A poet's anger somehow seems a comforting sign. When she announced "her heart was broken" because Tracy Austin had beaten Martina Navratilova in the U.S. Open, Giovanni did not wait to see if her audience accepted the legitimacy of her gripe. Instead, she talked about age.
"If you are a woman, one of the nicest things you do is grow old," she said. Giovanni paused as cheers came from the crowd of 300 at Washington International College this weekend. "And the men this evening," she continued, "one of the nicest things you do is mature." Again applause burst from the audience, most of whom were women who have grown with her.
Giovanni's command of a crowd is one of the reasons her popularity is steady. Now 38, a distant decade from the biting brilliance of the 1960s black poetry movement that swept her along as the baby participant, she is one of the most requested black speakers in the country today. Her poems remain spare punches. Her appearance hasn't changed. The petite look and shrill whispers are still familiar.
When she read her standards, "Nikki Rosa," and "I Was Born in the Congo," her fans said the words with her. When she read her new works, about John Lennon and evolution, they listened respectfully. When she did "That Day," from her last book, "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day," they laughed and shrieked. if you've got the key then i've got the door let's do what we did when we did it before if you've got the time i've got the way let's do what we did when we did it all day.
The standing-room-only crowd listened intently as she spoke about Jerry Falwell, sleeping around, illiteracy, "the surrogate mother thing," and the Supreme Court. Through it all, her message was clear: Individual courage, backed by the historic resilience of black people in times of trouble, is the necessary commodity of the 1980s.
"What right have you to decide you can't make it? People made it when we were less than human beings," she shouted, making eye contact with almost everyone in the room. "Don't decide in 1981 that you can't make it." At the same time she criticized lack of collective support, love and anger among blacks. "We are letting little kids get shot in the back for stealing a bicycle," said Giovanni. "You and I will find a reason not to connect to the pain of another black person, or the joy. You have to straighten up if you want someone to love you."
Then she launched into the topic of love, quickly returning to her point. "We have to be concerned about who we are, not who Ronald Reagan says you are . . . If nobody else believes in you, you don't have to agree."
Since she first published in the late 1960s, Giovanni has been in the vanguard of popularizing black poetry. Back then she was writing poems such as "No Name No. 2": Bitter Black Bitterness Black Bitter Bitterness Bitterness Black Brothers Bitter Black Get Blacker Get Bitter Get Black Bitterness NOW.
In addition to nine books of her own, Giovanni has offered dialogues with literary elders, James Baldwin and Margaret Walker, bringing them to a larger audience. In 1971 she had a best-selling album of her poetry. She has also written for children. In 1973 she was nominated for a National Book Award. Giovanni, who says she is the highest-paid living poet in the country, has a strenuous lecture schedule, is preparing a new book for next year and lives with her son, Tommy 11, and her parents in Cincinnati.
After the reading, she talked about the condition of black writers and publishing. She has experienced what she feels is a current lack of interest in black themes. Reviews of her last book, "Vacation Time Finally," were buried, she complained. And a major magazine solicited and then rejected her appraisal of Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby," saying it was "too poetic," and didn't didn't bother to substitute another review.
"There is a crisis in publishing. There is a poverty of editors . . . most of our black editors are no longer employed and that has to be impacting negatively on young black writers. The memo seems to be that women -- and publishers are kind of tired of women right now -- were replacing their need for minorities. And right now the Holocaust seems to be making a big comeback," said Giovanni.
In conversation, as well as in public speaking, her style is strictly staccato. When asked about her own evolution, she bristles. "Every book I've done since my first book has always been a gentler book in terms of the critics. I suffer from what is called the 'Chester Himes syndrome.' Every time a new book comes out they say his last one was better. In my case the new one is always more acceptable. And the one before that was less acceptable. And I think that is because I have not disappeared. So if they have to put up with me, then critics think I must be gentler," said Giovanni.
She has changed. "I see a lot more grays than I used to," she said. "But I think that's a function of youth. Why be young and see grays? There's nothing worse than a gray young person. See it black or white."
Her ideas on writers are still very plain. "David Lewis, who wrote 'When Harlem was in Vogue,' researched the absolute living crap out of it, wrote it beautifully. Chet Fuller did 'I Heard Them Call My Name.' You know there are people writing," says Giovanni. In fiction, she says, "There's Toni Morrison and there's nobody . . . Right now as far as the novel in America is concerned, there's Toni. Norman Mailer had his shot, Alex Haley did a biography. I happened to be a fan, but I am fair . . . Of the writers who are doing novels, who has done four original books? Philip Roth has written the same story forever; Truman Capote contemplates what's left of his navel; Gore Vidal hasn't had a new idea in a long, long time, and he is probably the wittest of the white writers. Literally speaking, this has got to be the age of Toni Morrison."
Though she has been called a messenger and a witness, Giovanni feels defining her own role has to be left to others. "I am just a colored poet," she said. "I don't have a role or a life style. People want to make you something you couldn't possibly be. I am a poet who talks to people."