Thursday, June 03, 1999

Poet Nikki Giovanni's art not for sissies




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My friends know I'd rather watch Seinfeld reruns than improve my mind. Nice people, they refuse to give up. I am warmed by the memory of Susan pawing through her purse during a particularly tiresome lecture. She found a cherry LifeSaver with hardly any lint on it and passed it down the row to me.

        “Now, shut up,” she said graciously.

        But of course I never do, grumbling at each new effort to expand my intellectual horizons.

        “There's somebody I want you to meet,” my friend Deidra said 15 years ago. “She's a poet.”

        Oh, boy. That should be a lot of fun. Maybe we can order lunch in iambic pentameter.

        “She's not that kind of poet,” Deidra said.

        And she's not. She is Nikki Giovanni.

        For 30 years, she has been the exquisitely angry voice of black America, the woman the New York Times calls the “Princess of Black Poetry.” Now, the Washington Post says she's a “venerable lioness.”

        When, I wondered, did she get to be venerable? Only yesterday we were worrying about our kids, wondering how they'd turn out, laughing through a cigarette haze. Her son, Thomas, now is an attorney with a very fancy New York law firm.

        She was, even then, rather famous. But not rich. She lived with her mother in Lincoln Heights and taught some very lucky students at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

        I got to know her well enough to let her beat me at tennis. (This would not be her version.) When she was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago, I pushed my way into her hospital room when she was still woozy, pestering her doctor for reassurances.

Critter conscious
        I do not kid myself, pretending I am a large part of her life, but she is a significant part of mine. She has told me things that I could not hear from anybody else, that I would not hear from anybody else. She has taught white-bread me something about being black in America.

        Since she moved to Virginia to teach English to more lucky college students, we have rarely spoken. But she generously passes along her thoughts at least every other year with a new book. She's touring with her latest, Blues for All the Changes (William Morrow, $15.)

        We met up at the cafe at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Norwood. Nikki has been playing with her hair. It's in close, blond ringlets. She wears a blue, oxford cloth shirt, with a man's tie knotted loosely at the open neck. She looks good. Healthy?

        “Yes,” she says. “All clear.”

        Her plan, she says, is to negotiate a truce with her cancer. “I'd like an agreement that we will live together for another 30 years.” Her next book will be about what she calls her “cancer encounter.”

        Blues is about that and almost everything else. Jackie Robinson and road rage and Kenneth Starr and expanding thighs and modern slavery and Tupac Shakur. She writes movingly about the wildlife around her home and her pitched battle with developers who would “come with their real live Tonka toys and cut a hill down to white boy size.”

        She has an opinion about everything. “Was she always like this?” I ask her sixth-grade teacher, Sister Althea Augustine.

        “She was always a brilliant young lady,” the nun replies. “Profound.”

        Not to mention honest, outrageous, generous, angry, kind, funny, raw. Her poetry is by turns a rant and a love story. Always instructive. Never boring. Beautifully metered.

        There is talk now about a national dialogue on race. That's probably a good idea, very enlightening. My friends will sign up for the lecture series. Myself, I prefer to have this conversation with somebody who can give me a great big dose of education without candy.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE