Arts | Books

Poet Nikki Giovanni's 'Chasing Utopia': On Family, Friendship & Food 

OPB | Feb. 27, 2014 2 p.m.

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Chasing Utopia

Nikki Giovanni

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Poet Nikki Giovanni is not a beer drinker.

So when she found herself in the position of having to drink one, to honor her mother’s life, she made sure that it was the best she could find. On the planet.

After the passing of her mother, Giovanni took a good bit of time to contemplate her feelings and process the monumental loss.

“I’m a big fan of mourning; I think you should take time to mourn,” she says.

And through an admittedly one-sided conversation with her Yorkshire terrier, Alix, at her home in Virginia, Giovanni came to realize what it would take to put the pieces back together.

“After the six or seventh day that I poured a glass of wine, Alix was looking at me like, ‘Again?’”

“My mother was a beer drinker,” she continues, “and I thought to myself, ‘Alix, you’re right.’ I have to stop. I can’t just sit around and drink wine and be sad. And so I said, ‘Let’s drink a beer for the old girl and start to move on.’”

Since Giovanni doesn’t actually like beer, she set out to drink the best beer possible. After a bit of research, she discovered Utopias, a particularly rare and sought-after beer produced by New England beer label Sam Adams and sold at over $200 a bottle.

“And so that’s what started it,” she says, referring to her most recent release, Chasing Utopia.

Born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Giovanni has had a long and celebrated career as a poet-artist and activist with a focus on feminism and civil rights. Her poetry and writing can be found in more than 30 books, beginning with her publication Black Feelings, Black Talk in 1968.

Giovanni was particularly active in social movements in the early 1970s. As a professor at Queens College in New York, she published Night Comes Softly, an anthology of poetry by African-American women. The publication gave voice to relatively unknown poets, as well as more established authors like Margaret Walker and Mari Evans.

Nikki Giovanni giving a lecture in the 1970s

Nikki Giovanni giving a lecture in the 1970s

Charles Caldwell

Soon after, Giovanni became a staple on black-themed television programming of the time. Her presence on Soul!, which aired on WNET in New York from 1967 to 1972, helped make Giovanni a household name. Her appearance with other historical icons like Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier and Gladys Knight helped bring poetry into the national conversation for African-Americans in urban cities and inspired a generation of African-American women, including Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey referred to Giovanni as one of her 25 “Living Legends.”

Giovanni’s latest book Chasing Utopia, subtitled “A Hybrid” for its mix of poetry and prose, explores the topics of family and friendship, fantasy and food. Her stories use personal connections between people and things to craft a compilation of writing that serves as both memoir and whimsical abstraction.

Many of the themes in Giovanni’s new book revolve around loss, as she explores how the passing of family members and loved ones led her to contemplate certain realities, including her changing role in her community.

“My mother died in June, my sister died in August, my aunt died in October,” she says. “I went from being the baby in the family to being an elder, actually.”

Though Giovanni has a large body of work, and at age 70 could be contemplating her literary legacy, Chasing Utopia is not intended to be anything more than a collection of stories. 

“I’m not looking to write the ‘great American poem,’ none of that crap,” Giovanni says. “Chasing Utopia is meaningful to me because I thought when Mommy died, I needed to [move on]. You don’t forget your mother, you don’t close it out, it’s not going to be one of those things. But I needed to do something that represented what Mommy represented.”

Listen to Nikki Giovanni’s interview on Think Out Loud:

Giovanni’s career as a poet, activist and writer has spanned an astounding 30 years. When asked what Chasing Utopia’s memoir-like qualities might represent about her legacy, she remained honest and open about what the future holds.

“I fly home tomorrow. If the plane goes down, then this book becomes a statement about me, doesn’t it? And if the plane doesn’t go down and I get another book, it becomes a part of a larger library,” she says.

“I am, truly, the quintessential existentialist. So all I am is in whatever moment that I am in. In that moment, that’s where I am.”

Giovanni is currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech.

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