At several points yesterday afternoon, Nikki Giovanni mentioned she is not friendly. We laughed loud at the start, because she had already shared stories about her life with grace and wit. I could feel her presence close, as though she were talking to a small audience instead of a jam-packed auditorium. (Why didn’t they open up the room, taking down the wall and pulling out the seats, this is Nikki Giovanni we’re talking about.)
But each time she described herself as not friendly we laughed a little less. With the repetition it resembled a joke told too many times. I have to admit wondering whether she was aware she had used the phrase before, because she also did tell some rambling stories, with a manner that you are not surprised to hear from a grandmother (which she is).
Slowly I awoke to what she intended by not friendly. She simply meant that she does not have many friends. It’s clear that she can make friends; she befriended Rosa Parks after spotting her in an airport during a layover. It’s also clear that she can confide personal details, writing and speaking about her inability to weep until recently, about how she straightened up her father as he approached death, about how she conceptually married her mother and they lived together for decades, about how she’s going to hell but will get a day pass to heaven. So she can make friends and can share herself with strangers. But still, she doesn’t make friends easy.
She is a black woman and a public figure. She has learned to be mindful about trusting others. She knows the score, she has lived through segregation and still every day she observes the attitudes that many whites hold against blacks, that many men hold against women. She sees this with clarity and speaks it with humor. She is personable but she is not friendly.
At every single poetry reading I have attended, the backstories are more engaging than the poems themselves, because the published poems represent only the tip of the iceberg of experience. We engage and learn more as we hear about the process of development of the poem and of the poet. While her informal delivery was considerably more warm than usual, this was also true of Nikki Giovanni’s reading. It’s strange to me that this has become our convention at poetry readings. Shouldn’t poems speak for themselves?
But poems are short (or, if they are long, our attention is short). And why go to a poetry reading when we can read the words ourselves on paper or screen? It’s because we are interested in the poet herself. The poem is the rosary bead; we want to hear the prayer. We are interested in creating a human connection with the poet and the rest of the audience. We seek the theatrical and performative.
When it comes to public presentation, novelists and short-story writers are like humanities professors. Philosophers and historians prepare their manuscripts ahead of time in order to read them verbatim at conferences. In contrast, scientists prepare slides and then refer to them while speaking off the cuff. In this way, scientists are like poets.
Nikki Giovanni is 75, which she recommends. It is better, she said, than being 50 or 25. I hope to discover what she means through direct experience. Yesterday she delivered a talk “Dying by Ignorance, Living by Words, Creating by Grace”.