Melissa Harris-Perry, 12/15/13, 12:39 PM ET

'Chasing Utopia' with Nikki Giovanni

Author and poet Nikki Giovanni joins Nerdland to talk about her works including “Chasing Utopia,” and talks about the experiences that have inspired her to...

Nikki Giovanni reflects on ‘Chasing Utopia,’ and other struggles

Updated

Acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni joined Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday to discuss her latest book, Chasing Utopia, and to perform her beloved poem Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).

Giovanni, an English professor at Virginia Tech, spoke about her experience coping with the death of her mother, which she writes about in the book’s opening essay. In her process of mourning, Giovanni reflected on seeing her mother drinking a beer every day, and decided to find the top beer available to drink in her mother’s memory. After doing some reading, she determined that to be Utopias by Sam Adams–and her subsequent search for the hard-to-find beer led to naming the essay (and larger book) “Chasing Utopia.”

In her book, Giovanni also discusses her experience visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She told host Melissa Harris-Perry she’d traveled there to visit Marvalene Hughes, a friend and the president of Dillard University at that time. Seeing the damage the storm had inflicted on the university library. “I would have given anything to be able to just write a check for a million dollars to be able to rebuild it,” she said. 

Instead, Giovanni asked herself, “What do you have Nikki, that can make a difference?”

That reflection led her to donate a collection of first editions of her books. The books had to be held in storage until the library was rebuilt–“but I wanted [Hughes] to know–this will be the beginning,” Giovanni related. Dillard now has a corner of their library named in her honor.

Harris-Perry read a portion of Giovanni’s poem Podcasts for Bicycles:

“But I grew up/And learned/Trust and love/Are crafts we practice/Are wheels/We balance/Our lives on/Are BICYCLES/We ride.”  

In the poem, Giovanni references falling down as a child, and having her mother tell her, “Come here, Nikki, and I’ll pick you up.” She told Harris-Perry how comforting it was to hear she would be picked up, and that, “it took me the longest to realize – no, she made me get up myself.” She explained trust and love as “the two things spinning, and you have to connect them… and when you connect them it’s a bicycle.”

Harris-Perry asked how we practice trust and love in our collective life when it continues to be marred by violence, citing the most recent school shooting at Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver this week. Giovanni called for stronger leadership in Washington on the issue. “Some things you can’t compromise on, and gun control would be certainly one of them. It’s a bad idea,” Giovanni said. “There’s nothing in the Second Amendment–I’m not a lawyer, I’m just a poet–that says that every fool has to have a gun.”

Harris-Perry concluded by asking Giovanni about the connection between poetry and humanity. “Poetry loves us,” Giovanni responded. “It’s unconditional.”

Concluding the show, Giovanni performed her poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” live on air. Watch her perform it below, and follow along with the text:

I was born in the congo

I walked to the fertile crescent and built

   the sphinx

I designed a pyramid so tough that a star

   that only glows every one hundred years falls

   into the center giving divine perfect light

I am bad

I sat on the throne

   drinking nectar with allah

I got hot and sent an ice age to europe

   to cool my thirst

My oldest daughter is nefertiti

   the tears from my birth pains

   created the nile

I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned

   out the sahara desert

   with a packet of goat’s meat

   and a change of clothes

I crossed it in two hours

I am a gazelle so swift

   so swift you can’t catch me

   For a birthday present when he was three

I gave my son hannibal an elephant

   He gave me rome for mother’s day

My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and

I stood proudly at the helm

   as we sailed on a soft summer day

I turned myself into myself and was

   jesus

   men intone my loving name

   All praises All praises

I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard

My bowels deliver uranium

   the filings from my fingernails are

   semi-precious jewels

   On a trip north

I caught a cold and blew

My nose giving oil to the arab world

I am so hip even my errors are correct

I sailed west to reach east and had to round off

   the earth as I went

   The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid

   across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal

I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly

   like a bird in the sky…

Arts, Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana, Racism and Virginia

Nikki Giovanni reflects on 'Chasing Utopia,' and other struggles

Updated