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

Acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni joined "MHP" on Sunday to discuss her latest book, "Chasing Utopia," and to perform her beloved poem "Ego Tripping."

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 congoI walked to the fertile crescent and built   the sphinxI designed a pyramid so tough that a star   that only glows every one hundred years falls   into the center giving divine perfect lightI am badI sat on the throne   drinking nectar with allahI got hot and sent an ice age to europe   to cool my thirstMy oldest daughter is nefertiti   the tears from my birth pains   created the nileI am a beautiful womanI gazed on the forest and burned   out the sahara desert   with a packet of goat's meat   and a change of clothesI crossed it in two hoursI am a gazelle so swift   so swift you can't catch me   For a birthday present when he was threeI gave my son hannibal an elephant   He gave me rome for mother's dayMy strength flows ever onMy son noah built new/ark andI stood proudly at the helm   as we sailed on a soft summer dayI turned myself into myself and was   jesus   men intone my loving name   All praises All praisesI am the one who would saveI sowed diamonds in my back yardMy bowels deliver uranium   the filings from my fingernails are   semi-precious jewels   On a trip northI caught a cold and blewMy nose giving oil to the arab worldI am so hip even my errors are correctI 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 continentsI am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surrealI cannot be comprehended except by my permissionI mean...I...can fly   like a bird in the sky...