Saturday, I had to make a decision. Would I go to see Nikki Giovanni read or stay home and get caught up on various personal projects? As I thought about it, I realized the mere fact I knew about the reading was a gift. I only knew about it because I'd been looking for downtown bookstores the previous week and had come across the news unexpectedly. I decided I ought to go, because I would regret it if I sat at home. I could get caught up Sunday, instead.
Nikki Giovanni jokes with the
Philadelphia Tribune photographer
The Gryphon was at work, because his Web design company was working on a big site that would be launching today. So I went by myself, taking the El and getting off on 15 Street, since the book store was on the 1800 block of Walnut Street. I discovered there was a street fair going on, which I later learned was the Rittenhouse Spring Fair, which slowed my progress towards the book store.
Fortunately, I made it to the Barnes & Noble on time, and someone at the front door told me if I was there for the reading, I should purchase a book first at the cashier and then proceed to the third floor.
When I arrived, the room was full. Nikki Giovanni was sitting on a chair in the front of the room, chatting with some ladies about her age in the front row, as well as to a photographer from the Philadelphia Tribune (who told me later, when I saw him outside, that the story would come out on Tuesday). She had on fabulous red dress shoes just a shade darker than her equally fabulous red leather briefcase.
There was an extra seat in the front row, so I took it. Nikki and the audience members were talking about an HBO show called The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. They were having a pleasant conversation when an older gentleman burst in, marched up to her and shook her hands. He sat down in the front row, too, and interrupted the conversation to interject somewhat disconnect thoughts. I began to wonder if he'd do that through the entire reading, but perhaps because Nikki was polite but subdued in her response to him, he eventually settled down.
When the book store staffer introduced her, Nikki took the podium and launched into the story behind her latest collection, Bicycles. She'd had a very rough time the year that she wrote it. Within a short period of time, she lost a beloved dog, then lost her sister to breast cancer, and lost an aging mother. To add to her grief, a murder took place in her neighborhood, and then finally, as she called it, "the April 16th situation," the massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech, where she teaches. She had been in the news afterwards, because she was one of the people who had noticed that the young man had mental health problems and tried to warn her superiors at the university.
Understandably, this was a very difficult time for her, and she wondered, "How do you make sense of the senseless?" For her, the answer came in the form of finding love. She found herself wanting to write love poems, and she turned every poem into a love poem. That's not to say that she was ignoring the grief around her, but rather she chose to see it as part of the cycle of life. She says that the image of wheels or circles kept coming back to her, hence the name of the book.
Nikki gave plenty of interesting insights while she read. She's a very quotable person. I'd like to share some of the things she said. While telling the story of her sick dog, Wendy, she said, "I think everything has intelligence." Then, while talking about her sister's diagnosis of breast cancer, she suggested that men, who often touch the breasts of the women they love, ought to learn what to look for, "So he can get two things done at once." On facing her mother's death and the comments she heard afterwards, she said, "Your mother dies, it's never 'for the best'."
She said that she has "always defined myself as a voice." She said, in particular, she's "always wanted to be an honest voice." She has also seen herself as an acolyte and said that she would prefer to be John the Baptist to Jesus, because, "You get to offer the hope." Such thoughts lay behind the volume she wrote right after her mother's death, Acolytes. She read the first poem from that collection, which contained a lot of the details she had just told us. I found it fascinating to put them into context.
Speaking about the Virginia Tech massacre, she said, "Thirty-two people are dead, but it's not somebody's fault. The person responsible was the murderer." She said she doesn't believe in revenge and she also knows there is no way to get back that which was lost. "The only thing to connect them is love. Find a way to love something," she said.
About love, she said that "love is a decision. A lot of people think love is something that happens to you." Then she read the first poem from "Bicycles," which was about finding solace in a lover's arms.
As became evident from listening to her speak, Nikki is a lover of life: with equal parts love for nature, food, and popular culture, always with an eye for beauty. "I would rather not eat then have to eat ugly food," she said. After discussing why she loves to watch Deal or No Deal because it's a show about "people being foolish" she read a poem she'd written in response to her class, who urged her not to compete on the show because they don't want to see her making a fool of herself. She wisely replied, in the poem, that "I know you cannot go / Through life / Unless you are willing / For love or money / To make a fool / Of yourself."
She finished with a fanciful list poem called "I Like," listing things she likes. Throughout, the audience enjoyed her work, sometimes interjecting praise, like they were in church.
I was struck, as I always am, by how natural-sounding her poems are. They roll off the tongue like everyday speech, and yet they are carefully crafted. She was very animated while she read, unlike many poets, who take to the podium like a church elder reading a scripture verse. I took a lot of pictures and got some which are really good, including one that, while blurry, captures her natural response to the audience laughing with her.
During the Q&A session, I asked her about her use of pop culture in poems and how it differs from writing about personal experience or politics. First, she noted that politics is pop culture. And then she said that she feels that "poets are like photographers, taking a picture of the world in which we live." That's why she said she incorporates pop culture; she wants to be current. Her goal, she said, isn't to be read in 500 yeas. Shakespeare also tried to stay current, she said, and joked that she thinks that puts her in pretty good company.
In response to other questions, she spoke about how, when she's teaching writers, she says her job isn't to be critical so much as it is to give them some of her time and help them to write the way they write, rather than writing "for the teacher."
She spoke about one former student: Michael Vick, saying that she things that fighting dogs is wrong but that so is horse racing and bull fighting.
Nikki finds electronic communications "fabulous and fascinating," while quickly adding that she hopes there will always be book stores. She sees Kindle as making a difference in the textbook industry, and that book stores should host more events, become more of a town hall, since authors still need to come face to face with readers.
One of her pet peeves is the way that we are "allowing unsophisticated people to control the dialogue, proclaiming her support for gay marriage. After all, she said, "All marriage should be gay," (meaning of course, happy). At this, one of the older women sitting next to me sighed loudly and began reading a book!
She also spoke out about Bristol Palin, saying that the way she was treated was abhorrent. Plus, "you look at Levi, you know it wasn't even good sex!" She said that she felt that Bristol was made to follow her mother's wishes for political expedience, when perhaps she would have chosen another path if she wasn't being forced. Regardless, she said, "We're supposed to be forgiving and loving. Our job as grownups is to embrace."
When asked what inspires her, she said that "life is really interesting." She added that, "As I stand here, I'm complete within myself. I have discharged my responsibility." Now, she said, she feels free to just enjoy life. "Life is about what you give; it isn't about what you get. It's the giving that really brings the love."
Another audience member asked her, since she writes so often about jazz, which is founded on improvisation, whether she ever does freeform poetry. She responded, "My life is jazz; my poetry is classic." She does, however, have great hope for the hip-hop generation and challenged to "write an American opera."
Asked about the way that hip-hop language often denigrates women, she said they aren't doing anything knew in Western culture. She seems no need to indict them in stronger words than any of the blues artists or country artists or rock stars who do the same thing. "I wish they wouldn't [talk that way]," she said, "but I'm not going to pretend they're inventing something, because they're not."
She also responded to praise of an album she had done that received a Grammy nomination, which one audience member still finds inspirational. "If you don't mind failing, then you can open doors, and other people will come through," she said.
Afterwards, we all lined up to have our books signed. When it was my turn, I handed her my Wild Violet business card and asked her about the possibility of doing an interview for an upcoming issue. She said she'd give it to the person who handles such things for her and that we could set something up for the Fall issue.
When I left, I was in really good spirits, so I decided to enjoy the street fair. I hadn't had lunch, so I checked out the food booths. I bought a delicious crab cake mini-sandwich from Butcher & Singer. It was spicy and crisp with plenty of crab meat. Then I got a container of fruit salad and a diet soda from the Marathon Grill booth. I ate the fruit slowly in Rittenhouse Square Park, people watching. Lots of people had dogs: especially pugs, Bichon Frises and terriers. People of all ages stretched out in the grass or tossed around the mini-Frisbees being distributed by a church. One man held his baby facing outwards so she could see everything. The expression on her face was pure delight.
Rittenhouse Park, filled with people
It was a beautiful, clear, warm spring day. I thought about how Nikki said that love is the cure. The Spring Fair certainly seemed to demonstrated that. I stopped briefly to listen to the Barry Warren Band. They had the audience dancing along to a funky song.
I also got a great shot of a SEPTA worker trying to give balloons to a fairgoer right as a burst of wind picked up.
By the time I got home, I was tired, so I took a brief nap and then agreed to pick up The Gryphon. We drove to the Plymouth Meeting Mall and bought tickets for the 8:30 showing of Star Trek, then walked over to the restaurant area to eat. First we tried P.F. Chang's, but they were really full. So we ate, instead, at the bar at Redstone Grill. I wasn't terribly hungry, so I got the lobster bisque and a side salad, with a glass of Stella Artois.
I know a lot of people love the new Star Trek, and I do think director J.J. Abrams did a good job. It's not so much a prequel as it is a revisiting or a re-imagining of the story. They'll probably make more movies in this series, which may or may not connect to the original canon. Obviously, this is a way for the filmmakers to free themselves from the original story line, so that they wouldn't have to make sure everything would connect perfectly.
Still, to play Spock (Zachary Quinto) as an angry young man, just barely managing to keep his emotions together, initially seemed a bit off to me. I understand they were trying to show how he became the man he was, but it reminded me a little too much of the "rebel without a cause" young Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. In a world that's increasingly violent and nonsensical, I resented seeing another movie where violence is seen as a valid response to provocation. Of course, by the end of the film, he has managed to learn something from those internal struggles and to show the first glimpses of the Spock we know. As I saw that happening, I finally understood what the filmmaker was trying to do, and I have to admit, it sheds new light on Spock.
The movie also explores how Kirk and Spock originally connected, since they're so different. That exploration added dimension to the relationship, since it does seem unlikely that someone like Spock would get along with a cocky, convention-flouting guy like Kirk. This movie helps make sense of that relationship. And, of course, Leonard Nimoy makes a cameo in a very important way. It's great to see him again!
And I simply loved Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. I thought he had the character down perfectly. It was fun to see McCoy as a young guy, but still acting like a grumpy old man!
The visuals are stunning. Abrams even uses a glare on the lens in scenes where there's a lot of light, such as the bridge. While I found these blue or white lines to be a little distracting, it helped it seem less like a set.
The costumes look like antecedents of the original TV series. Some people have complained that Uhura's (Zoe Saldana) short skirt is impractical, but if the director had changed it too much, purists would complain. She does get more of a role in this movie than she had in the original series. Some people may or may not like the path her character takes. I just say, "Go, girl!"
Chris Pine, who plays Kirk does a great job of playing the character his own way and yet imbuing it with recognizable traits and mannerisms from William Shatner's portrayal of Kirk.
All in all, I felt the movie was enjoyable and well-done. They had taken into consideration the feelings of Star Trek fans before launching this revision. By telling this as an alternate reality, it helps them to make changes without slighting the fans. I think this slick, hip re-imagining will probably bring new fans to the Star Trek universe.
It's all about love.