The American poet Nikki Giovanni, along with Kwame Alexander and a group of American teachers, was in Ghana during the last days of September 2013. The entire delegation were in town to talk literacy and teacher development at a literacy conference.
It happens repeatedly that groups invite writers and artists to town and fail to publicize and most importantly, fail to give the public an opportunity to interact with the visiting writer/poet.
The US Embassy hosted a reception for the Giovanni’s group; a number of Ghanaian writers were there. Would you believe that they hadn’t planned on nor asked Giovanni to read a poem?
Do people expect writers/poets to just stand there and grin away? What do people think poets do? How do they experience the poet? A poet reads her work and the audience appreciates. How hard is that to understand!
Anyway, thank god for friends because Nana Nyarko, star-struck and all, asked Ms. Giovanni if she could read a poem and Nikki says of course, but she hadn’t brought anything to read so we should find her ‘something short’.
Oh, to be a poet with an extensive oeuvre!
I manage to find a poem on my iPad. (It was hairy for a moment, Glo network was trying seriously to have me fail). And Nikki Giovanni begins her remarks to the audience.
She talks about losing both her mother and sister within a two-month period. How her mother liked beer so she, Nikki, though she doesn’t like beer, will drink a beer in every country that she visits. She mentions Club, a beer sold in Ghana, and the crowd giggles.
She talks about her new poetry collection, Chasing Utopia. How she went in search of the World’s most expensive beer, Sam Adams’ Utopia, after her mother died. How hard it was to get the beer- it’s only brewed once every two years.
As luck would have it – the luck of poets that is – a manager at Sam Adams overhears Ms. Giovanni discussing her search for Utopia and sends a case of the $350/pint beer to her home.
This Utopia story is a daughter’s yearning to stay connected to her mother.
Nikki Giovanni is a master storyteller and the gathered crowd is laughing.
The room hushes when she says that at 70, a lot of things make her cry.
When she reads the poem ‘Quilts’, her voice breaks over the last lines.
Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure
No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold
I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past
I offer no apology only
When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm
And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers
– by Nikki Giovanni
(Source of poem: Poets.org)