Nikki Giovanni and Ashley Bryan Talk with Roger

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The equally eminent poet Nikki Giovanni and artist Ashley Bryan, longtime friends, first collaborated more than twenty years ago for The Sun Is So Quiet. In I Am Loved, they are back with another young-audience-friendly clutch of poems and paintings. I spoke with the two separately, but as far as their work goes they are very much together.

Nikki Giovanni...

Roger Sutton: Some of the poems in I Am Loved are previously published, while others are new. What was the process for getting the manuscript together?

Nikki Giovanni: There were some poems Ashley knew he wanted to work with. But then he'd say, "Well, I think I'd like a few more." You know how he talks. "Well, Nikki, I think I could use a few more." So I wrote some things that I thought he would be interested in.

RS: If you're setting out to write a poem for Ashley, what pops into your mind? What does Ashley want?

NG: I think Ashley always looks for something positive. Ash is ninety-four.

RS: I know.

NG: And I wanted to write what I thought would go for him, like love poems. If you're a poet, you're going to write love poems.

RS: Why is that?

NG: I think we're always in love. It's that simple. And it's important to remember that love doesn't have anything to do with sex. It's two different things. Being in love is the happy part. I was teasing my gentleman, "We know that you're in love when you cook for us." It's true. When men cook for you, they're in love. I went up to see Ashley, several years ago now, and we had dinner out. It was very nice, but the next night we stayed in and he cooked salmon for me. I got out my phone, and I took a photo of Ashley cooking. I said, "Ashley, I'm going to get you on this one. Now all of the ladies on the island that you have cooking for you will know that you've cooked for me." Ashley was the inspiration for one of the new poems in the book, "Leaves."

RS: I have it here.

NG: "On a rainy day / When I'm sitting / In a tree / Looking for a friend / I hope you'll be the one / Standing at the root / Holding out your arms / To gently catch / My fall." Of course, that is a love poem, from me to Ashley. It's how Ashley and I were, when we met. So "Leaves" is a poem that I wrote for him. It worked for me, because whatever else is going on, you want Ashley Bryan to be there to catch your fall.

RS: I noticed "Kidnap Poem" is in I Am Loved, and it dates from 1968. What is it like for a poet to look at work written decades ago? When I think of poems I wrote when I was a teenager, it's horrifying. But when you're a professional poet, do you have the same problem looking at old work?

NG: I don't look at anything as horrifying. Some of it I think is embarrassing. My work was being taught in a class, and I was invited in. Someone asked, "What do you feel about your first book, Black Feeling Black Talk?" I said, "I think some of those poems are embarrassing, because you can see that there was so much more I needed to learn." But I still love "Kidnap Poem" because, again, it's a love poem. I'd kidnap a poet — certainly I'd kidnap Ash. "Kidnap Poem" was a love poem, a grown-up poem, but here Ashley illustrates it with a parent and child, so that's another kind of love. And I just love what he has done.

RS: Back in the 1970s, The Horn Book got in trouble when it reviewed a beautiful edition of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, which had been illustrated by Susan Jeffers. It was really quite gorgeous, but then-editor Ethel Heins found the whole thing wrong-headed. You don't illustrate a lyric poem.

NG: Right.

RS: The idea is people make these images in their heads as they read. You don't tell them what they're seeing. The poems in I Am Loved aren't really narrative poems — and Ashley isn't trying to tell a story with them — but I feel like his pictures are abstracted enough so that they don't interfere with my conception of the poems as I read them myself.

NG: I'm glad to hear that. Let me put it this way: Ash likes to draw. I like to write. So we're the perfect couple, because we each do what we each do, and we're not trying to explain somebody else's work.

RS: Right. You're making art and text that are companions.


Ashley Bryan...

RS: We were so happy you were able to be with us at the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards earlier this month, but today I'm calling about your new book with Nikki Giovanni, I Am Loved.

AB: Okay, you go right ahead. Ask me what you'd like. Such a wonderful book. It's a gem, a treasure.

RS: If you do say so yourself.

AB: Yes, well, I love Nikki Giovanni's writing, and it gave me ideas for the best work I could do in composition and color.

RS: How did you and Nikki meet?

AB: We met many years ago, at the beginning of my career. I had loved her work as a poet, and so I got to meet her. We've been in touch through all the years. We did a book together called The Sun Is So Quiet [in 1996], and now this book came up, and I was so happy to be able to illustrate it.

RS: How did you select the poems?

AB: Nikki sent me a selection of poems, and I chose from among them which ones I wanted to illustrate. It was both of our choices.

RS: What happens in a poem that sparks you to want to make an illustration to go with it?

AB: I love poetry. It's at the heart of everything I do. Poetry transforms what we call language, and uses language as the stuff to become something else. I get spun around by what happens in words. When that occurs, it inspires images that seem so original to me as an artist, even though I'm following what the poem has offered.

RS: The artist gets to share his or her own vision.

AB: That's the exciting thing, that partnership. That's why the Bible has been so significant in art, because it's a sharing of what the language has meant to the listener.

RS: And then that listener can use it, in turn, to create art from that text.

AB: Yes, because the listener, as artist, is working in his or her own domain now, with that magical mystery of transforming one form to the other — but always being inspired by the world of art.

RS: One thing I like about I Am Loved is that although Nikki's poems are clear, and your vision of them is very clear, I also feel like there's room for me as a reader to come up with my own story about each.

AB: That's very important. You always have to leave room for the person experiencing it. If I go into a museum, it doesn't matter how often a work of art has been written about or thought about, I am going to discover something that is my own, which will be new. You always must be discovering, rediscovering. That's what the world of art means. It means constant mystery in the discovery, the rediscovery.

RS: Do you find that that discovery goes on as you create a picture? Is it happening simultaneously?

AB: It's all working together, yes, but you never know what will happen in the course of it. Something new comes up and you go right after that, and you get a whole other feeling. It talks to you. It engages you in a way that takes on its own life as well.

RS: How do you prepare yourself for making an illustration of a poem?

AB: First I read the poem and I think about it. The resonance must live with me for a good while. When I'm going to make images, I have a lot that I'm referring to. Because, you see, there's so much of the literal world in which we live, but everything is not what it is. It's something else. This sweater that I have on is made of wool that comes from some other country in almost another world, and yet it's a sweater that I am wearing now, and it has meaning to me now in what it does for me. Everything is being transformed continually. That's the wonder and the excitement in life, that life is so deep. It has endless frontiers. We're always pushing into worlds beyond what we think we have started with.

RS: Every time we talk to one another, too. You're making me think about how I do these interviews — so much of what I ask is dependent upon what you have answered.

AB: Yes, and it comes from the voice and the feeling of connection, my feeling of caring and love for the person who's offering so much of him- or herself. To me, that's always a gift — the time someone has taken to approach me and talk to me about my work. I'm so deeply moved that I want to do all I can to respond in a way that lives up to what you are asking.

RS: Ashley, you always live up to what I ask you. And I thank you for your time.

AB: If someone says they are taking my time — that's the one thing you never can take. I have to offer it. Time is of the moment, and the moment is all I have. If that moment isn't precious to me, then I'm not living. Nothing is more important or precious to me right now than both of us talking.

More on Nikki Giovanni and Ashley Bryan from The Horn Book

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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