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Last week on Thursday Bookman and I went to the Minneapolis Central Library to see poet Nikki Giovanni. What a treat she was! She’s a petite 70-year-old firecracker. From the moment she was introduced and walked out on stage she started talking a mile minute and pretty much didn’t stop for the next forty-five minutes. How she managed to breathe I don’t know, maybe through her eyelids or her ears.

Giovanni is on tour for her new book, Chasing Utopia. Before she came to Minneapolis she was in Dallas, Texas, just in time for a rare snowstorm. She made lots of jokes about how they don’t know how to drive in snow and ice and told her local guide she was looking forward to being in Minneapolis soon. Her guide said Minneapolis will be a lot colder and Giovanni replied yes, but they know how to drive. Heh.

Giovanni was all over the map telling stories about this that and the other and a good deal of the time I couldn’t follow her leaps of association but that was ok. She was born and raised in Tennessee and has been teaching at Virginia Tech in Virginia for a good part of her working life. She has a soft, pleasant southern accent and between that accent and her energetic storytelling she reminded me of an aunt of mine from Oklahoma whose accent wasn’t quite so soft, but of whom I have many fond memories.

Giovanni’s sister became ill with terminal cancer back around 2005. Giovanni’s mother, who had been healthy, became suddenly ill and died a month before Giovanni’s sister. She is sure her mother decided to die first because she couldn’t bear to see her daughter die. She is sure they are both in Heaven and that she herself is going to be joining her crazy alcoholic father in Hell when she dies. But is also certain that when she gets to Hell, she will be able to get a day pass to Heaven so she can go tell her mother and sister that she knows what they did and demand an apology.

After the death of her mother and sister Giovanni pretty much shut off her emotions. She had business to take care of dealing with their estates and she had a book to write, Acolytes. Once that book was finished, however, all the grief came bubbling out. Giovanni would get up in the morning, open a bottle of white wine and go sit outside on her deck all day when, at three in the afternoon she would switch to red wine. After about ten days she realized she needed to pull herself together. Her mother used to drink a beer everyday. Giovanni decided she would drink a beer for her mom and then move on. But Giovanni doesn’t like beer and her mother drank cheap beer so she decided that the beer she was going to drink in her mother’s honor would need to be the best beer in the world.

So she started doing some research and discovered that the general consensus is that the best beer in the world is an American beer called Utopia. This beer costs $350 a pint and is almost impossible to get. Her book, Chasing Utopia is a poetry collection that includes her quest for a pint of Utopia.

This quest includes some hilarious stories that involve Leon Panetta at the CIA. Giovanni was invited to speak there, I didn’t quite catch why, but after her talk she was speaking with Panetta and figured that if anyone would be able help her locate a pint of Utopia beer, it would be the head of the CIA. So she said to him, “Mr. Panetta, I’m trying to find Utopia.” She said Panetta replied, “I’m sure you’ll find it,” in a tone that left unsaid a pat on the shoulder and a “little lady.”

She finally did get her pint of Uptopia, sent to her by the brewmaster himself.

And then she launched into reading poems from the book. The poems were wonderful. Giovanni has a delightful quick, jazzy reading style that perfectly suits her poems.

During the question and answer period we were treated to a hilarious story about when she met Rosa Parks at an airport. We learned some of her favorite books and authors (Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat), that she loves reading nonfiction history and she is stalking Alexander McCall Smith. She also revealed that she doesn’t think marriage is a good idea and grits are supposed to have parmesan cheese on them, not cheddar cheese. Also her favorite thing to cook is grilled rack of lamb.

There was so much more that I have left out but I hope you get the idea how much fun Giovanni is. If she ever comes to your town you have to go see her. She is one of those authors and people who are a whole experience well beyond their books.

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