Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid
One of the great things about working in a bookstore is the shelves of advance reading copies publishers send. The bad thing about this? It is really easy to pour through these stacks picking out authors you already know, in genres you know you like, and never break out of your reading comfort zone. I consider myself fairly well read, my zone(s) including contemporary and historical fiction, dystopian novels, nonfiction (travel, adventure and food writing; certain memoirs, think Lamott not Gilbert), young adult and apocalyptic fiction. You will notice I did not include poetry among my druthers.
At least, that is, until the recent arrival of CHASING UTOPIA by Nikki Giovanni. Whether it was the words “A Hybrid” on the cover where you usually find “A Novel,” “Poems” or “Collected Stories,” or the image of a cool lookin’ woman sitting on a stack of books that made me give this one a second look, I don’t know. But I found it intriguing, picked it up and cracked it open. She had me at hello.
By definition, CHASING UTOPIA is indeed a hybrid --- it being a slim, sexy mix of poems and essays. Many of the essays revolve around her family: scenes from summers spent with cousins and grandparents in Knoxville, TN, where she discovers Porgy & Bess and becomes a fan of Nina Simone (who years later will become a fan of Nikki’s); her first day of school: everyone told her, ‘Oh, You’ll love it’ but what, her six-year-old self thought, could be better than staying home with Mommy?; and the move back home to Cincinnati to help care for her dying father when she and her mother begin making “frontier pots.” Even though this is an age-old practice of saving up all the leftovers from the week and then seeing what you can create from them for Saturday night’s dinner, Giovanni’s spin on it, as throughout the book, is fresh, entertaining and downright tender. Some essays are really humorous lectures in disguise, as in “Making a Perfect Man” (for Walter Leonard) or office vignettes like “Happy Birthday, Nancy.”
"Giovanni’s voice in both poems and essays is honest and natural without the least bit of condescension or conceit.... Because of her conversational writing style, reading her words is almost like sitting down across from her at her mother’s kitchen table."
My favorite essay is “Why I Wrote ‘The Grasshopper’s Song.’” Giovanni was introduced to Aesop’s Fables by her grandfather, and the story of the Grasshopper and the Ants continuously triggered dissension between them: her grandfather siding with the resourceful ants and little Nikki with the singing grasshopper, unable to understand why the ants would send the grasshopper out into the cold when winter came. As she grew up, and into a writer, she was better able to pinpoint what made her unhappy: the Grasshopper made music. Where would we be without music? So one day, she rewrote the story as “The Grasshopper’s Song,” with the grasshopper suing the ants, the ants learning to share, and everybody living happily ever after. It is the last lines in this explanatory essay that have stayed with me: “Where would we be without the imagination that encounters with art and artists bring? We’d be little Ants working day and night selfishly hoarding the bounty nature provides with no joy in the benefits of our work.” The application of these two sentences is timeless and boundless.
On the poetry side, one of my favorites is titled “I Hate Mondays.” In it, we discover that the writer hates Mondays (and Tuesdays and Wednesdays), along with months and seasons (winter cuddles). She hates hours and even minutes and seconds. In truth, she hates everything. But the entire poem shifts in the closing 11 words: “Cause I really hate not being in love with you anymore.” It doesn’t even take a dozen words for her to ring the bell of ANYone and EVERYone who has been through a break-up and now has no choice but to continue moving on alone. Like most of her poems, it is sparse in actual words but every one has powerful intent.
Other poems are about coffee, or Robert Champion, artichoke soup, biscuits (dropped or baked), all sorts of other food, runaway slaves and, now and then, love. Giovanni is the author of 28 books, a professor at Virginia Tech, a Langston Hughes Medal winner, and a 60s person. Yet her word choice is as current as if she were born some 20 years ago. In one poem, a phone doesn’t ring, it “trembles after midnight” making her mother-heart skip a beat. In “Exercise,” a poem barely 48 words long, she rhymes about travel in a Dr. Seuss sing-song voice only to end up yearning for the arms of her lover. She doesn’t hesitate to substitute the word “too” with “2,” and drops the terms Twitter, YouTube and even the f-bomb in her poem “Before You Jump Off a Bridge or Hang Yourself or Be Unhappy Please Consider: Live for Yourself, Those Who Hate You Have No Purchase.” Giovanni is hip and knows that haters are gonna hate!
Giovanni’s voice in both poems and essays is honest and natural without the least bit of condescension or conceit. There is not a phrase anywhere that says “I’m so very much smarter than you. I’m just gonna prove it now.” Because of her conversational writing style, reading her words is almost like sitting down across from her at her mother’s kitchen table, chatting over a glass of Utopia (which, incidentally, is a beer that is quite hard to track down and not the run-of-the-mill poetry/essay collection title).
I never liked poe-ehms or po’try, as I have never thought the genre was accessible or written for the average reader living an everyday life. I can’t use words here like dactyls and meters. I don’t know if what Giovanni has inspired me to try my hand at has an iambic pentameter, and if it doesn’t, does that mean no one will ever look at it? But now that I have delved into CHASING UTOPIA not once or twice, but again and again, I find there may be a whole new genre out there waiting for me. I think I’ll start with everything on the “Also by Nikki Giovanni” list.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on December 7, 2013