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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  May 9, 2018 12:30am-1:01am PDT

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- [narrator] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith. she's an activist and academic and the author of 28 books including three bestselling collections of poetry. her latest is a good cry: what we learn from tears and laughter. she's nikki giovanni. this is overheard. (applause) - [interviewer] let's be honest. is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? and how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa and ... to say that he's made his own bed but you caused him to sleep in it. you know, you saw a problem and over time took it on ... let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you actually. i think i just got an f from you actually. - nikki giovanni, welcome. - thank you, i'm glad to be here.
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- very nice to be with you. so i have a big existential question for you to begin. why poetry? there are a lot of forms of expression. a lot of people who choose to commit words to paper or to somehow live in the realm of art or expression. they can go a lot of different routes, but why is poetry the thing that you settled on all those years ago? - probably because i'm stupid and couldn't figure out how to ... you know i was laughing. i have a dear friend, toni morrison, and she writes really incredible novels. and i'm always amazed at how do you go from point a to point b? if i write a poem, i'm finished in you know a page and a half, hell i'm gone. (audience laughs) - but that short form expression has worked for you. it's worked for you now for 50 years. - it works for me because i get to say what i want to say - it works for me because i get to say what i want to say and i don't know. you never know why you like things. i would have been a singer. i would have been a singer and i really loved, i have a poem of hers in there, big maybelle,
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♪ "candy, i call my sugar candy." ♪ i thought i want to be big maybelle. i'm not big and i don't have a good voice. - but you respect the work. - oh, i love the blues. i love the blues. - well something you've pointed out yourself i know is that unlike a novel which you might read once or twice, the thing about poetry in the short form is that you can read it over and over. - i've been having an argument and, i haven't lost but i haven't won, with dr. bolden at nasa. and i'm saying to him, "as we think about going into space," because we have to think through these things, "as we think about it, we have to think "what are we going to take." well, one of the things we know we have to take is wine. so we have to figure ... (audience laughs) - of course, i mean you know. - we have to take wine. - i'm with you, i'm with you. - if you look at the murders that we had and the explorers going back into the 1400s, something like that. so we have to have the wine. but the other thing is what are you going to do to entertain yourself. well you're gonna have to have a book. now honestly, my favorite book, i hope it's okay
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to say that, is mrs. frisby and the rats of nimh. i love it. it's just a lovely, lovely ... i love mrs. frisby because little timothy is sick and she has to go out and figure out how to get help for that, right. so i could read that again. if i was going to saturn, i could read that again. but there are very few other things that i can read again and again. but you can read poetry over and over and you're always getting something else out of it. you can take langston hughes. you can take gwendolyn brooks. you can take countee cullen. and honestly you can take t.s. eliot. - yeah, doesn't matter. - yeah, doesn't matter. - it matters. (audience laughs) - well it matters, but it doesn't matter who you take. the point is that different people work in the context of that kind of situation. - i would like, of course nobody's gonna let me do it right now, but i would like to be able to put the anthology for space and put together the poems that we should take into space. - why would no one let you do it? that sounds like a great idea.
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- well i'm behind on two books already. - are you really? (audience laughs) well bookmark that thought. well bookmark that thought. so my reading of your long and distinguished career is that your first book of poetry was in 1967 or 1968. - um-hmm. - so we are talking about 50 years ago. this is black feeling, black talk was the first collection. so over the 50 years, or 50 years a little bit more that you've done this, how has poetry changed? and how has being a poet changed? because clearly the experience for you over time is not the same as it was at the beginning. - oh no, i'm first of all, i'm 74 years old. take away 50, i was 24 years old. so i've learned a lot and the world has changed. i teach at virginia tech. and i have a really great collection of students. one of my favorite students in the world, and i love him so much, is kwame alexander. and kwame ... - who attributes his success in large part to the fact that you gave him a bad grade. to the fact that you gave him a bad grade. - he says that. i can't imagine i misunderstood his talent like that.
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i can't imagine i misunderstood his talent like that. - maybe he just needed your foot in his behind. it happens, right. it happens, right. - i love kwame. and one of the things that you're trying to do is you're trying to say, "get your own voice." and right now i have a student who is, a woman actually, not a student, who's sitting in. and she wants to write. and she is in her late 40s and she's trying to say, "how do i write this?" and i'm trying to say, "it's not how you write. "what do you have to say?" and people are always trying to say, "well, i want to make a success." well the question is, "what's a success?" i'm fortunate, i've had three best sellers. i'm thrilled about that. but that's not what made me successful. what made me successful is when i came in here i saw some of my sorors. i'm a member of delta sigma theta. and i saw some of my sorors and we love each other. and that's success. and that's success. - i love this idea of whether you have something to say as a point of differentiation because an awful lot of people
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want to write, but not everybody gets to do it. and not everyone gets to do it in a way that, as you say, is judged successfully. and that may be because some people have something to say and some people don't. - and some people are embarrassed about some of the things that they have to say. and some people ... well you know, things happen. your parents are crazy or you didn't like your brother. i mean i don't know what it is, but you have to have faith in what you have to say. - your writing has a lot of emotion. always has, continues to at the center of it. i want to ask you about that. maybe because we're in an election year, i'm making this analogy to myself. we like to say that at election time, anger is a greater motivator than joy in terms of people turning out to vote. i wonder if in terms of poetry, is sadness a greater motivator than happiness? what is the motivating emotion that causes someone to sit down and write a poem? is it having to wrestle with the negative? or is it possible to write a poem that is entirely joyful without regard to anything else? - well now, we're back to what's joyful?
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- well it's about the definition, is it not? - yeah it is and you have to think about that. i think that if you're writing something, it's something you want to share. that's all i can really say. - yeah, this book which is essays, and reflections, and poems and all that is actually full of loss. there's a lot in this book, but it is a lot of loss. and it's not sadness. because in some ways, the loss translates into celebration. you know, you write about your longtime dear friend maya angelou, doc. it's hard to read the stuff that you've written about maya angelou in this book and be sad. it's really more celebratory. afeni shakur, like you an activist, wonderful stuff in here. ruby dee with whom you had a long relationship with, the actress, amazing actress. it's really more of a celebration. but you are dealing, in a lot of respects, in this book with loss. did you set out to do that or did it happen that the coincidence of the passing of these people had you align them side by side by side? - well the person that started this book in my heart
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was my mother. - okay, talk about that. - because when mommy died, it put me in a position and i don't want to sit here on your show and cry. but all of a sudden, mommy died and now there were things that i was gonna have to do because my sister was dying. mommy died in june. my sister gary died in july. my aunt anne died in october. and my dog died in december. - so a lot all at once, isn't it? - i had no time to do anything. my doctor, and i laugh about him because gregory is cute, thank god. and i ended up ... it helps to be cute. i ended up going to gregory because i had a seizure. and gregory said, "you had a seizure "because you have too much salt." and you know how they go through that. and i said, "no, gregory, you're wrong. "i had a seizure because i never learned to cry. "and what i think you need to do is to develop "this disease, this procedure that i have. "and it should be the nikki. "and you should write something. "and you should write something. "and when people come in, you see somebody has a problem,
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"you say, 'oh, you have the nikki, you'll be alright.'" (audience laughs) i think that, thank you. i think that works. - did you literally have a hard time grappling with that sort of sadness and the way it manifested itself? - i just didn't have any time. i didn't have any time. we had a house to sell. we had a car to ... and my sister was dying. and my sister was dying. then i was becoming the oldest person in the family so i had responsibilities. but the person that i most wanted to embrace is the first poem in this book is walter leonard. and he was the president at fisk university when i was there. and betty called me and she said, walter, she didn't say he's passing, but that's what it amounted to. and i'm looking at it and i'm thinking there's something else happening here. that we're gonna lose walter like we lost mommy, like we lost gary, like we lost a lot of people. but there's something that ... but there's something that ... you don't have, you have gold on.
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i have, i wear rings. my mother gave me these. i'm thinking these are diamonds but they used to be stones. and somebody kicked the stone and for whatever reason, i'm not doing a good job, but for whatever reason that stone attracted them. they picked that stone up and they wondered what was it. they picked that stone up and they wondered what was it. when i transition, i'll be a seed. and if i'm lucky, somebody will put me in the ground and i will grow. and somebody will come and somebody will say that's a weed and throw it away. and somebody else will come and say, "wait a minute, i want to embrace that. "i want to take it home." and so losing walter, as we were losing walter, i realized walter is going to become a sapphire, an emerald, and somebody's going to wear him and never know. i mean this will be a thousand years or so from ... but they'll never know that walter was loved by betty and me.
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they will wear the ring, but they will feel ... when they look at that, they will feel the love. and that's what started a good cry. - and that's what you want to be the reaction to this. - and that's what you want to be the reaction to this. - that's what started a good cry. - could you talk, we could talk about any of the women we've mentioned. we could talk about james baldwin. you've had so many relationships over time that i'm so interested in. but i want to go back to maya angelou. so talk about your relationship with maya angelou. it is so important to this book and it's been such a defining relationship in your life. - it was really fun. when maya finally moved down to ... maya, the reason i got along with maya, by the way, is that she was always kind to my mother, every time she saw my mother. and so you have to love somebody as that. i was, when she was passing, i was asked to write a piece. and i did. but then i was asked to write another piece by somebody else. and i was going to say, "but i've written a piece." and then i realized i've known maya for 50 years. i ought to be able to write piece after piece after piece. i should be able to do that. and so i did. i think i have three pieces that i wrote about that in the book.
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and she lived in north carolina and i'm right here in virginia. so whenever maya would call, it's really funny. because she's not a call person. so whenever she would call, you'd know it'd be important. and when toni's son, slade, passed, we were talking. she and i were talking. what could we do for toni morrison? and we decided we were gonna have all of the writers, we were gonna invite all of the writers to come and read their favorite toni morrison. and it was gonna be, of course, at maya's home. and it was gonna be, of course, at maya's home. and then she called me. when i heard her, it was like, "nikki, can you come down?" it was like, bingo. 'cause i knew that she needed something. and she said, "i can't have it." well, maya's gonna die a couple of months later. she knew that; i didn't. but i just said, "maya, yes, whatever it is. "virginia tech is happy to have it." and we did. toni morrison said and i'll always be incredibly pleased with that as we had this with that as we had this for her. and she got on stage, she said,
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"if nothing happens in my public life ever again, "this does it for me." - this is it, yeah. - and you're never gonna have maya and me and toni on stage again. on stage again. and i just loved it. and i had it for free which always makes people crazy. because, personally you can't afford toni and maya. (audience laughs) - if they charged you the rack rate, you'd go broke, right. that's it. - you can't have it. and certainly i wanted everybody ... this is about love and we don't put a price on that. you don't. and so we had that. and so we had that. but maya thought she could cook and that's what i'm always laughing about. she did, she was always, "i'm a good cook." i'd say, "you do okay for an older lady, "but actually i'm a better cook." and we were having an argument one time. we argued back and forth. we were having an argument and she said, "well, i get tired of hearing you say that. "if you think you can cook, come on down here "and bring what you think you can cook." i cook the world's best rack of lamb. i cook the world's best rack of lamb. and so i went down. she has a great, had a great kitchen.
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and i went down with my rack of lamb. and she, "well maybe it could use a little more salt." i said, "girl, you ought to be ashamed of yourself." (audience laughs) "you know damn well it's the best rack of lamb "you ever had." i like thinking about people like toni morrison and maya angelou in these mundane terms like fighting over who's the best cook. because we have them so elevated in our minds, it's just nice to see them at the human level. - oh they're wonderful people. - do you have a favorite poem? it's so difficult i have to believe with as much work as you've produced over the years. people, when i mention your name to people, they say ego tripping. - yeah. - they go back, but ego tripping at this point is how long ago, 40 years? i mean that's a long time ago. do you attach yourself to a particular work and say over time. "this is my favorite thing." or as you move on to a new project, that becomes the favorite and that becomes the favorite? - i tend to let things go. and i was in boston. this is embarrassing; i probably shouldn't even admit this. i was in boston doing a book signing. it was a lovely book signing. a couple of hundred people. i loved them; signing books. and a gentleman came up to me and he said, "i need to talk to you."
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and i said, "yes, sir." he said, "i'll just wait." "yes, sir." and so when everybody else had left he said, "you know, you wrote in your book," and he said a line that i don't even remember now. and i looked at him and i said, "sir, i have no idea what you're talking about." he said, "well, i thought that you were wrong." and i said, "slower or louder, sir? "i have no idea what you're talking about. "but if i've embarrassed you or made you upset, "just erase it. "and i apologize." and he looked at me, "you don't remember?" "sir, i don't remember what i wrote yesterday." - but the great thing is that a particular piece of work that you might have produced years ago continues to have reactions, or get reactions by people that are that strong and that intimate, that personal. isn't that right? - i just didn't know what the hell he was talking about. - has your mindset about the way you work changed? i'm just curious about how you, when you do sit down, if you do sit down to produce
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this kind of work, how do you work? what's your process? - i type. i do a computer. i do a computer. - and do you revise and revise and revise? - oh no, we don't revise. we just, it was a mistake. like that man said: hell, he didn't like it. and you can always say i'm sorry. - that's it; this is what it is. - but the poem that i'm so in love with right now that i'm working on. you were talking about ... it's a poem called and yeah, this is a love poem. and it's a love poem to young black boys: this is the brother who. and actually it was written because of the and actually it was written because of the the men's march, the million man march. i'm not a muslim; i'm a christian. but the million man march that called the men and you didn't know, the men didn't know, the boys didn't know: will someone be there? the boys didn't know: will someone be there? will i be alone if i go? and you have to love the men that went because they didn't know if they would be alone.
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and i thought somebody needed to say, "we love you." - out loud. - out loud. and so i wrote ... excuse me for ... - no, no, no, it's okay. - but that's the point of it. (applause) - other people get emotional about your work. it's okay for you to get emotional about your work also. can i ask you about race as an obvious but still important to say out loud, narrative theme throughout so much of your work and really throughout so much of your life? in your poetry, in your spoken utterances, in your poetry, in your spoken utterances, you have taken on the topic of race at various moments. at moments when the racial situation, race relations, civil rights: bad, better, getting worse. and we find ourselves now in a particularly odd time where we thought many of the problems of the world had been solved. and the reality is that ... - it's not. we got that fool in the white house. (audience laughs) that can't be forgotten. - yes, but you know what. things were not perfect before that fool in the white house, as you called him, got into the white house.
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i mean, we've been wrestling with this going back a number of years. and at no point did we think, "everything's fixed, we got this." but at the same time, we seem to be at a place where we can't figure out what to do. and i'm hoping you can reflect on this - i don't know, but i think sex is good. (audience laughs) we've been having sex all along. you can just look around the room, look around. so what the fight has been about has been about marriage. and i think that that's a good idea if people want to get married. and if i think that sex is okay and that marriage is okay, then i'm obviously thinking that homosexuality is okay. because it's none of my business who you want to marry. we have that. but where i am right now, having done that. where i am right now, of course, is we are on earth. because we forget that earth is in space. we forget that we are in space. and we have to teach the people on earth that this is where we are. that it's time to move away from, "this is my country "and that's my country, and this ..."
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'cause all of that is 2000 years old. we're tired of it. so let's move on. (applause) thank you. you say well you talked about race. well as i say to my students you know and i'm always doing it this way. i came up in segregation. segregation's a bad idea, i don't care what you say. because segregation had nothing to do with anybody. it didn't stop sex. it just stopped marriage. and now we're here with not segregation. in the meantime, there's gonna be racism. i can't do anything about that. but not segregation means that we now can look at ourselves as how we come together. and we come together, i think we do pretty well. - you think we do? - yeah i think we come together pretty well. - because you acknowledge that there have been moments over the last say five to 10 years when we thought, "god, are we not better than this?" - and there will always be. - it's not gonna change. - i doubt it, but what people like me are saying to the kids, and that's what ... that's too long; you don't have enough time here. but see if we look at middle passage,
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that's why i like black people. black people are so important to earth. when you look at middle passage and you look at what we learned, that's true. what we learned in middle passage is what we can take middle passage in what we learned in space. and so we learned, we learned from middle passage you have to have music. you have to have music. and i always think that there was a grandmother. i always think that. 'cause there is no language that's african. there's no language that's european. so we have to have music. and black people brought that music. (hums) and they brought it here to america. and what is amazing to me, and the kids are going to do that. i'm not going to do that because i don't care any more. now ... - no go, please. now ... - no go, please. - now you can go into neiman marcus and you buy pants that are torn that you pay 200 and something dollars for it. - right, pre-torn. - and it doesn't make sense. well it doesn't to me. but it does to them. so if that's the case, if you're gonna take our music,
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which you've all done, and now you're gonna take our torn pants, it's time you take us. - is that it? well, that's a pretty good way to say it. well, that's a pretty good way to say it. you know i'm glad you brought up music because i wanted to ask you about hip hop. because the hip hop culture has embraced you as everyone should. but you've also embraced the hip hop culture as part of your ... - my children. - yes, now that doc is gone, i think that the two greatest african american poets are nikki giovanni and kendrick lamar. - oh my. - that the hip hop universe and the poetry universe have kind of come to be the same, or maybe they always were the same universe. and i'm just interested in how you look at this younger generation and this different form of expression that is really the same form of expression. - i like the kids. and i really love black lives matter because that's another step. and as i say to the kids that i talk to
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there's something else coming. i don't hang out. i'm just not a hang outer. but i know that there's something because hip hop itself is incredibly successful. hip hop is like jazz or any of it. it's classic now. but there's something else coming that people are expressing in another way. and i think it's wonderful. - and what is it? - i don't ... i'm just a little old lady. (audience laughs) - you're saying it's here and it's emerging? or it's not yet here but it's coming? - it's coming. and so you and i ... no everybody's younger than i am. we don't hang out in the clubs, so we're not hearing what's up next. so we're not hearing what's up next. but we know that something else is coming. and so whatever it is, it's going to ... and i'm glad if i have been any help with it because i like the kids. and i get asked all the time, - well the kids like you. - i'm go glad. "well what did you do?" i just did what i did and i'm just hoping the kids
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can take that and use it to go on. because i don't think my job is to tell them what they're doing right or wrong. - so you say you like the kids. we have just a couple of minutes left. i want to talk about virginia tech has been your home base for some time. - [nikki] 32 years. - you were not only on campus as a teacher during the awful shooting at virginia tech in 2007, but you actually had the shooter in your class. - in my class, yeah. - and you actually believed before the shooting that this individual was potentially dangerous. - i did. - and when you heard that there was a shooting, as the story goes nikki, you said it was him. - i was mr. cho; i knew that. - you knew it. you gave an amazing, i want to say performance. not really a performance but you read a poem at the memorial service. - um-hmm. - because you were so connected in every way to this incident. and it was an amazing thing to see in its entirety. but the end, the last words of it were, "we will prevail." but the end, the last words of it were, "we will prevail."
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and it was obviously very much in that moment but i also think about the whole idea of forward progress. and it's kind of what you're saying. there's always gonna be a next. - there's always gonna be a next. - and there's a lot to be hopeful for in terms of where we're all headed. we will prevail kind of as a general clarion. - you know george bush was sitting there. and he said, he was president then. and he said, "good job." and i said, "thank you, mr. president." and everybody had been worried. because they know how i feel about that fool in the white house now. and they were concerned so the provost said to me, "you know, the president is coming." i said, "mark, if you don't think i know how to behave "at a time like this, you got my resignation. "don't worry about it." - but you know what, i would observe that it's about behavior, but it's also about understanding the moment in which you're in. and at that moment, what people wanted to hear from you was something that they could hang their hope on about forward progress. - the second line is, "we are sad today." and we were. and i was glad. the reason i wrote is that i knew that i was so sad.
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i was just talking to somebody else. my student mattie ... i was just talking to somebody else. my student mattie ... you have me crying again. and i wanted maddie's mother to know, cause i knew whatever it is mattie was dead. but mattie was shot in the chest because i knew he would never ever turn away. i knew that. this was a kid i loved so much. and i just wanted to say to his mother, "we're all sorry that we lost mattie." but i know that he was shot in the chest because he's a great kid. and this is the kind of thing i think you want to know. and i thought that the president should have to hear something like that. he's there. you have to know these are the people. - well your artistic expression now for half a century has moved a lot of people to tears. and i think has given a lot of people hope. and that's why it's so amazing to get to even be with you for a little while. so i wish you peace and continued success. and thank you for being here. - oh, it's my pleasure. - good to see you, nikki giovanni, thank you. - good to see you, nikki giovanni, thank you. - [moderator] we'd love to have you join us in the studio.
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visit our website at to find invitations to interviews, q and a's with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. and an archive of past episodes. - one of the most brilliant young women i have a bet going and i hope i live long enough to collect is edwidge danticat. and edwidge, oh yeah for sure. and edwidge is gonna win the nobel because she just is absolutely brilliant. and i'm so pleased to know her. and i said it a long time ago. so i want to collect my $50. - [narrator] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. and by claire and carl stuart.
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and b[rock 'n roll music]uart. - (male narrator) memphis, tennessee. it has been written, if music were religion, then memphis would be jerusale, and sun studio its most sacred shrine. you are here with lucero. - ♪ beer tastes like blood and my mouth is numb ♪ ♪ can't find the words i need to say ♪ i'm ben nichols with lucero. we're from memphis, tennessee. brian venable is a guitar player. roy berry is a drummer. john c. stubblefield is our bass player. rick steff is our keyboard player. todd beene plays pedal steel. we have a horn section which is jim spake on saxophone and scott thompson on trumpet.


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