MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to pay tribute now to the legendary author and poet Maya Angelou. She died this morning at the age of 86. Here is a clip of her reading part of one of her most beloved poems "Phenomenal Woman."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MAYA ANGELOU: (Reading) Many people wonder where my secret lies. I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model size. When I start to tell them, they think I'm telling lies. I say, it's in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I am a woman. Phenomenally.
MARTIN: With us to share more about Maya Angelou's remarkable life and legacy is Nikki Giovanni. She's a celebrated author and poet in her own right. And she was a friend of Maya Angelou's for more than 40 years. Welcome back to the program. I'm sorry that it's under such sad, sad circumstances today. Thank you for joining us.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, thank you and thank you for inviting me. I must say in all sadness, Maya's passing is not a shock. And you know, we've known it's only been her phenomenal will - speaking of phenomenal - that has kept her active. Many a lesser person, you know, considering her health - it's not her age but her health - would've given up. But Maya lived every moment. I've had to laugh recently that - and a couple of hours ago, I said I don't know anybody - and I really don't - who has gotten as much out of life as Maya Angelou.
MARTIN: You know, speaking of which, she has such an amazing story. I mean, she - what she's written about, I mean - born in 1928 St. Louis - raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. She did not speak for much of her childhood after she was molested and after the perpetrator was killed and then became this amazing artist. I mean, the fact that people think of, like, the fact that she was the first African-American woman member of the Director's Guild, right? The fact that she went overseas as a performer. When you think of her, what's the first thing you think of?
GIOVANNI: Laughter. That's the truth, laughter. And she and I had - we're not competitors in terms of poetry, but we were competitors in terms of food. And as - you know, Maya moved here - and I'm saying here because it's the south - to Winston-Salem - and that's only a three-hour drive, two and a half if I was in a hurry. And I would go down, and she would have her people she directed because she had a breathing problem. And so she would have, you know, Ms. Chris or one of her people fix lunch, but she would say, you know, a little salt - they'd have to bring things to her. And I said to her, you know, you're better known and all of those things but I'm a better cook, Maya. She said you are not a better cook.
And I took my friend Joanne Gabbin, who is the director of Furious Flower Poetry Center here in James Madison. And we went down and we made dinner for Maya. It was too funny. I mean, we had such a good time because, of course, Joanne makes this really great - it's called a blueberry buckle. And, you know, it's like a pudding. And so, Maya was going to be polite to Joanne, and she was like, OK, Jo - this is really good buckle, Jo. But she said, Nik - I made a wrack of lamb - well, I think it's a little overdone.
GIOVANNI: I had to laugh.
MARTIN: You know, one of the things you are speaking to, though, is her generosity. To many, many, many people, I mean, that's another word that comes up. I was reading, you know, Facebook tributes. And I'm reading one from a man who had been sent to record her at her home - record her poetry. And he talked about how scared he was. And he went and he said he had one of the most inspiring and healing experiences of his life. He spent four days at her home because she wouldn't let him stay at a hotel. And she cooked every night - amazing cook, and actually let her direct her recording her own work. I mean, where did that come from?
GIOVANNI: I don't know. I think, she had a difficult childhood at the beginning. And I think that the silence allowed her to absorb good stories because she really had an incredible ear. As you know, she spoke - what? - five languages. And she could hear it, and she can absorb it and reproduce it. But I think she also recognized joy was important. I don't - I can't remember - and I have known Maya over 30 years - I don't remember her - you know how some people pettily gossip and things. I just don't remember her doing that. I've only heard her speak ill of one person and that was well deserved.
MARTIN: Oh, dear.
GIOVANNI: I'm not going to go any further with that one. I mean, when you think about it, you know, because, you know, we are in a competitive business, but she's always been generous. We came down - we being Virginia Tech - I teach at Tech. And I brought a busload of kids down to see the Romare Bearden exhibit down in Winston-Salem. And she said, well, you have to come by. Well, I thought coming by meant that we would stop in by her house and sing a Christmas Carol - just before the holiday season. So the kids and I - the young college students and I practiced, you know, a Christmas carol. We were going to, you know, (singing) we wish you a merry Christmas, and stand out in front of the house. But she had made lemonade and cookies, and she had invited us in, and she told us stories. It was just wonderful. And she just did that. And I think that she always reminded - if I may use that term, she always reminded herself that joy is important. So she wanted to receive it, and the best way to receive it is to give it.
MARTIN: You know, I had the privilege of speaking with her a couple of times for this program. And one time I'm thinking of back in 2010. And here she is talking about writing, especially writing the truth. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANGELOU: You know, there is a world of difference between facts and the truth. You can have so many facts that you don't deal with the truth. You never get to the truth. You have the places where, the people who, the times when, the reasons why, the methods how - blah blah. And never get to the human truth. The human truth is as elusive as the air. And as important as the air.
MARTIN: You want to talk a little bit more about that?
GIOVANNI: Being a poet, I could not agree more. There's a lot of difference between fact and truth. There is an old, old mathematical problem that we can prove that the arrow does not move. I do not know if they gave that one to you in school. When I was in school, it was a mathematical problem. And we proved that though you can put the arrow in the bow and you let it go, we can prove that the arrow does not move because a thing, as we know mathematically speaking, can only occupy one place at one time. So once we put the arrow in another place, it cannot move. It is actually not moving. It is occupying one place at one time. Does that make sense?
MARTIN: It does.
GIOVANNI: And that's what I think that Maya was talking about. And I think again, that's her life. And that I just always appreciated the, what's the word, verve, with which she lived her life. She did everything 100 percent, everything 100 percent. So that was a good thing. She fell in love, she got married. When she fell out of love, she got divorced.
GIOVANNI: I love that about her because she was not always trying to justify something, (laughter) you know.
MARTIN: You know, it's funny to that end. And if you are just joining us, we are honoring the poet and activist Maya Angelou, who died today at the age of 86. We are speaking with the also renowned poet, writer, professor Nikki Giovanni who is offering her reflections. You know, she was tough. I mean, her writing was very tough. And it is interesting how uplifting many people experience it because if you think about it, she was writing about some things that a lot of people didn't talk about - like being molested, for example, and also the struggle to get an education, and also some of the dynamics within her family that a lot of people would not necessarily want to talk about, at a time when a lot of people did not write about those things.
And she then - a couple of years ago she donated her papers to the Schomburg collection. And I asked her, I said well, you know, do you have any trepidation about your notes and your thoughts and revealing your thought process as you are crafting the work. And I just said, you know, I don't know why I bothered, I don't know why I said this, I said I'm not sure I would want anybody to see my rough drafts of things before they appear. And she said I don't have that kind of vanity.
GIOVANNI: Yeah, I think that's true.
MARTIN: She said I have no modesty. Modesty is a learned affectation. It's just like a decal stuck up on a person.
GIOVANNI: I think she is pretty modest. I'm going to disagree with that. I am fortunate, I know all of her people. And Maya's been in and out of the hospital, and I'm sure these records are going to show up. I'm not saying something that, you know, is unknown. But you could call down and you could say what's - you know everyone called her Doc - what's Doc doing? And Lydia would say Doc's, you know, she can't come to the phone right now she's getting her hair done yak yak yak. And one of the reasons she was in the hospital but she did want told. That is the modesty. She did not want people feeling sorry for her. This is what I'm saying. And so a lot of the discomfort of her illness she did not share. She was not one of those people that is going to whine. As she said, if I am alive I am well and if I'm not alive then, you know. But I have to say this if I may.
GIOVANNI: The one thing that I know Maya, if she could do it, would want is to know what is being said about her now, in her death. (Laughter) And I know she could stand someplace and here it, she would get the biggest kick (laughter) you know.
MARTIN: How come?
GIOVANNI: Because we all want to. And I don't want to put something on - but you want to know what people say when they don't think you can find out that they've said it.
GIOVANNI: And we all love her, but writers don't ever feel that. I think actors are probably the most insecure people on Earth, but writers come real close. And I just, I know, I think you could talk to anybody that knows her, that if there's one thing that we could do for her, just putting her in a spot so that she could hear what we're saying. You know, we did that with Toni Morrison two years ago. I went down to see Maya because Slade, Toni's son died. And I said we should do something, don't you think, for Toni? And she immediately yes. And what we did was actually, if I can use that word, we eulogized Toni. And we talked about what Toni meant to us and we had a celebration here at Virginia Tech where we had everybody - we had a bunch of actors and actresses read Toni's words back to her. India Arie had written a song from "Bluest Eye," you know, "I am Not Afraid Of The Dark." I mean, we did all of that. So, we did what we would have done if Toni had passed. And Maya was saying wow, you know, that's what we would do she had passed. And so, I heard that and she is bigger than that. So there is no way that we could really put her with that. You know what I am saying?
GIOVANNI: But I know and I am smiling because I'm going to miss Maya. And we all are. But I know that if there was a way to just sit her on a cloud and let her hear she would get the biggest kick. She would just be sitting in that chair with a glass of wine if it's 11 o'clock. A glass of white wine and laughing and talking.
MARTIN: What would you like us to think about as we think about her today and going forward?
GIOVANNI: I think you have to think about her really great spirit. I just don't think - I mean, I love "Phenomenal Woman." I love "Cage bird." She has really good cookbooks too. You know, we're all foodies. But I think if I had a daughter, which I was not privileged. I have a son - though he could learn from that too. But I would want to say to my daughter, you know, this one of the great spirits. Maya had an embrace of life and it is rare, you know. Even I - I like being alive - but even I don't come anywhere near just that joy that she brought. There is an old Negro spiritual - he woke me up this morning and started me on my way. The Lord is blessing me. And I don't know anybody who thinks that but Maya. I mean, of all of the people that I know, I don't know anybody who has just that verve, that I am alive, and as long as I'm alive - she used to say that all the time. Say you know, and then your back hurts, and well, she says you know, as long as I am here it feels good. That is the way she is going to look at it.
MARTIN: All right. Well, Nikki Giovanni thank you so much for speaking with us on this bittersweet day let's say it that way.
GIOVANNI: It truly is.
MARTIN: Nikki Giovanni is an award-winning author and a poet, joining us with her reflections about Maya Angelou who passed away this morning. We reached her at her home in Virginia where she is a professor at Virginia Tech. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
GIOVANNI: Oh, thank you so much. And smile when you think of her.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.