Evans has always spent her words carefully, but at age 92 she seems to be exercising more caution than ever. When I phoned Evans to solicit her comments for this piece she made it perfectly clear that she had no interest in educating naive journalists on the nuances of her writing. "Look, anything I could possibly tell you is already out there in my work. I would suggest that you just Google me," Evans admonished as she resolutely declined my interview request.
While Mari Evans may not be a household name in Indianapolis, she's established a reputation as one of the finest living poets in the world. Evans' first major exposure as a writer occurred in 1964 with her inclusion in the Langston Hughes edited volume New Negro Poets: U.S.A. Evans first collection of poetry Where is the Music was published in 1968, but it was her second volume of verse, 1970's more overtly political I am a Black Woman, that thrust Evans into international prominence as a writer. Evans has been carefully building on that legacy ever since, releasing subsequent volumes of poetry, theatrical pieces, essays and children's books.
As I stated, I do respect Evans' steadfast commitment to letting her work speak for itself. But I just couldn't allow this opportunity to pass. Evans has been one of the most profound commentators on the Black experience in America. I was determined to hear her thoughts on the nation's current political climate and how her work connects with contemporary social justice struggles. I had to earn her trust quickly to pull this interview off, so I shot off a reference to a pair of relatively obscure literary journals she'd contributed to during the 1960s. "Miss Evans I wouldn't want to waste your time. I've read all your books. I even search through old issues of Black World and Negro Digest to find more of your writing." The reference piqued her interest and Evans decided to give me a chance "well, what do you want to ask me?"
So began my expansive, wide-ranging conversation with Evans. Followers of Evans' work undoubtedly associate the writer with the serious political concerns expressed in her writing. But in conversation I found Evans to have a strong sense of humor. I also found Evans to be extremely kind-natured and quite generous with her time.
NUVO: On October 10th you'll be receiving the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award at the Indiana Authors Award ceremony. First of all congratulations on receiving this award. I understand that you're one of just two writers who have been awarded with this distinction from the Library Foundation.
I certainly don't want this comment to sound like I'm diminishing the importance of that award - but your legacy as an artist is so enormous and substantial. Iconic writers like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes considered you their colleague. Your work has been published and praised internationally. I wonder if there's any award here in Indiana we could give you that's big enough to adequately pay tribute to the tremendous global impact of your art?
Thank you for that question, but I don't want to address that. I wouldn't want to comment on anything in the direction you just headed. That's not the sound I'd want to leave behind me.
NUVO: OK, fair enough. May I ask a question related to your poem "Speak the Truth to the People"?
Yes, that's a good poem.
NUVO: I think it's an incredible poem and I'd like to read a few lines.
"Speak the truth to the people / Talk sense to the people / Free them with honesty / Free the people with Love and Courage for their Being / Spare them the fantasy / Fantasy enslaves… To identify the enemy is to free the mind / Free the mind of the people / Speak to the mind of the people / Speak Truth."
Personally, I don't think of Indianapolis as a place where the truth speakers are always welcomed and embraced. I am curious if this city has provided a good base for you to speak your truths?
Well, all I ever really tried to do is speak the truth. I think I can say that everything I've ever written has been an effort to speak with integrity and to say things I feel are genuinely true. You know, I just think if people here really read my work then maybe they wouldn't want to honor me so much.
NUVO: You wrote a remarkable essay about Indianapolis titled "Ethos and Creativity,” for the book Where We Live: Essays About Indiana as compiled by NUVO's David Hoppe. Your essay addressed how elements of the ruling class in Indianapolis plotted the destruction of black Indianapolis communities like Indiana Avenue. Indianapolis is currently going though a very intense period of gentrification and we're seeing low-income families being driven out of neighborhoods that have provided a home for several generations of their bloodline. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the subject of gentrification and its current impact on Indianapolis?
I don't have anything to say on that topic that would have a lot of integrity behind it because I've gotten so I can no longer drive. I've found that by not driving there's so much that I no longer know.
NUVO: For me that essay was a revelation. It forever transformed my sense of Indianapolis and the city's history. You documented how during the 1980s some city officials were conniving to have important buildings along Indiana Avenue removed from the historic register so they could be razed to make way for various commercial construction projects. I wonder if you were surprised by any of the information you uncovered while conducting research for this essay?
No, I doubt I was surprised by very much of what I found. I have been my own private investigator for as long as I can remember. I knew things about Indianapolis that were not general knowledge. I worked for ten years as an advocate for inmates within the Indiana correctional system. So I knew a lot of information that many people didn't know.
NUVO: I think the poem "Alabama Landscape" is one of your most haunting works.
Oh, you like that?
NUVO: Yes, and I'd like to read a few lines.
"Black man running / Thru the ageless sun and shadow / History repeated past all logic / Who is it bides the time and why? / And for how long?"
I interpret this work as speaking to the cycle of subjugation and violence America has historically perpetrated against people of color. Whenever I watch the news and hear about the latest case of State violence against an unarmed person of color, be it Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Freddie Gray, I think of that line: "history repeated past all logic".
Well thank you, because that's the kind of analogy I hoped people could make. I find that most people who infer that they've read my work really haven't read it. You've obviously read it and you've understood what you read. Your head and shoulders above most of the people who talk as if they know my work.
NUVO: I consider myself a student of your work. Your work has provided an enormous influence and inspiration for me. Your work inspired me to take my writing more seriously, it's helped give me the courage to try say things that may be difficult for people to hear. And the fact that you created this work in Indianapolis, the city that I was born and raised in, that just doubled the impact of the work for me.
Well, what do you know. Can you remind me of your last name again?
NUVO: It's Long.
Oh, like the bakery? Do you go to the bakery?
NUVO: Yes, I love their donuts.
Well, we connect on the donuts. Someone was coming to see me the other day and they wondered if there was anything I might want that they could bring me. I said "yes, bring me some Long's!" (laughs) It's a landmark in Indianapolis.
NUVO: Absolutely, and the Long's Bakery on 16th Street has remained unchanged for so many decades.
But to return to this cycle of violence referenced in your poem "Alabama Landscape". Do you think these incidents of State violence against people of color are getting worse in America?
I have said and I continue to say that it's getting worse. I hate to say that because it suggests that there's been no change. I think since you're a student of social order you would know that things are worse than they were.
NUVO: Throughout your career as an artist you've worked in many mediums. You've written plays. You've written children's books. You've composed music. You developed, produced and hosted a television series on the subject of Black history. I think it's safe to say that you're most known for your work as a poet. But I wonder if you classify yourself as a poet?
Oh no, I stay away from saying I'm a poet. (laughs) I only say I write and that I write with as much integrity as I can bring. But I don't call myself a poet because I hope I can do more than be a poet.
NUVO: I'm so intrigued to know more about your television series The Black Experience . I understand this program was produced for WTTV Channel 4 during the late 1960s. But there's no trace of the show's existence.
I know, that's because I have the only existing trace of it.
NUVO: Do you have any desire to put it back into circulation? I'd love to see it.
I don't know. I'm in the process of deciding what I want to do with everything. At my age I have a lot of… (pauses) well, I haven't yet burned anything. Let me just say that.
What to do with the tangible evidence of my having been here is something I haven't quite decided.
NUVO: Does that question concern you? Do you spend time meditating on what to do with all the "tangible evidence" of your work?
I don't meditate on it, but yes it occurs to me on occasion. I told someone recently that there are some who will be looking for money after I transition, but the only thing I have of value is what I've written.
NUVO: In addition to the work you've written, in 1983 you edited an incredibly important book titled Black Women Writers - 1950-1980 A Critical Evaluation. This book collected critical analysis on acclaimed Black women writers like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and many other lesser-known, but equally significant figures. Since its date of publication this book has remained a crucial and indispensable resource.
Well, I'll tell you something funny about that book. As I'm sure you know, Audre Lorde was a feminist and a lesbian. She was very upset with me because I had a man write one of the essays about her in the book. I always thought that was funny. I thought as long as I had somebody good writing the essay on her then she should've been satisfied.
NUVO: So you didn't take her critique very seriously?
Listen, I think I'm a stand-up comic and I don't really care what people think.
NUVO: Are you still writing?
Well, your question is so broad. But yes, of course I am. You know, I only ever wrote when I had something to say. So I still feel that on occasion I have something to say. So I would say on occasion I write.
NUVO: Do you find yourself being inspired to write today by the same cultural forces that inspired you to write during the '60s and '70s?
I really couldn't say. But I've never lost my sense of needing to make statements about what I see and how I react to what I see. So in that sense I guess you could say I still write in the same way. But I don't write as a profession. I never wrote for any reason other than when I thought "this is something I should make a point of saying" and then I would write it down. To that extent I still write. But I'm not trying to write to be published anymore.
NUVO: I'm sure there are eager publishers out there that would love to have a new volume of Mari Evans' work on the market. Are there publishing companies knocking on your door for new work?
No. Not at all.
NUVO: Seriously? Are you joking with me?
No. I'm telling you the truth.
NUVO: That's hard for me to believe. That's very sad to hear. I think that says something about the current state of publishing, or perhaps the current state of American popular culture in general.
I think it says something about what we're willing to allow our minds to be captured by. When there's something on like Empire that captures the attention of the world, apparently - I'm just at a loss. I wonder how people can give their minds over to things that to me seem to have so little substance. It seems to be about materialism and ego. So it's hard for me to get involved in what is central to the social aspects of today's society. I'm probably the only person you know who doesn't have a computer.
NUVO: I think one of the most significant changes in the landscape of popular culture over the last few decades has been the emergence of hip-hop culture. How do you feel about hip-hop and its influence on language and communication in America?
I don't like to denigrate the creative works that other people do. For me to expound on that at length, I think that's what I might end up doing.
NUVO: Do you find value in the work of hip-hop poets, like Tupac Shakur for example?
Well that's pretty good. I wouldn't say it's that I don't find value in it, but I haven't studied it enough to know how I truly feel about it. I sometimes wonder if they are allowing any value to the work that came before them. Other than that I try not to comment on the work they do because they do the best they can, I think. And that may not have as much value as I would like.
NUVO: Miss Evans, I can't express how much your work means to me and how grateful I am that you spoke with me today. I'll never forget this exchange. Congratulations on the award and thank you for your work.
That's very kind of you to value the material and to tell me that you value the material - and even to feel that I may even still have something you can use. It was a delight talking to you.
Visit indianaauthorsaward.org for more information on the Indiana Authors Award ceremony.
Mari Evans' unwillingness to be interviewed by me only made me respect her more. Being a dedicated fan of Evans' writing, I knew it would be nearly impossible to attract her participation for this story when I eagerly volunteered for the assignment. But I was compelled to try. I've been patiently waiting for an opportunity to speak with Evans since I began writing this column for NUVO nearly four years ago. When I heard Evans was being honored this month with a lifetime achievement award from the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation I figured this was my best shot at securing an exchange with the legendary wordsmith.