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Dr. Maya Angelou, Poet MAG
Born Marguerite Johnson in 1928, Dr. Maya Angelou survived a segregated, violent childhood in Arkansas and left for a life lived around the world. Talented in dance and music, a civil rights crusader and professor, Dr. Angelou is best known in America for her books of poetry and prose, including: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Gather Together in My Name; And Still I Rise; andThe Heart of a Woman.
Dr. Angelou is a hero - Read more in one teen's tribute ...
Would we be correct to describe you as a wife, mother, writer, poet, actress, activist and documentarian?
Of course, of course, a total life is a full life. But it can't ever be contained within a biographical work. You read a biography of Charles Dickens, James Baldwin or Emily Dickinson, and, no matter how thorough or how honest or even how articulate the writer is, it cannot really capture the life.
I'm giving you a lesson here.
And now, Mr. A. and Miss R. , tell me something about yourself. You're both readers, that's a great blessing, and you're both writers. That's a great blessing.
I'll tell you my secret about writing and my encouragement to young men and women: READ. If you want to write, read, and here's a gem of a hint: read and read aloud. Go into your room and hear how your language sounds in your mouth and in your ear. Let it out because poetry in particular is music written for the human voice.
I know there are poets who are enamored with something called concrete poetry/calligraphy where the poet puts the words so they look like a heart, then put a heart around it, in a heart shape and that's a poem. Well, no, that's not a poem. If the words don't convey the meaning, the arrangement of them on paper will not create the magic. So read the words aloud. That's the most important advice.
Another suggestion is that you learn another language.
(K): I'm taking Spanish right now. I really like it.
That's great. You must have a good teacher. It's one of my languages. Sometimes I think that French is my second language. When I'm doing live TV in France and it doesn't come out in French, it will pop out of my mouth in Spanish. That surprises everybody. The interviewer, me, everybody.
But Spanish is probably my second language.
Try other languages, that also will sharpen the ear. You'll begin to hear melodies. Different melodies are conveyed in every language. This is how really great comedians like Sid Caesar appear to be speaking another language. John Belushi sounds as if he's speaking Japanese but he isn't speaking a single word, he'sonly got the melodies.
The melody is very important in poetry and the melody of your language and listening to other languages and having some ability to move in another language will help you write.
Which of your roles would you consider to be your favorite, and from which do you get the most satisfaction?
I'm a writer. That's what I do. That's how I describe myself to myself. I'm a writer. And even to God, if I think God has forgotten my name. I'll ask him, "Remember me - the writer, The Tall Black American Lady, the Writer?"
When I'm writing poetry, that calls for a particular thing. I don't know what it is. And when I'm writing prose, it's another - I can't say it calls upon this frontal lobe of the brain or something. I never do that. When I'm writing poetry, I write in a particular mode. And when I'm working in prose it's different, and if I'm directing a movie, that calls upon a different set of reflectors.
Someone once said that what you experience in the first 18 years of your life is what you'll be writing about for the rest of your life. Do you agree?
That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Suppose in your nineteenth year you fall, break your leg and have to have it amputated. You may want to write about this journey - trying to make this journey with one leg. That would be a fascination. And the person making this journey would certainly be fascinated.
I think the important thing is to be present. Trying to be totally present. This right now is a series of words. You might remember some of this. Try to be totally present. Bring everything you've got into every circumstance. While you're there, be as honest and courageous and as courteous and as loving as you can be.
Then when you move, go to the next and be totally there. That way you don't live in the past forever, and catch dust in your throat from antique pages of yesteryear.
You're not living in the future which has not yet come, so be totally present. So to write just about your first 18 years is too bad, too sad, you're dead.
Can children be taught to love reading?
If they're taught to love poetry, yes. But they have to be taught to love the voice, to love stories, to love the language. Then they will. If you read to a child every night and then he or she learns to read, they'll say, "I don't feel like reading tonight, " but you'll say, "But here's the book. " You've already whetted that appetite.
When do you think parents should start?
Oh, I think in the womb. People should start reading to them, singing to them, talking to the baby before it is born and as soon as it's born. They should start talking and laughing.
In 1993 you wrote and read "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Clinton's first inauguration. With all that's gone on in the White House ...
Well, I think he's going to go down as a great president. He's a man, a human being, and made a lot of mistakes - of which I'm sure he's embarrassed. He's embarrassed his family and this nation.
But he's a very intelligent man, and a very kind person from everything I've seen. I'm encouraged he went the whole way. I'm always inspired by men and women who rise. There's something in the human spirit. Each human being goes to bed and feels trepidation, fear, regret or embarrassment and yet miraculously each human being awakens and another human being says, "Good Morning. How are you?" "Fine, thanks, and you?" And they go on. That ability to rise is nobleness of the human spirit. You're there, in view of the whole world and people are taking pot shots at you. You really blew it. You really done did it. You fall right there and instead of crawling away, you stand up right there and say, "I'm sorry, " there it is and go on. That is so encouraging. You see, I like him.
What are your thoughts on President Bush?
I don't know Mr. Bush yet. I need more. He is my president, whether I voted for him or not. He is the American President, so he's my president. I have high hopes.
What is the most important challenge facing Americans today, and how does it affect teenagers?
Probably greed. Because of greed, there's crassness and a cruelty and a vulgarity that are alive and well, very unwell, in our society.
I am embarrassed that universities have endowments of billions of dollars and are charging $25 or $30 thousand for a student to study there for one year. That embarrasses me. That's greed, and it sets up a series of vices and vulgarities that radiates out so people have to take two jobs.
People have to lie a little. People have to steal a little. You understand? So we've become decadent. This reminds me of something George Bernard Shaw said, though I didn't agree with him. I thought he was just so rude. "The U. S. is the only country that went from barbarism to decadent without once passing through civility. " Well, we have had some years of civility, but not enough. And I don't mean by that civilization, I mean civility. Recognizing I'm not my brother's keeper, but I am in fact my brother. That is civility. Not harping on cruelty and brutishness. We have to get over letting racism, ageism and sexism and all those ignorances go on in our lives.
You're a strong believer in religion. How has it affected your writing?
It has affected everything. I think trying to be a Christian is like trying to be a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew or a Shintoist. It's not a condition you seek and then sit back and say "Wow, I've got it. " It's something you work at all day. All week and at night when you check yourself out and say, "Um, I've made mistakes only 210 times. " And then forgive yourself and work tomorrow so you make mistakes only 209 times. As I understand it, I'm a student [of religion] and as such I try to be patient and kind and generous. And brave and loving.
Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
I can't think of one that would be my favorite. And it depends on what time of day. There's no one that would be my favorite. I use the teaching as I need it. And I so I use the Bible a lot and I also use Zen Buddhism. I use a lot of Judaism and try to surround and fill my mind and listen to the wisdom of the ages. And pull it up, much as you would pull up things on your computer.
With the 21st century's materialism, how do you think spirituality should fit in with our lives?
Without it we're nothing, we're just brutes without spirituality. Maybe intellectual brutes, but brutes. Intellectual experts. Intelligence informs us that what you sow, you shall reap. And so we know that if you have a tomato and plant it, and anything comes up, it will be a tomato. And if you take seeds from that tomato, you'll eventually have billions and trillions of tomatoes. You will get more, an inundation. So intelligence will help each person become a better person because you want to be. 'Cause you don't want 10 billion bad things around us. And you look like a ninny if you plant a tomato seed and go out and get oranges. Nature has shown us this for millions of years.
In the 60s Dr. King asked you to become a coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition. What was it like being drawn into the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, I was young, and I admired Dr. King. And I was happy to do that. I was young and passionate. It's something that should happen to each young person. They should find something to be passionate about. To really care.
What do you most remember about Dr. King?
I just finished writing a book about him. He believed everything he said, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. His wife and I go back. We are sisters. And I worked with many of the people who worked with him. And, in fact, I will see them tomorrow when I travel to Atlanta.
Who do you think are the strong civil rights leaders of today?
Ahh, some of the thinkers of today are really civil rights leaders although they're not leading marches. I'm particularly impressed with Cornel West. A wonderful writer, he's a brilliant mind and a young man.
Jedediah Purdy is another brilliant young man because of the way he thinks in his book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today.
You know, there's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. I don't know what the young civil rights leaders will do today. Maybe they'll write books like Jedediah Purdy or Cornel West. I don't know, maybe they'll be musicians. I'm ready to hear and see what you all will bring us. It's a wonderful thing to be older and to say, "It's yours. And I'm sorry I didn't do enough, but now it's your turn. "
A lot of teenagers equate success with money. What does success mean to you?
Money is very important and should not be denied or scorned. It's very important. It is not, however, a measure of success. Success is always internal, but what money does is afford the person who has it the chance to be generous to herself and others.
Success is internal, being able to look in the mirror when you brush your teeth and like what you see, and not drop your eyes. Liking yourself, and liking the person you want to be and liking the person you're trying to become. And that is it. That puts you at ease in any company. Whether you're black in white company, or white in black company, you're at ease. Christian with Jews at ease, because you know your heart and you know how you feel. That is true success.
What are three books every teenager should read before graduating from high school?
Ahhhhhh, now then, Jedediah Purdy's Common Things; I'm trying to think of what's on my bed now. I'd like to see teenagers read a book of mine, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I have 14 others lined up in my brain.
What are some contemporary Americans. I would like to see maybe a Gorsky, but no, I can only have three...
You can have more if you want. We didn't know this was going to be a hard question.
It's an embarrassment of riches. Okay, read Dostoyevski, read Crime and Punishment.
Corbel Abé, Jack Ajack...
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.
The Little Prince is pretty important, in French, of course.
You should read Race Matters by Cornel West. I'd love to see you read Antonio Fraser.
Read Hons and Rebels, here it's called Daughters and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford. Now don't ask me anything like that again.
Please, now, what's your next question?
What's the dumbest, or funniest, thing you did in high school?
I was sent from California at the age of three to a little village in Arkansas to live with my grandmother. I stayed there for the most part until I was 13, when I returned to San Francisco. At 13, I was 5' 10", by 15, I was 6'and quite skinny and I was a Southern girl, and I had a psychological problem. So I went to a therapist until I started talking. But I didn't talk much.
And I must have looked "it, " just "it, " so the students at an all-girls school tried to talk to me. I had never been around whites, I had never been around Spanish-speaking people. I had never been around black people who spoke so fast.
In the South, I talked slow and I didn't talk much anyway. So they would laugh at me. And when they laughed at me, I said, "I'll meet you outside after school in the park. " And I would meet them and I would hit somebody and then they would beat me to a pulp. At least once a week, I'd go home with my clothes torn and dirty. And my grandmother would say, "What in the name of God happened to you?" And my brother who was my mentor, and was two years older and the closest my family ever came to making a real genius, my brother said, "You don't have to do that. "
"Yes I do, they laugh at me. "
And he said, "Well, what would happen if you just didn't say, 'Meet me outside'?" Laughing I said, "I wouldn't get beat. " And I tried it, and I didn't get beat up and I made friends. But it never occurred to me not to ask them to fight. So that's the dumbest.
And I still blush. Black people, you know, blush the same as white people, but because of the complexion, people can't see it. But your face gets hot, and around the ears. And still, all these years later, it makes me blush that I was that stupid.
With respect to equal treatment and opportunities for women, what needs to be done, and what can teens do to change it?
One time I asked my mom, "How can I get a friend?" And she said, "Be a friend. Be fair. " She treated people fairly and insisted upon it. This is the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who said, "Put your bucket down right there wherever you are. " This is the wisdom of Booker T. Washington. Right there, wherever you are. Be fair. Treat people equally. And insist upon it.
As for what you can do in a larger sense, you would know that better than I. You know your situation. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you to go and do this, or do that. All I can tell you is to be fair. In everything you do, treat people fairly. Pay them fairly, if you're in a position to do that. Insist upon being paid fairly if you're being paid.
With racism and civil rights, a lot of people think we've made great changes for the better. Others think many of the changes have only been on the surface and deep down racism still exists.
That's not true. There have been great changes. And one has to admit it. We must admit it and say so, or young men and women like you question the lives and deaths of the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, and Fanny Lehane. You mean there have been no changes? You have to admit that there have been changes. Just for one thing, Ruth Simmons, a black woman, is president of an ivy-league university. And black men are in positions of power on Wall Street and in government.
Those are visible changes. There have been changes in interior ways as well. So that for the first time in the last 20 years, there are more black and white people making friends. You're not shocked to turn on the TV and see a group of people and to see three or four black people and some Asian people in it. Twenty years ago that would have shocked you. You would have said, "Come quick and see it, oh, it's too late. " Oh, there have been changes. Interior and exterior changes. But not enough. You see, nothing can ever satisfy.
Of all the places you could teach, why did you choose Wake Forest?
I love Wake Forest. I left California looking for a place to live when my marriage went south and broke up. And I was on a lecture tour, so I went all around the country. I knew this time I wanted to stay in the U. S. , and the only places I liked were Cambridge, Massachusetts and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Well, I don't do snow very well, so I thought, Well, I better not move up North, I better stay in Winston-Salem. So I came and they offered me a job, they offered me a chair. And I said I don't know if I'll like it. I'll try it for a year, and that was 20 years ago.
And I'm a knock-out teacher. I find I'm a teacher who writes. I have 20 books that I've published and it is said I am the only American writer with a sizable body of work where all their books are still in print. So I used to think I'm a writer. But the truth is I'm a teacher, and I've taught you all today here, too.
And if I got into Wake Forest University, what are my chances of getting into your class?
Well, I certainly won't forget your two names. But there usually is a wait-list. A long wait-list.
And I have told my students always, "Once I'm your teacher, I'm your teacher, for as long as you live. And you can always call me or write and tell me if I can be of service. " So that goes for you too, because this afternoon I have sat here to teach you.
And I appreciate your questions. I have a mission which is to teach, but right now I have a granddaughter in the hospital about to have a baby. But I've had to put all my energy here to teach you. I have something going on in every room. And I have 15 house guests in my house. But I've put everything aside so that I can be here with you now in the present. And thereby, by this act in itself, teach you something about sincerity, your responsibility and life. And I hope you will recognize when you go into the university and when you come out, that we are all teachers.
Thank you very much. We've been honored.
Thank you. It's been my pleasure.