“Whitney, who’s your person?” I clenched my hands together under the desk. It was my turn to report which author I hoped to interview for professor Carolyn Hembree’s assignment. I knew I had picked a long shot, but I had to believe.
“Maya Angelou,” I said, and the class snickered. “I wrote her a letter so it might take a while for a response.” No one tried to hide their skepticism; one person even warned me: “Better find a back-up.”
Ye of little faith. I am a writer and a teacher in New Orleans due, in part, to her inspiration, so I had reason to hope. Yet I also had reason to believe she had a mailbox overflowing with letters from millions of young poets.
Maya Angelou wasn’t only a renowned writer, but also a teacher, actress, filmmaker, singer, civil rights activist, producer, and dancer. She wrote over thirty books in different genres and her screenplay for the film Georgia, Georgia was the first filmed script written by an African American woman. At the time of her death, she had been awarded three Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and had been nominated for the National Book Award, a Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize. Her very first autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, single-handedly revolutionized the brutal-truth literary memoir.
So I handwrote her a letter—and she answered!
Often I play the file on my digital voice recorder to hear her sweet voice and confirm a dream captured. I had a feeling I would matter to Maya because she mattered to me. Her poetry is accessible; she was accessible, and she wanted to be accessible because she “learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
One can’t manifest the poetic better than that—unless, of course, the elusive New Orleans poem she mentions in our conversation somehow shows up at my door.
Rumpus: Thank you so much for granting my interview. You are one of the first poets I ever read, and you made me fall in love with language. I’m sure you’ve heard that before.
Angelou: Oh! Well, how nice! I like to hear it. You can say it again in fact.
Rumpus: I will say it as many times as you want! I’m pursuing an MFA in poetry and teaching because you inspired me, and I just wanted to thank you for that.
Angelou: I’m glad, and thank you for that. Where are you calling from?
Rumpus: I’m calling from New Orleans.
Angelou: I started writing a poem for New Orleans; I was thinking about it this morning. When it’s ready it will come. If I do write the poem, I’ll send you a copy.
Rumpus: When do you decide the form of the poem?
Angelou: The subject of the poem usually dictates the rhythm or the rhyme and its form. Sometimes, when you finish the poem and you think the poem is finished, the poem says, “You’re not finished with me yet,” and you have to go back and revise, and you may have another poem altogether. It has its own life to live.
Rumpus: That might answer my next question regarding how you know when a poem is done.
Angelou: Well, I’ve done that many times and the poem has said, “No, not yet.”
Rumpus: So it’s just a feeling inside, a feeling of release?
Angelou: Yes, and would that be translatable? That is to say, would a housewife in Des Moines, Iowa, pick that up and say, “Hmm, I know what that means. I got that feeling,” or would a shipyard worker in Richmond, California, say, “Mmm, yeah, I like that”? I don’t mean I write down, around, or up to anybody, but I do want to make sure that what I say is clear.”
Rumpus: That’s a good goal. While studying poetry in grad school, I often wonder what certain authors were thinking while writing the poems we have to pick so hard at to find meaning.
Angelou: Yes, exactly. And sometimes you don’t get it at all. And there are people who say, “Oh, I understood this,” and they got a meaning. It wasn’t the one I set out to put down, but they got a meaning, and that’s good.
Rumpus: Your poetry uses a lot of rhythm and rhyme. Is that because you are also a musician and a dancer?
Angelou: No. Depending on who I am talking about or who’s talking through me—if the person is a kind of hip-hop, or rhythm and blues person, or if the person is a kind of old-fashion gothic, meaning gothic attitude, then that will determine what form the poem will take.
Rumpus: So you let the voice decide?
Angelou: Yes, I do.
Rumpus: Who are your favorite poets now, and are they the same as years ago?
Angelou: Pretty much so. I love Dunbar. I love Gwendolyn Brooks, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Did I say Amiri Baraka? I still enjoy Poe a lot. I love his rhymes and rhythms.
Rumpus: Did Poe at all inspire your rhythm and rhyme?
Angelou: No, I wouldn’t say so. I used to listen to the rhythm in the church and listen to the people sing, and that’s always been my inspiration. But I love Poe because he’s so wonderful—his internal rhyme! I was thinking of a rhyme in “The Raven”—“Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking / fancy unto fancy, thinking.”—you know, that sort of thing. I love it.
Rumpus: Now that you have mastered many genres, does one genre feel more natural, and how do you decide whether to write a poem or a nonfiction piece?
Angelou: I write prose. I like prose a lot, but it depends on what the subject matter is. The poem I’m writing about New Orleans is all over me now and so—have you read “A Brave and Startling Truth”?
Angelou: That stayed with me a long time. The United Nations people asked me to write a poem, and so it stayed with me a long, long time before it decided it was ready to come and I love it. Talking to you makes me think more about New Orleans.
Rumpus: Is it more difficult to write poems that are commissioned? Do you wait longer for it to come?
Angelou: I do. I think all poems are commissioned. They just come to me without somebody outside commissioning them. The idea comes and I will live with them ‘til I get it as close to what I mean. I’ve never been totally satisfied. I’ve come close a few times. I’ve come close a few times.
Rumpus: What’s been most surprising about the discovery of your style during your aging process?
Angelou: I like to go back and read poems that I wrote fifty years ago, twenty years ago, and sometimes they surprise me—I didn’t know I knew that then. Or maybe I didn’t know it then, and I know more now. You know that old song about the young person who at ten knew that his dad and mom knew everything, then at fifteen he couldn’t believe they knew nothing, and then at twenty he was amazed that they learned so much in the last five years? I like that because that’s the way learning is. So I enjoy going back to see some of the old poetry. I also know that I write more slowly now, and I don’t use as much rhyme anymore. That may be because I’m not walking as much as I used to. At my age I’m doing well to get around at all so maybe that’s what has got me in a long meter. [Laughs.]
Rumpus: Are poets obligated to bear witness and work toward social change?
Angelou: That depends on the poet. One poet might say, “I wandered lonely as a cloud”—I think that’s Wordsworth, and that line alone is good for me. I know how it feels to be as lonely as a cloud looks. There are those who say that poets should use her and his art to change the world. I’d agree with that, but I think everybody should do that. I think the chef and the baker and the candlestick maker—I think everybody should be hoping to make it a better world. That doesn’t mean that the poet has to stand on the soapbox and beat his chest unless that’s who he is. He could be Walt Whitman. He could be Amiri Baraka. It depends on who he is. You know, there is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, she says, “I shall die, but / that is all I shall do for Death.” I love it.
Rumpus: So you would agree with Charles Olson that “a poem is energy transferred” and that there is a certain way in which poems affect the world?
Angelou: Yes, I believe that. I believe everything is energy. I believe that the meal you serve yourself, you prepare, is energy. And if you serve it to your family, it’s your gift of energy to them.
Rumpus: What you put out is what you get back.
Angelou: That’s right.
Rumpus: You say “joy” is your favorite word, but what brings you joy? What keeps you smiling and laughing and writing?
Angelou: Your statement brought me wonderful joy this morning—that I was one of the first poets who led you to start to think about poetry—I love that. All sorts of things bring me joy. I’m a grateful person. I have an attitude of gratitude. So when I wake up and look through the blinds and see a little bit of sky through the blinds, I thank God that I’ve awakened and have things to do and people to talk to and people who will make me smile. [I have] bananas and oranges and things to eat and all of that. The truth is I’m a very simple person. What you see is what you get. I know that I think a lot, and so I appear to be complex—and maybe I am—but I don’t think so. I look for joy. Sometimes people don’t find joy because they don’t look for it, they don’t expect it. I expect it. I don’t expect negative, and when I find it, I run like hell and holler “fire!”
Rumpus: I told my mother she could ask the last question, and she would like to know if there is anything left on your bucket list. Is there anything else that you haven’t done?
Rumpus: Did she stump you?
Angelou: Yes. She really has. I’d like to see Fiji. I’ve never gone. I’ve been to Hawaii and those islands, but I’ve never gone to Fiji, and a friend of mine was there a few months ago and sent me a photograph of herself and her friends and a dog, and everybody looked like they were in the lap of luxury, and I thought, Mmmm. So that’s one thing. I don’t want it enough to get up and go get a ticket. I want to write some more. I’ve got a new book coming out April 2,  called Mom and Me and Mom, so that’s really good. It’s about my mother, about her influence on me. It’s about her and my grandmother and my brother. I hope you get it.
Rumpus: I plan on buying it for my mom; she is a big part of my life.
Angelou: Oh really? Mine was too for me. Well, I thank you very much. And when I finish this poem, just don’t be surprised, you’ll get it. I don’t know the name of it yet.
Rumpus: Thank you! I’ll be waiting for it.
Featured image: Official White House Photograph by Lawrence Jackson.