Maya Angelou: best-selling poet shares story of her life and work

Reporter Staff

Maya Angelou has survived.

"Young men and women," she told an appreciative audience in the UB Center for the Arts last Thursday, "you need to know that someone was there before you, someone was lost before you, ignored before you...and yet, miraculously, someone has survived: survived with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style."

A best-selling poet and writer widely known for reading her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" during President Clinton's 1993 inauguration, Angelou spoke mostly about poetry, teaching and her early life in her talk for UB's Distinguished Speakers Series.

Poetry, Angelou contended, not only makes young people aware of their membership in the history of human feelings, but also can help break through common and deadening assumptions about race, gender, beauty and sensuality.

"It's written to keep people alive," she said, a comment that took on added significance as she described the trials of her youth.

When she was 7 years old, Angelou recalled, her mother's boyfriend raped her. She felt she was obliged, "because of my brothers," to name the rapist, and he was put in jail for one day and released. Soon after, he was found dead, apparently kicked to death.

"I decided my voice had killed a man," said Angelou, "so I stopped speaking. I stopped speaking for six years. I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill people randomly."

For many years, she said, she was considered "mental" by the citizens of Stamps, Arkansas. Though at the time she only communicated by pad and pencil, Angelou recalled her grandmother telling her that "when you and the Lord get ready, Sister, you gonna be a teacher."

"I used to sit back and think, 'This poor, ignorant woman,'" said Angelou. "Today, it is my blessing to teach in French and Spanish and English. It is my blessing to be on the board at Harvard Library. It is my blessing."

During her mute years, Angelou fell in love with poetry. She began speaking again when a woman told her that she would not "really love poetry" until she had spoken it. "You have to hear it," said Angelou. "That's what brought me back.

"It will see you through," she told her audience. "There are poets in the library who know all the conditions, all the pain and privileges of being human. I encourage you to go there."

Even while telling painful stories, Angelou displayed a lively sense of humor. "Don't trust people who don't laugh," she advised. "I don't."

After she began speaking again, said Angelou, she wanted to recite a soliloquy from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" at her church.

"My grandmother said, 'Sister, now who is this very William Shakes-peare?'" Angelou recalled. "She was going to force me to tell her that Shakespeare was white. I had to tell her. It was going to get out anyway.

"I tried to figure out a way to get around Mama," Angelou continued. "I said, 'Yes ma'am, he is white. But he's dead.'"

Since leaving "the condition that was Stamps," Angelou said she now reads all poetry as written specifically for her. This view, she held, is a necessary prerequisite to a full appreciation of poetry.

Consistent with her belief that poetry has this universal application, Angelou prefaced her poem "Phenomenal Women" by commenting that, in her view, men are just as phenomenal as women. "But you men have to write your own poem," she joked.

"I wrote it for fat women," she said, "for those who don't like their size but will do little about it except call a friend, usually me, in the middle of the night and say, 'Girl, there's a skinny woman still trying to get out.' And then I wrote it for fat women who love their bodies, who know they are the epitome of sensuality, and when they walk down the street no one, male or female, can keep their eyes off them. And I wrote it for skinny women, those who deserve our sympathy."

The tone of Angelou's closing remarks was strikingly similar to the tone of her poems. "Let us so live," she said, "that we will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity and ignorance, so that in dying each of us can say, 'All my conscious life and energies have been dedicated to the most noble cause in the world, the liberation of the human mind and spirit, beginning with my own.'"

Angelou sang or recited poems by Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes.

In addition to writing, Angelou has worked as a director, producer, actress and songwriter.

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