LOS ANGELES TIMES / INTERVIEW : Maya Angelou : Creating a Poem to Honor the Nation
On Inauguration Day to herald his presidency, Bill Clinton has chosen a fellow Arkansan to recite a dedicatory poem created for this august occasion. The poet shares Clinton’s humble beginnings, his small-town roots and his enduring passion for the written word.
Maya Angelou personifies the phoenix-like rise that this young, President is promising a divided nation. She retreated into silence after being raped as a child. As she described in her first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she was a mute who read everything available at her small, segregated school. Her memory, enhanced by five years of solitude, allows a total recall of William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Burns and other poets who comforted her then, and inspire her now. Angelou, 64, quoted these poets generously during a conversation in her elegant living room, which is filled with African-American paintings. Her home is in Winston-Salem, N.C; her heart is a continent away, in Oakland, where her son, Guy Johnson, works as a personnel analyst.
A prolific woman of letters, Dr. Angelou--as she is known on and off the campus of Wake Forest University, where she is the Reynolds professor of American studies--has written 11 books of poetry and autobiography. None, remarkably, has ever been out of print. She is also the author of five plays; “And Still I Rise,” opened Friday in Washington.
On Wednesday, Angelou will recite her latest creation, a poem that she prays will be inspirational, to a nation that she believes shall be moved.
Question: Why do you think President-elect Clinton chose you to create a new poem for his inauguration?
Answer: I suggest because he knows my work. And because the general theme of all my work coincides with his theme; not only for the inauguration but for his tenure as President, since he means to bring about a reunion--an American reunion--a reunion of all the peoples in our country. He could be called the reunion President.
In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to use that statement to break down the walls we set between ourselves because we are different. I suggest that we should herald the differences, because the differences make us interesting, and also enrich and make us stronger. The differences are minuscule compared to the similarities. That’s what I mean to say. I think that he knew that; he knew I would try to write a piece that would speak to the coming together of the different factions in our country.
Q: What does it say about Clinton that he reads poetry?
A: Well, truly, poetry is the strongest language we have. Unfortunately, it has fallen on disfavor, and so a number of people got the erroneous idea that poetry was nerd talk--that it was evidence of weakness. The truth is poetry shows the human being at her/his strongest; at her/his best. Poetry is what men employ when they woo women. What women employ when they woo men. . . . It is poetry which is employed when people talk about their love of country, their love of land, their love of home place. It is poetry which is employed when one seeks to praise God or to implore from God certain benefits. In prayer and meditation--there one finds poetry. So it seems to me a salient note that a President would know that poetry should be brought back onto center stage. It’s very, very important, because it means there is a desire to strengthen the country in its finest way of strengthening. And I don’t mean strengthen by arming, by ammunition, by explosives. But really strengthen in the soul, strengthen in the spirit, which is where real strength is found anyway. Or not found.
Q: We do turn to poetry at times of great joy and also of great sadness. We do reach sometimes for poetry during extreme times. Is this an extreme time for the nation?
A: This is an extreme time. We have lain fallow--if one could think of our nation and our citizenry as land which has not been tilled. We have lain fallow too long. We have not been asked to be fertile, to be creative. We have not asked ourselves. Something happened to us some years ago, and we almost turned over the entire running of our lives, let alone of our country, but the running of our lives to the leadership. And that means that one was not engaged in the mistakes that were made. You could always blame the leadership.
I remember particularly Mr. Kennedy saying “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This, then, is to be participating in government, participating in the development of the country, for each person to be an activist in developing the country. I think that’s what Mr. Clinton wants us to do.
Q: President Kennedy was the last President to have a poet at his inauguration. Do you remember that occasion?
A: Of course. I watched it on television. I watched it and was very impressed with Mr. (Robert) Frost because he lost his papers and Mr. (Lyndon B.) Johnson recovered the papers for him. But Mr. Frost recovered himself. He really struggled to read the inaugural poem. He had written a dedicatory poem. But since the papers got all jumbled up, the sun was in his eyes, he couldn’t see, he decided to recite a poem he had written 20 years earlier called “The Gift Outright.” It was just a wonderful choice. . . . But he had chosen to write a special poem.
Q: The last inaugural poet Robert Frost, an elderly white man; the current inaugural poet, Dr. Angelou, a black woman. Do your race and gender inform this occasion?
A: Absolutely. Everybody’s race and gender and experience and environment and lacks and losses and loves and triumphs inform everything they do. There is, however, a point in the application of one’s calling when one almost transcends, never really leaves behind race and culture and environment, but ascends to a place where one is poet.
I look at the great Japanese woman poet Janice Mirikitani or Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, or John Donne, Amiri Baraka or Matthew Arnold for that matter. . . . All that they are makes them poets. The language is interchangeable. It’s as if you are all climbing Mount Everest, and if you reach a certain level, you speak the same language.
Q: So the language becomes universal?
Q: And the message becomes universal?
A: This is more important. . . . The message eventually becomes universal so that Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” is a perfect piece of poetry that is applicable now for me in looking at Russia, looking at what was the Soviet Union. If you remember the poem:
I met a stranger from an antique land
Who’s said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. ...
This amazing Gargantuan thing. And there at the base it says: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works ye Mighty and despair!” In other words: I will be here forever.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that 150 years ago. And I look at Stalin and all the cruelties he foisted onto the people--I will be here forever. So if you become that kind of poet who tells the truth--not necessarily the fact, but the truth--then that truth is applicable in Sarawak and in Des Moines and in Sussex.
Q: How do you get that truth out in a nation where many people think of poetry only in terms of a classroom?
A: We may see, thanks to our new President, a rekindling of interest in poetry and even a rekindling in the courage to call poetry, poetry. A number of people use a form of poetry but wouldn’t let it be known that they call it poetry.
Q: For example?
A: Young men and women who know every lyric that Michael Jackson or Janet Jackson sing. . . .
Q: Most of the poets considered great in the classroom are viewed as a bunch of old dead white men. How do they relate to today?
A: Yes, but poetry is poetry. When I was very young in Arkansas, I read everything. I read every book in the black school because I was a mute and that was all there was to do. And I memorized Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. Shakespeare! I remember I must have been about 12 and I read the sonnet--I think it was the 29th of Shakespeare. And he could have been a little black girl in the South for me. The sonnet said:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate
Wishing myself like to one more rich in hope
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
That’s exactly how I felt. Because I was black and small and had been raped, I felt in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. Now he wrote that in the 16th Century, a white man in England. But he told the absolute truth about a black girl in Arkansas in the ‘40s.
Q: In this nation that is so mixed: Asians, Latinos, blacks, whites, Native Americans; fat people, thin people, gay people--
A: Sounds like my poem--
Q: What do you as a black woman have to say to America?
A: To use the familiar ploy introduced by Frederick Douglass over 150 years ago--using the first-person singular meaning the first-person plural, “I” for “we”: I have been here since 1619. That’s one year before the Mayflower got here.
I have been everything in this country. I have nursed a nation of strangers--strangers who I knew, when they grew up, they would rape my daughters and kill my son. I, black woman. I.
I have fought for freedom. I have enjoyed it. I have lost it. I have been on the very bottom of the strata. I have somehow managed to keep myself intact enough to survive, and to do better than that--to thrive. And to do better than that--to thrive with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.
I, the black American woman. I’m the one to look at this nation. Yes. And when I say “I,” I mean: I, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carolyn Rogers, Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni. Audre Lorde. Contemporary black American women poets. Any one of us. . . .
I’m just back from a trip to outer space. I’m an astronaut. I’m an open-heart surgeon. I am the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. I’m the superintendent of schools. I am the head of the National Education Assn.
I, black woman. I’m scientist and scholar. I’m entertainer and mother and housekeeper and janitor. I’m an unwed mother and a prostitute. I’m in the abortion line. I’m the rock of the church. Somebody.
Q: Can poetry inspire a nation?
A: Yes. Prior to really sitting down to write this poem, I reread Frederick Douglass’ narrative. I reread “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The critic will find that novel a piece of maudlin overwriting. The fact is when Mr. Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So, you’re the little lady who caused this great big war.” Because her book was the first book--first fiction--which showed African-Americans with soul and sensibility. It swayed the people who were on the fence.
Reading about Uncle Tom and Eliza made them see those people as human beings. It had a tremendous effect. Of course, Mr. Lincoln was saying that. It wasn’t true that she caused that great big war. But her book was essential to it. Mr. Frederick Douglass’ books and (his newspaper) The North Star were essential to the war. And Mr. Frederick Douglass wrote in poetry.
And then I reread Thomas Paine “On Civil Disobedience.” And I reread Patrick Henry. And I realize that in the 1770s and ‘80s, in the Revolutionary War, when the soldiers were barefoot, cold, hungry, their clothes ragged, they were half armed, ready to give up. And they were illiterate for the most part. People who could read would walk up and down the lines of these tired and bedraggled soldiers and read Patrick Henry’s inflammatory statement: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me give me liberty or give me death.” And by the time they were finished, the people would say to themselves, “We’ll stay, we’ll stay one more day.”
“We’re once more unto the breach, dear friends.” So this is the power then of poetry--of poetical prose. And it can inspire a country. . . .
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.