Maya Angelou, author of many novels including I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. She was the US Poet Laureate and recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She has earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a Tony nomination, and three Grammys for spoken word albums. In 2000, Angelou received the National Medal of Arts and in 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her poetry and other writings have been some of the most influential of the twentieth century.
Howl: As a child growing up my mother used to read me your poetry and I remember I was always able to picture a short story, or hidden message in the poems as she read them, and I am curious to know what is the process of writing you use when creating such visually descriptive language in your poems?
Angelou: The point in writing is to try to clarify what the writer knows and clarify in such language that the reader who does not hear the writer, but reads from the page. The reader can comprehend what the person who’s writing it means to convey. That is that the writer may be in Deltona, Florida and the reader might be in San Francisco and they’ve never seen each other, but if the writer is really on his game and really doing what he’s supposed to do, then the reader in San Francisco or in Portland, Oregon can say “Oh I got that. I understand that.”
Howl: Who or what is the inspiration behind your style of writing that makes it such as visual language?
Angelou: Thank you very much. It depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing about a little girl, and I have some poems on little girls, I know the child and I know how she speaks. There’s one poem that says, “ain’t nobody betters my daddy” and “ain’t nobody cookinger than my mommy.” [from “Little Girl Speaking]. And the child is about five or six-years-old, maybe seven. But I try to find her language and speak as she speaks. And then another person can say, “Oh, I know. This is a little girl talking.” But if I’m talking about an adult or an older person, I mean really older, like in their sixties or seventies, I might try to find that language.
Howl: What advice would you give to young poets and authors trying to follow in your footsteps?
Angelou: I would encourage them to please read. And read aloud. Poetry is music written for the human voice and it really needs to be read aloud. So go into your room, close the door, and read the poetry aloud. If you have a good friend, you can read to each other. You can read to a friend and ask, “when did you hear this poem the last time?”
Let me tell you a story. My son – I gave birth to one child and my son was in an automobile accident and after it, as a result of many things, he was paralyzed from his neck down. And he had quite a few surgeries. So I went down to Florida – to Miami, actually – there’s a great surgeon there who deals with spinal cord injury. So I went down there from North Carolina, where I live. And his wife – my son’s wife and his son went down from California where they live. And the operation, I’m happy to report, was a success. When it was over – and I stayed three or four days – then I came home. And my son called me and asked me, “Mom?” Then he remembered the poem “Invictus” and I said, “yes,” and I remembered it. I remembered teaching it to him when he was about nine-years-old. And he had asked me, “would I say it again?…would I say it to him?”
And I said the poem, then he reminded me that I had forgotten one verse. Then he asked if I would say the poem with him…in my own cadence…in my own rhythm. And Mr. Brown, I’m going to ask you to make a copy of this poem and please read it to your small group of poets and writers there and then thank you to make copies and they can use this poem.
Anyway, the poem is:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
[by William Ernest Henley]
When I recited all four verses with my son, he said, “Thanks a lot mom. They just finished taking over a hundred stitches out of my back. Thank you. Love you. Bye.”
Poetry, when it is done right, can be of use to anybody. The man who wrote that poem, over a hundred years ago in Europe had no idea that it would be of use to a young black man in Miami, Florida a hundred years later. But good poetry belongs to everybody all the time. And to the young men and women in Mr. Brown’s class, continue…continue to read and to write. Continue, my dears, to read and to write, and read aloud.