An Unedited Version of My Interview With Dr. Maya Angelou, April, 2007

May she rest in peace.


Soroff/On Dr. Maya Angelou


World-renowned civil rights activist, poet, playwright, author, actor, composer, dancer, singer, director and producer Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the greatest public speakers of our time and will be appearing at the Boston Opera House on Thursday, May 31st. Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, MO, she grew up there and in Arkansas, where she attended school before furthering her education in California. Among her numerous autobiographical works are I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which was nominated for a National Book Award, and her prolific career as a poet resulted in a Pulitzer prize nomination for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die (1971). A mentor to Oprah Winfrey, she has won three Grammy awards and numerous honorary degrees and accolades. In 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her to become the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1961 to 1962 she served as the associate editor of the Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, and from 1964 to 1966 she served as the feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana. (She speaks fluent French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and West African Fanti). Dr. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1974 and was appointed to the Bicentennial Commission by president Ford and to the Commission for International Woman of the Year by president Carter. In 1981, she accepted a lifetime appointment as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. In a lifetime of firsts, she was the first black woman director in Hollywood, and she has written, produced, directed, and starred in stage, television and film productions. In 1993, she was the second poet in history to recite her work at a presidential inauguration, when she read On the Pulse of the Morning for Bill Clinton. She lives in North Carolina.


Jonathan Soroff: Do you consider yourself a Renaissance woman?

Dr. Maya Angelou: I don’t think of myself in the third person at all.


JS: You have worn so many hats: poet, playwright, activist…how do you see yourself?

MA: Sometimes, when I pray, I will say to God, “Remember me? The six-foot-tall, black woman, an American, who writes? Remember?”


JS: So you think you’ll be remembered first and foremost as a writer?

MA: Oh, I don’t know about that. Some years ago, an interviewer asked me: “If you were going to die today, what would you like as your last meal?” I said, ‘I can’t think of it that way. I can imagine if I was going to Mars and not coming back for a little while, what would I like. And then, I could respond. I’d want to have a hot roast chicken, a nice bottle of good white wine, a loaf of really good bread, and a little salad…That’s making me hungry now thinking about it.


JS: You’ve been such a role-model and inspiration for a generation of African-American women….

MA: And white American women…


JS: And white American women. Does the weight of that ever feel like a burden?

MA: Oh, no. It’s a blessing. Now mind you with the blessing, there’s a concomitant responsibility. So you have to be tryin’ to tell the truth and live a particular kind of life so that you’re living what you’re saying. I don’t think I asked for it, but I certainly am grateful for it.


JS: Who is your favorite poet of all time?

MA: What time is it? [Laughs] It depends on the time of day. I love Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the great poets of the 19th century. I enjoy and use different women. I like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a white American woman. I like Sonia Sanchez, a contemporary, and Marie Evans is certainly a favorite. But I don’t know. I like Shakespeare—in particular, the sonnets. The exquisite economy, with great poetry, the ability to say all that, in those few lines.


JS: What is the poem of yours you’re most proud of?
MA: You scare me with that, Mr. Soroff. All comparisons become odious. It just depends on which one is nearest to my hand or my heart or what was the poem I was thinking of most recently. I like to see the way Phenomenal Woman is of use to all kinds of women all over the world. I like the inaugural poem I wrote for Mr. Clinton. Then I was asked to write a poem for the United Nations, for the world, and that’s a favorite. But those are big poems, and I have small poems. I have a friend whose husband used to be a run-about, almost blatantly, and I wanted to write a poem about him. I wrote about three foolscap pages, yellow pads, and then I kept reducing it. In the end, I pared it down to six lines, and they are: “Funky blues, Keen toed shoes, High water pants, Saddy night dance, Red soda water, and anybody’s daughter.” The irony about that is that six months after the book was published, he said to me, “Sister, you write great poetry, but I must tell you my favorite one is Country Lover,” and that’s him. [Laughs]


JS: Is there a poem that pops into your mind when you’re going about your daily business?

MA: Not a poem. Probably a song. I’m more apt to sing than to recite poetry to myself.


JS: What are your writing superstitions or rituals?

MA: I don’t know about superstitions. I have ways of being. Superstition sounds like mumbo-jumbo. I have a very large house, but I keep a hotel room when I’m writing. I get into the car, drive down to the hotel, go into the room, and in that room I have yellow pads, ballpoint pens, Roget’s Thesaurus, the dictionary, the Bible, and a bottle of good sherry. I try to start to work by six in the morning, so I get there about 5:30, and I will work until midday, but only if the work is happening. Then I go home. I have never slept overnight in one of those rooms.


JS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

MA: I suppose so, but I just won’t give it that name. I just say that I’m having a difficult time. And then what I do is I cook. When I’m having a difficult time, I’ll go into the kitchen maybe about midnight, and start to cook something really complicated, like, oh, a Napoleon, or cream puffs. Because I respect the ingredients, and I respect the people who are going to eat it, myself first, I think about the people who will not have that particular luxury. I put everything away except the food I’m preparing. When I’m finished, maybe three or four hours later, and I’ve cleaned up the kitchen, and I’ve put the pastry into the fridge, I go up to bed and realize I’ve forgotten all about what would have been called a block. And then the next morning, I get up and I go to work.


JS: When you see yourself in a performance, is it strange for you to watch yourself?

MA: I try not to. I always say, “I thought I was smaller and shorter.”


JS: What books are currently on your night-table?

MA: I’m reading two books, again. One is by a Canadian writer, Margaret Visser, called Much Depends Upon Dinner. It’s a wonderful book, and I buy it almost by the gross. I buy eight or ten of them and give them to friends. I’m also reading a book by Jedediah Purdy called For Common Things.


JS: Is Oprah Winfrey the greatest thing since sliced bread?

MA: She’s a wonderful woman, and a marvelous daughter. She’s a sweet girl, a brilliant host, and a sincere philanthropist. But I don’t know about the sliced bread.


JS: Who do you admire?

MA: My grandmother, first of all, and after her, my mother. Mary McLloyd Bethune. Eleanor Roosevelt. Ann Spencer…there are lots.


JS: One thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

MA: That I took a course in aviation. I never got my pilot’s license, but I took the course out in Wichita, Kansas.


JS: Any guilty pleasures: romance novels, cheesy reality TV shows?

MA: I’m a sucker for the British mysteries on the BBC, Poirot especially.


JS: OK, on a more serious note: You hear a lot about the arts in education. Can you really separate the two?

MA: [Chuckles] Nice. That’s very nice. No, you can’t really.


JS: To me, the arts are education.

MA: That’s very true. I had not thought of it that way, but it’s true. People always talk of arts and science and when people talk about the sciences as being more important than the arts, they make a terrible mistake, because they may get some facts but they’ll never get the truth. They may get the times when or the reasons why and the methods how and blah, blah, blah, but they’ll never get to the human truth. That’s what art does.


JS: Last question: Finish this poem: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Dr. Angelou is a Renaissance woman and _____________

MA: So are you.