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Monday, June 2, 2014

Maya Angelou: a glorious life of sharing

Homage to Dr. Angelou

Maya Angelou was a relevant, sermonizing, power poet. Here are excerpts from my hour long interview with her in 1979 at the University of Cincinnati.

JOHNSON:  How are you able to write on universal themes?

ANGELOU: There's a statement that was made by Terence, a playwright, in 154 BC, ..."I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me." Now that means when somebody weeps, or someone laughs, or is cold, or happy, that is universal . Human beings do that. I write through the Black experience. That's what I know and love.

JOHNSON: When you write, do you take notes or just remember everything?

ANGELOU:  I had an assignment to cover George Jackson's funeral, and I stood in the street...your eyes are a camera. I just looked at everything. I try to make myself like blotting paper. I take it all in. Every sound. I absorb it. Then, when you go back to write, the selection of what you have absorbed is sometimes the difficult part. You've absorbed the entire thing, but then that old woman with that bag in that hot street filled with black people in West Oakland, that scene was just incredible. People upon the roofs, looking like black rifles upon those white roofs, just standing straight like that! It was a fantastic look.

I wrote "Rehearsal for a Funeral" for Harper's, and when they looked at it them said, "Oh no, we can't use this. Oh, no." So they said, "We can edit it," and I said, "Oh no, that won't happen. No, Jack. You'll pay me and that won't happen." So I took my piece back, and I took my money, too. Then I gave it to Black Scholar with the understanding that not one word be changed, because it's a prose poem to George and all the Georges, to Martin and Malcolm, to Medger, to our men and women. It's "Rehearsal for a Funeral" because it just keeps happening.

JOHNSON: How were you able to do that, to say, "Look, this is the way it's going to happen?" I know you're famous and all that, but how are you able to say, "Look, this is what's going to happen, this is how much money I'm going to get, and it's not going to be edited, period?"

ANGELOU: I'm not greedy. Every human being is worthy of his or her hire. Everybody should be paid and paid well, and I mean everybody. That's rule number one. Two, when I say I'm not greedy, I mean I will not live at any cost, even if my life is not worth everything to me. Do you see what I mean? Someone to tell me, "If you don't do this, I will kill you." I would have to say, "Do it. That's your next job. Do it!" There is some thing that I will not do. I will not live at any cost. If I have a piece of work, and it's going to be poorly done, then I'll take my work back.

Each person has his or her style, just as all the fingerprints are different. Each person has his or her own rhythm or series of rhythms. Sometimes you'll read one person's work and you'll say, "That sounds just like..." You don't even have to see who has written it. You'll say, "That James Baldwin, without a doubt."

I've never gotten anything the first time, hardly the fifth. When I write a poem, for instance, I wanted to write a poem about hopscotch. I write everything I know about hopscotch. And then I reach for the rhythm of the took me about six months to write "Harlem Hopscotch."

"Phenomenal Woman" took me about two months to write. It's really a song, too. My mother really inspired me for that poem, and all the sisters and friends encouraged me to write it.

I don't know if I was born with it, the ability to write. I think it's hard work learning the craft. I believe that every person in the world is talented, everybody's born with talent, every human being. I think that talent is like electricity...electricity makes no demands. It does not judge.

People, I believe, get often, not always, but often what they work for. What are you prepared to work for? Are you prepared to survive and be serious about it, really serious? I look at other races, and then I look at my own, and my own is an incredible race because we have a vitality, a spontaneity, we have something that we treat cheaply as if we had a contract on tomorrow. We have great love of life, and we don't sit around and talk about survival.

...Think. Think us out of this miasma. Think. This mental machine will do anything you will tell it to do...Use it. ...You can think, you really can. That machine in there is fantastic, phenomenal!

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