We survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets," wrote Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Here, the author and teacher shares her thoughts on how to write—and how to live.
"Now, tell me what am I doing?"
"We'd like to ask you how to write a poem."
"Like a pianist runs her fingers over the keys, I'll search my mind for what to say. Now, the poem may want you to write it. And then sometimes you see a situation and think, "I'd like to write about that." Those are two different ways of being approached by a poem, or approaching a poem.
"Years ago I saw some children jumping hopscotch in Harlem. And then later, I was in Stockholm taking a course in cinematography, and I saw some Swedish children skipping hopscotch—I think it's called "hoppa hage" there. And I thought, "Hmmm, those kids at home, they have a little more rhythm and they think different thoughts." So I went back to watch the children in Harlem to get their rhythm, and then I began to write this poem:
Harlem HopscotchOne foot down, then hop! It's hot.
Good things for the ones that's got.
Another jump, now to the left.
Everybody for hisself.
In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don't stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.
All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That's what hopping's all about.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.
Next: Maya Angelou answers questions about her process
Yes, I think so. I don't know if anyone will write a poem. You have to want to. You have to have sharp ears. And you have to not be afraid of being human.
How do you begin?
You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself. And that doesn't mean that you can't have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write. I think each writer has her or his secret path to the muse. I'm told one writer stands for six hours with a typewriter on a podium—he stands and types. And I know a woman who has her computer in a closet and she goes in, closes the door, and, with her back to the door and her face to the wall, she writes.
How do you write?
I keep a hotel room in my town, although I have a large house. And I go there at about 5:30 in the morning, and I start working. And I don't allow anybody to come in that room. I work on yellow pads and with ballpoint pens. I keep a Bible, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry. I stay there until midday. About once a month, the management slips a note under my door and they ask, 'Please, Dr. Angelou, may we change the sheets? We know they must be moldy.' But I've never slept there. I just go in and sit down and work.
Does your humanitarian work influence your writing?
You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot—it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive. I don't use vulgarity, and I won't have it around me, and no pejoratives, because those words are meant to dehumanize people. If it's poison in a vial and has a skull and bones on it, and you pour the content into Bavarian crystal, it's still poison.
Do you think poets are called to fill a spiritual role?
I would say that. But you see, there's a philosophical statement that says some people are born great. Others achieve it. And some have it thrust upon them. That may be so with poetry, and it may be that you have all three.
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