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Tell me about the dinner party at which the writer James Baldwin and the cartoonist Jules Feiffer first encouraged you to write your first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Well, I don’t know if it was a dinner party! Martin Luther King had been killed, on my birthday, and I had been planning a birthday party. I had planned to join him after my birthday. [His death] shocked me so that I stopped eating, I refused to answer the phone. Finally James Baldwin came to my apartment door and he made noises, and said he wouldn’t leave until the police came. He was cursing and shouting “Open this door! Open this door!” I finally opened the door and he came in. He said, “Go and have a bath. I’ll wait and I’ll have some clothes for you.” He went to my closet and got clothes, and he said, “I’m taking you someplace.” Now I had no idea where he was taking me, but he had a car outside the driveway. We went to another house, a brownstone not too far from where I lived. When we got into the house he introduced me to Jules Feiffer and Jules’ wife at the time, Judy, and their daughter. Jules said, “You need to laugh, and you need to have somebody watch you laugh and laugh with you.” In that sparkling company, I did come out of myself. I was impressed, of course, with Mr. Feiffer, and with their friendship. Jimmy [Baldwin] and Judy and Jules all acted as if they had grown up together. Very respectful and responsive friends to each other. That pleased me, because Jimmy was a brother to me, and these famous white people were so kind and good.
You’ve led an astonishingly diverse life in terms of careers, from musician and songwriter to dancer and pimp. Is there any occupation you’ve never tried but always been curious to?
No, everything that’s crossed my mind I’ve tried a little bit.
I’ve read of some eccentric writing habits of yours, involving hotel roomswithout pictures on the walls, sherry, and headgear. How did you first come upon that cocktail for writing success, and has the routine evolved over your career?
And headgear! Ha! It was head ties, not headgear! Well, I was married a few times, and one of my husbands was jealous of me writing. When I write, I tend to twist my hair. Something for my small mind to do, I guess. When my husband would come into the room, he’d accuse me, and say, “You’ve been writing!” As if it was a bad thing. He could tell because of my hair, so I learned to hide my hair with a turban of some sort. I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible.
Which edition of the Bible?
Uh—that’s a good question, it’s slipped my mind. Name a famous edition.
The King James?
That’s the one!
Anything else in the hotel room?
Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about. So I keep the room. I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and house-keeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!” But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up. And that’s how I write books!
Do you still drink sherry when you write?
Not so much anymore. I stopped about two years ago.
How do you approach the distinction between straight autobiography and autobiographical fiction?
Well, I don’t think there’s such a thing as autobiographical fiction. If I say it happened, it happened, even if only in my mind. I promised myself that I would write as well as I can, tell the truth, not to tell everything I know, but to make sure that everything I tell is true, as I understand it. And to use the eloquence which my language affords me. English is a beautiful language, don’t you think? I speak a number of languages, but none are more beautiful to me than English.
What is your second-favorite language, of those you speak?
I would say Spanish, because I speak it best, I guess. I used to think French, but when I’m doing a live promotion in France, and I look for a word, like “tablecloth,” if it does not come out right away, it will snap out of my mouth in Spanish.
You have said that nothing frightens you as much as writing, but nothing satisfies you as much either. What frightens you about it?
Will I write a sentence that will just float off the page? Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.
You are a renowned public speaker. The art of rhetoric, once a standard part of one’s education, is no longer taught. What makes for a great public speaker and public speech?
It’s the same thing that makes for a good singer. The speaker must have a good ear, and a love for the language. Love and respect. And must be convinced that what she has to say is important. And don’t stay on the stage too long.
Who was the best public speaker you’ve ever heard? Since you were friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, I think I can guess the answer…
Dr. King. I don’t know who could stand up to that.
You’ve written everything from poetry to your own line of Hallmark cards. I’m not sure how many great writers could also be as concise and universal as to write good Hallmark card greetings. What was the process like for you?
That’s interesting. When Hallmark publicized the fact that I would be writing for them, someone in the Times asked the poet laureate of the time, What do you think about Maya Angelou writing for Hallmark? He said, I’m sorry that Ms. Angelou has reduced her art to writing mottos for greeting cards. That day I read that in the paper, and that afternoon I was in a bookstore in Miami called Books on Books. It’s a wonderful store, you’d love it—jam-packed with books. You’d want to live there. I walked down an aisle and came face to face with a woman who reminded me of me: my height, my age. But she was white. She says, You look just like Maya Angelou! And I said, I am! And the woman steadied herself on a bookshelf and the tears came down. She said to me, Ms. Angelou, I’ve been estranged from my daughter for five years. But this past Christmas she sent me a card which said “Mother love heals.” And she cried. I joined her. She said, My daughter and I are going to be re-established. She said, I take that card to my bed at night, I put it on the nightstand. In the morning I take it to the kitchen when I make coffee. I keep that card. My daughter and I are together again. I thank you.
That’s beautiful, wow.
It was wonderful, wonderful! [Writing the cards] was challenging. I would write down a paragraph that expressed what I wanted to say, and then try to reduce it to two sentences.
That’s tough self-editing.
[Laughs] Any one of those cards I’d send you. I loved it. I didn’t do it long, but I loved it.
What is your favorite item of clothing?
I guess my Uggs.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
When another person laughs at herself sincerely. I never laugh when someone is laughing at someone else.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
A lonely child.
Do you have any superstitions?
If I did, I wouldn’t tell!
What is something you always carry with you?
I’m a child of God. I carry that with me.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
[Laughs] “I did my best, I hope you do the same.”
Dr. Angelou, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Oh, I’m so glad you called. You have a beautiful name, by the way…
This interview has been edited and condensed.
By lies while alive he thrived
And now here he lies still
A life faintly lived
A ferocious dog he never barked
Just doodled his brave thoughts
Winning wars on papers that nobody read
And now I have to dig his grave
I of all people
Have to dirty my Italian designer suit
Have to make his epitaph
Tribute to an uncelebrated poet
What on earth am I supposed to write?
Here lies he who signaled left then turned right?
Am I supposed to shed a tear too?
A tear for him or for my poor hands
Getting blistered by this hard rock
Should I follow his wish?
And make his grave a foot deeper?
Forget him Mario
Rest a while now
Puff a light; pillow your head on this tombstone
Watch those eagles flying in the sky
The only mourners at his funeral
Mourning this poet
Who loved life but never lived it
If she was worth the bullet he took?
Midday on Monday, the relatively unknown Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco will be the fifth poet to read at the inauguration of an American President, joining the company of Robert Frost (Kennedy, 1961), Maya Angelou (Clinton, 1993), Miller Williams (Clinton, 1997), and Elizabeth Alexander (Obama, 2009). Blanco will read an original composition, just as Angelou, Williams, and Alexander have done before him. Frost also wrote a new poem for the occasion, but he was eighty-six at the time, and, famously, the frigid, blustery weather and glaring sun in Washington that day made reading difficult. So he abandoned the new poem and recited one that Kennedy had requested, “The Gift Outright,” from memory.
The first lines from the poem that Frost didn’t read that day make note of the novelty of inviting a poet to a convocation of the government: “Summoning artists to participate / In the august occasions of the state / Seems something artists ought to celebrate.” It ends with the even more optimistic idea of the aims of art and politics uniting: “A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” Perhaps Frost, in his final years, was merely flattered by the attention, or won over by Kennedy’s charms, and thus spun off his poem in a hopeful mood.
Yet, in many ways, Kennedy’s election did seem to herald a kind of enlightened, cosmopolitan modernity—an ethos that was enhanced by the appearance of a poet, even if that poet was not a controversial young upstart but, rather, a national treasure. (It was Frost, not Ginsberg. up there on the dais, after all.) Frost’s optimism, seen through the decade of the Vietnam conflict that would follow, now seems misplaced. Poetry and power were kept, as they often are, at quite a distance. And be wary of golden ages: there would not be another inaugural poet for more than three decades.
Even so, Frost’s appearance was momentous, and the obscuring sunlight delivered the country a better blessing in “The Gift Outright,” a poem that, like much of Frost, might be misread as forthright and simple—a mere patriotic ode to an American birthright. But a close read shows that the verse, with its most resonant phrase, “land vaguely realizing westward,” suggests the lurching and darker qualities of Manifest Destiny, and plants doubt about the supposed purity of the American experiment. It is that doubt—poetry’s ability to muddy a pat phrase or dislodge an accepted truism with an unexpected word or other sleight of hand—that made Frost’s performance resonate. He introduced, if only for a moment, a twitch of dissent amidst the pomp.
Eight years earlier, following the election of Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson, the “age of poetry and power” might have seemed a cruel fantasy. That November, the poet Robert Lowell summed up the alienation that many artists and intellectuals felt, writing in a letter from Rome to the Dutch literary critic W. F. van Leeuwen:
The election is symbolically discouraging. We were frantic Stevenson fans, buying three papers a day, reading the complete speeches, etc. I think Stevenson was the most human, intelligent and decent person who has run for president in my lifetime. Eisenhower isn’t a bad man, I think, just formless, banal, efficient—smiles without personal wit or passions. He’s so appallingly typical—I come back to my figure of a country looking at itself in the mirror for instruction.
Two weeks earlier, in a letter to the poet Allen Tate written just a day after the election, Lowell composed a bitter rhyming ditty about Eisenhower, set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”:
Came to Boston, gave his spiel—
Smart as a buck pheasant:
All those teeth inside his smile—
My God, they’re incandescent!
His face is on your TV screen,
Got up with pancake powder;
When he’s scraped the barrel clean,
You’ll see him swim in chowder.
“See me like an octopus,
A-hugging up Bill Jenner;
I’d like to bust the bugger’s puss,
But Mamie loves a winner.
“My ghosts have told me something new:
I’m marching to Korea;
I cannot tell you what I’ll do
Crusading’s the idea
Yankee Doodle keep it up etc.
Early the next year, Lowell had harnessed his dismay into a restrained and sombre poem, “Inauguration Day: January 1953,” which was published in its final form at the end of the year in the Partisan Review. Lowell locates the loose sonnet in a place of estrangement, New York City, which was Stevenson country and becomes, in the poem, a kind of national government in exile:
The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want.
Cyclonic zero of the world,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!
The verse offers the sweep of history, beginning with the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the last of the city’s Dutch commanders, and ends with the monument to Grant, who, like Eisenhower, was another general-turned-President. Yet it recalls Grant not as the dogged savior of the Union but as the butcher of Cold Harbor, the man who ordered his men to a mostly senseless death. Eisenhower appears at the end, summoned to lead a nation imbued with the memory of those deaths, and all those that came before and followed:
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
As different as “Inauguration Day: January 1953” is from the spontaneous bit of doggerel that Lowell had worked up a few months before, you can trace how the first bout of inspiration was molded to such a precise and haunting end. The only mention of Eisenhower in the poem comes in the form of the mass-market nickname “Ike,” echoing Lowell’s earlier riff on the President as more television personality than man. And it’s easy to draw the line from “crusading’s the idea” to the images of a country frozen and static as it is swept along on its historical arc of death—from Cold Harbor to Inchon and on down the line.
Had Lowell been invited to Washington, perhaps he would have composed a different poem. (Though likely not, judging by his refusal of an invitation from Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, to take part in a White House arts festival based on his disagreement with the President’s foreign-policy decisions.) Or else the poem might have been clipped of its context, leaving us only to remember “the Republic summons Ike,” with its martial, celebratory tone. Even though no poet spoke at Eisenhower’s inauguration on January 20, 1953, there was verse infused into the ceremonies.
When Eisenhower was given the oath of office, he swore on two Bibles. The first was open to Psalm 127:1: “Except the Lord build the house, / they labour in vain that build it: / except the Lord keep the city, / the watchman waketh but in vain.” And the second was II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” Those words, had they been read aloud, might have startled the President’s blindest supporter and fiercest critic in equal measure. Poetry has coiled within its words the power to unsettle. Better to just cover it with your hand.
Lowell’s “Inauguration Day: January 1953,” meanwhile, is perhaps the greatest inauguration poem that was never delivered at the Capitol. It is concise, yet concerns itself with the wide and fraught swathe of American history. And, like the four official inaugural poems that have so far been delivered, it marks a moment of supposed renewal with darker tones of the past, and with death. The official inaugural poems feel a bit laden with their duties as civics lessons. They must appeal to a wide audience, honor a moment of agreed-upon significance, and downplay friction and ambiguity. Yet, for all their collective shortcomings, the way inaugural poems gesture to the past is what gives them strength.
Frost surveys the country’s colonial origins, the world’s entombed explorers, and the nation’s long-dead founders. Angelou reaches further back, summoning first the dinosaurs and their “hastening doom” and then the great names of the Native American tribes, diminished and depleted. Williams invokes “the great and all the anonymous dead.” Alexander, marking a moment not just of political ascendancy but also deeper social meaning, is more insistent: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day. / Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.”
If these poems move a bit too self-consciously toward hope, they nonetheless still leave room for meditations on a country with a complicated past and a tangled present, which requires much of the person elected to lead it. They hint at the sense of the sometimes dreadful office of President, as when Whitman looked at Lincoln upon attending his second inauguration and saw him “drest all in black, with white kid gloves and a claw-hammer coat, receiving, as in duty bound, shaking hands, looking very disconsolate, and as if he would give anything to be somewhere else.”
On Monday, Blanco is unlikely to conclude that at the second inauguration of President Obama, “the watchman waketh but in vain.” His selection is mostly being parsed for its cultural import: he is the first Latino poet to be invited to read, and the youngest, and is openly gay. Those are important firsts, but, as he reads, we should listen for the moments of friction, when a line turns against itself and against our expectations, and says something unexpected about its writer, its subject, and its country. If Blanco’s poem doesn’t leave space for a moment of doubt about the past and the future, then he might as well be singing “Yankee Doodle.”
This new book of poetry and short stories, by South Sudanese writer David Dedi, offers a sincere (and often breathtaking) glimpse into the life in East Africa. At times offering sweet memories from his own childhood in South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, and at others bringing forth the harsh realities faced by those in exile.
To order a copy, please click here.
David Dedi, the poet and writer, was born in the town of Yei, South Sudan, in the early eighties following the onset of the Second Sudanese Civil War. His family fled the country, and he enrolled in school and obtained most of his primary and secondary education in Uganda and Kenya. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology and History from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. He has been writing poetry and short stories since his high school years at Maseno School, Kenya.
He says as a young boy, he was captivated by African novels especially Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart and A man of the People; they inspired him into becoming a poet, author and scholar. His poems have since been published online and performed to great acclaim from different audiences in Canada. Borrowing Fire was his first published book.