Conversations with Maya Angelou

Author(s):Maya Angelou (1928- 2014) and Claudia Tate

Publication Details:Conversations with Maya Angelou. Ed. Jeffrey M. Elliot. University Press of Mississippi, 1989.p146-156.

 From Literature Resource Center (check the link for the full text)

Source:Poetry Criticism. Ed. Ellen McGeagh. Vol. 32. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.

[(interview date 1983) In the following interview, originally conducted in 1983, Angelou discusses the influence of other writers, social conditions, and her own experience upon her work.]

I try to live what I consider a “poetic existence.” That means I take responsibility for the air I breathe and the space I take up. I try to be immediate, to be totally present for all my work. I try. This interview with you is a prime example of this. I am withdrawing from the grief that awaits me over the death of someone dear so that I can be present for you, for myself, for your work and for the people who will read it, so I can tell you exactly how I feel and what I think and try to answer your questions cheerfully–if I feel cheerful–as I can. That to me is poetic. I try for concentrated consciousness which I miss by more than half, but I’m trying.

Did you envision young Maya as a symbolic character for every black girl 

growing up in America?

 Yes, after a while I did. 

It’s a strange condition, being an autobiographer and a poet. I have to be so internal, andyet while writing, I have to be apart from the story so that I don’t fall into indulgence. Whenever I speak about the books, I always think in terms of the Maya character. 

When I wrote the teleplay of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I would refer to the Maya

 character so as not to mean me. It’s damned difficult for me to preserve this distancing. 

But it’s very necessary.

What writers have influenced your work?

There were two men who probably formed my writing ambition more than any others. They were Paul Lawrence Dunbar and William Shakespeare. I love them. I love the rhythm and sweetness of Dunbar’s dialect verse. I love “Candle Lighting Time” and “Little Brown Baby.” I also love James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation.”

I am also impressed by living writers. I’m impressed with James Baldwin. I continue to see not only his craftsmanship but his courage. That means a lot to me. Courage may be the most important of all the virtues because without it one cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. I’m impressed by Toni Morrison a great deal. I long for her new works. I’m impressed by the growth of Rosa Guy. I’m impressed by Ann Petry. I’m impressed by the work of Joan Didion. Her first collection, Slouching Toward Jerusalem, contains short pieces, which are absolutely stunning. I would walk fifty blocks in high heels to buy the works of any of these writers. I’m a country girl, so that means a lot.

How do you feel about your past works?

 Generally, I forget them. I’m totally free of them. They have their own life. I’ve done well by them, or I did the best I could, which is all I can say. I’m not cavalier about work anymore than I am about sitting here with you, or cooking a meal, or cleaning my house. I’ve tried to be totally present, so that when I’m finished with a piece of work, I’m finished. I remember one occasion when we were in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria some years ago. I think I was with my sister friends–Rosa [Guy], Paule [Marshall] and Louise [Meriwether]. We were sitting at a table near the bandstand during some tribute for someone, and I felt people staring at me. Someone was singing, say, stage left, and some people were performing a dance. It was very nice, but I felt people staring; so I turned around, and they were. My sister friends were all smiling. I wondered what was happening. I had been following the performance. Well, it turned out that the singer was doing a piece of mine, and they had choreographed a dance to it. I had forgotten the work altogether. The work, once completed, does not need me. The work I’m working on needs my total concentration. The one that’s finished doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to itself.

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