Maya Angelou: Prime-Time Poet

Article excerpt

SHE gingerly walks into the room on legs stiff with arthritis, a condition made worse by the chilly dampness of this rainy North Carolina winter morning. Wincing from the pain, yet refusing to acknowledge it, she eases her six-foot frame onto a pastel green and peach loveseat and gestures to her guests to sit down and make themselves at home.

Serene and regal, Maya Angelou, the legendary artist who captured the attention of the nation as the first U.S. poet laureate in 30 years, appears very much like an African queen--stately, gracious. Her dark eyes seem omniscient, as though she can see directly into a person's soul; yet they are attentive and not judgmental. Her voice, though never boisterous, is the sound of summer evening thunder rumbling somewhere off in the distance.

Angelou's countenance reveals the strength of her character. It is a face that has known the pain of growing up poor in the rural, segregated South during the Depression. It is a face that has viewed the sunrise at the edge of the Harlem River and the sunset along the banks of San Francisco Bay; a face that has witnessed the pyramids of Egypt and the majesty of Ghana. Today, this woman of the world calls Winston-Salem, N.C., home.

Poet, author, playwright, dancer, actress, singer, scholar, activist--Angelou's credentials are laudable, however, she refuses to rest on them. Currently, she holds a lifetime appointment as a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She is also directing a stage production of her poem, And Still I Rise, for which she wrote the lyrics and music.

When she is not lecturing in a college classroom or giving instruction in a darkened theater, she is writing and hosting her PBS television series Maya Angelou's America: A Journey of the Heart, criss-crossing the country for speaking engagements (for which she earns a reported 15,000 per appearance) and working on the fourth installment of her autobiography.

Yet, it wasn't until Angelou stood before the nation to herald the advent of a new administration with an inspiring message of hope that she permeated the country's collective consciousness.

Following her reading of "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration, President Clinton told Angelou, "I loved your poem," and said a copy would hang in the White House.

As a result of that one moment in time, Angelou's inaugural poem is being published in a paperback edition of her works; paperback sales of her first book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, have soared upward 500 percent; her hard cover works have skyrocketed 1,500 percent; and she is the hottest speaker on the lecture circuit. Her prime-time season peaked this month at a star-studded birthday bash hosted by close friend Oprah Winfrey.

How does she manage to juggle her various commitments without sacrificing the quality of her work? "I pray all the time," Angelou says quite seriously. "When the Bible says, |Pray without ceasing,' it is talking to me!"

In her rare free time, she enjoys simply being Maya--sharing a laugh or a cry with family and friends around her huge dining room table in her sprawling, 18-room home.

She is a person who prefers to serve, rather than be served. At a reception in her honor at Wake Forest University, guests did not stand in a receiving line to meet her, instead she moved through the room and warmly greeted each person individually.

Since the publication of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which recounts the trauma of her being raped as a child, the violent death of her attacker and her subsequent refusal to speak for five years, Angelou has won a multi-ethnic following that admires her wit and wisdom.

Her most influential admirer, President Clinton, requested that she compose and deliver an original poem on the occasion of his inauguration. With the designation, Angelou became the first Black, the first woman, and only the second poet laureate in the history of the republic. …