Reading an author's words in print is good. But hearing the words breathed to life by the voice of the author who created them takes us to a whole other level – we ascend to the penthouse suite of the artist’s lair where, if we glance gently sideways, we might even catch a whisper of a muse.
My introduction to Maya Angelou occurred many years ago as I went about my normal, morning routine readying for work, listening to a morning program on the television. The deep timbre of her voice, infused with Southern honey, reached out and drew me to the screen, where I stood transfixed as she read her poem "Phenomenal Woman." That voice. Lush, confident, sensual, and sassy. "Where did that voice come from" I wondered to myself – changed already.
When I say voice, I mean the sounds, words, rhythms and cadence we hear; and so much more. It is the endurance, wisdom, elegance, humor, audacity, hope and moxie – yes moxie, which have been distilled to a fine vintage. Dr. Angelou’s voice is that of an artist in full embracement of her instrument.
Chocolate Éclairs and Moxie
In hadn’t occurred to me that I would hear that voice on the phone, or in person. Then one day in late January day as I exited the Post Office thumbing through my mail, a photo of Angelou in the newspaper jumped out from the pile. Three faculty members from the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) were presenting a workshop on the writer, in anticipation of her speaking engagement hosted by the University at the Augusta Civic Center on April 26th.
I was thrilled to take part in the three-hour seminar, hosted by with UMA assistant professors Sarah Hentges, Ph.D. and Ellen M. Taylor, Ph.D. and Julie Hendrickson, coordinator of UMA’s Writing Center. That night, a friend asked me what new thing I had learned. I replied that Dr. Angelou’s cure for writer’s block is chocolate éclairs.
Not liking pastries in general, a chocolate éclair is not something I would normally eat. Perhaps they looked more appealing in miniature, nestled in their individual paper wrappers like petit fours. Maybe I thought, if it’s good enough for Dr. Angelou, I ought to try it. Whatever the reason, I ate one. It must have been a combination of the éclair and the workshop experience that got my moxie up and within hours I got the idea to request an interview with Dr. Angelou.
Interviewing Maya Angelou
The answer was yes! Limited to fifteen minutes, I tell the three-time, Grammy winner, prolific author, poet, actor, director, professor, civil rights activist, composer and overall cultural icon (among many other accolades and awards) that I would like to focus on her as a writer and her creative process.
I relate my introduction to her work through her reading "Phenomenal Woman" and, more recently, the video screened at the workshop that shows her reading another poem, "And Still I Rise," observing how each time she repeats the title phrase, she speaks it in an entirely different way.
“Well, I use the first person singular, the 'I' to mean the third person, the ‘we,’” she explains. And does she take on different roles, perspectives, or personas, I ask. “I don’t take it on, I am that,” she says.
I refer to a quote by her that says, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them shades of deeper meaning.”
“Exactly. I think that’s true. In fact, I know it’s true. Poetry is really music for the human voice. It needs to be read, it needs to be spoken. It needs to come across the speaker’s tongue to someone’s ear. Then it comes to its real fullness,” she explains.
As someone who writes in several genres I am curious which she feels is the most challenging and if she has a favorite. “The one I’m working in is the most challenging."
"I many times ask God," "Do you really mean me to do this? Can you get someone else?" Dr. Angelou says.
Writers, she observes “have to take the most common elements put them together and make them seem fresh. You and I have to take a few verbs and nouns, and pronouns and adverbs and adjectives, dangling participles. Put them together, ball them up and throw them against the wall and make them bounce. So it’s very hard work for me. It is also very gratifying. It’s what I do.”
If I’m working on an essay I want to write it so well that the reader is at least two pages or three pages in the work before she realizes she’s reading. That’s what I hope for. I work toward that end,” the author said.
I mention her editor Robert Loomis at Random House with whom she has enjoyed a great professional relationship. “Forty years,” she says emphatically. "In fact, 42 years. I’m preparing a manuscript just now to send back to him. If he went to a university press I would follow him because he knows what I hope to achieve in the body of my work."
What does he do for her as an artist, I ask. “Ms. Piccari, I hope you get an editor like this. He’s still the old-fashioned one that you read about in the ‘30s and ‘40s who edited Faulkner, who edited Thomas Wolfe. He asks things like ‘Why did you use a colon as opposed to a semi-colon?’ and you have to defend it. He’s said many times to me ‘If most people read five books a year, I read five a week. So forget that I’m senior vice president at Random House… thinks of me as a glorified reader. And if I say this sentence is awkward, then I’ve had some experience in that,” relates Dr. Angelou.
“So many times, over these years, I have told him ‘I will never speak to you again’ gathered up my manuscript and walked out. And then I go home and read the piece and I find he’s right. I send him a (over)night letter saying ‘Okay, so you were right and I’ll make these changes but if you ever mention this, I’ll never speak to you again,” she says laughing.
“I told that story when I was in the Hamptons with a whole bunch of very famous writers, at a sit-down lunch for 20 people. I was at one end of the table talking to some famous person and when I said I sent those night letters, he said from the other end of the table, ‘And I’ve kept every one,’” she recalls.
I ask about what she refers to as “enchantment” in her creative process, wondering if she writing from the unconscious, pulling something forward?
“It’s not really fully unconscious. My grandmother who raised me, my father’s mother, used to tell me ‘Sister, that wasn’t even on my little mind’. Somehow early on I got that one had a big mind and a little mind. And so I occupy my little mind with playing cards or crossword puzzles or jumbles and then I feel I can get down to my clear mind. It’s just an enchantment,” she explains.
With one question left, I mention mythic scholar Joseph Campbell and his work related to The Hero’s Journey. Looking at her life from the perspective of The Heroine’s Journey, what would she say her journey is about and what is the elixir that she brings back to share? I ask.
“I’d like to think my journey is about love. Not mush, not sentimentality. But truly, love. That condition of the human spirit so profound that it allows us to develop courage. And to try and look into each other’s eyes and say the kind word, the courteous thing. That’s what I think. I’m trying to be a Christian. It’s like trying to be a Jew, or Muslim, or Shinto, or Confucian. It’s not something you achieve and then can sit back and say 'Hey, I got it’—it’s an ongoing learning, applying, a condition.
I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say ‘I’m a Christian’ and I think, 'already? You already got it?' Here I am eighty years old and I’m working at it. So as I understand it, I am a child of God. I must know that the biggest brute, the batterer, is also a child of God. Whether he or she knows it or not. And I’m supposed to treat her or him in a loving way. This does not mean indulging, this does not mean accepting rudeness but treating another in a loving way,” says Dr. Angelou.
Time’s up. Twenty-some years after first hearing it, it's her voice I cannot get over. A voice teeming with wisdom and life – swinging the door wide, inviting us in.
As we wrap up our fifteen minutes together, Dr. Angelou extends an invitation to me, to come backstage and see her when she is in Maine. “I’ll leave word,” she says.
The University of Maine Augusta will host Maya Angelou at the Augusta Civic Center on Monday, April 26th. Tickets are $25. For more information call (207) 621-3133. To order tickets, call (877) 862-1234 or visit the UMA Enrollment Services Center, located in Robinson Hall, just down the street from the Civic Center.
© 2010 Teresa Piccari