The poet, whose new memoir of her mother is Mom & Me & Mom, talks about why she wears head ties when she writes, and why she makes Hallmark greeting cards.
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 rooms without 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.