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Maya Angelou, On Trying To 'Do Better And To Be Better'

Dwight Carter, 2001

Poet, memoirist and political activist Maya Angelou died Wednesday at the age of 86, reportedly after a long illness. 

“Hello, good morning ..." is how Angelou opened the conversation when we talked by phone last week. At home in Winston-Salem, N.C., she joked about the weather in the Midwest.

"Because I think you people change weather in the way that other people change clothes," she said with a laugh.

Angelou was born in St. Louis and spent her early years there and in rural Arkansas. Her 1969 memoir, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," described a troubled childhood – but one shaped by the written word.

Interview Highlights:

On early experiences reading aloud

"I guess it's folk poetry because children in black churches know it. I started 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' with a few lines from that.

The child gets up during Easter, Christmas, July Fourth Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and says, 'What you looking at me for? I didn't come to stay. I just come to tell you this is..." And, of course, the child is so nervous she or he forgets. And some kind old man or woman in the church will lean forward and say, 'Christmas, honey!' (laughs). And the child says, 'Christmas Day' and sits down. And everybody says, 'Oh, didn't she do nicely?' 'Oh, didn't he do sweetly.' So that was the first thing I can remember ever doing."

On writing as work

"No person in the world dances every day, or sings every day, or plays the violin or the drums every day. But everyone who isn't a mute, or a hermit, uses words.

"The writer...has to take some nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, phrases, and put them together, ball them up, throw them against the wall, and make them bounce." - Maya Angelou

"And the writer has to use these most famous elements. She or he has to take some nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, phrases, and put them together, ball them up, throw them against the wall, and make them bounce. It's no small matter, because when it comes off, oh, it's sweet. And it's right. But, oh, getting it right. Mmm."

Here, Maya Angelou described her writing process, which sometimes including a hotel stay.

On providing inspiration

"It's a blessing. I just do the best I can. I'm in no competition with anyone. Just to do the best I can do. That's all. That's what, I think, is healthy for all of us. It keeps us from being out of breath because we're trying to stay in front of someone else. Oh, no, I just do the best I can do. That's all. I think that's what the Creator put me here to do and be. And so I try to do and be it."

On longevity in the digital age

"I'm 86 years old and I love it. I'm grateful to have come this far. To be given such a longevity. And there are things that go with it, you know. Part of it is I'm not in the digital age. I mean, I'm on the edge of the digital age; I'm going out as it comes in.

"My producer, one of my producers at Harpo, said if I get a million people on the Facebook, that that's really good. And, as of a few days ago, there were 5,200,000. So that means, what that really means is that my work is of use. And that's a blessing because it keeps me trying to do better and to be better."

Maya Angelou was scheduled to speak  June 10 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. Kauffman Center officials say the approximately 1,350 ticket holders for the event will receive refunds.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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