Arts Desk

Maya Angelou: An Interview

When it comes to rating writers, Maya Angelou is a national treasure. Over the course of more than 50 years as an author and poet, she has produced some of the most poignant, insightful, and inspirational commentary about her own life and the evolution of America. Her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is still required reading for many high schoolers, while her poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, “On the Pulse of Morning,” will always stands as one of the most moving moments in any presidential ceremony. There are many other books and dozens of other poems worth exploring, but whether she is writing about her life experiences, race relations, or her favorite recipes (she has published one cookbook and is on the verge of publishing another), Angelou brings a singular spark to her subjects. She possesses a truly inimitable voice and, when she speaks or puts pen to paper, there is no mistaking her words. While talking to her, that singular style is always evident as she gracefully pulls together ideas, emotions and memories. In advance of her appearance tomorrow evening at the Warner Theatre, Angelou was gracious enough to spend some time discussing the art of writing, her love of good food, and her sadness about the Tea Party’s rise to prominence.

Washington City Paper: Blogging is, in many ways, short form autobiography. As a master of the genre, what do you think blogging adds to and detracts from that style of writing?

Maya Angelou: I’ll let others be the judge of that, but let me talk about writing. Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that easy reading is damn hard writing. All people in the world–who are not hermits or mutes–speak words. They speak different languages, but they speak words. They say, “How are you” or “I’m not feeling well” all over the world. These common words–these common elements that we have between us–the writer has to take some verbs and nouns and pronouns and adjectives and adverbs and arrange them in a way that sound fresh.

WCP: What’s your writing schedule these days?

MA: I never have written every day. When I’m writing a book, I write Monday through Friday. I always try to take Saturday and pretend to have some sanity. Sunday, if I’m lucky, I’ll go to church or listen to some good spiritual advice on the television or on the radio. I take three or four baths to try to cleanse myself, so I’m fresh for Monday.

WCP: Tell me about your writing ritual.

MA: I go to a hotel and try to get there by 5:30 in the morning. I keep a dictionary, a thesaurus, a bible, a deck of playing cards, a bottle of sherry, and stacks of yellow sticky pads. I shut myself in for six, seven hours. I have an arrangement with the hotel that no one may go in my room. After three or four months, they might slip notes under my door like, “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linens. We think they might be molding.” It’s probably true. I let them in if they promise not to touch anything other then the bed.

WCP: Do you have a ritual when you cook?

MA: If I think of something I’d like to eat, I will ask my housekeeper to buy it and pre-prepare it. I’m thinking now that I would like to have a Cornish hen for dinner. I have cooked for myself and my housekeeper for years, but now that I’ve gotten older, I tend to just sit at the kitchen table and direct.

WCP: What are your favorite comfort foods?

MA: I don’t eat a lot of bread. I love rice. I’m a rice woman. I married a man once and we had been married over a year before I found he preferred potatoes. I said, “I didn’t know you loved potatoes.” And he said that until he was about 13, he thought rice was potato seeds. Growing up at my grandmother’s table, she always had rice. She might do something as exotic as potatoes or spaghetti, but there was still always rice, just in case you needed a little rice fix.

WCP: You have a cookbook coming out in December, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart. What inspired you to write it?

MA: About a year ago, my doctor told me that I really should lose some weight. “You’re mildly obese,” he said. And I thought, “Well, who couldn’t afford to lose 20 or 30 pounds?” He said, “Well, a person in your category.” I said, “What is that category, doctor?” He said, “Well, you’re what I call upwardly middle aged.” And I said, “I forgive you for everything.”

I like good food. People want a certain taste, but when they’re offered something else, they’ll overeat. If they really are looking for chicken and someone gives them pork chops, they’ll say, “I will have another.” And that’s because their satisfaction is not reached. So I thought I would make great food, but eat less of it. I tried it and I’ve taken off over 40 pounds.

WCP: What’s Thanksgiving like at Maya Angelou’s house?

MA: For Thanksgiving I do the traditional turkey and all of that. For Christmas, I try to do something else. Sometimes I do feijoada, which is a South American dish with lots and lots of meats, served with black beans and white rice. What I do is slice orange very, very thin and leave that over the black beans just for the picture of it. And I put thinly sliced onion rings over the rice.

WCP: On a more serious note, tell me how you feel Obama has been doing.

MA: He’s doing as well as can be expected with the Republicans just putting their heels down and trying to make sure he doesn’t succeed. We really could move ahead–and much faster–if there was more cooperation, but I should have expected this.

WCP: Do you feel that people expect too much of him?

MA: I do, I do. I think people forget what a maelstrom that he inherited. The country didn’t get that way in a week; we’ve had years and years of getting behind in our economy. So President Obama stepped into a hellhole and people wanted him to change it as soon as he came in. But he’s got his adversaries to deal with in the House and Senate, so it’s not easy.

WCP: Over the course of your life, you’ve seen so much progress in this country. Is the rise of the Tea Party movement disappointing for you?

MA: I’m really saddened by the attempts to separate and polarize. This is a time when we have hungry people, people out of work, and people out of spirit. This is a time where we need to uplift, not to separate. It’s Machiavellian to do what those people are doing. In the 16th century, Machiavelli–in an attempt to get back in the good graces of the powerful–wrote a slim volume called The Prince. In that book he showed the powers that be how to control the people. That book is a statement: separate and rule, divide and conquer. That’s five hundred years ago and it still works, because we allow ourselves to be lead around with holes through our noses.

Maya Angelou speaks tomorrow, Nov. 11, at 7:30 pm at the Warner Theatre, 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $50-$100. (202) 397-7328.

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