One of the greats, Maya Angelou, poet, performer and political activist, died on Wednesday at the age of 86. In honor of her life, NPR played a 1986 interview with TerriGross where Angelou, in her lyrical, melodious way poured out a wealth of writerly gems and revelations. As soon as I heard the interview, I went home and transcribed my favorite quotes to savor their wisdom in the days to come. Here’s a few of my favorites.
On her influences:
I [was] very influenced by Shakespeare. I couldn’t believe that a white man in the 16th century could so know my heart. If he could know my heart, a black woman in the 20th century, a single parent, all the things I was heir to, then obviously I could know a Chinese Manderin’s heart and the heart of young Jewish boy with braces on his teeth in Brooklyn. It meant I could know [because] he, over those centuries, could know me [and] write,
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,On finding her own voice:
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
For years I’ve been finding my voice. I didn’t know where it was placed, for that matter. And then I didn’t trust it. I was afraid ... I’ve said this before, but I was afraid it might leave. Since I’d pushed it away so long, it might, on it’s own, just take off.
On her love of human voices:
I thought of myself as a giant ear which could just absorb all sound, and I would go into a room and just eat up the sound. I memorized so many poets. I just had sheets of poetry; still do. I would listen to the accents, and I still love the way human beings sound. There is no human voice which is unbeautiful to me. I love them, and so I'm able to learn languages, because I really love the way people talk. I would listen. I still get excited about any human being speaking or singing.
Angelou was a master of creating imagery and rich emotion with her words. What surprised me most about her interview was the humility she kept about her gift, despite the wide critical acclaim and recognition she received throughout her life. I think it's that quality that made her works so honest and beautiful. She was a writer with character and it illuminated everything she wrote.