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LOS ANGELES TIMES / INTERVIEW : Maya Angelou : Creating a Poem to Honor the Nation

January 17, 1993|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed Maya Angelou in the poet's home

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — On Inauguration Day to herald his presidency, Bill Clinton has chosen a fellow Arkansan to recite a dedicatory poem created for this august occasion. The poet shares Clinton's humble beginnings, his small-town roots and his enduring passion for the written word.

Maya Angelou personifies the phoenix-like rise that this young, President is promising a divided nation. She retreated into silence after being raped as a child. As she described in her first book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," she was a mute who read everything available at her small, segregated school. Her memory, enhanced by five years of solitude, allows a total recall of William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Burns and other poets who comforted her then, and inspire her now. Angelou, 64, quoted these poets generously during a conversation in her elegant living room, which is filled with African-American paintings. Her home is in Winston-Salem, N.C; her heart is a continent away, in Oakland, where her son, Guy Johnson, works as a personnel analyst.

A prolific woman of letters, Dr. Angelou--as she is known on and off the campus of Wake Forest University, where she is the Reynolds professor of American studies--has written 11 books of poetry and autobiography. None, remarkably, has ever been out of print. She is also the author of five plays; "And Still I Rise," opened Friday in Washington.

On Wednesday, Angelou will recite her latest creation, a poem that she prays will be inspirational, to a nation that she believes shall be moved.

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Question: Why do you think President-elect Clinton chose you to create a new poem for his inauguration?

Answer: I suggest because he knows my work. And because the general theme of all my work coincides with his theme; not only for the inauguration but for his tenure as President, since he means to bring about a reunion--an American reunion--a reunion of all the peoples in our country. He could be called the reunion President.

In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to use that statement to break down the walls we set between ourselves because we are different. I suggest that we should herald the differences, because the differences make us interesting, and also enrich and make us stronger. The differences are minuscule compared to the similarities. That's what I mean to say. I think that he knew that; he knew I would try to write a piece that would speak to the coming together of the different factions in our country.

Q: What does it say about Clinton that he reads poetry?

A: Well, truly, poetry is the strongest language we have. Unfortunately, it has fallen on disfavor, and so a number of people got the erroneous idea that poetry was nerd talk--that it was evidence of weakness. The truth is poetry shows the human being at her/his strongest; at her/his best. Poetry is what men employ when they woo women. What women employ when they woo men. . . . It is poetry which is employed when people talk about their love of country, their love of land, their love of home place. It is poetry which is employed when one seeks to praise God or to implore from God certain benefits. In prayer and meditation--there one finds poetry. So it seems to me a salient note that a President would know that poetry should be brought back onto center stage. It's very, very important, because it means there is a desire to strengthen the country in its finest way of strengthening. And I don't mean strengthen by arming, by ammunition, by explosives. But really strengthen in the soul, strengthen in the spirit, which is where real strength is found anyway. Or not found.

Q: We do turn to poetry at times of great joy and also of great sadness. We do reach sometimes for poetry during extreme times. Is this an extreme time for the nation?

A: This is an extreme time. We have lain fallow--if one could think of our nation and our citizenry as land which has not been tilled. We have lain fallow too long. We have not been asked to be fertile, to be creative. We have not asked ourselves. Something happened to us some years ago, and we almost turned over the entire running of our lives, let alone of our country, but the running of our lives to the leadership. And that means that one was not engaged in the mistakes that were made. You could always blame the leadership.

I remember particularly Mr. Kennedy saying "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." This, then, is to be participating in government, participating in the development of the country, for each person to be an activist in developing the country. I think that's what Mr. Clinton wants us to do.

Q: President Kennedy was the last President to have a poet at his inauguration. Do you remember that occasion?

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