First aired on Q (02/05/11)
Maya Angelou is one of America's most prominent artists and voices. Over her 60-year career, she's been a singer, a dancer, a filmmaker, an actress, a playwright, a poet and a speaker. Her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most celebrated works in all of American literature. Angelou's writing and ideas continue to influence hundreds of writers and performers today, including Oprah Winfrey and the rapper Common. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour a civilian can receive in the United States, for her contribution to culture and society.
As a woman who has done so many different and interesting things, Angelou sees her identity as fluid, easily adopting whatever title that best suits her current projects. "It means I can be completely wedded to the moment. But when I leave that moment, I want to be completely wedded to the next moment," she told Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. "When I'm writing poetry, that's the world for me. When I'm speaking on the telephone to you through these various devices that we have to use for me to be picked up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and be carried to you in Canada...this is my favourite right now."
These favourite moments include a stint as San Francisco's first African American female cable-car conductor, a groundbreaking role Angelou was inspired to apply for because of the cute uniforms. "I thought it was pretty swank," she admitted. However, getting the job was one of the first of many fights against racism Angelou would engage in. Initially rejected because of the colour of her skin, she showed up at the offices every day. After two weeks, she was eventually seen by management, told a few lies about her experience -- and got the job.
Despite her varied experiences and accomplishments, Angelou is best known as a poet. Angelou sees the current poetry scene as rich and vibrant, and believes that those who are concerned about the future of poetry have nothing to worry about. "Human beings love poetry. They don't even know it sometimes," Angelou argued. "They may, in fact, not know that the songs they are listening to -- whether they are the songs of Bono, or the songs of Justin Bieber or the lyrics of Common or any of these singers or Aretha Franklin -- they are listening to poetry."
Angelou loves how technology and music have allowed for expanding the definition of poetry to include a wide range of artists. Thanks to this open definition, Maya Angelou feels that Shania Twain is right up there with Henry Longfellow -- and has even given writing country music a try herself!
Angelou believes that poetry is everywhere, and this is worth celebrating. It's not only a celebration, it's a necessity for living. "[Poetry] all belongs to the human being and it's supposed to lift us up," she said. "As my grandmother used to say, it puts starch in our backbone. It keeps us erect."