On Friday, September 9, Maya Angelou, the great poet who has throughout her long and distinguished career given voice to many a young woman’s declaration of strength and pride, will return to Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre. Her first two visits, in 2002 and 2006, were sold out, and this one, which Mayor Helene Schneider has honored by declaring September 9, 2011, “Maya Angelou Day,” is likely to sell out, as well. That’s because Angelou appeals to everyone, from the erudite literary elite to elementary school students. In the 68 years since she finished high school and became the first African-American conductor on San Francisco’s famed cable car line, Angelou has continually overcome adversity and achieved unparalleled success not only as an author but also as an educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist.
For me, Angelou’s appearance at the Arlington resonates deeply. Her insights have informed my own work as a poet and teacher since at least 1982, when I was living and working in Oakland. When I saw Angelou interviewed on a Bill Moyers PBS special about creativity, she spoke of a visit she had made to a 4th-grade elementary school classroom. Angelou told Moyers that she knew she had to write something special because “kids like to hear things with rhythm and a beat.” Before the end of that day, I had written my own poem entitled “Rhythm Riddle,” and I have been using it ever since — for almost 30 years now in my poetry work with young children.
But that’s not all. Fifteen years later, I visited Santa Barbara Junior High School for my first artist’s residency there, and the 8th graders were reading Angelou’s classic autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As I presented my feelings about the book to several combined classes in the school gym that day, a bird flew in and soared all about the ceiling of the room seeking an exit. It was quite an exciting display. The next day, one of the students appeared at my poetry workshop with a poem she had written the evening before entitled “Caged Man.” It was a lament on enslavement that also celebrated the human desire to be free. From that magical day forward, I believed that my work with young people in nurturing their self-expression through poetry was affirmed.
Evidence of Angelou’s influence can be seen all over Santa Barbara and beyond, from the walls of the Student Resource Center at UCSB, which recently displayed the text of her poem “Still I Rise” in letters that made it eight feet tall, to the recent memorial service of a dear friend’s mother, at which I personally read several of her poems aloud. It is not only that Angelou’s work touches our hearts and makes us feel included in the “I” of her writings; it is also the dignity and transcendence that she projects and the respect that she demands. She is in every sense a “phenomenal woman,” as the title of another of her best-known poems has it, and I was delighted to have this opportunity to speak with her by phone in advance of Friday’s Arlington appearance.
Do you consider Me & Mom & Me, your upcoming  book on your relationship with your mother, Vivian Baxter, to be a continuation of your autobiographical series? In a way it is, but I really feel I ended my memoirs with A Song Flung Up to Heaven. This book is more about the impact a mother can have on her inheritor. I wanted to look at the impact — the collision — that occurred when we came together, and to show how I learned something whether I wanted to or not. Because I do believe that we are all teachers and we are all students. We study and learn at the same time. I wanted to look at my mom, Vivian Baxter, and at her impact on me on so many levels.
As a poet and a teacher myself, I remember seeing you on a Bill Moyers special back in 1982. The two of you were talking about going to visit a 4th-grade class, and you said that young people like to hear rhythm and a beat. Do you still believe that? Yes, and it is so, isn’t it? This is why some of the hip-hoppers get such attention. I am going to be talking about that a little bit when I come to Santa Barbara this time. I want to show some of the power of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, because he wrote in both standard American English and in the English of the plantation. The latter generally would have been in rhythm and in rhyme. I want to show that to this generation.
Isn’t it from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry that you took your title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Yes, from his poem called “Sympathy.”
Earlier this year, you received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What were your thoughts on accepting this award for your lifetime of work as a citizen? Well, I accepted it for all the Africans who got off slave ships and came to these yet-to-be-United States. And I accepted it in the name of all the immigrants who came from Italy and Spain and Germany and Eastern Europe — all who came from South America, and from Mexico. For all the immigrants who came here hoping for a place and for opportunities despite their choices of religion and their color. I accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom with all of these people in mind.
Recently some people have expressed the idea that the United States is no longer big enough to accept all the continual comings-in of immigration. We are [big enough], and we have to be. It is a part of the giant gift that we have been given. I mean the gift of freedom, and love for freedom, and the ability to love freedom and to share it. It is a wonderful inheritance that we have. Let me tell you a true story. Some years ago, a young woman asked to come and visit me for Thanksgiving dinner in North Carolina. I said, “Of course.” Then she called me again later and said, “I am with my sister, and she would so much like to come also — what should we do?” And I said, “I don’t know how I can say you can come and not your sister.” And so they both came, and they turned out to be not only wonderful guests, but great musicians, as well.
That story makes me think of our shared Southern upbringing, and the Southern ideal of the open door and the welcome table. Absolutely. As in “All y’all …”
Speaking of Thanksgiving, I noticed that one of your current projects relates to your cookbooks. That’s right; I’m shooting a new series called The Celebration Table for the Hallmark Channel now. It will be premiered in the early spring of 2012, and I’m personally calling it “Tasting and Talking,” because I am the host and I ask the guest, “What is your favorite food?” or “What do you like?” And then I work with the show’s chefs, Ming Tsai and Marcus Samuelsson, to prepare and present that dish in a new way that will get us into a great conversation.
I see that you have written a poem for the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington. I admire your facility with the genre of the Occasional Poem. How do you do it? Well, I didn’t know I’d signed on for all that. But after I’d done President Clinton’s Inaugural Poem, the United Nations invited me to write one for their 50th Anniversary, and now I’ve done two or three other ones since that. Honestly, right now I’m reeling under the impact of Nicholas Ashford’s death. He was a son to me. I spent the last 36 hours just holding Valerie’s hand, and I can’t write another right now. I do have a poem that I will say for Nick Ashford’s service though. It’s called “When Great Trees Fall,” and it was originally written for Jimmy Baldwin.
Maya Angelou will be at the Arlington Theatre on Friday, September 9, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, go to the Arlington Theatre Box Office or visit ticketmaster.com.