Poetry and all that Jazz Profile: Renaissance woman Maya Angelou has lived a life as far from prosaic as the human condition will allow.

September 09, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

You may know her as the stoic-looking woman who stood on the podium with President Clinton during his first inauguration. She read a poem, a "love song" for the nation called "On the Pulse of Morning."

You may know her as the warm and wise mentor to the nation's No. 1 talk show diva -- that would be Oprah Winfrey -- from whom she appears to have a standing invitation to come on TV and dispense pearls of wisdom.

You may even know her as the black woman who stood steadfast before a sea of black men at the 1995 Million Man March, where she poetically praised the crowd, then prodded them to seek excellence for themselves, their families, their communities and the country.

But you may not know that the dignified, poetic, prolific Maya Angelou used to cut a mean rug on the dance floor and got a real attitude if someone's attention dared stray from her.

She once earned a living, a fairly good one at that, by belting out jazzy tunes in nightclubs across the country. Even when she wasn't performing, she loved dressing in bold, colorful "get-ups," with loop after loop of colorful beads swinging saucily from her neck.

She was once married to "the first near-nude centerfold for Cosmopolitan magazine." She held the title of "Associated Editor" of the Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, from 1961 to 1962. She was an assistant administrator and teacher in the School of Music & Drama at the University of Ghana from 1963 to 1966.

You do know some of this if you're reading her continuing series of autobiographical books. The latest, "Even the Stars Look Lonesome" (Random House), was released this month, and Angelou is on a book tour to promote it.

She is resting on a pale, green sofa in a downtown Washington hotel one day last week as she talks briefly about her life. She is dressed in a subdued outfit: black, silky pants with a black and brown top, accented by only one white, beaded necklace. Shoes are kicked off; a drink is beside her on the end table, but she barely touches it.

Angelou, a youthful 69-year-old, has sung and danced professionally. She is a writer, director, actress, producer, sought-after public speaker, music lyricist and gourmet cook. Of her many accomplishments, it is writing that means the most to her.

"You know I made a decent living as a singer," she says, mentioning one of her many talents. "I respect it. I do a decent job at it. But I don't love it," she says in her signature, deep, melodious voice. The writing, she loves.

Her writing carries her through, even when her faith fails: "My faith is tested many times every day, and more times than I'd like to confess, I'm unable to keep the banner of faith aloft," she wrote in 1993's "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now." "If a promise is not kept, or if a secret is betrayed, or if I experience long-lasting pain, I begin to doubt God and God's love. I fall so miserably into the chasm of disbelief that I cry out in despair. Then the Spirit lifts me up again, and once more I am secured in faith."

Angelou doesn't see herself as a great writer, though it is something she still aspires to be.

"I want to be a great writer," she says. "I know it sounds saccharine, but I want to be a great human being. I would like to be a great Christian and the best teacher. I would like to be excellent inside myself. And I'm not in competition with anyone but myself."

She talks about the challenges that being human presents and how she uses discipline in the quest for excellence. "The greatest challenge we have is being human and all of the frailties that come with that," she says.

A place to write

She arises each morning at 4: 45 to write. Angelou, who lives in a huge, old house in Winston-Salem, N.C., cannot find a comfortable space to write there. Far too many distractions, she says.

"I cannot work in my house. I have a lot of art. I would look around and think, 'When did I get this?' Or I would think it was hanging crooked and want to straighten it out." So she leaves her home and travels a short distance to work.

"I am out of the house at 5: 30. I keep a hotel room in town, and I like to be in the hotel room by 6. I ask the manager to take everything off the wall. I have a dictionary, a Roget's Thesaurus, a Bible and a bottle of sherry. And yellow legal pads," says Angelou, who does all her writing longhand.

She sticks to this routine six days a week until the book is finished.

Being the best she can be as a writer is far from her only challenge. One aspect of life she is still trying to figure out, says Angelou, who is currently single, is the challenge of finding that -- one, true, life-long mate.

She's had a few marriages, but none have lasted.

She writes about one such marriage, which looked oh-so-promising when it began and went swimmingly for a few years before it started going badly. It was, she says, the house that tore them apart.

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