The Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou celebrated her 80th birthday and the release of her new book, Letter to My Daughter, at an elegant gathering in the Hays-Adams Hotel on Thursday night. Wearing a long, dark red dress and a strand of pearls, the celebrated autobiographer and poet said she'd been taking notes for many years of things she wanted to talk about with Oprah, but then she realized she had enough material for a book.

"I've done many things in my life - so far," she said.

Maya and Cake.jpg

Book World editor Marie Arana conducted an interview with Angelou before an audience of about 100 guests as part of the recently launched Hay-Adams Select Author series.

In a low, melodious voice, Angelou described her amazement at the path of her life from a small town in Arkansas. She recited poetry from memory - Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Shakespeare - sometimes broke into song, and acted out the various characters who have shaped her life. Adopting the voice of her grandmother, she admonished us: "Never complain. Protest, don't complain." And she imitated the haughty voice of her English teacher, Bertha Flowers, who taught her to love poetry and eventually coaxed her to speak after several years of muteness following the rape she described in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Arana reminded the audience that Angelou was once a successful dancer who worked with Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham. At six feet tall, Angelou admitted that dance was not a natural choice for her. "When I pulled my clothes off," she said, "I looked like a brown cucumber." But she was enchanted by the relationship between poetry and dance. "I found there were two things I really loved: writing and dancing." Eventually, she toured Europe with a production of "Porgy and Bess." Letter to My Daughter.jpg

Asked about her writing technique, Angelou said that she rents a hotel room by the month and tells the management to remove everything from the walls. She works all morning with a Bible, a Roget's Thesaurus, the New York Times crossword puzzle and a good bottle of sherry. "I try to enchant myself to hear my language," she said. "Once I can almost remove myself from the ordinary, I get to my yellow pad."

Speaking of her work as a writer of memoirs, Angelou said, "I take my lesson from Frederick Douglass. He used the pronoun 'I' to mean 'we.' I use 'I' meaning 'human being.' I don't think of a memoir as what happened to me alone. I think of it as what 'we' have encountered and can overcome."

"I am African America and very proud of it. I know I did something very good in a previous life to come back like this."

Recalling her performance at the first presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, a guest asked Angelou if she'd be participating in the inauguration of Barrack Obama. "My intention is to make the greatest soup in the world," Angelou said, but "I will be watching every second intensely" on TV.

Clearly, she's full of optimism about America's future. "I think that we're growing up. It will take a long time, and we must be patient. We must unlearn. We have to disengage ourselves from motives that really weren't ours."

Before the crowd regrouped to get their copies of Letter to My Daughter signed, they stood and sang "Happy Birthday." Angelou was presented with a three-tiered cake from Kendall's Cakes designed to resemble the Alma Woodsey Thomas painting on the cover of her new book. It looked so good that nobody could bear to cut it.

By Ron Charles |  November 20, 2008; 11:23 PM ET Ron Charles
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