Prolific author, activist steams into town with a message of inspiration

Author, poet, singer, playwright, editor.

Maya Angelou is all of these things as well as, she says, '6 foot, black and female.'

The author's unforgettable series of autobiographies includes the searing 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' 'Gather Together in My Name' and 'The Heart of a Woman.' She's traveled the world as dancer and political activist. One thing that Maya Angelou, born in 1928, has never tried, though, is the Internet.

'No, I've never been on the Internet,' she says with a husky laugh. 'I have an office and people get on, or get off, or do whatever it is that they do. If I'm searching for something, I can ask one of them to find it,' she says in a voice that crackles with life.

While on the lecture circuit, as now, Angelou travels by bus. She writes in longhand and says that when she can't write, she reaches for a deck of cards and plays solitaire, an old ritual. She enjoys sipping sherry.

Raised by her grandmother in segregated rural Arkansas, Angelou was raped when she was 8 and didn't speak from that time until she was 13. She began writing when she was 9.

'I loved reading so much and I adored poetry, and I decided to try it,' she says. 'And I subsequently wrote some of the worst verse east of the Rockies. But I just put my hand in, and I've kept it in the whole time, really.'

Remarkably, she doesn't think she was born with more gifts than the rest of us. She says that will be the theme of her sold-out Wednesday lecture in Portland.

'My position is that each person has a unique life. Only he or she can live that life. Some become famous, some do not. Everybody's life is unique, so I will just talk about life and how we manage to live it.'

Asked about the source of her awesome creative power, Angelou says, 'I believe we come from the creator streaming wisps of glory. Wisps of glory are the talent to teach, to write, to sing, to erect buildings, all of those are wisps.'

In 'The Heart of a Woman,' the fourth of five books that tell her life story, Angelou describes working as a nightclub singer in Los Angeles. The singer Billie Holiday was brought to her home and spent four days talking, singing and generally terrorizing the single mother. One day she insisted on joining Angelou at the club. Afterward, Holiday said to her,'You will be famous one day Ñ but not for your singing.'

At the time, Angelou didn't know what direction her art would go.

'I wasn't even sure I was going to be in the arts,' she says. 'I knew that I didn't love to sing. And the only way to be great at anything is to love it and to be able to sacrifice for it. To say, 'I know it's going to be a great party and there will be fascinating people there, but I have to work.' But I wouldn't sacrifice a party Ñ or anything else Ñ in order to sing!'

Maya Angelou will speak Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the Unique Lives & Experiences Series. The Portland Tribune is a sponsor; the lecture is sold out.

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