A late thank you for Dr. Angelou
The phone call that set a poet on a life-changing path
The name of our site, The Undefeated, was inspired by a quote from poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou that begins, “You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”
We asked several poets and writers to reflect on the Meaning of Maya. Here, poet Terrance Hayes, a 2014 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, recalls a life-changing phone call with Angelou that happened when he was a student at Coker College in South Carolina, where he studied English and played on the basketball team.
Dear Dr. Angelou:
Yes, Ma’am, I am still trying to ball. Yes, I am still trying to hold what I did not catch that day on the phone. You might have told me I didn’t have to choose between being a poet or athlete. You might have told me the caged bird is a metaphor for the mind as well as the body. I wasn’t listening. I could only hear your rich maternal baritone, deeper than my or my father’s voice. You sounded as if you’d smoked cigars with Castro nights in Cuba. You sounded as if you’d been born to turn a sentence into music, make a word show you its crown and belly. Warm and irreducible wisdom poured from your phone in Winston-Salem [N.C.] into my dumb ear a state away. You might have talked of devotion to a body of work as well as a body at work, but I was too young then to listen.
This is a late thank you for working the shimmy in a shimmering gown around Harlem as a young woman, for the shot glass, the pepper, the stockings on a long majestic stride. This is just a late note of thanks for the air between notes, teeth, letters, fingers, blues, lovers, strangers, and thieves; thanks for the taste of poems in your mouth, the purse of poems on your shoulder, the trail of poems at your feet ahead of the Hellhounds’ snouts. Giving thanks is a form of prayer. You might have explained the power of language, the way even the poorest girl in the world can cover herself in words and feathers, can make herself a new name. I am still trying to hold what I did not catch that day.
After we spoke I met dozens of your namesakes in libraries and classrooms telling me they wanted to become a poet like you. I did not ask if they loved the poet or the poems more. One is a way of being, the other a way of doing. I did not ask if they wanted their lives to unwind like the grand multiple autobiographies of your grand multiple lives. Who will play you in the movie, I wonder. Some yet unborn Maya, some kindergarten Maya, some middle-school Maya reciting “Phenomenal Woman” like a prayer? How did you remain so young as your body aged? I am still trying to ball. Sometimes when I retreat to the gym, nothing but noise issues from my bones. Sometimes when I retreat to the page, nothing but noise issues from my bones. Sometimes when I am quiet I can hear you. You might have told me the mind in the cage of the body wants freedom; the body in the cage of mind wants freedom. After you spoke with me on a Carolina afternoon more than 20 years ago, I followed the road to poetry. Thank you for taking the time to reach out that day. I was too young to listen, but I’ve been trying to hear you the whole way.
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