By Victor D. Infante
When Maya Angelou died Wednesday, I told a story to my co-workers that I don’t think I’ve ever told before: That in my early teens, I read my way through the Laguna Beach Public Library’s poetry section. In retrospect, it wasn’t a very large section, not in the early to mid ’80s, but I would sit on the floor near the section and just read, sometimes flying through two or three books at a time.
This was my first exposure to numerous poets: Ginsberg, Byron, Shelley, Eliot, cummings, Plath .. and yeah, Rod McKuen. Some of the poems I loved because I could easily understand them – such as McKuen – and some of them I loved because they were totally opaque to me, because I thought that was cool. Thankfully, I grew out of both opinions eventually, although I should note I keep a McKuen poem pinned to the inside cover of one of my poetry notebooks. Just because.
It was at this point that I discovered Maya Angelou. Her work was purple at times, but that didn’t bother me much back then, but I only sort-of understood what she was talking about most of the time.
“The caged bird sings/with fearful trill,” writes Angelou, in “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” “of the things unknown/but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom.”
I was a white teenager living in small seaside town in Southern California. What the fuck did I know about the life of an older black woman, about the Jim Crow South, about any of it? I knew poverty, yes. I knew violence. Those were words in my blood’s vocabulary, things I understood viscerally. But Angelou? I didn’t know what to make of her at all. At the time, I neither liked or disliked her poems, but they haunted me from time to time, in that way poems often do.
“But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing”
In time, my road into poetry took me down relatively expected paths. As a rebellious teen I took to the Beats, and the first poetry collection I bought with my own money was “Tyrannus Nix,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I began to explore the Irish side of my heritage and identity, a connection I clung to because my appearance and surname marked me as Italian, even though I had little contact with my late father’s family. I discovered Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and others. I read classics, then Modernists.
But I knew little of African-American poetry. Oh, I studied James Baldwin in school, but really – at least back then – the narrative of a white boy’s road to poetry steered you clear of the African-American writers. Even as I neared high school graduation, I could only name one living black poet: Angelou. And the cultural narrative of the time told me I was supposed to hate her. That she was a sloppy, flowery writer whose work was over-the-top and sentimental.
I was told I was supposed to despise Angelou’s work, and because I was a teenager and didn’t know any better, I did. It didn’t strike me that, at the root of what sounded then like perfectly reasonable criticisms, lay something darker, cultural and racial divisions causing a fray in our literature, separating pieces of our heritage from one another.
It was years before I asked myself why I didn’t know any other living African-American poets. I don’t know if I just assumed they weren’t out there, or that they were hiding like ninjas or what. It never once crossed my mind. It never struck me as a teenager that there were voices and narratives different than mine that were, nonetheless, equally relevant to my life and history as an American, as a nascent writer, as a human being.
But that changed. Eventually, I discovered the work of the now-late Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman when I was working in a bookstore during college breaks, and everything in my perspective changed. This was a poet whose work captivated me and more, she was alive. And local! I could, potentially, meet her.
Soon after, I saw Nikki Giovanni read, and slowly, that concept of “other,” held in my head without conscious malice, began to unravel. Through the words of Coleman and Giovanni, I began to look at the poems through the lens of connection, not exoticism.
Everything changed. I went to a poetry slam in Los Angeles for the first time, and met Christian Elder and D. Knowledge and other black writers who were further along in their careers than I was, but still … just people. Not untouchable icons, but people I could relate to and talk to as human beings with whom I shared a common interest. And eventually, I saw Patricia Smith read in Long Beach, and as I’ve written many times before, my entire career trajectory as a writer changed instantly.
And I asked myself where the African-American poets had been all this time, and I realized that they had been there all along, but that somehow we were being kept from one another, although how or by whom is a mystery. In retrospect, we did it to ourselves. It just happened. In the bad old days of the ’70s and ’80s, poets and poetry organizations unconsciously self-selected to surround themselves with … people like themselves. And in doing so, began to build divisions within the art form that – without even trying – reflected the divisions in society.
It’s the thing that happens when you’re not paying attention, when you’re taking the world for granted: We float away from one another, when really, we should be reaching for one another, clasping hands to anchor ourselves against the storm that’s always brewing outside.
And eventually, I came around to Angelou, too, and if she never became my favorite poet, I developed an enormous respect for her, for the beauty of her language and for what she had to overcome. And I grew thankful to her for being one of maybe less than a dozen people who carried the entire art form on their backs in poetry’s darkest days, in that gray zone between Beat and Slam.
And sometimes, I still hear that beautiful voice of hers, whispering words it took me a lifetime to understand.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom