The first time I heard of Maya Angelou was in my second comp writing class. I had never heard of her before, but we were moving on to poetry in the curriculum and we were going to watch a video. I was somewhat interested, because most of the poets we’d covered were men or dead, like Emily Dickenson.
We slid our chairs out into the aisle and turned the lights low so we could all see the video. It was part of an interview and she was reading one of her own poems. The first thing that caught my attention, was her voice. It wasn’t at all like I’d expected her to sound.
At that point in time, my grasp of poetry was a bit skewed. I thought everything had to be deeply profound and extremely flowery. I thought it had to be complicated, because the more I learned about poetry, the more confusing it was.
Maya read her own poem, “And Still I Rise” and I sat there, transfixed until the end of the video and a bit in awe by the end of the class. When the day passed and the week, I felt stuck. I didn’t know how to process what I’d experienced.
The poem that she’d read, in the voice she’d had, was beautiful and broken to my ears. Broken, because it picked at all those little things that made your heart hurt, if you really thought about it and wasn’t poetry supposed to make you happy? Beautiful, because I’d never, ever heard something like that before and I hadn’t realized that words could reach so deeply into a person.
She changed my perspective on poetry and simplicity in writing, through a recorded video that was barely ten minutes. I found her death listed in the headlines this and I felt stuck all over again. I couldn’t believe she was dead. But going back and reading her poems, watching a video or two and reading the articles, it reminds me that there’s a courage on a page, whether you’re alive after you’ve written it or not. Maya will be one poet who will have her history documented not just in books, essays and articles, but in videos, her last tweet and digital memorials. It’s a thought that is just as bittersweet as the first time I heard her speak.