Posted on November 20, 2014
This conversation between George Plimpton and Maya Angelou, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on January 11, 1988. We are able to share this recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Below is an excerpt from a fuller interview with The Paris Review that ran in The Art of Fiction No. 119 in the fall of 1990.
Did you write for a particular audience?
I thought early on if I could write a book for black girls it would be good because there were so few books for a black girl to read that said this is how it is to grow up. Then, I thought, I’d better, you know, enlarge that group, the market group that I’m trying to reach. I decided to write for black boys and then white girls and then white boys.
But what I try to keep in mind mostly is my craft. That’s what I really try for; I try to allow myself to be impelled by my art—if that doesn’t sound too pompous and weird—accept the impulse and then try my best to have a command of the craft. If I’m feeling depressed and losing my control then I think about the reader. But that is very rare—to think about the reader when the work is going on.
So you don’t keep a particular reader in mind when you sit down in that hotel room and begin to compose or write. It’s yourself.
It’s myself . . . and my reader. I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. There’s a phrase in West Africa, in Ghana; it’s called “deep talk.” For instance, there’s a saying: “The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the chief’s bugle but where to blow it.” Now, on the face of it, one understands that. But when you really think about it, it takes you deeper. In West Africa they call that “deep talk.” I’d like to think I write “deep talk.” When you read me, you should be able to say, Gosh, that’s pretty. That’s lovely. That’s nice. Maybe there’s something else? Better read it again.