NEW YORK, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Maya Angelou, one of America's most revered authors and poets, has gone commercial at last in a genteel way that suits her image as a writer with a message.
Angelou has hooked up with Hallmark to produce what she calls "epigrams" suitable for inspirational greeting cards and collectibles that, according to promotional copy, "inspire the mind and refresh the spirit." The Maya Angelou Life Mosaic collection was introduced this month with suitable fanfare.
The collection of 60 products includes bookends and bookmarks, vases and candlesticks, coffee mugs, fabric table runners, sachets, decorative pillows, gift bags, fabric-covered chests for "life's treasures," and colored "sun catchers" etched with a single word - joy, courage, hope - to hang in windows.
"I have stained glass panels in the windows of my own home, and I find them very uplifting," Angelou said.
"They tried to reach me for some years, but I wasn't sure I wanted to do it or that I could do it," Angelou, an imposing woman given to wearing caftans, said in a UPI interview. "Writing epigrams is no small matter for me because I write large and then edit down to get what I want. But now I have to reduce what I want to say to no more than two lines."
Angelou has a ready comeback for people who might say she is trivializing her work as "the people's poet" by writing greeting card messages.
"If I'm the people's poet, then my work should be in the people's hands, and there are many people who will never buy a book but will buy a card," she said.
She has been working on the project for two years, selecting quotes from some of her poems but mostly writing new material she feels is particularly applicable to current conditions in the world.
"I've seen so many people on television, immobilized by fear after the events of last Sept. 11, and I thought 'We're stronger than that'. So I began writing material that addressed these fears and inhibitions. I've even proposed some of the products myself, and I stand behind every piece."
She described her collaboration with Hallmark designers as "the nicest collaboration I have ever worked in." Her chief collaboration in the past has been in making films, but she has worked with other artists in the field of theater, dance, and music. She also has worked as a journalist, a civil rights activist, and educator.
She currently is lifetime professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N. C., and has just completed her 22nd book. It is the sixth volume of her autobiography which began with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," the book that brought her fame and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
She says the book, titled "A Song Flung Up To Heaven" and due to be published by Random House in April, will be the final volume of her autobiography.
"I just don't think it's the final volume, I know it is," she said with one of her throaty laughs.
She also is working on a gourmet cookbook and preparing her spring master classes in poetry at Wake Forest, one of her very favorite activities. This summer she will direct her second feature film based on Bebe Moore Campbell's book, "Singing in the Comeback Choir," and reactivate her national lecture schedule, which she has had to let lapse, next fall. Then she plans a book of essays and more poetry.
It may seem like a heavy schedule for a 74-year-old, but Angelou thrives on activity. She keeps a roomy old house in Winston-Salem and an apartment on Manhattan's West Side. She was watching television in the New York apartment when the program was interrupted to show the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers.
"When I saw the second plane hit, I knew it was terrorism, and then I thought of the people in there and the retaliation for their deaths that we would be dragged into," she said. "I hope we won't become lustful after revenge but that we will have justice."
Angelou has lived and worked in the Islamic world as the wife of a South African freedom fighter. Living with him in exile in Cairo she was editor of The Arab Observer, an English-language news weekly in the Middle East. One of her greatest concerns is the ignorance of most Americans about that part of the world, where the nation is so deeply involved.
"We Americans live in a huge and rich land and can go 3,000 miles speaking the same language, and our concept of the rest of the world is blunted and shortened and dangerous," she said. "We have very little knowledge of history and geography and religious beliefs, and we really need a crash course in them, especially in regard to Asia and Africa.
"A lot of people don't want to change but to exchange. They say, "Give me what you got.' They never seem to ask, 'Can I be liberated when so many are enslaved?'."
One of the reasons she enjoys her poetry classes, which she combines with performance, is that her students get the opportunity to stand up before an audience, often for the first time, to read everything from Langston Hughes and Haiku to Shakespeare and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
"They get to see what people in other lands have had to say about the important things in life, about liberation," she said.
Angelou has experienced a lot of suffering in her life, which included childhood rape that resulted in six years of traumatic silence. She has been impoverished, an unwed mother, and a jill-of-all-trades including stints as a brothel madam, cook, and streetcar conductor. But she has never allowed herself to be bitter.
"Bitterness is a cancer," she said. "It eats on its host. But anger is a good thing because it burns things up and leaves nutrients in the earth. We should be angry at injustices and brutality. We should be angry enough to stop it."