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At 80, Maya Angelou Reflects on a 'Glorious' Life

As she turns 80, the celebrated author, poet and artist Maya Angelou says she has figured out how to get divine attention.

"When I try to describe myself to God I say, 'Lord, remember me? Black? Female? Six-foot tall? The writer?' And I almost always get God's attention," Angelou tells NPR's Lynn Neary with a laugh.

Though she feels she sometimes needs to remind God she's still around, the rest of the world needs no prompting. Angelou, whose books of essays and poetry have sold millions of copies, was an inspirational figure long before her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969.

For her 80th birthday, on April 4, her longtime friends Marcia Ann Gillespie and Richard A. Long, and her niece Rosa Johnson Butler have written a book in her honor titled Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. The just-released biographical tribute traces Angelou's life and career with archival photographs and notes from her writings.

An Early Passion

Angelou's foremost passion was always writing, even during her early days as a singer and dancer, and her activism alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She started writing at age 8 or 9, during a years-long, self-imposed silence after she was raped by her mother's boyfriend.

A voracious reader, she eventually was urged to publish her work as an adult. Her editor requested several times that she write an autobiography, but Angelou always declined.

Angelou says author James Baldwin, whom she considers a brother, had a covert hand in getting her to write "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Acting on Baldwin's advice, Angelou's editor tried a little reverse psychology and told her that writing an autobiography as literature was "almost impossible" and she shouldn't even attempt it.

"I said, 'Well, hmmm, maybe I'll try it.'" Angelou recalls. "The truth is that he had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that 'if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can't do it.'"

When she finished her groundbreaking work, Angelou realized her life story had ended at 17. She went on to publish five more books in her autobiographical series, ending with A Song Flung Up to Heaven in 2002.

Poetry and Politics

Angelou is as well known for her poetry collections as she is for her books. She recited an original work at Bill Clinton's first inauguration, becoming only the second poet in U.S. history to do so. The poem she delivered, "On the Pulse of Morning," was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Still politically active — she recently endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential election — Angelou says she's living in exciting times.

"We have to admit that we've come a long way," Angelou says. "Young people must be told yes, things are better, but not nearly as good as things will be when you put your children to the wheel."

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