Great Lives

Phenomenal Woman: Celebrating the life of Maya Angelou with poetry

In this post our resident wordsmith / Audience Development Officer Angela reflects on our recent Maya Angelou-inspired poetry event.

(This post was originally published on the Young Person’s University of Manchester blog.)

“Write for 5 minutes without stopping”, she said, and the stopwatch started. Easy-peasy, I thought. I can certainly talk for 5 minutes without stopping. The paper began to fill with my ramblings, but as the minutes ticked on my wrist started to ache and my brain began to freeze. I glanced around the table at the other workshop participants, each lost in his or her own thoughts and writing. They were a diverse group, in age, race and gender, brought together by one woman’s words.

We were all taking part in a poetry workshop for Black History Month, inspired by and celebrating the life of Maya Angelou, whose death earlier this year was a sad loss to literature. While many people know her best from her autobiographies, her poetry encapsulates her spirit in a very direct and powerful way, so a poetry workshop and performance seemed a fitting way of paying our respects.

image of an older Maya Angelou
© York College ISLGP (

Shirley May from Young Identity, who was leading the workshop, had begun by talking about the influence that Maya Angelou had had on her own writing, and her sharing of personal experience made it easier for us to open up, even those who were new to poetry workshops. It was inspiring and encouraging to learn that Shirley had only begun writing in her thirties.

We looked at three of Maya’s best-known poems during the course of the workshop – ‘Caged Bird’, ‘Still I Rise’, and the poem from which the workshop had taken its name, ‘Phenomenal Woman’. The words inspired us, and there was an electricity in the room:

It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth
The swing in my waist
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

In the spirit of Maya Angelou we each wrote about important people in our lives and the way in which they too were phenomenal – a parent, a teacher, an aunt, or even ourselves. Some people were a little shy about sharing their work, but all the participants were supportive of each other, and poems were met with applause and appreciative finger clicking.

We were all having such a good time that the workshop ran over its allotted time, and we had to rush from the quiet, book-lined surroundings of the Chief Librarian’s office to the library’s performance space to set up for the open mic session – a chance for people to share their own poetry, their favourite Maya Angelou poems or poems by other writers they admired and found inspirational.

One poem stuck in my mind which summed up the mood of the evening – ‘Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield’. Maya Angelou tells of how the death of ‘great souls’ affects us, and ends by saying:

Our senses, restored, never
to be the
same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and
better. For they existed.

Maya Angelou, thank you for existing.

If you’re inspired, Manchester Central Library has a wide variety of books by and about Maya Angelou, and we have some interesting books in our own collection. Keep an eye out for our future poetry events!

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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