A Once-Unthinkable Collaboration

Writer Maya Angelou talks about her new deal with Hallmark
Hallmark: Birthday cards and wedding cards, friendship, graduation and get well messages, too.

Maya Angelou: friend of Billie Holiday and Martin Luther King, celebrated poet who read at President Clinton's first inauguration, author of the classic memoir "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."

And now Hallmark's in-house poet.

In a once-unthinkable collaboration, Angelou has teamed up with the greeting card giant. Overcoming initial reservations that she was trivializing herself, she has agreed to develop a line of greeting cards and gifts.

At least one of Angelou's colleagues is appalled.

"I think it's preposterous," said Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States and a fellow Random House author.

Buy "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," or other Maya Angelou books
"It lowers the understanding of what poetry actually can do," Collins said. "Hallmark cards has always been a common phrase to describe verse that is really less than poetry because it is sentimental and unoriginal. ... I just think it's surprising that she would market herself in that direction."

At first, Angelou was cool to the idea. But after meeting with executives of the Kansas City, Mo., company, she warmed.

"They were white and black, and they were women and Spanish speaking. That pleased me, obviously. ... So I listened," Angelou said in an interview at her flower-filled upper West Side pied-a-terre. The 73-year-old poet-writer-professor-actress-director-singer lives mostly in North Carolina and also has a home in Atlanta.

Then she went to her editor at Random House with the proposal.

"I said, 'I'm thinking about doing something with Hallmark.' And he said, 'You're the people's poet. You don't want to trivialize yourself.' So I said OK and I hung up. And then I thought about it. And I thought, if I'm the people's poet then I ought to be in the people's hands - and I hope in their hearts. So I thought, 'Hmm, I'll do it."'

The Maya Angelou Life Mosaic Collection has been in stores since just after Christmas. It includes 104 greeting cards and assorted bookends, photo frames, coffee mugs and other gift items. The cards start at $2.49 and the gift items range in price from $19.99 to $49.99.

Many of the messages inscribed in the cards and other products are condensed versions of essays from Angelou's books. They treat themes suc as love and friendship.

A typical sentiment is, "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike." A ceramic "thankful vase" is captioned, "Be present in all things and thankful for all things."

A wedding card reads: "Batten down the hatches, secure the rigging. You and your beloved are about to sail on the river of dreams. You are wished fair weather and fresh wind ... and always love. Congratulations on your marriage."

Hallmark would not divulge what it had paid Angelou. However, Paul Barker, senior vice president for creative development at Hallmark, said, "Retailers are very positive about how well it is moving."

To develop the line, Hallmark staff met with Angelou in her home.

"Sometimes they stayed overnight," she said. "And I cooked for people, and we sat and talked. And that's how the line has really been developed. By talk. Telling stories. Anecdotes."

Barker said additional products including Christmas and Mother's Day cards are planned for the future.

Angelou, meanwhile, is busy with other projects. She is on the faculty at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where this spring she will teach a master class on "World Poetry in Dramatic Performance." She'll also direct her second film, an adaptation for Showtime of Bebe Moore Campbell's "Singing in the Comeback Choir."

And she has a new book coming out in April, "A Song Flung Up to Heaven," the sixth and, she insists, the last of her autobiographical works. The first appeared in 1970.

"It takes me exactly to the beginning of writing 'Caged Bird,"' she said. "And I refuse to write about writing. It would be the biggest bore in life."

By Karen Matthews
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