'You are Boadicea with a bit of the Wife of Bath thrown in,' said the QC Helena Kennedy. Diane Abbott described her as embodying the endurance and generosity of spirit of black women. Maya Angelou bowed her head and smiled graciously. Extravagant praise comes her way often, but there was not a trace of complacency or arrogance as she took the microphone, sang a blues song, and cracked jokes.
The lashings of admiration and adoration Maya Angelou attracts cannot simply be explained by her writing, or even by the facts of her extraordinary life. Now 66, she has been a prostitute, an actress, a cook, an aide to Martin Luther King, a friend of Malcolm X, a singer, a dancer, the editor of an Egyptian newspaper, a wife (three times), a single parent, a playwright and Bill Clinton's poet laureate. When she was three, she and her brother were sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. At eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was later found murdered. Blaming herself, she became mute for five years. The honesty with which she describes her own complicity in the seduction (but not the rape) in Caged Bird and her lack of bitterness about the events that followed, provide an important clue to the power and popularity of her work (in Britain alone, Caged Bird has been reprinted nine times). Maya Angelou has never shown much interest in cleansing the facts to make herself acceptable.
But it is her physical presence that inspires most warmth. On television she can seem posturing, the tilt of the head poised for the close up, the pause in the middle of a grandiloquent statement carefully timed for the soundbite. At the mews house in Knightsbridge where she is staying, I half expected to find an imperious grande dame (like everyone who meets her for the first time, I had been warned to address her as Dr Angelou). She is, however, totally charming, direct and remarkably generous in her praise of others. She is dressed simply, in black shirt and trousers, but looks effortlessly glamorous: heavy, gold-coloured necklaces nearly reach her waist; on one hand she wears a huge gold ring in the shape of a dove. Although she has been interviewed numerous times, she answers each question with care, pausing to find the exact phrase and punctuating her responses with bouts of raucous laughter and expert mimicry.
'I don't give much credence to people who take themselves too seriously,' she says straight off. 'If you're really serious, you laugh as much as possible, you have a good time.' She is also modest about her own achievements. The publication of Caged Bird, I suggest, was enormously influential, helping to pave the way for the rediscovery of 'lost' African-American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston as well as inspiring a whole generation of new ones. 'I'm not a pioneer,' she says firmly. 'I see myself as a woman who writes and who is good fun and good company, who is religious, though not to a fault. In the South, and in southern writers like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Truman Capote, they say,' (she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper) ' 'Miss Hudson drinks'. Well so do I. I like to drink, to have good friends and to read good books and to get though my life with some grace.'
Grace is a word she uses often. 'Grace is being kind,' she says, 'It's the condition of courtesy and humour. It's little and large things - trying to teach without being on a soapbox, trying to learn without biting my nails.'
Angelou sets great store by manners and by the importance of style and bearing, which she attributes to her southern upbringing, and to the legacy of slavery. 'Southern black people are traditionally mannerable,' she explains. 'Some of it is a cultural carry-over from Africa and some of it is due to the experience of slavery. White people were not mannerable to black folk and so they were unable to behave mannerably to the larger society, except out of duty.'
She still lives in the South, in North Carolina, where she has a big house and 'a serious art collection of African-American paintings. It's wonderful, it really is. The walls gleam, gleam.' She keeps a hotel room nearby where she goes each day at 5.30am until noon to write. 'I have a yellow pad there, ballpoint pens, a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, a Roget's thesaurus and a bible,' she says. One semester a year she teaches at Wake Forest University, where she is a lifetime professor of American studies.
The pleasure teaching gives her came as a surprise. 'It satisfies me so; it makes use of everything I've got,' she says gravely. 'If I want to look at Aristotle, for example, I want to make it new for them. I know they will have studied his work elsewhere, so I might sing a song and ask, where do the theme of this song and an Aristotelian principle meet? You see? Everything I've got is of use in the classroom; it challenges me, it draws me. If I'd been a teacher I might never have needed to write.
'This fall I'm teaching a course called the philosophy of liberation. I contend that many people say they want change, but what they really want is exchange,' she laughs. 'I want what you got and I don't want you to have any of it. So we'll read all sorts of folks: The House of Bernardo Alba, Wole Soyinka, Virginia Woolf, Juno and the Paycock, Joan Didion . . . oh, and I think I'll include Norman Mailer - he just writes so well. And the questions that will come out of it are: Can anyone be liberated without liberating someone else? And can you actually participate in the liberation of another? That'll get them going. Gets me going too.'
Angelou is at heart (another favoured word) a performer. She writes for the voice, 'never for the page. Poetry is music for the voice; I hear the language when I write,' which perhaps accounts for the rapturous response to the inaugural poem she wrote for President Clinton, something which in the hands of a lesser orator might have sounded corny.
But this emphasis on the spoken word can also be a weakness. Her new book, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now (Virago), is a collection of homespun homilies written at the behest of her great friend Oprah Winfrey. It repeats many of the themes found in her autobiography, but without the force and context of a narrative to sustain them, parts of it seem trite. Her critics say that she has made of her suffering a form of sainthood that seems to place her beyond criticism. It seems almost churlish to put this to her. 'The scars are alive and you rub your pencil over them and sharpen it,' she responds with a sigh. 'That, for me is what it means to write. But I rarely ask for sympathy; that's not my way. If a person thinks, then, possibly, a little of the gloom of ignorance is lifted from us. That's my real intent. All I am trying to do is stir up the machine.'
Maya Angelou appears in Hay-on- Wye today. For booking details ring 0497 821299.