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Dr Maya Angelou

Poetry can tell us what human beings are.
It can tell us why we stumble and fall and how,
miraculously, we can stand up.
Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou, poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, civil-rights activist, producer and director, passed away last Wednesday, 28th May, aged 86. Her life and teachings inspired millions around the world.

I never met Dr. Angelou. I never heard her speak live at an event. I have not (yet) read her bestselling memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings telling of her childhood of suffering and abuse in the racist deep south of the U.S.A.

But she changed my life profoundly through her words.

Here is that story.

It was a wet and sticky day in early August. I stepped into the small, crowded interview room. I was smartly dressed, my hair smoothed, my presentation prepared.

What the five people facing me did not know was that I carried with me an invisible ally. A secret weapon: weightless, odourless, tasteless, but powerful beyond measure.

The words of a poem.

For years I had longed to step into my leadership potential, but held myself back. Even though I had a successful management career, I was usually second or third in command, not the leader. I felt the frustration of playing small. But I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, that others would judge me if I failed to make the grade. I began to see that I had a host of unconscious strategies for staying small, invisible, safe.

I decided it was time to change.

I already knew the power of working deeply with a companion poem – the right poem at the right time – to support myself in living more fully, more wholeheartedly. So I asked internally what poem I needed to work with. My intuition spoke clearly, but I didn’t like the answer I got. Resistance kicked in.

‘That’s a great poem,’ I thought ‘but for other people, not for me.’

A quiet, insistent voice inside knew better. For weeks I kept asking and asking, hoping that somehow I would get a different answer, but it always came back the same. ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou.

I felt like the poem had chosen me, rather than I it.

It’s an anthem poem for female empowerment. A physical, sensual, living-out-loud-and-proud poem. I thought of myself as strong but reserved, more cerebral than physical. Yet something inside was calling me to step up and step out. It was time. I was terrified, but I let the poem guide me.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
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
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Click here to listen to the poem

The poem stretched me into a new part of myself. At first it felt alien to me, like a coat that did not fit. I tried it on anyway, sensing how I would need to expand into its powerful expression.

It stretched me into my feminine power, but most of all it stretched me into my leadership. It’s a pioneer poem – a woman taking up space, being in control of her body, her life, being unapologetically visible, powerful and joyful. Some of the lines – ‘Now you understand / Just why my head’s not bowed’ – I could feel physically affecting my posture where I hunched my shoulders or made myself small.

Phenomenal Woman - Wales July 2013

I worked with the poem in a group workshop with Kim Rosen. I had a backup team of phenomenal women and the support of the whole group cheering me on. It stretched me to claim that powerful expression, but I had a blast doing it.

When it came to the interview I remembered the poem and carried that confidence with me, that visceral knowing of how to claim my power and take up space. They offered me the Chief Executive position, my first leadership role.

If you want to learn more about how to work with a poem, contact me to get a copy of my free guide Using Poetry for Wholehearted Living.