In this episode, Dr. Jackie Fowler talks to APU English professor and author L.K. Silva about Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” Learn how this poem applies to the challenges women face today, the importance of self-confidence among everyone, women and men alike, and why it’s so important to build a world of inclusivity to lift all.
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Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Welcome to The Everyday Scholar, I’m Dr. Jackie Fowler, and today we have with us a special guest author, L.K. Silva (you can find Linda Kay Silva’s books under her pseudonym Alex Westmore). Now, L.K. is an eccentric world traveler who has ridden on the back of an ostrich in Africa, raced catamarans in the Caribbean, jumped from an airplane, floated on a bamboo raft in Thailand, scaled the Great Pyramid of Giza, and played with monkeys in the rainforest.
When she’s not stating her curiosity about the world around us, she’s riding her Harley, chilling at the beach, or thinking up her next new series. She is most proud of her two grown daughters, Kelly and Sunny, who are also avid travelers, and two of the most amazing women she’s ever met. L.K. still writes long hand with a fountain pen, still collects Marvel toys, and still has a crush on Storm from the X-Men. Vowing never to grow up, she is most proud of that singular accomplishment. Welcome, L.K. Silva.
L.K. Silva: Wow, that was quite an intro. Thanks Jackie. We’re going to be reading today the “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. For a lot of different reasons, I think that we are quickly approaching an impasse where we get the charge going, spark up the fires again. And this one was written in 1978 right at a time when the Equal Rights Amendment did not pass in ’72, we had Billie Jean King, and the guy that she beat up on in 1973. We had Roe versus Wade in ’73. So, you see that the changes and the things that happen with women are kind of clustered together, and we are at another seminal point, I think, in our history.
I raised my two daughters on many, many Maya Angelou quotes, which they still often throw back in my face, because that’s what kids do. Without further ado, I’m going to read this, and then Jackie and I are going to have a little chat about it. I think it’s just one of my all-time favorites.
“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, well, they think I’m telling lies, I say, it’s in the reach of my arms and the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I’m a woman, phenomenally. 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 at 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 phenomenally. 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 phenomenally. 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, I ought to make you proud. I say, it’s in the click of my heels and the bend of my hair, the palm of my hand, the need for my care, because I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman. That’s me.”
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, L.K. I want to start with something that occurs in the first of couple lines. The first couple of lines, “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies, I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” What kind of images or what kind of feelings do those lines evoke in you?
L.K. Silva: Self-acceptance. That she doesn’t fit the model that people think is beauty, and she doesn’t fall into any particular box or what we ascribe to modern beauty. And so, she comports herself in a way that pretty women are like, “Well, what’s she doing? How come she’s strutting around when she’s not a 105 pounds and ate celery for dinner?”
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So she expands the understanding of women in general?
L.K. Silva: For sure, for sure. Women wonder, and I think that women do, when somebody is standing erect and in their own space and comfortable in their own skin when their skin isn’t what we would categorize as beautiful.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: And yet L.K., she kind of “others” herself in the very beginning there, she puts herself out of what is considered the iconic or archetypal woman.
L.K. Silva: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s why I think that’s the beauty of this. Is she isn’t other, but a lot of different others, it isn’t just as an African American woman, it isn’t just as a woman, it’s a woman who doesn’t fit the conventional ideas of beauty, which, who does?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Right. “She shows herself around men, the fellows stand or fall down on their knees and they swarm around me, a hive of honey bees.” In those few lines, what is she saying about her relationship to the other gender?
L.K. Silva: I really like this because it’s like this spell that she casts on men, and while she can’t change her appearance and nor does she want to, which is, I think, even more significant, I think that you can’t replicate what’s inside of her. That what is happening, and I think the reason she talks about bees is, that’s an innate response that bees have with the hive. And she’s saying, this is what I have in here, you can’t touch, you can’t change. You can look. But that’s what her inner mystery is all about.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: The honey bees is a cool image. I think as students read this, they might pass through it as just the busy bees and miss the fact that the queen bee is the center of the hive. And I think you’re right, I think the narrator of Angelou’s poem here is setting herself up as the queen bee. What do you think about that?
L.K. Silva: I do. Again, they swarm around me, needing her, maybe wanting her, but it’s really is, I think, about this innate response that some of them stand, some of them fall on their knees, but they all have a reaction to her. Just like all of the honey bees have a reaction to the queen. I love that. I love the fact that, again, she’s so brilliant in the way she says, I’m a queen, but she doesn’t have to say it. She gives us a really great imagery of a swarm of bees.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, for our students reading this today, why should they read it? Why should they connect to this poem?
L.K. Silva: Oh God, I think for so many reasons, I want to go down to the piece that hits me the most. And that was, “But they can’t touch my inner mystery.” Because the inner mystery is her self-confidence. And that is a thing that we all know as educators, as parents, as people that, people that are self-confident are easier to teach, they believe that they can. They’re the people that, I love Wayne Gretzky’s quote that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
And women with confidence, people with confidence comport themselves differently in the world, and this is her mystery. When beautiful women are looking at her, when men are looking at her, they’re all wondering, “What the hell’s going on with her?” And she’s saying, “It is how I exude this confidence to men, to women.”
I think that we want that for our students. We want people to go, “Look, when you have that can do attitude, guess what? You can do.” But that has to come from within. Nobody can give that to you, sell it to you, gift it to you. It’s so crucial to our success as human beings.
Very few of us that submit books to be published back in the day when I first started writing, only like 2% of people that tried to get published got published. And I have a rejection list of, at my stack is about three feet tall. But you miss a 100% of the shots that you don’t take. I just needed that one shot.
All of that comes from the inner confidence that “I can do this.” Even though I’ve been knocked down and have many, many people tell us “No,” and we’ve all been in that position where people have said “No,” or have told us that we can’t do something, that can do attitude, which I think I raised my kids using Maya’s examples, so, so many, comes from that intestinal fortitude and that, “I rock,” and those of us who rock, people see it and they know it, and they don’t quite know what it is you have. You’re not very pretty, you’re not very tall, but there’s something about you that draws me, and self-confidence is super attractive.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: L.K., it’s interesting to hear you speak about the poem, because while Maya Angelou has written the poem in the voice of a woman, you talk about humanity, all of humanity, everyone, you don’t focus just on the female having confidence or going into the world with her chin raised high. You’re talking about everybody. So, how did you move from a narrator of a poem who’s purely truly, absolutely woman, purely phenomenally, phenomenal woman, to everyone?
L.K. Silva: That’s a really great question. Because when she’s talking about things like, “Now you understand just why my head’s not bowed.” Everyone that has that feeling of comfortability in their skin, and I think that’s what our confidence is about, and the things that we’re looking at in our courses here, is being comfortable in your skin, whether your skin is black or brown or whatever your religious preferences or whatever your LGBTQ+, whatever that is, that comfortability in your own skin, this is what she’s talking about. And that applies to all of us, whatever it is. Do you walk with your head up? Do you have that bend of your hair and the palm of your hand and the grace of your style? I think that’s the most amazing thing, to be comfortable in your own skin, is the best gift you can give yourself.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, let me ask you something. Let’s say a male student takes a look at the syllabus for a class and he sees, “Oh, I have to read ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou.” What would you tell that student?
L.K. Silva: The first thing I would ask him is who are the phenomenal women in your life? I think that, especially young men, if they have any kind of connection with their mother, with their grandmother, with their sisters, with their partners, and have that conversation, what makes them phenomenal? How do you see them? How do you think the world sees them? I think we have to give them that, this isn’t about Maya Angelou, this isn’t just about women. This is about, again, that comfortability that I like who I am, and liking who you are is the first step to self-confidence, self-acceptance, badassery.
Because I think that so often in my courses, when you’ll ask something about, who do you admire? So many young men will put their mothers. And so, why? Is she a phenomenal woman? Well, yeah. Man, don’t you want to learn more about that? What makes her phenomenal, and how did her phenomenal womanness impact you in your life? Because phenomenal people impact other people. And that’s our job in the world.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: And phenomenal women birth phenomenal men and women.
L.K. Silva: Right. So it’s almost like by extension. And again, in our society, boys are raised to like themselves, they celebrate boyhood, and it’s fabulous that they do. I absolutely love it. And they will often be the first to say, again, the nod to my mom. Yeah, well, you’re phenomenal because she was phenomenal. So, it does touch everybody. I love it. I think that it speaks to so many different things that we’re dealing with today, especially after COVID.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Just where I wanted to bring you, because so often our students will walk into our classroom and say, “Oh, I don’t like poetry. I don’t know what they’re trying to say to me. I don’t get it.” And yet this poem speaks to what we’re seeing today in our contemporary society. And oftentimes poetry can speak to, or give a clue to, or cue us into what’s happening in our lives right now.
In the beginning, you started by talking about all the things that were changing when Maya Angelou wrote this particular poem, including, for instance, the laws that were changing and the way women were coming into the workplace, everything was happening. And now we start to see a retreat from that in a lot of ways. I’m wondering if you think that this poem has a key for us to understand what’s happening today. Can you see that anywhere in this poem?
L.K. Silva: Yeah. I think that, you’re right. It feels like we’ve taken three steps forward and potentially a couple of steps backward. I think one of the reasons that this always resonates with me is because it’s always relatable, because we’re still not where we need to be. And by we, I don’t mean just women. Everyone’s jockeying trying to find their place in this new world, because this is a new world that we’re in.
I spent my first 15 years teaching middle school and I spent most of my time with the girls, really working on what self-confidence was about, how you can take that and how that will help you evolve into a rock star. And we all need to feel like rock stars, because then collectively, we can make a difference, whatever that difference is, but we have to do it together. And that’s what I like about this. She’s not pointing fingers at anybody at all. Right? There’s no villain in this, which is brilliant.
You’re looking at me and you’re wondering these things and I’m telling you it’s because I know that I’m phenomenal. Isn’t that what we would wish for everybody to feel, and the things that we could accomplish as a collective society of beating hearts and emotions for people to feel that way? I think we have the opposite of that happening. That’s where this hits me, is how can we get people to feel like rock stars?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, are you suggesting that poetry might have an effect outside the classroom?
L.K. Silva: I was never a fan of poetry when I was in college. I hated it. It made me feel like the stupid pictures in the eighties where people would go, “Look, there’s another picture, and if you just relax your eyes.” I don’t know what the hell relaxing your eyes mean. I don’t know how to do that. I never saw the other picture. So, I realized that this dumb picture was making me feel dumb. I felt stupid because it felt like everybody else was getting it, but me.
So I started to lie and go, “Oh yeah, yeah, I see it.” That’s how poetry impacted me in college, because I felt like there was a secret to it, and that I was the only person in the room that didn’t know the secret. I didn’t have the key. I was always just on the fringes I didn’t understand, until somebody reminded me that poems are just lyrics to a song without the music. And I started to see it so much differently. I went, “Oh yeah, they are lyrics.” Because everybody loves music. I mean, I know of no one in my world that hates music.
So, for me, when I’m teaching poem and poetry, I just say, “Hey, but you love music.” “Yeah.” “Well, what’s your favorite song? Well, tell me about … Don’t you see that’s just a poem?” And they go, “Oh, I guess it is.” So, I think that, we have to find a way to get students to not feel like I felt staring at that stupid picture, but by the way, I never, ever saw.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: I hear you. I hear you on that one. I agree with you, of course, I think all literature, including poetry can offer something important to the way we live today. So, our last question here today is this: Right now we are being told that women are facing an existential crisis in our society. We have been told that there is a war on women, and this poem can contribute to our understanding of what that means. Right?
We can say, “Oh, there’s something in this poem that can help me figure out my place or my response to what I’m hearing.” And this means both men and women. I think you’re correct in saying that we need to understand this poem is written and in the voice of a woman, but applies to every human being. So, how can this contribute to our students understanding, both male and female, what is happening, this war on women in our society today?
L.K. Silva: Wow, that’s a really big, big question. I think that there would be some pushback on the idea of there’s war against women. I was a raving feminist in the seventies and did everything I could to get the ERA passed and actually very disappointed that we never brought it back up to affect that change. I watched the Billie Jean King piece and I don’t think back in that day, I felt like there was a war because that feels to me like there’s an us and they, or them and an us. The greatest issue with the feminist movement was the fact that we didn’t include men. We made them the villains and they’re not.
So, I think poetry like this is about, and the reason for me that I think it’s so important that we kick this series off with this is, it’s about being inclusive, it’s about opening your arms to everybody and saying, “We as a country, as a community, as a culture, as a society need to move forward, but we cannot do it if we feel like there’s a war. We cannot do it if it feels like we’re being attacked.” And maybe we are, and maybe we are gaining and losing and things are up and down when more women are CEOs, but we’re looking at losing rights everywhere. We have to grab everybody’s hand to move forward. It’s what we didn’t do in the seventies. We created that divide.
And I think that things like music, which again, like poetry, has the ability to unite us, and if you are raising your children, don’t you want your daughters to have that, I am a phenomenal little girl? Don’t you want your sons to have that, I am a phenomenon little boy? Because, again, the changes that we can affect when we are standing with our heads erect and not bowed are incalculable. So, I think that it’s absolutely imperative that we open our arms and say, “We’re going to make these changes, but we have to do it as a group, collectively, age, race, gender, sexual preference, religion. It has to be about inclusivity.”
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well said. Today, on The Everyday Scholar, we’ve been talking to author and English and creative writing professor for APU, L.K. Silva.
L.K. Silva: I had a great time, Jackie.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: I want to thank you all for participating and I want to thank our guest, L.K. Silva.