At yesterday's Washington Post Book and Author Luncheon, they served the main course first.

Poet/author Maya Angelou gave a dramatic, powerful speech, blending poetry, bursts of song and body language, delivered with a rich, warm voice. "I am a poet-autobiographer, or I'm attempting to be one," she told the audience of about 700 at the Sheraton Washington. "It is not a condition that is arrived at and then you relax."

Describing her book "The Heart of a Woman" Angelou said, "I tried to remember the '60s, when there was a promise in the air. It was like that," she said, with a sharp intake of breath, "any minute we would arrive at a condition of fair play and justice. But I had to write this book in a time full of cynicism."

She concluded with a stirring poem she wrote in 1978, "And Still I Rise": Out of the huts of history's shame/I rise/Up from a past that's rooted in pain/I rise/I'm a black ocean/Rolling and wide/Welling and swelling/I bear in the tide.

Angelou was introduced by Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, as "a new friend of mine. She started writing her autobiography four volumes ago, with a book called 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.' " Also featured at the luncheon were Sir Rudolf Bing, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and author of "A Knight at the Opera," and Joseph A. Califano Jr., former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and author of "Governing America."

"I really don't know what to say," an obviously uneasy Bing told the audience quietly, "except that I am here to sell my book. It is my second book -- I wrote the first about 10 years ago, and I can't think what made me write a second one."

Bing, both of whose books are memories of the Met from a 22-year career, said, "I must confess that I miss the opera, the excitement, continual struggle, the pile of problems every morning -- canceling tenors, sick sopranos and all." Of his "great dear friend and enemy," Maria Callas, Bing said, "We had the most wild fights, but in the end, her artistry triumphed over all the rest."

Califano, introduced as "a man truly in tune with the past . . . who wrote and produced legislation that cost more money than anyone in the history of White House aides," noted the successes and failures of his tenure at HEW and commented, "Today, too many of our leaders don't try because the task is too difficult, or impossible, or they won't risk the embarrassment or humiliation of public defeat.

"Of course," Califano said, "part of why I'm here is to get you interested in my book," which is an inside view of the Carter administration. "But I'd be a lot happier and it is a lot more important," he concluded, "if you get involved in the fray, get interested in social justice." And with that, the crowds rolled in, clutching copies of soon-to-be-signed books, newly purchased at a 20 percent discount at the bookstand at the door.