Music Feature

Peace Is A Poet Laureate: Sonia Sanchez Helms Philly's Poetry Scene

by ZP Heller
Sonia Sanchez delivers a message of peace to Philadelphia as our first Poet Laureate. Photos by Joshua Pelta-Heller
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On the night of May 13, 1985, renowned poet Sonia Sanchez had just arrived in rural Georgia to speak at a conference. When she turned on the TV in her hotel room, Philadelphia was burning. Mayor Wilson Goode had commanded Philly police to end their standoff with MOVE by dropping a bomb on the radical group’s West Philly headquarters, igniting a row-home fire that killed 11 people, including five children. Stunned, Sanchez called her children back home in Philly to discuss the atrocity’s significance. She hoped to prepare them for the inevitable discussion at school. But outrage over the MOVE tragedy wasn’t limited to Philadelphia. 

After Sanchez’s speech the next morning, the first question from the audience was, “What kind of people live in Philadelphia, who would drop a bomb on a civilian population?” Sanchez explained she couldn’t speak for Mayor Goode, nor the police or fire departments that allowed over 60 homes to burn. 

“But I can speak for the citizens of Philadelphia,” she said, “and they are surprised and shocked and horrified because the citizens of Philadelphia would not have done something to that effect.” Sanchez found herself defending Philadelphians repeatedly as she traveled that summer helping others understand the vast disparities between this city’s populace and its officials. Perhaps that’s what Mayor Michael Nutter meant when he referred to Sanchez as the city’s longtime conscience, as he appointed her the first Poet Laureate of Philadelphia last month.

“I see anyone being poet laureate, or who practices poetry regularly, as a natural extension of whatever they’re into,” Sanchez told me on a recent winter afternoon, as we sat in the cozy living room of her Germantown home while classical music wafted from upstairs. Lining her walls were paintings inscribed to Sanchez by Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett—artists who, like Sanchez, devoted their careers to depicting the struggles and celebrating the lives of African Americans. These museum-caliber pieces complemented tabletops filled with poetry awards, African artwork and books on Tupac Shakur, Paul Robeson, African American writers, the art of Benin, and Philadelphia murals. “What this is truly about,” Sanchez added, “is that people who have been writing for years and years and years who tried to maintain some sense of lucidity, some sense of balance, some sense of poetic justice, some sense of social, racial, and economic justice—all that we have been doing in our poetry since we started in the ‘60s.”

At the age of 77, Sanchez is just as dedicated now to advocating peace and understanding as she was during the civil rights era and the feminist movement. She is just as committed to education as she was when she first began teaching at universities like Temple 40 years ago. And after a prolific career writing 19 books of poetry and prose, she is more into the art of storytelling than ever.

In the course of an hour, Sanchez regaled me with her anecdotal past and present. She recalled watching The Roots grow, from their earliest South Street performances to meeting with them on the set of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where she’s proud to see them earning “regular bread” that enables them to create new music. She also remembered being mentored by novelist and activist Kay Boyle, who “crossed the Alps with a baby on her back to deliver messages against the Germans for the Resistance—now that’s feminism on a level you could not understand!” Sanchez reflected on hanging out with Dave Chapelle, whom she considers the second coming of Richard Pryor and whose short-lived television show she watches after book tours for comic therapy. And she credited her children with helping her discover the importance of hip hop as a poetic form, leading her to regard artists like The Roots, Talib Kweli, Yasiin aka Mos Def, Rakim, and Ursula Rucker as young poets who “are extensions of all of us.” These stories flowed like the dark dreaded ringlets framing Sanchez’s cherubic face.

When the late Czech President Vaclav Havel received the Philadelphia Liberty Medal outside Independence Hall in 1994, Mayor Ed Rendell asked Sanchez to compose a poem in Havel’s honor. Sanchez said that as she finished reading, Havel kissed her on both cheeks and said to her, “I don’t have to say anything now; you’ve said everything.” To which Sanchez replied, “There’s never enough to be said about democracy and justice, my brother.”

Sanchez sees herself following in the tradition of noted poet laureates Gwendolyn Brooks in Illinois, Lucille Clifton in Maryland, and her friend and longtime colleague, Amiri Baraka in New Jersey. “The great thing about Sister Gwen,” Sanchez said of Brooks, “was that she invited people to read down in D.C. who had never read in the Smithsonian [area] . . . she was trying to breathe a different kind of life, a different kind of poetry into that city.” And though Baraka came under fire for his highly controversial poetry after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he still believes the artist’s mission is “to raise the consciousness of the community.” The question remains, however, whether Sanchez will be able to continue expressing herself freely, now that she must work in conjunction with the local government that appointed her to this prestigious post. Baraka told me via email, “[Sonia] will hopefully use this to widen the reach of her opinions.”

 Of course, Sanchez viewed her role more staunchly. “The point of being poet laureate, my dear brother, is not to defend a city, state or country,” she explained. “The point is to write the truth. And sometimes in writing the truth you will defend your city, you will defend people, but you hopefully will bring a different way of looking at the world—the way poets and artists have a tendency of looking at the world.” Such a perspective can be seen in her first major endeavor as laureate: a wide-reaching multimedia project called Peace Is a Haiku Song

Collaborating with Philly’s Mural Arts Program and First Person Arts, Sanchez is encouraging the general public to submit their haikus on peace via Twitter or the Peace Is a Haiku Song website. The project kicked off last November with the First Person Arts Festival where Sanchez read a haiku from her new book, morning haiku. It will culminate this summer with the completion of a peace mural in South Philly, incorporating some of the haikus submitted, as well as poems Sanchez has collected from legendary authors Tony Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker. In true Sanchez style, the mural will extend beyond its physical limitations to incorporate a peace walk and smaller murals that capture the viewer’s attention and facilitate personal reflection as you approach. 

Sanchez has also been leading workshops with students around the city, drawing them into this project and discussing the importance of poetry as an expressive form. In fact, one of the reasons that Siobhan Reardon, President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, told me that Sanchez was a natural choice during the poet laureate selection process is because of her tireless commitment to “engaging teens to think of who they are and what they are through poetry and the arts.” 

For Sanchez, haiku in particular holds so much appeal as a poetic form because it “has no greed. It has only the essence of life: a flower, a sunset, a sunrise, a mother pulling a child because she’s running late. Breath is about life, and so a haiku is also about life. There is no death in a haiku, only an appreciation of life.” Someone once told her there is no money for peace, to which she replied, “The moment you can make peace profitable, there’s no problem with peace. So we need to get young people to find ways to make peace profitable.” She hopes the mural will compel a city plagued with violence to consider peace more profoundly, and transform our city into a beacon for the rest of the country. Or, as she wrote in her haiku dedicated to Philadelphia murals:

even in the

rain, these murals

pause with rainbows.

Sanchez once spoke at the African Meeting House in Boston, which was the First African Baptist Church where Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and other abolitionists railed against slavery. As she climbed the steep podium steps, she felt as if she were sailing. “If I had had vertigo then, I would have been sailing probably at that point,” she laughed. “But when you stood there, you heard [Frederick] Douglass saying, ‘Steady, steady, Professor Sanchez, it’s okay. It’s continuing. This is what happens. The message comes.’” She heard Douglass’ voice when she spoke throughout that fateful summer following the MOVE bombing. And she carries Douglass with her now, using her new poetic post to amplify her message of peace.    

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