For the poet Sonia Sanchez – at 87 – there is still work to be done

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Maya Angelou once called the poet Sonia Sanchez “a lion in the forest of literature. When she writes, she roars and when she sleeps, other creatures tread cautiously.”

For more than 60 years, Sanchez has helped redefine the landscape of American politics and literature. A leading figure in the black arts movement of the 1960s and one of the first people to set up a black studies program at an American university, Sanchez’s life and work established her as one of the greatest of American poetry.

Last month, she won the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, a $ 250,000 lifetime achievement award given to “a highly accomplished artist of any discipline who has pushed the boundaries of an art form, contributed to social change and paved the way for the next generation. . ”

Combining black slang, traditional forms and jazz music on stage

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Sanchez wrote her very first poem around the age of five, and she still continues. This spring she published Her Collected Poems, a book that spans four decades of work.

Sanchez draws deeply on black oral traditions, skillfully blending blues bars with traditional Japanese forms like haiku and tanka. She is known to bring jazz musicians, drummers and other musical guests on stage to help and uplift her performances.

Poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose father was also part of the black arts movement, was a teenager when she saw Sanchez read for the first time.

“At the time, I don’t think I noticed she was a very short woman,” says Jeffers. “Because she had such a huge presence.”

Indeed, Sanchez is never more powerful than when she is on stage reading her work aloud. In 2002, she was one of the first guests to perform on HBO’s oral poetry series. Def poetry jam. Show creator Danny Simmons, who is a friend of Sanchez’s, says she’s part of why the show even exists.

He remembers getting Sanchez to read for a director he hoped to work on the show, and his poem made the man cry. “I mean he literally sat there and cried,” Simmons says. “And he said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to make it.'”

Raising black voices through art – then education

Simmons says speaking and its power to create change are at the heart of Sanchez’s work. This is evident in his involvement in the Black Arts movement: Inspired by Malcolm X, Sanchez and his contemporaries – other legendary writers like Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, and Amiri Baraka – worked vigorously to raise black voices through art. . And when they spoke, Sanchez says, “people were jumping, I mean literally jumping and kicking their feet.”

She even introduced the movement to the world of education by creating one of the country’s first black studies programs. “I remember telling my dad, I’m going to go to a place called San Francisco to start something called Black Studies,” she says. “And he said, whoah, Sonia, you don’t wanna do that.”

Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, once called Sanchez – and successfully – to come and speak when she graduated from high school. She says Black Studies is one of the few academic fields that has a direct connection with the poor and the working class from the start.

“[Sanchez talks] about her childhood in Birmingham and the local celebrations of black culture as a child, ”says Perry. “Thus, even before getting involved in the formal institutionalization of black studies, she [brought with her] the work teachers have done in the Deep South. ”

Influencing a generation of young poets

Part of Sanchez’s power comes from standing up for her people – and the fact that she paved the way for the poets who followed her. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, who now has five poetry books and a novel, says she learned to lean on her power through Sanchez.

“I remember how Miss Sonia closed her eyes sometimes when she read,” said Jeffers, thinking about one of her first readings in front of a large crowd. “And so I closed my eyes and felt something enter me. And when I opened my eyes, I was no longer afraid.”

Like Jeffers, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts was also guided by Sanchez’s voice. He was imprisoned when he first read his work. Now a 2021 Macarthur scholar and author of three books, he says the first book of poetry he bought with his own money was Sanchez’s 1987 collection. Under a soprano sky.

“I’ve been in dark places where his poems have brought me to light. And it’s pretty cool to see the world catch up,” says Betts. “But the truth is that the Gish prize or not Under a soprano sky.

This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer and adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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