The acclaimed poet talks about haiku, the Black Arts Movement and her proudest accomplishment.
Sonia Sanchez is one of Philadelphia’s greatest treasures. Currently a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Temple University, she’s writer who is as profound as she is prolific. Sanchez has unlocked minds and ignited revolutions by organizing millions of words into poems, plays, speeches and more than 16 books.
Though Sanchez has contributed so much to American writing, her body of work is an ocean created from raindrops; each word is carefully chosen then planted in a space—a speech, a play, a poem—where it grows in nuanced, unexpected ways.
This is why Sanchez is at her finest in Morning Haiku, her latest collection of poems and the first in over a decade. Through the collection, Sanchez gives thanks, praise and meditation to black artists who’ve “made the transition,” as she says, from dust to dust.
From jazz percussionist Max Roach (“your sounds exploding / in the universe return / to earth in prayer”) to Emmitt Till (“footprints blooming / in the night remember / your blood”) to household names like Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Odetta, Sanchez celebrates black artists and thinkers with deceptively small poems that bloom with Sanchez’s obvious devotion to the subject and the craft.
PW sat down with her in her home one rainy afternoon in January and discovered that she knows exactly what she wants to say, choosing her words in rapid-fire, fluid succession. And as Sanchez sees history beginning to repeat itself—she says education in America reverting back to something for elites only, for example—she wants young people to learn about the past so we can navigate our way out of silence, poverty and blind acceptance of cruelty.
Sanchez sees haiku as a torch that can blaze this path because it demands the writer and reader find a discipline of awareness.
“What I’m attempting to do at this time … is teaching young people to be mindful of the poem that they write, to be mindful of the steps they take, to be mindful of their eyes and what they see and take in, and to be mindful of what they say. If we are mindful of that, then we will keep us alive. The haiku makes us mindful,” she says.
PW: We’re talking because PW is putting together a cover story that celebrates black artists. Having been a part of the original Black Arts Movement, do you think the term “black arts” is still relevant?
SS: “There’s no post-black anything. One talks about the arts scene in Philadelphia, period, and you have to look up at many of the black artists who have been working here in Philadelphia for a very long time and that would include the poets, novelists, dancers and singers. It’s a very rich arts scene here in Philadelphia and I think that’s the most important thing.
I moved here in 1976, so I have been here—believe it or not—34 years and all of that time has been as a professor and artist. I stay alive by teaching; I stay alive spiritually by writing. I has been my joy to have taught many of the artists who are now writing here. That includes Ursula Rucker. I’ve mentored Jill Scott and Lamont Steptoe, when I taught at University of Pennsylvania,”
PW: Are you still workshopping?
SS: “Occasionally. Sometimes I do one a month, sometimes a week.
One of the forms I’ve taught consistently is the haiku form.
The haiku makes us mindful. If we write a haiku about a sunset, it means we are mindful about that sunset and we pay attention to it, and we take in the beauty, and that beauty translates into our souls and our bodies. That’s why I decided to do this collection of haiku, to make young people become mindful that it is not just the scream that is important, it is also the opposite the of the scream, the quiet.
The haiku makes you step away to look at the day again. It is the intersection of the day and the night. It is to remind people that we are not only extraordinary, but we are ordinary too. If you stay thinking that you’re extraordinary 24 hours a day, you’re in trouble. And sometimes, young people think that. They move toward that. It is that balance that the haiku brings to our lives, with what our eyes really do see and what our mouths also speak.”
PW: That makes sense because of the content and the themes of most haiku, and the discipline required for the structure. Is that another reason you teach haiku first?
SS: “When we first encountered the haiku in this place called America, we were taught 5-7-5—those so-called 17 syllables—because you couldn’t count the sound. The most important thing in the haiku is the sound, and you couldn’t count the sound, so we came as close to the sound as we could by saying 17 syllables.
When you engage yourself more and more with people who involve themselves with haiku what is really important is that your haiku should be as long as it takes for you to recite it: your breath.
Your breath might be longer than other people’s breath. But I’m talking about your breath. So I would say let me wear the day well so when it reaches you, you will enjoy it. One breath. And then you breathe again, and that one breath maintains your life. For the time you are reciting that haiku, you are very much alive. Period.
On the following pages, you’ll find five profiles of local black artists changing the way Philly folks experience art. Each one is trying to impact local arts in a different way. The future of black arts in Philly starts here.
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