AmNews in the Classroom: The powerful pen of Sonia Sanchez

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 4/23/2012, 3:44 p.m.

We continue to celebrate National Poetry Month with a look at the work of writer, poet, playwright and activist Sonia Sanchez, a living master of poetic verse. I suggest you read it out loud.

Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham Ala., on Sept. 9, 1934. Her mother died when she was very young and Sanchez went to live with her grandmother. By age 4, she was reading and writing. Soon thereafter, she was writing her own little verses. By the time she came to Harlem in 1943, she already had a knack for poetry.

Sanchez received a bachelor's degree in political science from Hunter College in 1955 and completed her post-graduate work at New York University. She became one of America's most important poets with more than 20 books and is a leading voice in the Black Arts Movement. She held the Laura Carnell Chair in English at Temple University and has received the most prestigious honors of her craft, including the Lucretia Mott Award (1984), American Book Award (1985), Pew Fellowship (1992-1993), Langston Hughes Poetry Award (1999) and Robert Frost Medal (2001), among others.

Last year, Sanchez was named the first Poet Laureate of her hometown of Philadelphia, Pa., with Mayor Michael Nutter calling her "the longtime conscious of the city."

Sanchez spoke with the AmNews about her journey through verse and her special love affair with the haiku.

"I do believe that people are born with a good knack for math, a good knack for science or a knack for music," said Sanchez. "I believe that people are also born with that love of words and a knack for putting words down on paper.

"My aunts, who lived in my grandmother's house, taught me to read when I was 4. When I went school, I was a reader. After my grandmother died, I continued to write. It was my salvation. But then we moved to a place called New York City. I was able to keep it a 'secret.' I understand now that my salvation was being able to pick up pencil and paper and to write the things I was thinking about," she said.

It was a secret salvation, as Sanchez was not quick to share her work, but the secret was about to come out.

As part of a school assignment, Sanchez wrote a poem about Washington crossing the Delaware River. Before she could put her paper away, she was called to the kitchen for a bad dishwashing job. As she rewashed the dishes, her sister found the poem on her bed, brought it downstairs and began to read it out loud.

"I was so embarrassed, I grabbed it with my soapy hands and went into the bedroom, slammed the door and hid the poem. I did not share what I was doing readily with anyone," she said.

During her days at Hunter College, she attended poetry workshops, but as the only Black and the only woman, she found audiences indifferent to her work. She signed up for a poetry class at New York University that was being taught by the poet Louise Bogan.