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.

“On the first night of class, she asked if anyone had a poem to read or share. All of us pulled out a poem from a purse, from a briefcase, from a pocket, from someplace. She called on me first. I read the poem and all the hands went up with a commentary on what I had said. Louise Bogan commented on it too.

“I stayed and studied and learned a great deal about form. She always made us read out loud so we could train the ear to know what’s working and what is not working,” Sanchez said.

After the workshop was over, the students began meeting once a week on Charles Street in Manhattan’s West Village.

“We continued that discipline that Louise Bogan had started with us. Every week, whether you read your poem or not, you had to write a poem. What that did was give us the discipline of writing. Not waiting, as Miss Bogan would say in that class, ‘If you wait for the muse to drop on your shoulder, you’ll never write a poem.’”

Meeting the Haiku

“I went into the 8th Street bookstore and saw a book with a beautiful white flower on it. I pulled it down and I opened the book and started to read the haiku in there, and I slid down on the floor and started to cry because I discovered the beauty of myself in that haiku.

“It was introduced to America as syllabic verse, that you would do five-seven-five. But that was the style of the Japanese haiku. We approximated the sound of the Japanese haiku. You don’t have to hold to five-seven-five or 17 syllables. What you do have to hold onto is that the middle line is a little longer, and the first and third lines are short. You do have to talk about a significant moment. You talk about that split second that you find very profound feelings that are going on.

“As modern-day haiku writers, it’s not just important to learn a form, it is important also to transform the form. Transformation is always inevitable when we bring the haiku from one culture to the other. So we’re bringing it from a culture in Asia to this American culture, and with me, especially, to this African-American culture.

“There are also haiku that are two-line. We can write a haiku about the sale of gasoline in the city as opposed to flowers, and it’s still haiku. We are certainly changing it and maintaining it, keeping the beauty of it, saying simply at some point as Basho, the great haiku writer, said, ‘You don’t follow in the footsteps of those who came before, but you do seek what they sought,’” said Sanchez.

The Writing Process

“The writing has been going on all along. You note something, writing it down in the little pads you carry around. Later on, you note something else and put it down. You might pick up a book and underline something,” she said. “A piece doesn’t necessarily begin with a blank page. You bring the residual information that you’ve picked up along the way, from benches, from being on a bus and seeing someone walking toward you, being on a subway and looking up and seeing something beautiful, something horrific, something that reminds you of something and you write down the lines.

“It is always the poems and lines always running through your bloodstream. And all you have to do sometimes is all of a sudden open the pores for them to pour out.”

In “Morning Haiku,” Sanchez pays homage to the images of children painted on murals in her Philadelphia hometown. Here’s are four stanzas from “10 haiku (for Philadelphia Murals)”:

  1. Philadelphia roots lighting these walls with fireflies
  2. Flowers stretched in prayer on a cornerstone wall
  3. Brown-skinned children dancing with butterflies
  4. These children’s faces humiliate the stars

Activities: Sonia Sanchez offers this week’s activities

  • “If you want to write poetry, you have to read poetry. Read it out loud. Begin to train the ear on how that poem sounds, the rhythm of that poem. How you practice reading it will also influence how you write your own poetry. Read all the poetry you can and keep a little notebook with you so that when you see something, you can write it down.
  • “Always just write. Later on, the easiest thing to do is cross out excess words. You will hear that by reading what you’ve done, just letting it all pour out on paper. Reading it out loud, your ear will tell you that you don’t need all those extra words. Listen to the musicality of it, the beauty of it, the on-time-ness of it, the language of it. Listening will help you learn how to say something, and learn how to say it well.”
  • Visit your school or local library and read the acclaimed work of Sanchez, including “Morning Haiku,” and visit Sanchez online at www.soniasanchez.net.
  • Try writing your own haiku each week. Read your haiku aloud to your classmates.

This Week in Black History

  • April 16, 1862: Slavery is abolished in the District of Columbia.
  • April 19, 1960: Maj. Gen. Frederic E. Davidson commands the Eighth Infantry Division in Germany, becoming the first Black to lead an army division.
  • April 20, 1971: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that bussing is an acceptable means of integrating public schools.