Behind the Mind of City's First Poet Laureate
by kristin detterline-munro
Philly’s poet laureate, Sonia Sanchez, at home with a few favorite books
Poet, author, and activist Sonia Sanchez believes that by telling her story about the African-American experience, she has found a way to tell all of our stories. "You don't just find yourself while discovering your identity," she says, "you find others, too." Stories, in the form of hard- and soft-cover books, line the walls and dot the stairs of Sanchez's three-story Germantown home, where, in between a busy schedule of poetry readings, speaking engagements, and elementary-school workshops, she unwinds with the words of a favorite author. "Right now I'm re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston," she says. Sanchez, who was chair of Temple University's women's studies program and the Laura Carnell chair in English for more than two decades until her retirement in 1999, was an advocate of the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the black arts movement. She also established the first courses about black women in literature and history, in the late '60s, at the University of Pittsburgh.
Sanchez has always had a passion for poetry, particularly works from early-20th-century writers like Langston Hughes, Phyllis Weather, and Gwendolyn Brooks. It's not enough that she reads; Sanchez quotes writers with a soulful ease. She recites civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, essayist James Baldwin, and novelist Carlos Fuentes, all of whom share her message of world peace. It's an idea that is the foundation of Sanchez's Peace is a Haiku Song, a multimedia collaboration with the Mural Arts Program and First Person Arts—and the writer's first order of business as the city's inaugural poet laureate. Philadelphians are invited to share their personal messages of peace through haiku, which will serve as inspiration for public art installations on buses, subways, and sidewalks throughout the city.
Sanchez has already rallied fellow authors and friends Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou, and musicians like Common, Odean Pope, and Christian McBride to put their pens to paper for the project. But Sanchez insists the people reading these poems are even more important than those who are writing them. "Children will look up and see these messages of peace as they move throughout their day," she says. "These aren't just strangers looking at us—they are our children. We have got to keep talking about [this idea of peace] and demand that people look and listen."
Peace is a Haiku Song will culminate this fall with a mural honoring Sanchez. Other cities have already expressed interest in bringing similar programs to their communities. It is all part of the author's mission to make the world a better place through poetry. "I refuse to sit back and wait," says Sanchez. "As Gandhi once said, 'There is no way to peace; peace is the way.'"
photography by shane walsh