Accomplished Philadelphia poet and Temple Presidential Fellow Sonia Sanchez took office Dec. 29.
When asked how she felt about her recent appointment as Philadelphia’s first poet laureate, Sonia Sanchez cited the names of various authors and artists who have comprised the city’s past and present artistic circles as evidence of the importance of her new role.
“It goes all the way back–to Poe, to Coltrane–we’ve had great writers, poets, musicians, artists who have lived here and continue to live here,” Sanchez said. “It’s an amazing city of artists, so it’s only logical to have a poet laureate who will bring all these artists together.”
Mayor Michael Nutter swore in Sanchez, 77, to her new position at a ceremony on Dec. 29 at City Hall.
An accomplished and established poet herself, she can add the city’s title to a distinguished and seemingly innumerable list of honors and awards. The Lucretia Mott Award, a 1992 Pew Fellowship for the Arts, a National Endowment for the Arts, a Langston Hughes Poetry Award–among her many other distinctions, seem to suggest that Sanchez informally earned the laureate title years ago.
While pursuing her graduate degree at New York University, in a poetry class with the notable American poet Louise Bogan, Sanchez said she had her first poem published and was encouraged to take a more disciplined approach to a writing career.
“I wanted to know if my love affair with language, with words and poems was worth continuing,” Sanchez said. “And [Bogan] said, ‘yes, but what are you going to do about it?’”
Sanchez published her first collection of poetry, “Homecoming,” in 1969. Fifteen books and several plays later, her words and worldwide appearances as a lecturer have her slated as an advocate for women’s rights and racial justice and a prominent figure in what is now known as the Black Arts movement.
Currently, among the stories of Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and 16 other African-American women, Sanchez is featured in “Freedom Sisters”–a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition that highlights those who have fought for racial equality.
“We need very much to hear what people are thinking, what people need to say, need to hear,” Sanchez said. “This is what many of us have been doing, many writers of my generation and others. We have got to produce work that will keep people alive–we who have these words–we who know the importance of writing.”
To exemplify her “mission” as a writer, Sanchez quoted the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: “We only hurt others who are incapable of imaging themselves. Cruelty is caused by a failure of the imagination. The inability to assign the same feelings and values to another person that you harbor in yourself.”
“That’s what it’s been about,” Sanchez said. “To make people understand that we all have the same feelings and values and we’re not different, we’re all the same. The difference might be in the hair color, the lip color, but we all have the same color blood flowing inside us. We all have the same passions other humans harbor too.”
After moving to Philadelphia in 1976, Sanchez began a 22-year career at Temple as an English professor, where she taught both undergraduate and graduate courses. In 1977, she received the Laura Carnell Chair in English, and became the university’s first Presidential Fellow. She said while teaching she witnessed the university’s expansion, as well as the addition of a black studies program.
“It was an exciting place to teach, with professors from all over the country and [I thought] this is the legacy that’s important for me to be a part of,” Sanchez said.
The inception of the city’s poet laureate position occurred early last year.
In May, Mayor Nutter announced the position and assigned Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer of the Mayor’s Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy, the task of selecting the city’s first laureate and detailing the corresponding duties.
Steuer’s decision was aided by a panel of several others, including Philadelphia-based authors and representatives from the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and the Free Library, among other literary institutions.
One of Sanchez’s first projects is the creation of a “peace mural,” location to be determined, through a partnership with the Mural Arts Project.
“I want to promote art and peace at the same time,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got to move this city from a city of violence to a city of peace, and children who walk on sidewalks of peace.”
Sanchez has asked children from local schools to write haikus about peace that will fill the mural, in addition to the words of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Sanchez said she and Mural Arts plan to collaborate with the First Person Arts Festival to create a multimedia display to accompany the mural.
“People turn to poems for some kind of illumination, for revelations and for hope for us to survive in spirit, not only in body,” Sanchez said. “That’s what poets do–the poems will illuminate what we feel, but don’t always know we feel it until it’s articulated.”
Ultimately, Sanchez said she aims to act as a voice for the city and to elevate the voices of its other artists, authors and residents.
“Any city you live in inspires you. I try to be the conscience of every city I live in,” Sanchez said. “I try to write about its beauty and all the good that happens here.”
“I’ve celebrated this city and said we are a great city and we can be greater,” Sanchez added. “I want to talk about how we’ve moved the city to greater heights, and I’ll be doing that with a lot of great poets, musicians, painters and people who care about the city I love.”
Kara Savidge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.