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Poet & Pew Fellow Sonia Sanchez Discusses Her Creative Life & Legacy with Major Jackson [Full Interview]

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I'm enormously excited by this opportunity. I've long wanted to have a formal conversation with you, mainly because of your impact on my life. But also, you've impacted so many writers both here in Philadelphia and beyond.

I'm going to send you all bills, right?

That's right. Send the invoice.

I told you, didn't I, that I was someplace, and about 10 of my former students were there. When you teach 40 years, you know what that's about. And I said, you know, I was thinking that perhaps, I should send you all an SRF form. And they said, what is that? Sanchez retirement fund-- a dollar a week. After teaching 40 years, a dollar a week?

Well, some of us owe you more than that.

But a dollar a week accumulates.

That's right. That's right. That's right.


Well, I think those of us who fell under your sway very much had to do with your relationship to your practice as a poet, but also someone who never drew the line between one's practice, artists, and one's life, whether that was as a mother or as an activist. And I'm curious how you evolved how you understand your evolution as a poet, but also as someone who is a vital member of their community. And that community is Philadelphia and the world.

Hmm. Well, I started to write poetry as a little girl. And it happened-- my mom died when I was about one and a half or two. There's always-- people say, no, it was one, no, it was two-- but giving birth to twins. And some years later, I gave birth to twins. It was supposed to pass me by. It's supposed to skip you-- every other.

And so what I did is that my grandmother came, and picked me and my sister up. And she took us to her house. Wonderful woman, a beautiful woman-- she allowed me just to be. I had a sister, you see, my dear brother, who was beautiful. That is the worst thing you could have on the planet earth-- a beautiful sister.

I mean, she walked into a room-- I'm serious-- and people just stopped. The men said, OK, Miss Pat, Miss Patricia, Miss Anita, here's a chair. I walked in. They said, hi, Miss Sanchez. How are you doing? Or I saw you on television. But it was none of that, at all. So as a little girl, my sister got dressed to go outside, and she came back in the same way she went out-- no dirt, no nothing. Just spotless-- whatever. I came back with braids undone, dresses torn, socks down, scraped leg, whatever.

And my grandmother was the person who saved me from the cousins who lived in the house-- we called them aunties, because they were older-- who would cluck their tongues, and said, this girl just ain't going to grow up to be a lady, which was really very good. And as the consequence of that, she really did protect me.

But I also started to teach myself how to read. And finally, mama said, teach Sonia how to read. She's always bothering me about reading. But with reading came also writing. They gave me little pads, because I wanted to write down words. And I started to do these little ditties-- dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun-- whatever. And of course, mama would say, oh, this girl writes poetry. She writes poems-- whatever. And everyone would uh-huh. But that's what I did.

And close to when my grandmother died-- I think I was about six, and my sister was about nine-- and that was real trauma, there in a place called Birmingham, Alabama. But I continued to write. And my reputation-- as we went to these various families to live, they would say, oh, Patricia, oh. And they would all say, Patricia-- whatever, right? And then they would say, Sonia's a quiet one-- too quiet. Give her a book and she'll be OK. And that was true.

And in that book of haiku that I read from, I had written a poem to my sister about being beautiful. And I said, unless you have protection in the family, being beautiful is dangerous for a little girl, or even for a little boy, because people want to touch you all the time. And so I wrote that poem, but I never published it until after she died.

So that whole process of writing very young-- and I was a reader. You gave me a book-- what saved me, with the various places we went, is that I was a stutterer. I began a distinct stutter after mama died. And so I would go to a house, and they'd say, oh, quiet one. She goes, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, and everyone laughed. But it also meant they didn't bother me. I could go off in a corner someplace and just sit and read.

So you were able to develop this interior life.

Oh, it was a real, real interior life. And I was a daydreamer. I maintain that to be a really good poet, you have got to daydream. You've got to see yourself. I saw myself always onstage. Now, that's interesting as a stutterer. But I saw myself onstage doing poetry, whatever, which I would never, as a very shy person, have done.

And the first time I got on stage, fast forwarding, came from a man by the name of Larry Neal and LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, living in a place called New York City, beginning the Black Arts Movement. They had invited me to read. And I said, reluctantly, OK. Because, you see, I always heard my stutters. At some point, the stutters had dissipated, but I still heard the stutters. To this day, I hear stutters. But the point is that I know I have control over the stutters. I say, get back.

I love this story that I heard about your jumping out of a window as a kid.

Oh, that was at mama. That was at mama. Outside, I ran with the boys. My sister was with the girls, and they were always in these dainty little dresses-- you know the little Pinafore dresses, the little shoes. And they were outside looking around, whatever-- I don't know what they did. I guess they jumped rope, or they played jacks. But I ran outside, and the boys said, let's go. And we climbed trees, we jumped over-- we came down big hills on these tricycles. Really dangerous kinds of stuff-- whatever.

But we were outside, and someone said, I'm the leader. And so they started to fight, these guys. And I said, I know. Let's do something special. And the one who does it will be the leader. OK? So we ran into the house, went up to the second floor. And I'm standing there. Well, right by the bed was this window, right? And I said, I know. The person who jumps out the window and gets up will be the leader.

Well, these guys looked at me like I was insane. But what I had done is that right by that window was a tree. And I figured, if I jump, I'll hit the tree, slide down the tree, and I'll be OK. So I got up in the window. And as I got up in the window, they went running for mama and the rest of the family. And I jump. But I jump too hard, and I hit it hard. And I came down with a plop and bruised my knees, right?

And mama comes out of the kitchen. And of course, my aunts come out clucking their tongue, [CLUCKING TONGUE], look at her. And mama said, are you OK, Sonia? And she said, I'm going to have to wipe these knees. And she said, Louise, go get some mercurochrome-- I think they used then. They washed my knees, all put it on. And I turned around and said to these guys, OK, I'm the leader. And I led them on an expedition at that point.

But the next day, I came out to play, my dear brother, and this is what's so wonderful about children. No one said, you're still the leader. We just came out and played.


But from that moment, from that jump, I was a leader. And that's so true.

I love it as an allegory to talking about upending patriarchy by jumping out of a window. That's what you have to do.

They went to get mama to tell her that I was jumping out a window. But mama-- the thing that was so amazing about being in a house of women is that mama wasn't upset. The aunts were upset. Mama said, you OK, girl? Get some soap and water. Get some mercurochrome. I remember, always mercurochrome on my knees, right? My legs, right? And then, she said, you want to go play? I said, I'm the leader. Vroom-- we were gone. That was an amazing moment in my herstory at that particular point.

Yeah. I so enjoyed reading that story. I also am thinking about when you arrived in New York after Mama Dixon dies, and you go to live in New York with your father. You go to Hunter College, and--

For free.

For free.

Yeah, $100 a semester-- can you imagine?


But city colleges were free in those days. And it was free for those students who had a certain grade average coming out of high school. So I was accepted in City College and in Hunter College. City College-- you had to buy books. But we could not afford books, right? And City College was a walk from my house, where we lived. Hunter College was on 68th Street in Park Avenue, my dear brother. You had to take a bus all the way downtown. But the books were free. So I went to a place called Hunter College.

I think about Hunter in relation to Schomburg, in relation to the bookstore up in Harlem where you-- what we don't realize sometimes-- and I count you among my spirited living ancestors who cultivate voices. There was a moment in one of your poems, the July 4, 1994 poem to President Václav Havel, where you say, come out.


These were individuals that ushered your voice. And I'm wondering about those individuals who you would attribute to--

This president gets the medal that they give here. I don't know--

Presidential Medal.

--what medal here in Philadelphia. And Rendell was mayor. And Rendell-- people around him asked me, would I do a poem for him? And I worked on that poem for weeks, whatever, because he's the president of-- and when I finished reading the poem, an interesting thing happened. One of the-- I won't mention who it was-- one of the clergy sitting next to me just talked to me the whole time. When I finished that poem, he turned away, because I mentioned gays--

That's right. Yeah.

--in there, you see? But he literally turned away from me. But the brother got up, the president got up and said, I don't have to say anything now. Professor Sanchez has said everything. It was such a wonderful-- and I sent my poem to him. I got the address. I don't know if that was his wife, but the person he was traveling with got the address. I sent the poem, and got a thank you note from him, also, too. Because it was important how I had written the poem, but it was not legible up there. You know how we do. Just like when--

So you had to get it typed up.

Right. I had a little arrow going here, and a little arrow going there. It's like when Ozzie died, and I came off the-- and Ruby was still alive at the time, Ruby Dee. And she said-- I went over to hug the family, and she said, give me the poem. And I said, Ruby. She said, oh, yes. You have to rewrite it, right? I had arrows going up and down, whatever. And so I guess if I'd looked somewhat flushed, it was because I wasn't sure I was following the arrow the right way. You know how you do things at the last minute sometimes, right?

The line goes, "We salute you and say-- come, come, move out into this world. Nourish your lives with a spirituality that allows us to respect each other's birth." And I think about mentorship, and I think about that component of it. Of course we're writing poems, and we are saying what needs to be said. But there's also this other component of the writing that is about respect, and acknowledging each other's existence on this earth. Yeah.

We just celebrated-- well, you were there when we celebrated the centennial of sister Gwendolyn Brooks, right? And Gwen and I had a long talk once, when I was in Chicago. And I said to her, I studied with Louise Bogan, which means simply that I'd wrote like Louise Bogan. I mean, if you studied with someone, you tend to do that, right? And I said, it was interesting at some point how I had to find my voice. And it's not that your work becomes less complex. But you learn how to deal with complexities.

I mean, the beginning of that 4th of July is complex, whatever. And then, at some point, you've got to say to the people-- because I remember reading it there and people standing up, because by the time I got to that section where I said, now sing it, now really sing it-- because after you said this and that for four or five stanzas, now bring them to one of the messages that they must hear. And that is, we've got to at some point begin to acknowledge who we are on this earth, and to move as human beings with each other.

And unless we do that, we might as well just pull the shade, get out the reefer, bring the vino, the wine, and forget about it. Because these are very dangerous times right now. And I mean just for the earth-- not only for the people, but for the earth. Because we have people who don't believe that this earth is being warmed. There's global warming here. I watch icebergs just sink.

And I said to someone who said, well, that just happened because it's been so warm-- and I wanted to say-- my grandmother used to say, come over here, girl. Let me shake some sense into you. Right? Yeah. That's what we've been saying. And what do you think happens when the water keeps rising?

So when I was in a place called-- when I first went to San Francisco to help begin Black Studies, one of the Native Americans was there, a chieftain. And he gave this to me. Because I gave a talk, and then I ended up with a poem with chants. And he said, you just chanted what we chant, Professor Sanchez. And I said, I know. All those chants that I do are so similar that you can't tell the difference.

But he said to me, are you going to stay in California? I said, I recognize the fact that I'm an easterner. I mean, I really don't like-- I like to visit California, but not live in California. I said, I'm going back home to the east coast, I know, in a couple of years. He said, good, because California is going into the ocean.

So I'm looking at him, and I said, well, yeah. But not anytime soon, I hope. But then, he gave me a map that the first people have. And in it was-- there was no California, right? There was no Florida, because Florida also was underwater. And then, this map had-- there was no where I come from, New York City.

And the nerve and the arrogance of New Yorkers, myself included-- I said, oh, no. That's got to be wrong. New York doesn't go under, right? That's New York City. You see those buildings like that? And he looked at me. He said, it's an island. And I said, you're right.

That's right.

So you have to go up in hills, away. But what I'm saying at some point is that the joy of writing, and also knowing, in quotes, "how to write," in quotes, "complex stuff" that people expect of you-- but at the same time, what sister Gwendolyn said to me, who wrote very complex poetry also, too-- she said, Sonia what I like about your poetry is that you mix it.

And I had to learn how to mix it. At some point, you bring people into that arena if that's what they like. And then, you also say, but stay and listen-- also, perhaps, what I'm going to sing to you at some point. Because they really do belong together, that kind of motion and movement together. And when I did Does Your House Have Lions?, my father's-- that came from sister Gwen. Because I was teaching--

Maud Martha.

No, no. I was teaching rhyme royal.

Your rhyme royal, yeah.

Yeah. So the piece that she did with rhyme royal-- was that Annie Allen?

Annie Allen, yeah. The Aeneid, yeah.

The Aeneid, right. And it was in my head. You can't teach stuff without it being in your head. Well, the students were complaining that it was difficult. And so I said, anything that's difficult you need to read out loud. Train the ear. So I'd been reading it out loud with them.

And I woke up in the middle of the night. And you sleep with dictionaries, books, notebooks, whatever. And I turned on the light, and I picked up this pad, and I started to write, this was a migration unlike the 1900-- I'd literally wrote that out.

You had that meter in your-- you had that rhythm.

I couldn't get rid of it. Then, I put it down, went back to sleep. When I woke up about 7:00-- and that's when you read it, and you say, well, does this really make any sense? Do I just do this, or cross it out? And I said, oh, good. I'll do about three stanzas about this. And that book went on forever and ever and ever.

It's compelling how entering-- what you describe is something that happens to me, which is you enter into a ship, or you enter into the river itself. And it's something about it that pulls you through.

You're there.

As you were talking, I was also thinking about-- Gwendolyn Brooks's praise of your work strikes me as quite accurate. Because there's a way in which when we write, when we use this material called language, to some extent-- you and I both know this-- it writes us. We're talking about it pulling us. But we also put our thumbprint on the language, so that when I hear you read your work, even without your name on the paper where I come across it, I know that's a Sanchez poem. And I'm curious about how that evolution, for you-- that moment where you say, I write. I studied with Louise Bogan. And then, it starts to change. You start to, as you say, find your voice.

You find your voice. Yeah. I think like anyone, I am so grateful for Bogan. Because what happened to me, as a young woman who was a quiet writer, a secret writer, my family knew-- every now and then, I'd leave something around. And my sister would go in the kitchen, go dun, dun, dun-- she'd read what I wrote. And everybody would laugh, but that was it.

And I hid all my work. My work-- my job on Saturdays was to clean the bathroom. We had those old fashioned tubs that now, people pay, what, $300 for. But we hated them, right? But I could hide my books underneath the tub, because I cleaned, and no one went under the tub but me. And as a consequence, there I was with my books in there, writing in there, in the bathroom, at night, at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

And so Bogan taught us form. That's why I always taught form. Because she was right. The form made us get that control of the words. You walk into a place, and there's always-- you just throw everything out that you're thinking. And she made us bring it under control. But I had tried to-- as a young woman, when I got out of Hunter, I had tried to-- and I was registered for grad school. Didn't have much money, so I was taking no more than 12 credits, right?

And I saw a workshop. And I won't mention names in this, OK? But the workshops were being held at various places around New York. I walked into the classroom-- all men. And I was the only woman and the only black. And so I sat down. I'm happy because I'm in a workshop, whatever. And I would raise my hand, and I'd make a comment, and it was complete silence. I'm really serious about this.

And so I said, well, OK. Maybe they all agree. Except by the third week, that continued. And I just stopped going. And I did about three workshops like that until I literally gave up. When I registered the following semester, I saw, in the bulletin, poetry-- Louise Bogan. And she was a poetry editor for The New Yorker, right?


And I said, don't register. Go sit by the door and see what happens. Well, I walked into a class of 45 people. There were two women. And Joanna is a children's writer now-- because I saw her some years later-- and myself. All men looking. And so I sat by the door saying, quick exit on this. Except Bogan came up to me and said, well, I want you to know that I teach form. And so those of you who don't like form, I guess you can leave. Now, no one left at all. But we did have a quiet moan like, what are we doing in here with form?

And then, she said, does anyone have a poem? But that's like asking, my dear brother, an alcoholic if there's a bottle hidden someplace in the house. Because you know there is one. We reached in pockets, purses, briefcases, whatever. And I raised my hand immediately. And she called on me first. I went up front, and I said, find out now. I read the piece, which-- I said, this is not finished, right? But this is all I have with me. And I read it.

And hands went up to begin to respond to it. And above all, she responded. And I sat down and went, OK. I went and registered for the class. It was in that class she taught us how to do a notebook, and how to-- when you send out poems, don't send any more than three, because if you don't get the person by the third poem, they're not going to go to the fourth, or fifth, or sixth, right? And we did that, right?

And I started sending poems out. I went and dropped my About My Poetry in the mailbox. By the time I got home that afternoon, it had returned-- the editors, right? But I didn't get annoyed. People got annoyed in the class. I said-- it made me go, OK. OK, I'll try, whatever. I'll try again.

And what I did is, I got a response from George Garrett at the Paris Review, who said this poem would have been in. I knew I was getting close. This is one semester I'm in, right? But he said, we had promised some people we knew that we would publish-- but you keep-- I still have that letter from him. It was not the editors. It was this nice note from him. And I said, OK. Keep rearranging-- whatever.

But lo and behold, I come home from work, from one of the classes, and there in the mail-- well, so I went and got bottles of wine. And there weren't even shopping bags in those days.

Was this your first publication?

My first publication, my dear brother, was-- I was still in college. I'm still in grad school, right?




And so I got the bottles, because they were-- the stores didn't have the shopping bags. It was like the bags, right? I came in with bags of wine, put on her desk, and I showed her. And she looked at it, and she smiled. And we had cups, and we drank. And she said--

She announced it to the class?

Yeah. I had got-- and it was such a joy. And everyone in the class looked at me, whatever. It was after we finished with her class. It was then that I went to ask her, no, look, tell me-- she didn't have regular hours like we have, as professors. She was a poet who taught poetry, which was quite different, right? And I finally got an appointment with her.

And the appointment, I went-- I asked her, I just want to know. She's-- yes, how can I help you? And I said, do I have any talent? She said-- I can still hear-- why do you want to know? Well, I thought, why did you think I want to know? I'm trying to figure this sucker out, right? She said, because lots of people have talent that they don't do anything with.

And then, she told me this amazing story about a friend of hers who was a good poet. She would have dinner with her once a year. The friend brought this most exquisite poem, and she would praise it, but that was it. She was not disciplined. She said to me-- Bogan said-- she didn't write every day, or she didn't write monthly, or she didn't write-- but she wrote one poem for me to praise. I praised it. But she was not a poet.

What a lesson.

An amazing lesson, my dear brother. It was an amazing lesson.


But it was there that I heard what she said. She said, what are you going to do with-- well, I said, I got it. So that whole-- there were 10 of us from that class that met on Charles Street in the village. And we met every Wednesday. And the thing about workshops, my dear brother, is that after the first year, I published two others. Nobody in that workshop published. And at some point, you have to understand the climate that begins to--

Right, right.

It begins-- they were good journals, if you know what I mean. And it began-- and we would go afterwards, I like to tell the story, to-- I think it was the Five Spot in the Village. And we walked in one day, and there was Baraka LeRoi Jones.

That was your first time seeing Baraka?

No. I'd seen him before, OK? But the first time that-- we all knew who he was. So we said, that's LeRoi Jones there. I said, yes. We're walking in, and this voice says, Sanchez! And my stutters came back. And I went, yes? He said, send me some poems. I'm editing this book out of Paris, France, right? And I said-- and we went to his table to listen to jazz. He said, whoa, do you know who he is? I said, yes, I do know who he is. Right? I said, he doesn't know me from beans. I mean, I had just published in some journals, right?

That he read.

That he read. Because they were journals that you would have on your bookshelf, right? So I went on about my business. About three weeks later, we come back in, and there he is. He was writing reviews for DownBeat. When they finally opened it up to blacks to write about that jazz music, he was the one who was chosen. And I went right by him, and the voice says, Sanchez. So you don't want to be in the book? And I turned and said-- honest, I said-- you were serious? He said, what do you think?

I said goodbye to everybody. I got in my Volkswagen van. I went up that West Side Highway. I went crosstown, went up the West Side Highway-- I must have done it in five minutes-- went in, pulled down my Olivetti, got my little things, whatever. I went through the poems, typed it up, whatever. And I'm a terrible typist, right? Went back outside-- it's night time, man. Took it all the way downtown to make sure he got it.

About two weeks later, a letter came from him, and all it said is, "Dear Sonia Sanchez, yeah." Yeah-- which meant he accepted it, right? So that was my first international one there. And I guess what I'm saying-- from then on, anytime he did plays and whatever, he invited me.

Yeah, yeah.

And it was in that context that you began to travel. And then, he came uptown after Malcolm's assassination. He sent letters to all of the artists that said, come help us continue Malcolm's work, which is an amazing letter to have. Right? Yeah.

I want to stick with this theme of mentorship and writing communities. Because we can talk about so much here. But I was thinking about several things. One-- your being in San Francisco in the late '60s, and that--


--environment-- mid-'60s. That environment we documented. We know the importance of that moment. You were there creating Black Studies. But I'm curious about your writing life at that time, and if you had a similar community. Because it was also a lot happening in San Francisco, in Berkeley.

Well, what happened is that we brought Baraka out to do the culture part. And the culture part meant that we got a thing similar to the house that we had in Harlem, in order to do the Black Arts. So we got a similar thing. And you know who lived in the house was-- what is his name-- the head of the Panthers at the time. Not Huey, but--


Cleaver. Cleaver came out of prison. Ramparts magazine put him up there. Honestly, have you ever gone and seen someone, and you looked at the man and went, whoa, I won't be in this house with him actually by myself, right? But that's how we continued what we had done in a place called New York City, in that brownstone. It was Black Arts out there.


And in a sense, west. And Ed Bullins, Marvin X, Sarah Fabio-- there's a brother who just died, a younger brother who just died. And there were the brothers who were actors. And Danny Glover came into that midst. I took Danny into that midst, and there we were, all. And people lined up around the corner to get in, to come in, to hear the poetry, and also to see the one-act plays that we'd done. So there was that community, right?

But I'd like to tell a story that-- when we first went out, when we brought Baraka out, the first thing they did was to have a reading. So the two of us coming from the north-- the east, rather-- I from New York, he from Newark, right? So we're up there reading together. We know we're the baddest thing on the planet earth because we're from the east. And that's that arrogance of being from the east, right? You know?

So he read, and I responded. And he laughed, and I read-- back and forth, boom, boom, boom. And people clapped. And someone stood up and said, well, Mr. Jones, Miss Sanchez, you all read very fast. And we didn't quite understand all that you said. Could you do it again? And we looked at each other, and it was so funny. Because I realized that once we were out there, every time I said something, people would say, uh, would you say that again? But you know what rap has done for the world?

Trained our ear to hear it.

That's right, that's right.

Trained our ear to hear it.

If I go to the Midwest or California, it doesn't matter how-- I don't slow down, whatever. Because rap has taught them how to listen to what we were saying. And they did-- we slowed down. But eventually, they became accustomed to how we were reading. And people actually began to read like us. I mean, that happens when you teach.

I know.

You know?

I remember at Temple, you had a lot of little Sonia Sanchezes reading in your style. I'm thinking about, also-- we were, before filming, thinking about your syllabus, what you had on the syllabus. I was going from San Francisco to Philadelphia. And I was trying to recall some of the books that were on that syllabus. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye--

No one was teaching those people, by the way. To this day, people say, oh, I taught Toni Morrison. I say, yeah, right. We taught Toni Morrison, because we got the books, read her, and we put it right into the syllabus. Toni Cade Bombara, Alice Walker-- some guy on Temple's campus walked across and said, I'm teaching Alice Walker in this course on pathology. I said, she's a novelist. She's a great nove-- what, pathology? Well, the pathological people in her books-- and I said, by golly, by gee, that actually happened.

Wow, geez.

But my dear brother, you know the joy of teaching them-- I taught at the University of Pitt. And some of the young people's names I'm blanking on now, but they were there going to school, and they hung around my office all the time. It'd be 8:00 at night. And I'd say, I've got to go home. I've got to really go home to prepare for tomorrow. And I said offhandedly, sometimes, I think we need a course on us. And so I left.

That was it?

And so I left. It was at night. Well, I came back the next day, and there were 20 young African-American women standing outside my door. And I said, don't you have classes? I said, I know I have one in about 30 minutes. And they said, yes, we do need a course. And we need a course on us. And we need to call it-- what do you think we should call it? And I said, offhandedly, The Black Woman, I suppose. They said, yeah, yeah, yeah. Would you send it upstairs?

And that day, I literally wrote up a proposal, sent it upstairs to the powers that be, who sent it right back and said, we've never had a course called The Black Woman before. What books would you have? I sent up the books, whatever. And the next quarter, although I had my courses already assigned, we did a course called The Black Woman. It was the first course in America.

And the thing about that is that the next quarter afterwards, they had courses called The Woman and The Man there. But the point that I'm making is that you cannot bring people on a campus as they were bringing Blacks and Latinos in, and women into these classrooms, where we started women's studies, also, too. They had to have something surcease from what was going on in the universities.

And so what we did in that course was amazing. I was a young teacher, so I never veered from my notes as I was there. And I passed out the syllabus, and we went over the syllabus, and I'm feeling proudly proud as this young professor, and there I am. But they sent people from the administration sitting in the back with pads. I'm serious-- about four people, right?

We're about the third week into the classroom, and this young black woman stood up and said, I hate all black men. Well, being a young professor, there was no place on my syllabus that said, I hate all black men. I went back to her, I looked very fastly fast, and I said, oh, god. What do you do? Well, the people from the dean's office and provost were writing down.

What do you do? You act human. What would you do when a young woman is crying in the classroom and says, I hate all-- you don't go and try to figure that out intellectually at that point. I came from around my desk and held her. The whole class held her, actually. And at some point-- it was incest. And I had not included, in that course on The Black Woman, incest, whatever. I came back and marked it in. And that weekend, I was at the library the entire weekend trying to pose that whole-- where you put it in, how you do it.

And that's the great joy of teaching, my dear brother. I'm sure you know that by now. It's what you learn. You have a course--

Yeah, teaching is learning.

You have a course that is set out, and then all of a sudden, you see the loopholes. You see what has to be added. And that was what had to be added in that thing on women, or The Black Woman-- this whole idea of incest that had happened. And you had to include it there. That is the joy of teaching-- and writing, also, too. Because then, you write about it at some point.

But that teaching-- I was talking to Ta-Nehisi Coates. And he's going to be teaching at NYU. And I said, man, when you teach, a lot of your writing will change. And so the joy of teaching is that it teaches the student, but it teaches you. And I said, and it makes you more human, too. And it makes your work say, OK. You might have thought that. But you better open up. Because there you are, in a place that is an amazing place of people who come in to learn. And at some point, you've got to construct things where they will learn.

And also, I didn't allow anyone to scream on anyone in my class. If you had something bad to say, I said, you need to go out with that, or you need to leave my class. We don't do that in this class. I mean, the humanity that we tried to maintain in the classroom was so important.

And that gets also translated to the work. Someone asked-- I think was Charlie Rose as Toni Morrison-- he said, do you vote, Ms. Morrison? And she said, oh, yes. She said, I remember all those men and women who were beaten, and who struggled to vote. She says, when I vote, it's like a small prayer by the road. I told you she was a poet.

And that's what you understand. Well, when I teach, it's like a small prayer by the road. I walk in, and I look up and say, here you are, Sonia. This is what you do. This is part of what you do. This is an important part of what you do. And this is not only about teaching those people you know who've written well, but it's also about teaching them, also, about what it means to be human. Because the other part, the subtext, always is, what does it mean to be human as we explore this literature, and the herstory and history of black people and other people in this country?

Well, the other element I found compelling as your student was you were introducing us to not only writers here in America, but you introduced us to Antonio Machado, Nicolás Guillén, José Martí.

And I met Nicolás Guillén, which was a joy, you know? Yeah.

And I think about your work in these nexus. I mean, we often talk about you as a Black Arts poet, a woman's liberation poet. But I also see you as an international figure, someone who pulled together all of these writers in conversation, both in the classroom, but also in your work. And there's a number of us who have followed you, and took that particular lead.

Which leads me to my last question, which is, how do you think about your-- you and I both know that teaching is a noble, noble profession. It has a very huge impact on our immediate community, but that resonates out. And I was curious of how you think about your legacy both as a teacher, as a writer, as a political activist, particularly during this moment of cultural crises, and the divisiveness we find ourselves in in the early part of the 21st century.

Yeah. You really thought that it would be better. But it could not be better with the 1% controlling so much wealth. I mean, that's a lot of wealth. 1%-- which means you have to begin to look up and say, what does that really mean, at some point. Because there are people always wanting to be a part of that 1%, really.

But my dear brother, legacy-- I tell people-- I'm asked that question a lot, here and abroad. And I said, the legacy that I want to leave, if I leave a legacy, is that to know one thing-- that I loved you. I mean, "I loved you" to a poet that I knew that if I said what I said, that it would mean that I would be ostracized in this place called America. But it's interesting-- in Paris, I'm not ostracized. But in this country, you get ostracized for what you say.

But I love you that much, that I needed to jerk your head back to really see the country for what it is, and to make it better-- not just to demean this country, but to say, we're much better than this. We're much better than this. People have struggled here, in this place called America, to make it a great country. And we always get so close to greatness. And then, we just slide back down. It's like going up and sliding back down, as Baraka used to talk about all the time.

So part of, I guess, my legacy will be when I go someplace, and I see you, and when they ask me to name some of the younger poets, I name your name and a bunch of people along the way. But I also name Talib and Def. And I name people who also have, in a very real sense, taken part of some of the things we have done when we did the singing, whatever, and taken it to another level. And I think that's what it's important-- that we go from the Harlem Renaissance, if you're a black writer, to the Black Arts, to hip hop, to rap. Because there is that continuous thread that is there.

But I just want people to know that I loved them. I love them. Even my dad said, shut up, Sonia, and stop talking about the country, and just write and teach. You're trained to do that. And I said to him, if I do that, I can't write and I can't teach, whatever. And as a consequence of that, just remember that I loved you with a passion that you will never, ever, ever understand.

Because finally, when you really understand the world, and what it really is composed of, and the people who are here, you understand it doesn't matter if you remember any poem that I ever wrote. But just remember that I loved you to a point that I was willing to make a sacrifice to make sure that you learned, or that you saw the world for what it is. That's what's important to me.

Poet Sonia Sanchez received a Pew Fellowship in 1993, one of countless accolades she has earned in her storied career. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Pew Fellowships program in 2017, Sanchez spoke with poet and Pew Fellow Major Jackson, who studied under her at Temple University and is himself a nationally recognized figure in poetry.

In this newly released full-length interview, Sanchez reflects on artistic life and shares stories about the formative experiences that influenced her creative practice, her studies with poet Louise Bogan, and her legacy as a writer, teacher, and activist.

Watch Sanchez read her poem 10 Haikus for Max Roach.
Watch Jackson read sections from his poem Urban Renewal.


Sonia Sanchez is a poet, playwright, professor, activist, and one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies movement. She has authored more than 20 books and received a number of honors and awards, including the Robert Creeley Award, the Frost Medal, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and a National Endowment for the Arts award.

Major Jackson is a poet, professor, and author. He has published five books of his own poetry, most recently The Absurd Man, and edited three other volumes. In addition to his Pew Fellowship, he has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and several other organizations.