The poem “Poem at Thirty,” which Sonia Sanchez read to her audience at Vertigo Books last Friday, betrayed her state of mind: “once as a child/ i walked two/ miles in my sleep…/ traveling. i’m/ always traveling…” Sanchez was making her third trip in as many weeks from Philadelphia to D.C.
She’s been here promoting her 14th book, Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, as well as wearing the mantle of Black Intellectual for several TV and radio shows. The constant travel has sapped her energy, so Sanchez gave the reading sitting downwhich was unlike her.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” she said with a smile, before cracking open the book. “The rhythm stops if you’re sitting down.”
Sanchez and D.C. are old friends, going back to the beginning of her 30-year career, so she always gives a little extra to her supporters here. “It seems like I always came down to Washington during the [civil rights] movement, you know. For marches, for sit-ins, you name it,” Sanchez said before the reading. Sanchez helped lead the development of black studies as a formal academic inquiry, often conferring with scholars Haki Madhubuti and Eleanor Traylor at Howard University. The poet never attended Howard, but she often went to “sit at the feet” of literary giant Sterling Brown for an informal education on writing and black culture.
“Sterling’s poetry…spoke to the masses of people,” Sanchez recalled. “He took what I call ‘purple-gummed, cracked-tooth, smiling people sitting on porches’ and made them poetic in a country that says people like that weren’t poetic.”
Just as Brown mentored her, Sanchez has mentored countless aspiring authors over the years. Last summer, Sanchez taught a dozen young writers from D.C. at Cave Canem, a weeklong retreat for African-American poets in upstate New York. Her appeal to young writers lies not only in her generosity, but also in her ability to marry the page to the stage. In her readings, she combines blues rhythms, bebop scats, screams, sighs, and ancestral chants to create her own music.
Sanchez occasionally collaborates with musiciansmost recently with D.C.’s Sweet Honey in the Rockfor an arrangement of the old spiritual “I’m Gonna Stay on the Battlefield,” creating a song-poem that encapsulates her indefatigable spirit.Holly Bass