Poet Sonia Sanchez

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Renowned poet, playwright and activist explains her inspiration, reflects on the loss of Dorothy Height and gives a special reading from her new poetry volume.

A renowned and award-winning writer, poet and playwright, Sonia Sanchez has been an influential force in African American literary culture for more than three decades. She was a pioneer in developing Black studies courses and taught the first course in the U.S. on Black women. The first Presidential Fellow at Temple University, she's lectured at more than 500 universities and colleges around the world, including Cuba, China and Australia. Sanchez is a graduate of Hunter College and the author of 16 books, including the new Morning Haiku—her first volume in over a decade.


Tavis: Sonia Sanchez is an award-winning poet who’s out now with her first book of new poetry in 10 years. It’s called “Morning Haiku.” This summer she releases a collection of plays called, “I’m Black When I’m Singing; I’m Blue When I Ain’t.” (Laughter) I love that tile.
Next year – we’ve been waiting for it a long time – next year, her long-awaited memoir will come out. It’s called “Exits and Entrances,” and I can’t wait to read that. But I’m always delighted to talk to Sonia Sanchez. What an honor to have you on this program.
Sonia Sanchez: Oh, what an honor to be here with you, my dear brother.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Sanchez: I’m doing fine, and working hard.
Tavis: I know you always are.
Sanchez: Can I make a correction?
Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.
Sanchez: The “Exits and Entrances” are my speeches that I’ve given around but my memoir is tentatively entitled – my dad left the house every day, he would say, “I’ll see you in the funny papers,” which I love. (Laughter)
Tavis: So that’s going to be called –
Sanchez: “See You in the Funny Papers.”
Tavis: – “See You in the Funny Papers.”
Sanchez: Yeah, right.
Tavis: So “Exits and Entrances” is not the memoir, it’s your speeches.
Sanchez: No, it’s my speeches, right, that Beacon will be publishing, and Duke University will publish my plays, finally.
Tavis: Let’s talk about “Morning Haiku.” I think the first question is for those who do not know, don’t want to insult anybody’s intelligence –
Sanchez: No, not at all.
Tavis: But for those who do not know what a haiku is, you taught for years at Temple, so you don’t just write this stuff, you teach this stuff.
Sanchez: Right.
Tavis: So if you were teaching a course about haiku, you would start with a definition of it, and it would be what?
Sanchez: Yeah, well, I probably would read some haiku initially, and the whole point is that – the way we learned the haiku was simply it’s three lines, five, seven, five, 17 syllables involved there. It will give us a moment – a moment of beauty, a moment in time, a moment in something. Something so excruciatingly beautiful that you just stop for a minute and it catches your breath, period.
The way I teach it now simply is that however long it takes you to say two lines or three lines, that’s the length of the haiku. So for instance, when I was in Beijing and I called my children and said, “It’s a Monday morning, I’m going to travel to the Great Wall of China,” and I heard them say, they were two years of age, they said, “Aunt Sarah, Mommy says it’s Monday, but it’s really Sunday, isn’t it?”
Of course I was greeting the day before my children greeted the day, so the haiku I wrote for them is, “Let me wear the day well so when it reaches you, you will enjoy it.” I was greeting the day before my children greeted the day.
That evening at the University of Beijing, one of the officials got up when I read that haiku and said, “Ah, Professor Sanchez, if we here in the East learn how to wear our days well, by the time you get the day in the West, perhaps we will have peace.”
There’s always that subtext for the haiku – that subtext, when there is beauty there’s also non-beauty. When there is good, there is also bad. Where there is – there’s always that coming together there.
So that’s why I love the haiku, but for another reason – for our children. Wherever I go to a university, and I know you probably have done it too, the next day I say to them, “Take me to a high school. No charge. Let me go speak to our young people.”
What I’m trying to do is establish what I call a haiku mind – the way of looking at each other, the way of looking at the beauty in nature and transferring that to looking at the beauty in ourselves.
Tavis: How do you respond to someone who might say that haiku is too simplistic? Is that the point, in fact?
Sanchez: Well, everything’s simplistic. We only make everything complicated because we think these should be complicated. Shakespeare was simple for the populace, but when we took it over in academia, we said it’s too complex for most people to understand it. But the people understood Shakespeare.
No, it’s not too simplistic, my dear brother. What is the beauty of the haiku is that it is not simplistic. The beauty of the haiku I just said is very complex. It reaches all the complexities of our life on this Earth. Peace – that’s a very complex idea, peace, so we can’t get it as human beings.
So what I’m trying to do is to tell young people that I teach them how to breathe before I teach the haiku. That one breath, that one breath, because the haiku keeps you alive. It keeps you going. If you learn how to breath the haiku, you learn how to breathe. If you learn how to breathe, you’re much healthier.
Tavis: You start your day with a haiku?
Sanchez: Every day I write a haiku.
Tavis: You write one every morning?
Sanchez: Every morning. I have a little book by my bed and I filled it up, yeah. Because once I breathe that haiku, then I know – then I go out on the field and I walk three to four miles in the morning, and I got it together. I can greet the day. Will I greet the day with a handshake or a slap? With a scream or a smile, whatever? That’s what I’m trying to teach people, to greet the day with a smile instead of a slap.
Tavis: The inspiration – when you roll out of bed in the morning and open your eyes, the inspiration for the haiku that day comes from where?
Sanchez: Well, the whole point is I don’t roll out of the bed when I wake up. I wake up and I thank the creator for another day, and then I do some breathing exercises. Then I look around the room and most of the time before I go to sleep I open my Venetian blinds so I can get the sun in the morning. It’s at that point I stop and I think.
Sometimes I remember a dream. Sometimes I remember something that I said the night before. So I pick up the book and I begin to write, and quite often I say one haiku; more than oft times it’s two or three haiku.
Now you might say that’s because it’s so bloody simple, Sonia. You can’t do a poem. But most of us can do one or two or three poems in a day. When I’m writing a book, I do that. But the point is that it’s the simplicity opposite the complex, and the haiku is a complex form, you see.
It is complex to say, “I set sail in tall grass, no air stirs.” That ain’t easy, brother. (Laughter)
Tavis: I know. That’s why you wrote it instead of me.
Sanchez: If you say it’s easy, you’re not understanding what we’re saying. That official in China jumped up and said, right away, he heard it, he says, “If we learn how to wear our days well here in Beijing, by the time you get it in the West we will have peace.” That’s what we’re talking about – the simplicity and the complexities of a poem such as the haiku.
Tavis: I’m going to make room in just a few minutes for you to perform a wonderful piece out of this new book, “Morning Haiku,” a tribute to Max Roach.
Sanchez: Ah, yes.
Tavis: Before I do that, though, a couple other questions.
Sanchez: Right.
Tavis: We just lost some days ago our dear sister –
Sanchez: Dr. Height, oh.
Tavis: – Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. You have a wonderful piece in this book that calls down the names of some great sisters, some living, some deceased. Dorothy Height, now gone. Two persons on my staff who work here are related to Myrlie Evers.
Sanchez: Ah, yes, I met them.
Tavis: You have a piece with her. Tell me about this piece – you know the piece I’m referencing here, “The Freedom Sisters.”
Sanchez: Yes, “The Freedom Sisters.” They called me – I don’t know, now a couple of years ago, and they said, “Dear Sister Sonia, We’d like for you to be one of our Freedom Sisters in the exhibit,” and I laughed. I said, “Oh, what an honor,” first, then I laughed. I said, “I can tell you a hundred other women who could replace me,” and then there was a silence at the end, and they said, “Well, do you want it?” I said, “Yes, what an honor that would be,” because many of the sisters who are – who have made transitions, who are dead, are the sisters that we rescued, teaching Black studies.
So Ida Wells-Barnett, when I read her story I included her work right into the curriculum there in Black studies. All of these women that you went back and rescued from obscurity.
So that’s the honor also too, and then our dear sister, Dr. Dorothy Height. I always tell the story that we were someplace and she had finished eating and she closed her eyes, and I assumed – I’m sitting next to her – that she was sleeping. Someone started to say something, talk about something, and I recognized that the dates were incorrect, right?
But you don’t want to embarrass people, so I didn’t say anything. Dr. Height’s eyes opened. She says, “No, that’s not quite correct there,” and she corrected it. (Laughter) So she never sleeps.
A great woman, and I’m so pleased that they’re giving her a stateswoman’s – she’s to lie in state on one day, on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday the community can come see her and the Deltas are going to honor her, and then she’ll be at the National Cathedral on Thursday. This is a stateswoman, a woman who walked with presidents and also the great Black men also too, and Black women.
So I am so pleased for her, and what an honor to have gone on the road with her, because one day she said to me, “Well, Sanchez,” she says – she used to call me Sanchez – she said, “Sanchez, I can’t quite understand why you’re so radical.” So I turned and smiled and looked at her and said, “My dear sister, because you were radical in your day.” (Laughter)
So the children have got to pick it up and go one step further with it. I said, “And I love you because you did what you did and made us understand where we had to pick it up and carry it a step further.” Yeah.
Tavis: Her name is Sonia Sanchez. She is an iconic poet, one that we absolutely revere in this country, and I’m honored to have her on the program. Her new book is called “Morning Haiku,” 10 years waiting on this particular text. It’s here now, and I want to make room now for Sonia Sanchez to bless us with a special reading from the book, so stay with us.

From her terrific new book “Morning Haiku,” here is Sonia Sanchez reading “Ten Haiku for Max Roach.” Enjoy.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm