I honestly can't remember when I first read Sonia Sanchez. What I remember was that I was immediately drawn to her work. The sounds and rhythms resonated with me. When I read more about her, poet and activist, my attraction deepened.
Sanchez's work is conversational. Her vocabulary is ordinary, and the lines read in the way you wish you could speak: rolling beautiful yet natural rhythms off your tongue. I don't know what came first, but it is clear that I have an affinity for sound, and the sound of Sanchez's lines feel good on my tongue. There is internal rhythm without rhyme. There is an undercurrent of sensuality and the erotic in her work. Like a good love poem, writing the erotic well requires skill. Sanchez is a good place to start if you appreciate the sensual.
Novice poets and readers alike have mistakenly believed that Ms. Sanchez's short poems are casual, lacking depth and form. The misconception has often lead to attempts at emulating her style without understanding the craft and effort necessary to write short, distilled poetry. I know I made that mistake.
While her work is accessible, a closer examination reveals the nuances of device and form. She is best known for her take on Asian forms including haiku, tanka and senryu. Devoted readers also know her narrative, longer pieces, the most celebrated, Does Your House Have Lions?, a narrative poem about her brother's battle with AIDS and how his family coped with his death and their loss.
In the late 90s and again in the early 2000s, I met the poet. Each time, she graciously took
the time to talk with me. During our first meeting, she told me why craft matters. She said when students take a course with her, they are required to write twelve poems in twelve different forms. Twelve forms in twelve weeks. In her class, the emphasis is skill. Talent can't be taught. In the classroom, the student learns how to read and write poetry. The expectation isn't great poetry written, rather the aim is to cultivate an informed, learned appreciation for poetry.
On one source I read, the author writes that Ms. Sanchez rejected standard English and established poetry convention, and that's true. That was early in her career when her work and her rejection was aligned her with social-political life. What the article failed to acknowledge is that while Sanchez rejected convention, she did not advocate uneducated arrogance being passed for art or activism.
The poet/activist has enjoyed a long, prolific career. Readers have witnessed a shift in perspective in her body of work. Experiences shape what and how we write. I believe art is organic, a breathing thing that continues to evolve.
I invite you to explore the work of Sonia Sanchez. I've included multiple hyperlinks and a short bibliography. Below is one of her most celebrated works and my first favorite:
you left behind
and stretch them
on our bed.
I breathe you
and become high.
Homecoming, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1969.
We a BaddDDD People, with foreword by Dudley Randall, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.
Ima Talken Bout the Nation of Islam, TruthDel, 1972.
Love Poems, Third Press (New York, NY), 1973.
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Black Scholar Press (Sausalito, CA), 1978.
homegirls and handgrenades, Thunder’s Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Under a Soprano Sky, Africa World (Trenton, NJ), 1987.
Continuous fire: A Collection of Poetry, Inkbook, 1994.
Autumn Blues: New Poems, XX, 1994.
Wounded in the House of a Friend, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
Does Your House Have Lions?, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
Like the Singing Coming off the Drums: Love Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1999.
Homegirls and Handgrenades, White Pine Press, 2007.
Morning Haiku, Beacon Press, 2010.