by Annie Finch
Sonia Sanchez has been an influential force in American literary and political culture for many decades. Her ardent voice with its colloquial diction and archetypal imagery helped revolutionize African-American poetry in the 1960s. What many people don’t realize is that Sanchez’s poetry is also strongly marked by formal resonance and structural insight. As Sanchez reveals in this interview, she first studied poetry with formalist poet Louise Bogan as a college student at New York University. Sanchez’s use of the haiku, blues, sonnet, and other forms as well as her trademark sonku are core elements of her poetic voice, and her poems continue to draw strength and inspiration from both heirloom forms and original formal patterns.
Sanchez’s highly dramatic readings of her poetry embody the rhythmic soul of her lines. I conducted this interview with Sonia after one such inspired reading on March 6, 1994 in Waterloo, Iowa. After the reading, Sanchez was surrounded for nearly an hour by enthusiastic young poets and readers. After most of the fans had drifted away, we let our planned hour’s interview lengthen into a two-hour conversation in the empty auditorium while two or three audience members listened in.
An abbreviated version of this interview was published in AWP Chronicle in 2000 and reprinted in Conversations with Sonia Sanchez, ed. Joyce A. Joyce (University of Mississipi Press, 2007) and in Multiformalisms: Postmodern Poetics of Form, ed. Annie Finch and Susan Schultz (Textos Books, 2008). This publication in Poetry Witch is the first time the interview has been published in its entirety.
—Annie Finch, February 17, 2015
AF: In A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, you describe three visions that you had during a period of emotional change. One of the voices says, “you are a singer, but you have not listened to the songs.” Does this refer to something that happened to your poetry when you changed the way you were writing?
SS: I think that whole section is really speaking to the fact that many of us grew up in America and had no history of ourselves at all. I’m speaking specifically of young women who moved towards womanhood without anyone bringing them through that whole process, so they’d grow up and just be, just all of a sudden be there. So that section is speaking to the voice saying, “you write this poetry and you’re not even aware of your history; you sing these songs and you really don’t know from whence they come; you have no real history here. You’re really moving and writing and living out of a void, which is what I think most of us were doing in this country. And that’s why there was such a run towards information about ourselves in this country. This is the motion and movement of most African-American women in this country: you don’t know any of your history, you read books that are given to you, you don’t search for books that could tell you other truths. You move as a free woman but look at you, you’re body is a monument to slavery and is dead, you’re still enslaved by the way you wear your hair, by the way that you dress, by the way that you act. Like most women, our motion is always towards men; whether we feel comfortable in what we wear or not, that’s what we wear. If we don’t define ourselves, we’re doomed to failure.
AF: Did you find books that did teach you truth after that?
SS: The black history books. A man by the name of Micheux had a bookstore on 125th Street right across from the Hotel Theresa, and Mr. Micheux gave me all of these black historical books, the black poets, the black writers, and I said to him, “I can’t afford these books, I can’t afford to pay for these books,” and he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll repay us by passing it on, and repay me by coming to my bookstore and doing readings for me when you get to be known.” I thought that was farfetched, but eventually I did that.
AF: What books did he give you?
SS: He gave me some books by DuBois, he gave me some books by Walker, and many others. He was like the second part of a triangle.
Jean Hudson was probably at the top of that triangle; she was the curator of the Schomburg Collection. When I had gotten out of college and was going to grad school, and I stumbled upon the Schomburg at 135th Street, the guard there told me, “All these books are by and about black folk,” and I said in a very smart fashion, “Yeah, there probably aren’t many books in here, then… ” He told me, “you need to go talk to Miss Hudson.” Miss Hudson was a quiet, unassuming woman who was the curator of the Schomburg. The guard directed me to her and I said, “this man tells me that this is a library that has only books by and about black folk. ” And she said, “yes, that’s right dear.” I looked at her as if to say, “I don’t believe it.”
The old Schomburg had a long table on the first floor where all the scholars would come and read and write. She sat me down with three books, Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Souls of Black Folk and I think Up From Slavery. The first book I started to read was Their Eyes Were Watching God. I thought I’d be thrown off by the Black English in there. I read about a third of the book and I stood up and I walked over to her and I said, “This is really a great book!” She said, “yes, dear,” and I walked around the table just mumbling to myself, “how could I be educated and I haven’t read this book? How could they say I’m educated?” So I came back and sat down and read another third, and I stood up again, and I walked around the table again, mumbling, and came and sat down; I finished the book, and I got ready to stand up again, and one of the scholars beckoned to her and said, “Miss Hudson, will you please tell this young woman to stay seated!”
I came back and sat down, and I read and read for one week. At the end of the week I told her, “I’ll be back;” and then I said, “I’m going to have a book in here one day.” And Miss Hudson said, “Yes, dear.” She tells that story now, as only Miss Hudson can tell it, with great amusement. She is part of that triangle, because she fed me books then, and started me to read black history books, and black philosophy, and also literature.
AF: Did you read Phillis Wheatley then?
SS: Yes, at that time I read some of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry. The third part of that triangle was a woman in the library when I was in high school. I used to go to the library every day, and one day she said to me, “do you like poetry?” And I said, “uh huh.” I didn’t tell her I wrote poetry though. And she said, “the next time you come I’m going to have some books for you,” and she started to feed me books. I don’t know if thery were trhe library’s books or her own personal books. She gave me Pushkin, and the music that was there was unbelievable, and she gave me some anthologies of what they called at the time “Negro poetry.”
AF: James Johnson’s collection?
SS: Yes, probably it was that; I’m almost sure it was that. And I’m almost sure it was also Sterling Brown’s collection. And there I came across what I called the formalists, the Black formalist poets.
AF: Dunbar, Cullen?
SS: Yes, all of them, from Hughes to Dunbar. And then I remembered that I had heard people quote Dunbar in the south, because at assemblies they would recite Dunbar. But I remembered also that we as young people striving to speak “the correct English” were somewhat startled by him and rejected him; we backed away from him, saying, “we don’t want that stuff.” They would always bring someone in who would recite it, and we would sit there—unless it happened to be funny and then we would respond to it. We were not into so-called “dialect poetry,” because we were moving to another level, and you have to almost become educated to understand what that poetry is about.
AF: You have a prose-poem where you quote Wheatley, “For Black History Month”—you quote from her poem “On Being Brought from Africa,” “remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain / may be refined…” I wonder in what spirit you quoted that, and what your response is to Phillis Wheatley, because I know that in the sixties a lot of people rejected her. I wonder if your attitudes have changed towards her.
SS: I never formally rejected any poets per se in the sixties. But some of the older poets who were alive at the time rejected us initially, because they couldn’t figure out where we were coming from; Sterling Brown said to me once, years ago, “Sonia, when we first heard you and Baraka and Larry Neal, you scared us half to death.”
AF: That’s when Gwendolyn Brooks changed her style…
SS: Exactly. So their response to being scared was either to ignore us or —not so much Sterling, but let’s say, Dr. Arthur Davis—to write an essay about the New Black Poets as such. But I know Dr. Arthur Davis now; we’re dear friends, and he has said to me “You were right.” He was able to change and see that his initial response was an initial response of the time; there was a meeting. There was an intersection.
AF: Can you read some of your new work-in-progress, the elegy to your brother?
SS: Think of short and black
thin mustache draping thin lips
think of country and exact
thin body, underfed hips
watching at this corral of battleships
and bastards. Watching for forget
and remember. Dancing his pirouette.
And he came my brother at seventeen
recruited by birthright and smell
grabbing the city by the root with clean
metallic teeth. Commandant and infidel
pirating his family in their cell
and we waited for the anger to retreat
and we watched him embrace the city and the street.
. . . And a new geography greeted him.
The Atlantic drifted from off shore
to lick his wounds to give him slim
transfusion as he turned changed wore
a new waistcoat of solicitor
antidote to his southern skin
ammunition for a young paladin.
AF: I noticed a lot of Gwendolyn Brooks influence here—early Gwendolyn Brooks, like “The Anniad.”
SS: Right, yes,
AF: The “think of,” and even the word “paladin”…
SS: “Paladin,” I pulled “paladin”… Actually, it was so weird, because I got up and wrote part of that during the time I was teaching her, and I looked at it and I said, “gee, this is probably the influence because I’m teaching her.” Then I started to take it out, but I left it because it worked, because it worked. I realized I had the word “paladin,” and I had “think” at the beginning of the lines: “Think this, think that…”
AF: “Think” and the rhythm, the same rhythm.
SS: But the rhyme royal has that rhythm, so anyone who writes the modern day rhyme royal is going to end up almost….
AF: But you did it in tetrameter and so does she, and most people would do it in pentameter.
AF: Was that where you got the rhyme royal idea for this poem, from her?
SS: Well, at the time that I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the first stanza, I was teaching that poem, the “Anniad,” to my grad students and to my literature class too, so it was all over me. And I had been talking to Gwen about it also, because I had some questions about it. So I called her and I was talking to her about this piece. And so I think it just was all in my psyche at some point.
And so in the middle of the night, I woke up and wrote these lines, and I looked at it in the cold morning air and I thought, “what is wrong with you?” Then it was just this one little stanza. And then when this thing began continue, I would say, yes, there was a great influence there, primarily because I was teaching it, getting involved with it, making my students get involved and understand and see all the layers of it. And then for some reason, every tîme I am writing about something painful, I always retreat in some kind of strange way to formal work.
AF: Does that happen to you more now than it did in your earlier books? It seems as if your work is getting a little more formal in the last ten years or so.
SS: I’ve always written some formal things. I just never published it, because of the times; in my journals, I have a lot of work that is in form but that was chosen out. Sometimes,—at least for the early books, the Broadside Press books—you’d send the manuscript and they would choose the poems that were going to sell. Because you’ve got to realize that we’ve sold more than 100,000 copies of our books in our time. That’s poetry. That’s amazing, in this country; that’s amazing.
SS: People don’t realize; when people say poetry does not sell, I always crack up, because Haki [Madhabuti], Gwen, Baraka, we’ve sold hundreds. That’s a lot of poetry. That was the whole point of selling our books for $2.50 and $3.00 and $4.95 at most, because we wanted to make sure that people had access to our books. So it’s amazing that we have done that, that we were able to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of our poems. I love it.
AF: Do you think that their choice of free verse then, and not publishing the formal verse, helped it sell better?
SS: Well, one of the things we were talking about is making poetry accessible to everyone, and free verse certainly does allow for that. But at the same time, I always wrote the haiku and the tanka and then I started publishing it, when I took control over what I wanted to put in my books. But I think also there’s always the formal—what I call the formal lyrical poem—that even in Homecoming, you see. You just have to go and find it; it’s there. I remember at one point, when I had a lot of lyrical things, people said, “we want some of the hard-hitting stuff that you do.” Which I did, and so I did it. But always, in my notebook, the lyrical poems are all there.
AF: And the blues?
SS: And the blues. They’ve always been there.
AF: The blues you didn’t publish until about your third book or so?
SS: No, the blues was published in the second book. The third book was the children’s book, I think, so the second book had to have had “In the night, in my Negro dreams,” the blues—that’s in We a Baddd People, I think.
AF: What about the sonku?
SS: That’s mine; that’s my form. I made that up.
AF: Why did you make it up?
SS: Because I have all my students make up a form, to let them see that they can create any form—the haiku was created by someone, the tanka was created by someone, the cinquain is American…
AF: Adelaide Crapsey…
- Yes, Adelaide Crapsey—so I say, “if she can do that, why can’t you.” So I don’t even pose it to them. What we do is, I teach the haiku, the tanka, the cinquain, and I say “make up your own,” and it’s a natural thing. I don’t say to them, I think I want you to. I say, “make up your own form of syllabic verse,” and they do it, because you don’t give them a chance to not do it, to fail. And they’ve come up with some fantastic forms, some of the students, especially a lot of what I call the artsy students have come up with fantastic forms, and then they will do paintings around it, or do calligraphy and whatever, or they will mount a show—they’ll do things like that.
AF: Does the sonku do things for you that the haiku and tanka don’t?
SS: Well the sonku—I like the sound of the sonku, and quite often the sonku also requires some kind of lyricality. I think because of the sound of it.
AF: It’s 4-3-4-3, isn’t it?
SS: I think that’s what it is. Yes. [laughter]
AF: Are you thinking of the ballad stanza when you do that? It reminds me of that in a way.
SS: Well not really, but when I teach the ballad sometimes the students can’t hear it, or they can’t do the ballad stanza, so I break it down in syllables, and that way they can hear it. Someone said to me once, “why do you do that?” and I said, “Look, I want them to learn anyway you can get them to learn, and 4-3-4-3 is easy to learn, it really is.”
But I’ve never thought about that [with the sonku]. I was playing with a form, and for some reason that’s how it came out. And then I looked at it, and I was trying to change it to a variation of 6-3-6-3, and I will probably still do it. I want to use something with 6-3-6-3, because I’m the ninth. My birthday is the ninth day of the ninth month, so nines have followed me a great deal, and I was trying to do something that would be a nine also. It’s one of the things that I have in my journal to do, that I haven’t done yet.
AF: In your statement on form in the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes, you describe the importance of form in your teaching of poetry to undergraduates.
SS: Yes. If you do that with grad students they say, “well I just want to talk theory, I really don’t want to do this, I’m a grad student and I should have had all this.” But every now and then I slip in some exercises for them also, though quite often they’re so far gone that it doesn’t work. I do have a number of independent people, I do their thesis, and in the privacy of that year of study, I make some of them deal with form, and something happens to their thesis and it gets tightened up. I use form to tighten the work, and I use it because they might want to be like some of us and deal with it, and write it quite often. One guy was so pissed at me that he said he’d never take another writing class, and then he did a sonnet sequence for his final. He said, “I started writing it, and I just couldn’t stop.” So you never know what you tap sometimes, when you teach form.
AF: In the last sentence of the prose-poem “don’t ever give up on love” you say, “black woman echoing gold…” and then it ends, “carrying couplets from the sky to crease the ground.” … that is so mysterious to me. What do you mean couplets there? Why couplets?
SS: Well, that’s a good question. The refrains, when we sing about black women, you know? Quite often, they are two-legged, you know—they are two lines, and I wanted to talk about this woman who was carrying our history as she walked away. And a lot of our history comes from the two lines that you get in blues, the two lines that you get in ballads sometimes, you know, the refrain, also, that’s repeated. That’s what I was alluding to at that particular point. I know that sometimes I do some difficult lines; I always tell students that you don’t have to know everything a poet means, but if you get the music of it and the gist of it, then you’ve gotten it.
AF: Have you always had songs in your poetry, or chants, or things that were made to be sung or chanted?
SS: I have. I never used to sing them, as I said this afternoon…
AF: But did you sing them to yourself as you wrote them?
SS: Yes. That’s how I knew they could be sung; that’s why I would put in the margin, “to be sung.” But I never had the strength or the nerve to do it for a long time.
AF: Have they been set to music formally, by other people?
SS: Yes. There’s a man and woman team in Paris, France, who have set some of my blues and, interestingly enough, the haiku, to music. I always thought the haiku should be done; I could hear the music for the haiku. In fact, I have a reading in Oakland, California next week with a bass player, and I’m going to read some of the haiku to him and then see how he can respond to it; I can hear almost like one long note behind it. The piece to my brother was done to the tune of a jazz piece. Each time, by coming in on the first accent like that, it worked outrageously with jazz, because of how you accent it….
AF: The trochaic rhythm…
SS: Exactly, exactly.
AF: In the poem “Sequences,” you parody “Billy Boy”: “Where have you been… etc.” Do you quote songs like that in other places too?
SS: Yes, I have; I would take little children’s rhymes or the nursery rhymes that we learned. I do that in Blues Book also, someplace along the way.
AF: I remember, where you repeat, “I’m hiding and I won’t come out.”
SS: Yes, I do the games in there, too, that children do. And also, in a couple of the very rough poems to America, I do that, like in the John Coltrane poem, where it says, “are you sleeping, are you sleeping, brother John, brother John?” It’s like a little refrain there, and it’s repeated a couple of times. Of course it’s my response to Coltrane and “My Favorite Things,” but it’s also counterpoint; I do something and then all of a sudden I stop it, and do that little chant: “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, brother John, morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing. ” It’s paying respect to Brother John–everyone called John Brother John–but it’s also to emphasize that he’s not really dead,, so I say sleeping instead, to bring back the whole idea of life and death at the same time. I also use the song in the sense of Frere Jacques, the Brother John—making it holy—because the point was that Coltrane was holy to us all. When people asked did you pray, you’d say yes, I play Coltrane. And they weren’t being facetious either—because of just how mystical his music was, and how his music kept a lot of people alive at a time they wanted to be kept alive.
Blues Book was written in 1972, published in 1973. In that book, I brought in the whole idea of children’s games: “five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five thirty thirty-five forty whatever.” A lot of people do it now–but then, as I researched and went back into the childhood of little girls, I realized that no-one had brought in the games that they played, and the songs that they sang.
I like this book a great deal; it’s heavy with the ideology of the time in a lot of places, but there’s a lot here that I like…the idea of bells, the feminine imagery there, and what the bell means in different religions—to announce things, that a black girl is born—the idea of the “double dutch days”—what I’m trying to bring up is the whole sense of little girls being outside playing hide-and-go-seek, and playing hide-and-go-seek with the family and the world and the country also; like the chanting there: “No matter what they say, I won’t come out.”
AF: I wanted to ask you about your attitude towards iambic pentatmeter. I noticed this line in Blues Book: “if I had a big piece of dust/ to ride on I would gather up my pulse”; there are other iambic pentameters hidden in the book, but this one is the only one I saw that was really out there. It seems to be almost saying that the iambic pentamter was like your pulse; I wondered what you would feel about that?
SS: I think people don’t place things on pages unconsciously. A lot of poets get away with things, saying they were unconscious, but when I go back and hone things down…that was a long line, and I understood that and knew it also. It had a lot to do with my understanding that we do speak in iambic pentameter. People always say they don’t understand it, and when people try to teach it, they say it’s too difficult or whatever. But if you listen to people speaking, that’s how they speak, really. And what I was trying to show there too was not only that ‘s how I speak, but that’s how I breathe also….
AF: Have you ever had any ideological problem with iambic pentameter?
SS: I’ve never had any problems with any kind of poetry. I’ve never said to people, “I would never write this and never write that.” That never came from my mouth. I’ve always said, even in the midst of heavy ideology, that I’ve always read all poets. And that’s not backtracking; that’s true. I’ve always said it, because I understand the need for poets to read everyone.
AF: Did you apprentice yourself to a poet?
SS: No; I wish I had.
AF: Who would you have?
SS: You’d probably think that the first person I would say would be Langston Hughes, but it wouldn’t be. It probably would have been someone like Gwendolyn Brooks or Maragaret Walker.
AF: Did you read Margaret Walker early on?
SS: Yes, I did. I read her in the anthologies.
AF: What about your relationship with Louise Bogan? Could you tell some of those stories about her again?
SS: [laughs] People are always surprised that I studied with Bogan. When I was in college, I took a writing class and I was wiped out by this man who was concerned about the work that I was writing…. He asked us to write a piece about a parent, something not in step with what the parent was always doing, that was out of character in a sense. So, my father came home from work one day, and he slammed the door, which was unusual for him, and he was furious because a white man had patted him on the head, and he knew that that was a very negative thing, right? He was furious, so he brought the fury home; my father did not curse, but he did a curse word at that point. I remember that I was startled by it. I remember that I was trying to get the whole feeling of the feelings that this man had because this man patted him on the head, and he was so angry about how could he do this kind of thing. So I did this piece about my father, who is a man who was raised in the South, so therefore he knew his place in a sense, and he never reared up about anything or got angry about most things. I did this portrait of my father coming in slamming the door, and ranting and raving. And this professor gave it back to me with red all over it, saying that he did not understand this piece, that why would this man be upset about someone patting him on the head? I got a C plus on that.
The second thing was that we were asked to do something on another parent showing some emotion. I wrote about my stepmother who was a southern black woman who was afraid of New York. New York frightened her, so she would only go to 125th Street for shopping. She would not go downtown, because it meant navigating those subways and a lot of traffic. Because we were younger, and we had to go to school, we navigated everything, and we wanted to go downtown, to the movies etc. She couldn’t find something that she needed on 125th Street, so she asked us to take her downtown to Macy’s, mind you, which was a store for all people. It wasn’t Best & Co., it wasn’t Lord and Taylor, it wasn’t Saks Fifth Avenue, it wasn’t any of those other stores that perhaps if you went in as an African-American they would follow you around the store forever. So Patty and I took her there, and she found what she wanted, and she brought it to the counter. But this woman was waiting on people, and when she finished waiting on the other people, she just stood there, and I said to my stepmother, “Go on, give her what you have,” and Jerry was just waiting for the woman to recognize her, to come towards her, because she knew her place, my stepmother did. And I remember looking and thinking to myself that my stepmother was fearful of this confrontation. And that woman knew what was happening, so she waited on twenty million people and then finally she turned towards my stepmother and said “yes.” She took what my stepmother had and put it in a bag and gave her the change on the counter. She would’t touch her hand or anything, and wouldn’t say “here.” I saw all that as a child, and understood it as a child, and was thinking to myself, “I’ll never let no-one do that to me.” And I was really angry at my stepmother for being. So this piece was about her ostensibly, but it was about me and the anger that I felt towards her too, because the fear that was oozing out of her, I didn’t want it on me. I knew that it was possible that parents can pass that fear from mother to child, from father to child, and I was wise enough to understand that that fear could be passed on to me, so I didn’t want it. So I did this kind of complex piece, and the guy gave it back and said, “I don’t understand, in this day and age, anyone being afraid to go downtown to Macy’s,” and it was all over in red…C plus. Well, you know, I was not a C plus person. So we had a conference, and this man said to me, why don’t you do something more imaginative. What he was really saying was he didn’t want to be bothered with that, because it might make him think too much. So I was furious, but I went home and I’m sitting in my bedroom and I looked in the mirror, and I pretended that something came out of the mirror and started talking, pure crap, so I wrote this piece about how some image came out of the mirror and started to talk to me, and I got an A minus on it, and he said, “This is what I mean.” And I stopped writing. I wrote for his class, pure crap, but I stopped writing.
AF: How long did you stop writing for?
SS: Until I went in Bogan’s class. Because I went searching outside of Hunter [College] and would go into these classes, and these men were all teaching classes, no women were teaching, and they just walked all over you like you weren’t really supposed to be there, and I was paying money to take these classes at some of the Ys and wherever, and I knew that they didn’t want me there. The men didn’t want me there at all, the other students didn’t want me there, so after a couple of sessions I would leave. I was going to NYU at that time, and I looked in the catalog, and I knew Bogan’s work, because we had to read it in college in these anthologies, and so I actually went and sat by the door, because I figured this would be the same old thing. But the first night I read some of my work, and she asked me to hand it to her, and she commented on what was incorrect, and she thanked me for it, and I went and registered for the class and stayed there, and studied with her.
AF: She didn’t mess with you, is how you put it before.
SS: She didn’t mess with the me in there. She messed with what was wrong in terms of form, in terms of non-form, in terms of how it could be said maybe a little bit better than that, etc…
AF: Was that a free verse piece?
SS: That was a free verse piece, right; and then she taught us some forms. She made us get a poetry handbook, she made us get a rhyming dictionary also, the first rhyming dictionary I ever got—I got a huge rhyming dictionary—and [Babette Deutsch’s] Poetry Handbook, which I use now and my students do. And we had to go in there, and she’d choose a form; she would write something on the board and then she’d tell us to get the rest of it out of the book and come in with the form. And when we read we had to come up front, in front of the class, and read things aloud.
Bogan told us two or three things. One was that you must learn how to read your poetry aloud, because you must train that ear, because the ear will tell you when something is right or wrong. And then of course you must read every poet who is walking on the planet Earth, period—OK. Well, you listen to the professor, but you really don’t always follow what they say. Well, I had written this poem, and it was my time to come up and read it, up in front of the class. Well, when I started to read the poem, my ear actually did tell me; I went “oops,” because I heard some things that were wrong; I went “oops, oops,” but to myself. But I looked at the students looking at me, forty some strong, and they heard it also, and they looked at me, thinking “I’m glad it’s you and not me,” because Bogan said, “oh, may I see that please,” in her very formal voice. I handed it to her and she said, “Did you read this poem aloud?”
AF: When you wrote it.
SS: Right, when I finished it. Now my brain clicked: “If I tell her yes, and I didn’t hear this, then would I be in more trouble than if I tell her no?” So I finally said, “no, I didn’t,” because I thought it was better for her to think that I hadn’t read it aloud than that I had read it aloud and not picked up on it. But I was hearing it all along what wrong; it was very obvious what was wrong there. So she said, “well, if you had read it aloud, you would have heard the following …,” and she dissected that little sucker left and right. I’m looking at the students looking at me and they’re sitting there smiling, “I’m glad it’s you, and not me.” [Laughter]. And that was the last time I did that. It was a hard lesson, but from then on I read everything aloud. Yes, I did; make no mistake about it. And she was right. She said, “I can’t guarantee you that your ear will be trained in one semester, but I can guarantee that if you keep doing this it will finally be trained, and you will hear that which is right and that which is wrong in your pieces. But you have to train it; you have to read it aloud and make your ear pick up those things that you don’t ordinarily see when you’re just reading it silently, or just writing it. And it’s true, you know. You really do. You do have to train that ear.
And Bogan taught us a third thing; many professors don’t teach you this, but she considered herself a writer: she taught us how to keep a notebook for sending work out. She said something like, if you keep doing it regularly, every few months you send to the journals, they’ll get to know your name, and it was true, because after a year, I started getting notes from some editors saying, “we’d like to see some more of your work.” I get a lot of my students to do that, to send their work out.
So she taught us to train the ear, to read a lot of poetry, and she taught us to how to send the work out too. And that was important, a simple thing like that. And she made some of us send some work out. I was just as frightened as could be, I was so nervous. But I did that in her class; I started sending the work out, and it paid off.
AF: Was it a workshop where the other students would comment too, or was it just her?
SS: It was a workshop where we all commented on each other’s work. Oh yes, she required that. Eight or nine of us came out of that workshop, but only one other person that I know of kept publishing. Bogan taught me something else; she said, “there are a lot of good writers; a lot of people have talent. Some people don’t do anything with it, though. But do you have the strength to keep pushing and keep writing and keep pushing?”A number of the people in that workshop were very good, but they didn’t push themselves, or they didn’t have the drive to push themselves.
AF: You had the drive.
SS: I think so. My maiden name is Driver, which I think is very significant. And I was named after my father, Wilson. They put an “ia” on it, “Wilsonia.” and I think the most significant thing in Wilsonia is “will.” In fact, the sisters named me. They expected a boy, and so they had no name for me. The only name my father had for me was Wilson, since he wanted a boy, and so the sisters said so that’s allright, they made up a name for me, and so they named me Wilsonia Bonita. It’s fascinating how families and members of families and just sisters in the church will name you.
AF: How did you continue your education in poetry after Bogan’s workshop?
SS: While I was in her workshop, a guy by the name of Fred Stern came over and got what he called the best people out of the workshop, about eight or nine of us.; he said “you, you, you, you: we are going to meet in [Greenwich ] Village. And we met in the VIllage for three years, every Wednesday night, and the only requirement was that you had to bring a poem.
But you can get stifled in a workshop. What happened is that I started to publish in that workshop and then, other people weren’t publishing. At some point I knew that I had grown beyond the workshop, that it was time to leave the workshop. We used to go to some of the little jazz joints in the village. We went into the Five Spot one night and Baraka—Leroi Jones—was sitting there, and he says, “Hey, Sanchez, someone said you’re a poet. I’m editing an anthology coming out of Paris, France; would you send me some of your work?” And that was the first time I was called a poet. From that time on I began to say, “maybe I am this poet.”
AF: Did you write in form at all, after Bogan’s workshop?
SS: Yes. I did a number of sonnets. Some of the sonnets to my father were things that were done for her class, that I reworked in some of my books. And I began to experiment…. She didn’t teach us the haiku. That was something I came upon in Japanese poetry, and also since I was reading Richard Wright; I saw his haiku also. So I took that upon myself, as a form that I thought was really very important. But I have done, in journals, blank verse that has never been published—mostly the sonnet, and blank verse—and also the blues always, the blues, I’ve always brought the blues with me—and ballads, when I wanted to tell a story. I picked up the haiku and tanka on my own. And the prose poem I picked up on my own, and after I did it, I said, “I know this exists before me, I know that I ‘m not inventing this,” and I went searching for the whole idea of the prose poem. I also did concrete poetry. I was fascinated by concrete poetry for a while, and so I would make designs and whatever.
AF: Is any of that published?
SS: That’s all in my journals. No, the concrete poetry is not published. At the time I was discovering, reading everyone, all the poets, and I would then do what other people had done, just to see how it felt and how it seemed.
AF: You have used the haiku often. What is your attraction to that form?
SS: I fell in love with the haiku form, and I knew just what I wanted to do with it. I thought it would be almost cliched to always try to do the nature haiku, that is so rampant in haiku, because I thought that probably that would be almost impossible, to capture that kind of beauty. So what I decided to do was to make my haiku, and my tanka, either with some thought, or some beauty, or some love—an idea that in a sense would be almost surreal sometimes, that would make you stop in nature, you know, stop and look. So therefore my connection for my haiku with nature is that it makes you stop and connect with another human being or an idea, so that’s the connection with nature; to stop in time, and you leap across time, and that’s the connection with nature.
AF: So that’s what you want to do, you want to make a connection.
SS: But I also want sometimes some of them just to be beautiful, so therefore that also would reflect nature, and some are just so harsh, like the haiku, “If I had really known you, I would have left my love at home”—that is so hard, and so harsh. That’s what I mean, because you see, the beauty of the haiku the way they used to do it in the old days is not only the nature connection, but also it is that very surreal thing that goes beyond nature, that goes into nature. It goes in and you know that there are lives in between our own lives. That’s what I try to do too. Sometimes there are double meanings and triple meanings there too, which means that you know there is life between the poem and the lines, which means that if you really understand your life, our lives, there are lives in between that we don’t always see, because we limit ourselves. I’m struggling with this because I don’t usually talk about it. I might write about it, but when you talk about it sometimes, people look at you in a very strange fashion. I always think that we are always out there as poets sometime, someplace, but that’s what I attempt to do with it.
AF: There are moments like that, and there are people like that, that are just alive the way poetry is alive when it’s alive.
SS: I feel that poets are so helpful in the world, because they help people to connect in spite of themselves, and they help people to love in spite of themselves, if it’s just loving the poem or the line, if you can make people connect and love a line or a word or whatever, you’ve helped them to stay connected, to life and beauty, which means they will be a much better human being. So I think poets have a role to do that, to continue to do that, to keep people human, finally.
AF: Do you think there is any connection between form and poetry? Is there anything about form that helps poets…
SS: I think Bogan posed a question in the classroom once, and I pose the question in my own classes too: “Will form make this poem come out in a different fashion, take a different form? I’m not being facetious now; will the very fact that you’re doing a villanelle shape that poem in a special way, a different way than if you were doing it in free verse? It’s true, I think it does. You teach the form, and you make other things happen.
AF: And if poets are doing this, if they are making people connect in spite of themselves, then is there anything about form that helps poets do that?
SS: Well, I think that poets connect to every kind of poetry. You might burst on the scene writing free verse, because that’s the period you come out of. But you’re connecting to prior times also, and so I think that at this point I’m connecting to a prior time. I think that’s the only reason why I’m doing that piece on my brother in rhyme royal, because it came out of the night, it came all written, one stanza, so that something, someplace that is making you do this poem and because I don’t think that I would have done it consciously. And I think that we do connect for instance, and I think that that’s happening to me at this point in my life and I find it very interesting.
I was in the Friends Society recently [in Philadelphia]. doing a reading for them, for Black History Month. The building is an old building with seats going all the way up the ceiling almost. I walked into this building, and I had a feeling similar to what I felt when I was at the African meeting house, where I really heard Douglass and people and smelled the blood, and I sat down and I was shaking because you could just hear it. Well I sat down here and I was not shaking,, but there was something here. I said “gee, there’s some force in here.” I stumbled from the beginning to the end of the poem, I stumbled; I went wild, and I said out loud, That’s very strange, I haven’t read that piece for a while, but I have never read it in this fashion. There was something bothering me, there was some force in that room, and in the piece “don’t never give up on love,” when I had to speak in the old woman’ voice, it wasn’t my voice. Then a scream that I knew wasn’t my voice came out, and it said “help me, help me, help me,” and by that time everyone in the audience was entranced, because they didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t know either, but anyway, to make a long story short, the logical thing was to say “I’ll help you,” and that’s what I said. I said, “don’t worry, I’ll help you, go in peace, go in peace; I’ll help you.” And then, whatever was there left, and one of the women [in the audience] said she saw a blue haze, a blue over my body. Something did happen in that room evidently, and I’m saying all that to say that at this time in my life I am making connections that are very real. There are connections, I think, with the past.
AF: You’re using a form like that to go back to the past.
SS: Um hum.
AF: I asked about form because I have thought sometimes that form, because it uses repetition, accesses different parts of people’s minds, different parts of their brains, and connects them in a different way.
SS: It could very well be. It probably has a lot to do not just with the brain, but it probably has a lot to do with the entire body, when we really look at the body. We always want to be hooked in with the brain because we think that’s the highest level of intelligence, but I think the soul and the heart probably are even more so, and I think that quite often, form will make us retreat to the soul, and to the heart, and to the spirit.
We always want to believe that the form is being dealt with on what we consider the highest level of intelligence, and that is the brain, the intellect—but I think that contrary to that, we have to concentrate so much sometimes on the form that the form becomes very much involved with the body and with the soul and with the spirit. Because people don’t understand the spirit and the soul, they want to relegate them to an arena (and I’m not being negative now) of probably free verse, because that’s free-form; but the soul and spirit are formaliized, they are formal things. They’re blues, they’re spirituals, they’re haiku, they’re tanka, they’re all these things that reach your heart and your spirit and your soul.
AF: Why do you think that those forms reach your heart and your soul?
SS: I think that because they do have form, they’re able then to penetrate your formal areas. And they don’t just go every place, whatever. They very distinctly have a place of rest. They come to rest and reside in the areas that are already formal—the body is a very formal place. When we live undisciplined lives, we don’t understand just how formal the body is. It’s when we begin to discipline ourselves, being vegetarians, eating the proper food, thinking the proper thoughts, that we understand the place form has; not the coldness of form, not the intellect of form, but form, the feeling of form, the form that enters the body and says, “I have a right to reside here, and this is where I belong, in the heart, in the spirit, in the soul.” As well as in the intellect, too, but not just there. People who deal with form sometimes want to leave it only there, you see, and I’m saying that it has another place beyond just the intellect.