An Affirmation for This Day: Meditate on Sonia Sanchez

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A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.

She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.

And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.

I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets.  She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.

Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.

And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.

Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.

Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.

I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.

“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.

My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.

“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”

“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”

“I’m good, thank you.”

She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.

But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.

Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.

If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.

Sonia Sanchez’s official website 

Sonia Sanchez’s Wikipedia Page

Information about the Black Arts Movement

And finally, there is a documentary being made about Sonia Sanchez! It promises to be fantastic. Here is the link to the trailer of the film in progress. Enjoy!

The Sister-Poet Numbers: Count Number Two

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a Black male poetry colleague of mine, Major Jackson, and how I felt as if he erased me from Black poetry history in an interview in Poets and Writers; he mentioned attending the very first retreat of Cave Canem African American Poets in 1996, but only mentioned the two other men (besides himself) to attend that year and to publish poetry books. He did not mention me, the only woman out of the first group of 1996 Cave Canem fellows to have made an ongoing career in poetry. I felt the oversight was, well, sexist.

That blog post–Count Number One in the Black Poetry World– set off a firestorm. Actually, “fire” is not the right first syllable of that word, but as you know I try not to curse on the blog. (In real life is another story.)  After the post, I was attacked for criticizing Major Jackson; criticizing Cave Canem, the most influential Black poetry organization there is out there; and just generally being a Black-male-poet-hating, evil heifer who needed several bouts of therapy, a good drink– and some good something else, too.

Surprise.

I will admit that I have been vocal over the years by what I have viewed as favoritism in the Black poetry world for the Brother-poets. And I’m one of only a few Sisters who will make those charges in public—and in print. I’m not counting whispering as “public.”

I don’t criticize other Sisters for not being vocal, though; it’s understandable when they remain silent, considering the attacks that have been leveled against me recently. Not that I can’t handle them. Let’s be clear about that. But I have had some serious support from some Sister-writers, some White women writers, and actually a few Brothers, too. And, of course, my mama. And that support makes me stronger.

So those Sisters who remain silent out of fear don’t bother me.–No, the ones who bother me are the Sisters who join in on the attacks. And there were several to do that. And the ones who really bother me are those who have ribbed me up to talk about these issues of sexism and then desert me when I need some backup.

Sidebar: I gotta tell you, nothing is more annoying than Black women who encourage my “courageous truth-telling spirit” in my poetry and then, they don’t understand that what happens in real life is, like, the truth.

Okay?

But the talk of sexism against women writers of all complexions in the “mainstream” writing world—not just poetry– has been all over the blogosphere lately.

Slate.com has run several pieces, one just recently by Meghan O’Rourke.

And yesterday, Cate Marvin and Carol Muske-Dukes published another piece.

Last week in Huffington Post, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner talked about the way that reviewers at the most prestigious publications (especially the New York Times Book Review) ignore women writers when it comes to reviews.

Weiner said the following:

‎The [NY]Times tends to pick white guys [to review]. Usually white guys living in  Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs…white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.

And there are several women writers associated with the fabulous, sassy women writers’ site vidaweb.org who have joined the discussion, too. The poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin are the co-founders, and they are in the midst of compiling a count of how many women of all complexions have won prestigious awards, etcetera. They are still tallying up those numbers.

However, I want to help the conversation by looking at the numbers of African American female poets, too; surely, this is a very specific target group, but it is my specific target group, after all. Now, I’d like to include the numbers for Sister fiction writers as well but I need help with that. So any of my readers who are Sister-fiction writers and who don’t mind being public on this issue–because I’m not gone work with somebody in private–just give me a holler. I will be so grateful.

So, I decided to start with one of the most prestigious fellowships there is, the Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown, Massachusetts. FAWC gives you an eight-month fellowship which includes a monthly stipend and a rent-free place to stay, including utilities.

Now let’s talk about the numbers. Here goes.

Did you know that in the entire forty-one year history of the Fine Arts Work Center—since they started admitting writers and not just visual artists—there  have only been eight Black poets to have won this prestigious fellowship?

And did you know that not one of those eight Black poets are female?

That’s right, no Black women poet has ever been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.  If you can tell me differently, please leave a comment below.  I went through the entire list, but I may not have recognized a name. There is always a chance that I made a mistake. You can read the list here.

[NOTE: On 9/16/10 A Facebook Friend pointed out that I was wrong that not one Black woman poet has won. Donna K. Rushin–who goes by “Kate Rushin” now– won thirty-three years ago and was in residence 1977-78. And Brenda Marie Osbey won a year-long FAWC fellowship twenty-three years ago and was in residence from 1987-88. Thus, it has been twenty-three years since a Black woman poet has won a year-long fellowship at FAWC. Not quite as bad as “never” but still, that’s pretty bad. ]

Here are the names of all the Black male poets I could locate who have been fellows at FAWC:

1980 Yusef Komunyakaa

1982 Cyrus Cassells

1991 Timothy Seibles

1995 Thomas Sayers Ellis

1999 Ronaldo Wilson

2000 Major Jackson

2004 Tyehimba Jess

2007 John Murillo

[Second update 9/16/10 One of my readers just let me know in the comments that there is a new Black male poet who is currently a 2010-2011 Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. His name is Marcus Wicker.]

I want to be clear about why I think this information matters. First,  if you go to the FAWC website and you look at the list of names, you will recognize some of the most famous and canonized poets in American poetry. The Fine Arts Work Center provides an entry into the elite, top-tier group of American Poets. Here’s what they say on the website.

Past Fellows have won virtually every major national award in their respective fields, including the Pulitzer, MacArthur, Whiting, Pollock-Krasner, Tiffany, Prix de Rome, Guggenheim, NEA, and National Book Award.

Those writing awards listed above come with a lot of money, money that could buy you time to take off from your job to write your book, while still paying your rent, your bills,  and the weekly charge for your babies’ daycare.

Get the picture? Those that get these type of awards are usually more productive writers than those of us who don’t. Then you can use those awards to barter for a raise if you are teaching in academia–so you finally pay off your student loans with the capitalizing interest. So wanting these awards is not about “classism” or “elitism.” It’s about survival of the productive artist. Believe that.

Second, I don’t have some personal beef that makes me perversely keep bringing this stuff out. I’m concerned about why Black women poets don’t get the same attention as Black male poets and since I’m a Black woman and a poet, sure, this is personal, but it’s not some beef, it’s some politics.

However, I also want to be clear that, just because Black males get the lion’s share of attention, that’s still very little attention overall for Black poets.

That said, though, I don’t think it’s fair to expect us Sisters to keep quiet and wait–and wait and wait– just so the Brothers can go first and get their little bit before us. I don’t think it’s fair, especially when I hear very few of the Brother-poets I know–like, three, out of  hundreds– speaking up for Sisters and against Black male privilege in the poetry world in public and in print.

Again, whispering does not count as public, especially if that’s your “sensitive, conscious” rap when you’re trying to impress a Sister to get yourself some. Sugar, please. That’s a game from a dusty player’s handbook left in the attic of a minor poet of the Black Arts Movement.

Anyway, how many well-known, powerful Black male poets are mentoring Black female poets right now–writing them letters of recommendation for jobs and large-purse fellowships, writing blurbs for the backs of their books, giving them the inside information they need to further their careers along, talking to editors at their prestigious New York presses to get those women published, “walking” those women’s poems over to the best journals, and mentioning their names in interviews in high profile magazines as the “poets to watch”?

How many Black male poets are standing by us Sisters?

Because just about every Sister-poet I know is working with a Brother-poet  and helping to nurture his career in some kind of way, and throwing every bit of influence she has behind him. But that’s what we’ve always done in some capacity in this community for Black men. We’ve always looked out for them. Why should the poetry world be any different?

[Stay tuned for Count Number Three of Black Women Poets. Come on—you know you want to know!]

An (Erased) Week in Black Poetry History

Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center

Last Saturday, I arose feeling fabulous. I bounced up out of bed and made me a café au (soy) lait and settled in with my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, which had an interview with a brother-poet, Major Jackson. His latest book, Holding Company, is out right now from W.W. Norton.

Major and I go way, way back. He and I were among the first group of fellows from the renowned Cave Canem Workshop/Retreat for African American Poets; I saw in Poets and Writers that Major had mentioned that wonderful week in June all of us shared fourteen years ago at Mt. St. Alphonsus, a former monastery turned Catholic retreat center in Esopus, New York; the center perched on the banks of the Hudson.

Also, Major had mentioned two other folks besides him from that week to publish books, A. Van Jordan and Terrance Hayes, both of them men. But he didn’t mention me, the only woman fellow from that week to have had a successful career in poetry. That was pretty upsetting, to say the least.

For those of you who don’t know about Cave Canem, let me give you some history. The workshop/retreat was founded by the poets Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in1996. The very first Cave Canem took place in a former monastery in Esopus, New York, a small town that sits on the Hudson River winding through the Catskill Mountains.

There were thirty of us total including two faculty members, two visiting poets, the director of the workshop retreat (also the wife of one of the founders), one week-long poet in-residence, twenty-three fellows and Father Francis Gargani, who ran the retreat center and who was the finest priest I had ever laid eyes on. And by the way, he is still fine, fourteen years later. It must be all that clean living.

The first day was intense and strange, at least to me. We sat around in a circle and started giving our back-stories. When we got to Renée Moore, she started weeping. I remember feeling shaken and confused by the sight of all those Black poets sitting around the circle. I had never experienced this scene, intellectually, emotionally, or any other kind of way. Vincent Woodard, our sweet departed soul, cried as well. He was the spiritual center of our group.

One night, several of the fellows decided to walk down the hill from the monastery to the river. It was blinding dark—no light anywhere on the path—and a few feet down the hill we realized we had no flashlights, but we couldn’t see to walk back. Some of the older people had stayed up the hill, like Miss Carrie Allen McCray (passed now as well) who was eighty-two and who needed her rest.

We had to hold each others’ hands in a chain and walk carefully. Someone said, “I wonder if this is what the runaway slaves felt like.” It was a sobering thought, because I was scared of the dark. But I had my friends to keep me safe, especially Herman Beavers, the first Black male feminist I ever met. I heard Van Jordan’s baritone somewhere. And James Richardson, who remains the most brilliant individual I have ever met, was bringing up the rear.  John Frazier was somewhere in that group, too.

At the bottom of the hill, Hayes Davis and D. J. Renegade made a bonfire. Elizabeth Alexander was down there, kicking it with us, even though she was officially famous and not a fellow but a poet-in-residence. And then, I started singing Aretha songs—with my little one and a half octave range. Rachel Harding was a lovely soprano so she took the notes I couldn’t hit.

At the end of the week when we left the monastery, I drove Hayes and Major back to Philadelphia where they both lived, because I had a rental car. We had such a good time in the car, just laughing and talking and cutting up. After we dropped Major off in Germantown, I stayed overnight with Hayes and his father, Mr. Earl (now late), who was an otherworldly brilliant and beautiful artist.  Mr. Earl bought us a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and I was so relieved. I was from the South and I had hoped those Northern Negroes didn’t want to eat something all chi-chi. And just like southern folks, Mr. Earl gave the blessing before we began to eat.

Over that next year, some of the 1996 fellows wrote me snail mail letters and I saved them all. I have letters from Van, Hayes, Yona Harvey (who married Terrance that next year), Toi, Herman—and a baby picture of Herm’s firstborn child. Sherry Lee sent us all pictures that she had taken and made into a calendar.

And I have a letter that Major wrote me. He was just starting his career back then, but I knew he would be famous one day. In the letter, he talked about having dinner with a few poets, all of them famous, and I was so proud of him.

Now, I could discuss the sexism of Major’s interview in Poets and Writers, in which Major apparently erased the entire memory of not only me, but all the other Black women—his Sisters—at that week-long workshop retreat, including the founder Toi Derricotte and Elizabeth Alexander, the woman who composed—from scratch—a poem she read at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

I could talk about why the only Sister out of the 1996 Cave Canem Fellows’ Group to make a career as a poet—that would be me—was not mentioned.  And he’s not the only Black male poet to erase other Black women; that history of sexism goes back a long time. And believe me, I will talk about that and in great and detailed length, but that discussion is for a later time.

Finally, I could remind that Negro that I let him ride back to Philly in my rental car for free, because I don’t recollect that he gave me no gas money.

For now, though, it’s really about a time lost. I was a girl then, a very young (minded) almost-twenty nine, and that first Cave Canem was the only time in my entire life where I felt truly loved and accepted by other Black people—or people, period.  I was completely wrapped up in joy.  I know it sounds silly, but that week seemed like one of those sunlit scenes from a film, out of time and place. A scene you hope will go on and on.

Over the years, I’ve remembered the love I shared with all those people, but I can’t remember all the names. One reason is that, if you go on the Cave Canem website’s mission page, there is a “history” section, but no list of the original fellows from that year. Which is pretty sad and strange considering that we Black folks hold history in such high esteem, because much of our history has been taken from us.

Some of the people I haven’t mentioned by name are: Sarah Micklem, Omari Daniel, Ronald Dorris, Valerie Jean, Afaa Michael Weaver, Patricia Spears Jones, and Lorelei Williams. But I know I have forgotten at least two people and that makes me really sad.

Over and over, I’ve gone to the Cave Canem website hoping for a list of the names of the original folks from 1996, but the list is never there, or at least, not where I can find it. Somewhere in an archive there are records of all those Black poets who helped to make Cave Canem what it is today—for better or for worse—but it would be nice if I didn’t have to search out that place to find a record of such a beautiful time. It would be nice if those six joyful days were fully honored.