Poet Sonia Sanchez has never written a book called a memoir. But her work flows directly from her life. It’s not about her, however. She calls her “I” the “collective I” which is also a “collective eye” searching for justice and love in a world too often unjust and hate-and fear-full.
Thanks to an invitation from Dr. Joanne Gabbin, director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, I had the good fortune to be part of a “collective I” and “eye” June 22-25, 2011. Sonia was present all week as a surprise gift to the participants in the Continuous Fire seminar. In the above photo she’s the one being hugged by Dr. Akasha Hull, whose beaming face shines in the middle, but all you can see of Sonia are her grey dreadlocks. She is fine with that position. Instead of making her powerless, it makes her more powerful.
My own position in the picture above is at the center edge. As a white woman who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm in the ’50’s without the benefit of knowing any African-American person well, and who is now writing a memoir about that childhood, I knew I was in the room of 22 teachers, professors, and poets for a reason beyond the fact that I love the poetry of Sonia Sanchez (and now I love the person herself). Yet I didn’t know for sure what that reason was.
After a few days of reflection, I have selected one short haiku from the preface of Sonia’s 2010 Beacon Press book morning haiku as a way to explain Sonia’s work as I understand it and as a way of connecting my own novice writer work to hers as a lifelong practitioner.
Here’s the poem:
Let me wear the day
Well so when it reaches you
You will enjoy it.
Sonia wrote that Haiku poem for her children after realizing that due to time zone changes, she was living her days in advance of theirs. It works first on a literal level with that helpful backstory–Sonia the loving mama speaks to her children. But, like all good haiku poems, it keeps sending out ripples of meaning far beyond the literal.
Sonia the radical Black activist, who was most recently arrested for opposing America’s endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, speaks in this poem also. Like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, she sees far out beyond the present moment into the future. In “wearing” the “day/Well,” she is putting on the purple robe of priest and prophet. Her visionary words and work have a purpose. She is laying down her life so that the future day may come when “You will enjoy it.”
This poem resonated with me because of my personal mission statement: To prepare for the hour of my death–one good day, and one good moment, at a time. And to help others do the same.
It also resonated with the six-year-old girl still inside me whose first friend from another culture was Vicky Martinez from the lower east side of Manhattan. I told how she brought fresh air into my small world in this essay.
Vicky, my brother Henry, and I played together as children. We enjoyed the day. Our differences made us fascinating to each other most of the time and grew our imaginations when they chafed. I regret that Vicky and I never had the opportunity to be friends in adulthood. The Fresh Air Program ended when children turned 12, and we lost touch. She died of multiple sclerosis in her early 30’s.
Vicky’s spirit came back to me again when I tried to name the connection I feel to another woman with a Hispanic surname and an African-American identity, Sonia Sanchez.
Long ago I published my first personal essay in a church publication. It was called “The Sins of the Fathers” and described my attempts to reach my African-American students as an English teacher, in my first job out of college, teaching English at Harrisonburg High School, 1970-72. In many ways, I failed abysmally. But I cared. And that caring took me to writing which takes me to a place beyond words, beyond bondage to the sin of racism, to a place Sonia Sanchez saw from Beijing when she wrote her haiku masterpiece–a place of freedom and equality.
We, the cultural children conceived in Sonia Sanchez’ vivid imagination, will only enjoy our future days if all God’s children can enjoy the day also.
The inscription Sonia wrote in my copy of morning haiku reads, “To Sister Shirley–so good meeting you my dear Sister. As we try to live a haiku life!!!
She added at the end, “Always Peace!”
It’s been a long time since I attempted to write haiku, but here, Sister Sonia, is my final tribute to a huge impact from a brief encounter.
Memoir matters most
when it transforms old wrongs.
Write the path to Peace.
Beautifully written, Shirley. It brought much emotion.
Thanks, Linda. So glad you commented. I saw you at the reading and know you can identify with many parts of this story.
Yes, it brought much emotion to me too. Haiku are multi-layered, not unlike parables or koans. I strongly connect with trying to do my best, yet failing to fully bridge the chasm of race and identity in the classroom and facilitation. Thank you for opening your experience and your self to us, your readers.
Kathleen, thanks. The struggle is far from over, or, as we sang together “We’re on the Battlefield.”
Your experience sounds transformational. Just reading about your encounter with Sonya inspires me to look into Haiku and into finding my own strong sense of peace, (I admit, I have found it difficult). I can count on one hand the individuals I have met that radiate that kind of peace through kindness and sharing, and I cherish every one, since they are our great teachers.
So true, Rosemary.Your observation makes me become aware of how blessed I’ve been to know many great peacemakers. But Sonia Sanchez is in a special category all her own. I appreciate your comment.
My sister this was well said. (first how u be) We the cultural children must continue to share and teach Thank you for sharing your life so others may know that the teaching is continous. Alicia
Alicia, how u be??!! Thanks for expanding my circle of trust and hope. And thanks, too, for taking time to make a comment here. I hope our group can stay in touch, and I can’t wait to see all the great papers, talks, publications, and poetry that will flow from a few days of Continuous Fire.
I sense the love and deep meaning of your post. Sonia Sanchez means so much to you and what she wrote in her book signing also touched you from your childhood memories. Beautiful!
Thanks, Sonia. Since you share a name with this wonderful poet, you may want to get to know her work more too. She’s Gutsy, that’s for sure!! Good to see you here again and to know that you are having great adventures connecting to people all around the world. You go, girl!
Love this Shirley….very heartfelt and full.
Thanks for the visit, Christine. I’m honored by your comment–especially because I consider you a woman wise in matters of heart and fullness.
this is a fabulous video and I will post it on ME Quiet? You’re Kidding, Right? Joanne Gabbin rocks!
thanks Shirley-great blog post!!
Thanks, Marla. Good for you for checking out the amazing links. Joanne Gabbin does rock! I’m glad you found some content here. And I will keep posting your great free memoir query critiques here, too.
give me a blog post for marlamiller.com-anytime! this blog really offers useful information Shirley–u should be quite pleased–good stuff here.
Shirley, this is so moving. I love the way you brought attention to this poet and her work. I adore your mission statement! Humbling. And the snippet about your sister is so poignant, as is that cute picture. Thank you.
Thanks, Richard. Your words of affirmation mean much to me. You have taught me much as a writer and fellow blogger.
[…] Flower recently held a celebration of the poetry of Sonia Sanchez in June. Check out this post over on 100 Memoirs about one teacher’s experiences with this amazing […]
[…] who introduced me to Joanne Gabbin. I’ve been a Furious Flower fan ever since. I wrote this post in praise of Sonia Sanchez and after Gabbin and Nikki Giovanni organized another elder event, I also wrote about Toni Morrison […]
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