For many of the professors and K-12 teachers who traveled to James Madison University in Virginia from Texas, Illinois and Georgia to study the literary works of poet, playwright, activist and scholar Sonia Sanchez, their journey also represented a pilgrimage.
“As an emerging poet, and a woman of color, it was imperative for me to be here,” says Patricia Biela, a substitute K-12 language arts teacher in Hampton, Va., of the weeklong seminar sponsored in June by the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.
Dr. Meta DuEwa Jones, who teaches African-American poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, says, “To come here was like being able to sit at the feet of the elders.”
On the first day of the seminar, the 29 participants were able to get up close and personal with Sanchez. When she arrived to applause and awe, Sanchez sat down in an unexpected place — in the classroom with the participants for the entire week. For those who attended the inaugural seminar in 2009 to honor Lucille Clifton, they interacted with Clifton only on the final day of class.
The Teacher and Student
Now 76, Sanchez — whose teaching and literary career has spanned more than 40 years — is still a tiny package filled with fire and light. She is a poet ever ready to divulge how she birthed new poetic forms while raising twin boys; and how she “became this woman with razorblades between her teeth,” railing against injustice and “spitting out words that America paid attention to.”
With Sanchez in the room, writer and radio personality Antoinette Brim was at first a bit intimidated to read the artist’s work aloud when it was her turn to recite verses from Homecoming, Sanchez’s first collection of poetry published in 1969. But when Brim finished, Sanchez applauded and presented one of many impromptu teachable moments.
“Take the opportunity to read my work in the classroom so that you know how it sounds when teaching it.”
The voice of the woman who found herself at the epicenter of the Black Arts movement, which upended and redefined African-American literature and arts during the 1960s, still looms large on the importance of the things that she says have always mattered to her and informed her writing —“improving the human condition” and the pursuit of freedom of the oppressed.
Continuing the Fire
“What we are getting here this week is a very layered, marinated, and seasoned approach to studying Sanchez’s work that you couldn’t get from just reading the criticism,” says DeMaris Hill, a Ph.D. student in English-Creative Writing at the University of Kansas.
That’s what Dr. Joanne Gabbin, executive director of the center, said she had in mind when she envisioned “Continuous Fire: A Seminar on the Poetry of Sonia Sanchez” — an intensive week of study filled with workshops on such things as “the role of Sanchez’s poetry in imparting social justice, her poetry within the framework of the Black Arts Movement and the mainstream literary canon and an exploration into the musicality of her poetry.”
Fulfilling a long-held dream, Gabbin said it was time to honor and celebrate the legacy of elder Black poets such as Sanchez and Clifton who “have amassed enough literature that can now be evaluated, assessed and critiqued in a way that helps further the teaching and understanding of their work.”
The Center tapped historians, poets, writers, and literary scholars John Bracey, Hilary Holladay, Nikki Giovanni, Brenda Greene, Akasha Hull, Joyce Ann Joyce, M. Nzadi Keita, Haki Madhubuti, Jessica Care Moore, and Jacqueline Wood as faculty and guests for the week.
“Teachers teach what they know,” says Gabbin. “I want to encourage those who have a choice to teach the work of writers like Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton to do it.”