Setting down a crisp new copy of Morning Haiku on her coffee table, Sonia Sanchez removes her reading glasses and looks out her window toward West Chelten Avenue, as if she can see the answer to my question loitering on her porch.
"Why is it that you are more revered outside of Philadelphia than in it?"
"I don't know, my dear brother," she says, with just a hint of a smile protruding. "I just don't know the answer to that." But the wheels are spinning somewhere behind that gentle smile. What could she be thinking? Perhaps it is simply this: That perception is about to change — my dear brother — sooner or later.
In fact, there's a group of committed Philadelphians who want to see it change very, very soon. And it looks like they have the clout and connections to pull it off.
In the Paley Library at Temple University, there is a cascade of articles on the 76-year-old author. Beginning with a slow trickle in the late 1960s — mostly related to Homecoming, her first book of poetry — the citations multiply exponentially somewhere around the late '70s, with her rising international fame. That's also roughly when Sanchez moved to Philadelphia to teach at the University of Pennsylvania.
Focusing on The Philadelphia Inquirer alone, it's pretty slim pickings. Outside of a few columns by Annette John-Hall (who seems to be a fan), there's really only one big feature since 1980.
What about Philadelphia magazine? Nada.
A winner of the PEN Writing Award and the American Book Award, Sanchez still commands huge audiences everywhere from the University of Birmingham to Beijing University. Outside of Philadelphia, Sonia Sanchez is considered Philadelphia's leading cultural figure. The Smithsonian now includes her in its traveling exhibit, "Freedom's Sisters," where she is presented as one of 20 black women who "shaped much of the spirit and substance of civil rights in America."
Twenty women. 1862 to the present.
In local news items on Sanchez, there's something a bit cringe-worthy — yet hard to put a finger on — in the tone of the descriptions. Little things, like: In a short article describing a "predominantly black audience" at her retirement in 1999, the Inquirer went out of its way to mention that some of the guests wore their hair in dreadlocks.
Other than John Street, Philadelphia's mayors have largely kept their distance from Sanchez. But when Street asked the poet to compose a poem for his inauguration in 2000, the Inky headline read: "It Took Work to Wax Poetic for Street." Probably more of a shot at Street than Sanchez, but it likely didn't inspire Philly's leading cultural figure with feelings of brotherly love, either.
Evan Solot doesn't exactly fit the composite sketch of a Sonia Sanchez fan. He's a straight white guy from Northeast Philly, who admits he never even had a black friend until he started seriously pursuing jazz in college. "That's the beautiful thing about playing music. It doesn't matter what you look like; it's what you sound like," he says, sitting in his Bella Vista row home.
A few years ago he was commissioned to write a short classical piece to accompany a Sanchez haiku. That got Solot reading — and rereading — the prolific poet. He says he connected with the simple determination to survive in her work. "Hey, in my family, we used to joke that we made the move from welfare to Mayfair," he says with a grin.
He was so inspired, he created an operatic version of Sanchez's 1997 epic poem, "Does Your House Have Lions?" In this town, when Evan Solot gets inspired, a lot can happen. He recorded with nearly all of the Gamble and Huff artists back in the '70s, and later was one of the founders of the jazz program at the University of the Arts. He's a well-connected guy.
UArts produced Solot's version of "Lions" last year in a massive undertaking, with nearly all of the university departments contributing.
Plus, his wife is president of the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art, which got the ball rolling toward a full-fledged Sonia spectacular.
"Sonia was there while [Evan] was working on the show, and I got to know her, and I just sort of fell in love with her," says Vicki Solot from her Center City office.
In the '80s and '90s, Vicki Solot was one of the leading corporate event promoters in the area. (The Waterworks and the Bourse both opened with Solot-run glitz.) Inspired by the work of Anna Deavere Smith, in 2000 she founded the First Person Festival, devoted to writers telling first-person narratives.
On opening night of "Lions" at UArts, she introduced Sanchez to Pew-winning documentary filmmakers Janet Goldwater and Barbara Attie. Before long there was a massive First Person Arts tribute to Sanchez in the works, plus a full-length documentary brewing. For many Sanchez admirers, "BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez: A Tribute in Word, Music and Dance" is the long-overdue Philly-Sanchez love-in they've been waiting for. Talib Kweli, Ruby Dee, Rennie Harris, Odean Pope, Monnette Sudler and Amiri Baraka are all scheduled to perform. Danny Glover has even crafted a personal video message for Sonia. Originally booked in the Painted Bride Arts Center, First Person recently moved the tribute to the larger University Baptist Temple due to expected ticket sales.
"I just felt Sonia hadn't gotten the kind of big public recognition in Philadelphia that I think she deserves," says Solot.
When asked why she thinks that is, Solot is frank: "That's just so Philly, don't you think? We really don't appreciate our own people."
Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon sits on a sofa just outside her office at Temple, as procrastinating students stomp down the hall to hand her pages of double-spaced type. Williams-Witherspoon is one of the few authorities on the history of African-American arts in Phila-delphia, and she also happened to be Sanchez's TA back in the early '90s.
"On an international level there are still those that recognize her importance, but not in this city," she says flatly.
But then Williams-Witherspoon frames the issue from a different perspective, beginning with the poet's initial rise to prominence in New York's Black Arts Movement: "She grew up in the '60s, in New York, where bohemianism was a big part of the culture of that city. Philadelphia has always been a very conservative, Quaker city. We don't realize just how much that informs the level of censorship that can be levied here. If you're an outsider, used to something else, there's two ways you can deal with that: You can continue to be you and buck the system, or you can eventually get absorbed into the existing culture. She was never absorbed."
Then we come to the other theme that seems to permeate any discussion on Sanchez: She has a gift for gab — a gift like nothing you've ever heard. "As her TA, you just kinda sit back. ... The students are just in awe. They sit at her feet. And she does wax on," she says with a big laugh.
Sanchez also has a habit of waxing on about subjects many locals would rather forget. In Philadelphia, above all, there are eight syllables that are never spoken in polite conversation: MOVE and Mumia Abu-Jamal. But Sanchez doesn't seem to have a problem talking at length about either one.
In 1981 she was one of three character witnesses to testify on behalf of Abu-Jamal. The newspaper reports point to Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGill's verbal attacks on the poet, using her writings on Assata Shakur to paint her as a violent radical.
In 1985 she was one of the few locals to join other African-American leaders in calling for Wilson Goode's resignation following the MOVE bombing.
"You know, her stature is so demure [Sanchez is 4-foot-11] that I think her opposition sometimes says, 'Who's this little lady?'" says Williams-Witherspoon. "Then when she comes at them with that voice and her spirit ... " But then Williams-Witherspoon thinks for a moment, and says finally, "Let's face it, the activism of the '60s is no longer in vogue. Now people want a scholarship like [Henry Louis] Gates or Michael Eric Dyson. They want something that's palatable, and not so in-your-face."
Sonia Sanchez leans forward on the edge of her couch, and again weighs the question at hand carefully in her mind. "Did you know I have written most of my poetry, right here, in a place called Phila-delphia?" she says, as if she herself were surprised by the answer. It's true. And in a few more years she will have lived in Philly for most of her life.
I spend the next two hours probing for the firebrand radical sometimes extolled by her fans and often lamented by her critics. If that Sanchez exists, I didn't find her.
"I still challenge authority. But my problem was I sometimes used to do it by cursing people out, you see. I don't do that anymore, because all people remember is the curse," she says. "So now I do it in such a way where I slap somebody and hug them at the same time, so at least they remember the hug."
We touch on everything from Jackie Robinson's first appearance at Shibe Park (not Philly's finest hour) to Sanchez's recent arrest for protesting the Iraq war with a group called the Granny Peace Brigade.
Her responses tread closer to concerned grandmother than radical revolutionary.
On Mumia: "I don't know what Mumia did that night. I cannot tell you what he did. I came in as a character witness to say how I knew him in this city: always as a progressive person, as a human being, and certainly as a person who I hoped would get a good trial. Which he did not."
On MOVE: "When it happened I went down in front of City Hall with the MOVE people. Not that I believe what they believe, but I don't believe in capital punishment. ... There were children in there that burned. So when I wrote about it, I wanted people to feel the horror of a fireman looking at that. And, also, at the same time the horror of not having done anything about it. ... At some point we have to understand that we incinerated those people, don't we?"
I find the MOVE poem in my anthology. But she wants to read from Part II — a more confrontational stanza not included in the book. It's locked away in the out-of-print edition, Under a Soprano Sky. She finds it upstairs — her last copy — and reads aloud:
1. philadelphia/ a disguised southern city/ squatting in the eastern pass of/ colleges cathedrals and cowboys/ philadelphia, a phalanx of parsons/ and auctioneers/ modern gladiators/ erasing the delirium of death from their shields
2. c'mon girl hurry on down to osage st/ they're roasting in the fire/ smell the dreadlocks and blk/skins/ roasting in the fire/ c'mon newsmen and tv men/ hurry on down to osage st and/ when you have chloroformed the city/ and after you have stitched up your words/ hurry on downtown for sanctuary/ in taverns and corporations/ and the blood is not yet dry
3. how does one scream in thunder?
But she doesn't continue. She stops reading there, takes her glasses off and looks in my direction, as if she were offering that last question directly to me.
"BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez: A Tribute in Word, Music and Dance," Sun., Nov. 14, 6-8:30 p.m., $35, University Baptist Temple, 1837 N. Broad St., 267-402-2055, firstpersonarts.org.