Since Sonia Sanchez became my mentor I have learned more about myself as a poet and as a person than I have at any moment in my life.
Makers.com is a joint project of PBS and AOL showcasing hundreds of compelling stories from trailblazing women. The documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America,” premiering on PBS on Feb. 26 (check local listings), tells the story of the women’s movement through first-hand accounts of its leaders, opponents and trailblazers.
This is one of a separate series of articles about notable women in the Philadelphia region.
An expert gardener realizes the importance of all of her plants. She can visualize the petals on her flowers before they mature. In my case, poet Sonia Sanchez is that gardener.
It takes a lot of wisdom, graciousness and humanity to dedicate a year to mentoring young artists. When an established poet gives back to society by helping a new generation of artists develop their voices, there is a progression of the human condition that outweighs the ambition of an individual.
Knowing Sonia’s background, it makes sense to trust her knowledge in the business of teaching others. She was a mentee herself, studying poetry with Louise Bogan, the fourth U.S. poet laureate. Sonia used her experience to guide others. She began teaching at the Downtown Community School in New York City, and she has been teaching and inspiring since then. She has been a professor at eight universities and has given over 500 lectures at colleges and universities all over the nation.
One of the biggest achievements in her teaching career was being the first person to create and teach a course on black women and literature in the United States. Her perseverance as an advocate for teaching black studies courses in California led to her winning the National Education Association Award in 1977.
In 2011, she received the title of Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate. Instead of Philadelphia having just one poet laureate, she created the position of a youth poet laureate. When it came time for her to make a decision, Sonia faced a dilemma in choosing between two students: Siduri Beckman and me. She named Siduri as Philadelphia’s first youth poet laureate, and me as the first runner-up. Even though I did not win, Sonia agreed to mentor me as well.
Since Jan. 14, 2013, I have been living the dream that I have worked so hard for since kindergarten. It is weird to think about my transition from writing stories about the adventures of my younger cousin in first grade to reciting poetry in front of the mayor of Philadelphia. I never imagined I’d have citywide recognition for my poetry.
I want to be a spoken-word poet, but I never believed that I had the ability to be at the level of my three favorite spoken-word poets: Joshua Bennett, Alysia Harris, and Jasmine Mans. I have written over 300 poems in my 17 years, and I never thought that my poems would be heard anywhere except when I read them to my friends or performed them in a slam.
I have always been passionate about writing, but writing stopped being a hobby and started being more of a career to me when I became a creative writing major at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. I also want to be a neurosurgeon, but my seriousness towards writing came about during my freshman nonfiction class, and that seriousness is what has guided me to where I am now.
Since Sonia Sanchez became my mentor I have learned more about myself as a poet and as a person than I have at any moment in my life. You know when someone is rubbing off on you when you start to copy her vocabulary. I do not know how many times in the last two weeks I have called someone “sister” or “brother.” I also do not know how many times I have put my hands together and bowed when I greeted people.
Before the ceremony, Sonia gave Siduri and me presents: a notebook. My notebook has a picture of the Hindu god Vishnu on the front. The pages are pulpy and made from unprocessed paper (the type that you can make with a wooden clothes washer during a field trip to a colonial preservation house). Even though I already have an unfinished notebook that I carry around with me everywhere, I bring the notebook that Sonia gave me too. (I have a fear of losing it somewhere.) She is one of the nicest people I have ever met, and I cannot wait to continue working with her and Siduri.
Greek historian Plutarch said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” In Philadelphia, there are many organizations, such as Philly Youth Poetry Movement and First-Person Arts, which believe in the power of young voices. In order to keep poetry going, we must prepare the next generations by helping them access their own thoughts.
There is so much that you can tell a person to do or not to do, but there is purpose and wisdom in leading a person to create their own opinions and write those words down in an artistic form. Sonia’s choice to mentor others prove Plutarch’s point. We are only as limited as we allow our ideas to be, but we are even more limited when we have no one to guide us to make those ideas a reality.