December 28, 2011 | By John Timpane, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Sonia Sanchez, 77, will be named Philadelphia's first poet laureate.
For years, people have called her the "unofficial poet laureate
of Philadelphia." Now it's official.
Sonia Sanchez, 77, poet, teacher, mentor, activist, and revered
Philadelphian, will be named the city's first poet laureate by Mayor Nutter in an 11
a.m. ceremony Thursday at City Hall.
Sanchez is the author of at least 18 books of poetry, as well as plays and
children's books. She has long been one of the city's most visible and active
writers, readers, teachers, and activists for peace and social equality.
Starting in January, she will serve for two years, with a stipend of $2,500 per year.
Contacted at home in West Philadelphia, Sanchez said she had already fielded
congratulations from fellow writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
"People are saying, 'This makes sense, because people have been calling
you the unofficial poet laureate for years,' " Sanchez said. "And I
say, 'Well, the people are always way ahead of the government.' "
In an official statement, Nutter said he was "extremely excited" by the
selection: "Poetry is an extraordinary and powerful art form, and our
great city is filled with an astonishing array of poets who help us to better
understand our lives. Ms. Sanchez exemplifies the role a poet can play in
helping to define a city and helping its citizens discover beauty."
The position was Nutter's idea; he announced the creation of the poet
laureate program on May 3, during a Sanchez reading at City Hall.
Surprisingly, for a town of such poetic activity, Philadelphia has never had a
poet laureate. Many states do (but not, since 2003, Pennsylvania), as well as
dozens of towns (including Harrisburg) and counties (including Bucks and Montgomery).
Over the summer, Nutter charged Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer in the
Mayor's Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, with assembling a
committee to consider candidates and determine the term and duties of the position.
Its members included novelist Lorene Cary (recently appointed to the School Reform
Commission); Beth Feldman Brandt, poet and executive director of the Stockton Rush
Bartol Foundation; and Gregory Corbin, executive director of the Philadelphia Youth
Poetry Movement. "They looked at other cities that had similar positions
and how they went about the process," said Moira Baylson, deputy cultural
Siobhan Riordan, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia and a
member of the selection committee, said, "The mayor really wanted this, and our
conversations around Sonia were so easy and so natural. Philadelphia is a city
passionate about the things it loves, and she personifies that passion in her poetry
and her teaching."
Sanchez moved to Philadelphia from New York in 1976 - "I like to tell people it
was 1776," she quips ‐ and soon became prominent in the city'
political and artistic life.
Her list of honors, as long as her list of publications, includes a PEN writing
award (1969), the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Award (1978‐1979),
and the American Book Award (in 1985, for Homegirls & Handgrenades).
She has also won numerous honors for her civic and community work, and for her
teaching. She held the Laura Carnell chair in English at Temple from 1977 to
1999, when she retired; she is currently poet in residence at Temple.
Her poetry reflects many influences, including pop music, the blues, Beat poetry,
and Japanese haiku. She is a mesmerizing, rhythmic reader, often credited as a
godparent of the contemporary performance poetry movement.
Sanchez' first duty as poet laureate will be to read a poem at Nutter's
second inaugural on Jan. 2. She will also select a youth poet laureate, whose
term begins in July; she will be that poet's mentor. She will also engage
in a variety of civic and community functions.
When her term is up in late 2013, "the position will become
competitive," in Baylson's words, "although the details haven't
been hashed out quite yet."
Reaction in the poetic community was uniformly delight. Kimmika
Williams‐Witherspoon, a poet and associate professor of urban theater at Temple
and former teaching assistant of Sanchez's, said, "Sonia has always been an
icon in the city, and I'm glad the city recognizes the treasure she is.
It's a remarkably good choice and may help raise our profile as a literary
'That Philadelphia has taken this step, declaring the importance of poetry to
civic life and polity, makes me very happy, said Al Filreis, professor of
English at the University of Pennsylvania and faculty director of Kelly Writers House
who is also a member of the selection committee. "I've lived in the
city for 26 years now and have never felt our poetry to be as diversely alive as it
Poet and poetry organizer Leonard Gontarek called Sanchez "a transcendent
choice, since she has always spoken to the essential beauty of our city and its
citizens. Let poetry occupy Philadelphia! Let it be the universal
language of our diversity!"
Sanchez said that for her, "the whole point of accepting this award is on
behalf of the people and this wonderful city."
"Philadelphia doesn't realize how wonderful it is."
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @jtimpane on Twitter.
The Northwood-Appold Community Academy opened as a public charter school in August 2005.
The school served grades K through 2 in its innaugural year. It has since grown to
serve approximately 450 students from throughout Baltimore City in grades K through 8.
NACA enjoys support from members of its local board of directors
, its community partners, and members of its national board, including poet laureate
Professor Sonya Sanchez, professor and freedom movement veteran Dr. Vincent Harding, and
former Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Jocelyn Elders, among others.