First: Sonia Sanchez looks like Mildred! Did I ever notice this before? I don’t think so. But seeing her today, in her bandana, hearing the way she teaches, the way she tells stories … she’s just so Mildred.
The morning sessions at the conference today were called “talkshops.” There was an early session with poetry, fiction or book review-writing to choose from, and a second session with creative non-fiction, dramatic writing and book proposals to choose from. For a moment, I had myself convinced that I couldn’t go to the poetry session. I’m hardly a poet, right? And wasn’t that unfair to take a seat from a ‘real’ poet? Besides, I really need something to jumpstart my fiction. I’ve been non-stop non-fiction lately and I want to be writing stories, so I should go to the fiction session right?
Um, but it’s SONIA SANCHEZ in there! Sonia Sanchez, who I love-love-love. Sonia Sanchez who isn’t going to be someone I can expect to have such up-close-and-personal time with any other time in my life. How could I not go? I was still feeling selfish or like an imposter … but happily a call to one of the ladies from writers’ group disabused me of such foolishness, so I went.
I have no idea what a “talkshop” is really supposed to be. Ours started very informally as people found their way upstairs to the classroom and Sonia talked about the fun she’d had the night before at the reception, and there was no “ok we’re starting” kind of moment. The conversation just flowed into talking about poetry.
Here, she’s demonstrating an activity she does with her students to begin the bonding, empathy-building process. She has everyone sit facing a partner (she joins the group, too). You place your right hand over your partner’s heart, and your partner places his or her right hand over your heart. You place your left hand over your partner’s right hand, and he or she places his or her left hand over your right hand. And then you are silent, listening to each other’s heartbeat. She demonstrated with a young woman in the front row … and I think the whole room held its breath — watching and listening, wishing we were sitting where that young woman was sitting …
She introduced me to a new poetry form: the Rhyme Royal. The rhyming pattern is a/b/a/b/b/c/c. Of course, I’m intrigued. I haven’t really written rhyming poetry in forever. I wrote a few (VERY) bad villanelles about a thousand years ago, but nothing lately. I will definitely have to try my hand at that.
She talked about the rhyme royal because she used it in a collection of poems about her brother, her father, her family. She said when she started trying to write it, she was writing free verse and the work was all over the place. Using the rhyme royal form helped her pull it all together. Later she said, “When you teach form, you’re saying: I want you to bring your life under control.” She really emphasized that idea, that the use of form helps us get out of control things under control so that we can address them. I really liked that. It made me think of the tankas I wrote last year and both how freeing and bound I felt by the form. I was thinking of doing another month of tanka in April, but maybe now I’ll try out the rhyme royal … I get two more lines to work with, after all!
Some of my other favorite things she said:
- Whatever it is you teach, you’re teaching about life.
- It’s not only what you write but what the silence is about. (I loved that)
- It’s your job as a poet to transform the form, just as you transform your life over time.
- We’ve lost the habit of passing down our history, our knowledge to our children.
- Those of you who want to write, you’ve got to know that what you’re doing is saving not only our people’s lives but everyone’s lives.
- Creating your own poetry forms helps you master the art of poetry.
- Everything has form. Free verse has form. You just have to discover the form as you write it.
- You’ve got to say: “I’m seditious,” and decide that you’re going to take control of your classrooms.
- You don’t have to hit someone or curse them to usurp their power.
- Read your poetry out loud, train your ear. The poem doesn’t exist until you say it out loud.
(My role at the conference was clearly to play Trivial (and in this case, not-so-trivial) Pursuit. I got to have a little interaction with Ms. Sanchez at the start of the session when she was trying to remember what singer worked with John Coltrane on “The Very Thought of You” (Johnny Hartman), and no one else knew, so I called it out . )
So, I had no idea what to think of a “Talkshop” … and I’m still not sure, but I am sure that I’m in love with Sonia Sanchez. She’s teaching about life, about poetry, about teaching. She’s magical. She has all of us in the palm of her beautiful hands.
And now I just want to post a mess of photos:
The room started out with only about a dozen and a half people, which really surprised me. But by the time we concluded, the room was full. I liked the end of the session. She had us all get up and make a circle (not an easy thing in an amphi-theater-style room) and then we had to go around the room and say one thing — our name, how we were feeling, what we were taking away from the session, whatever we wanted.
We went way over time. I never made it to the creative non-fiction talkshop. There was just no way I was going to walk away before Ms. Sanchez had said everything she felt like saying to us. Period. Oh, and here are some more pictures:
She read a lot of poems, a few from Does Your House Have Lions, and dozens from Morning Haiku. I loved the way she talked us through some of the readings, showing us what she’d done here and there so we could get a sense of her process, a sense of how she thinks about language and rhythm.
And then there’s one more photo:
That’s me trying to smile and not look weepy. I had just been telling her how much she had brought Mildred back to me … note to self: don’t talk about things that are guaranteed to make you cry just when you’re supposed to be posing for a photo!
Ebeye yie, one more thing she taught us: it will be all right.