NBWC: Talkshop — Poetry with Sonia Sanchez

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.


15 thoughts on “NBWC: Talkshop — Poetry with Sonia Sanchez

  1. Elizabeth

    What a rich and rewarding experience, and I feel like I have partaken because of the detailed way you described it. I would have balked as well, but I’m glad you went so you could share it with us all. I remember a class in grad school where we had to write poetry in 9 different forms. Some came naturally to me; at others I was terrible. But what a wonderful class it was, and it also taught me about discipline in my writing.




    1. This was definitely a special experience for me … the whole conference, not just the Sonia Sanchez part. I feel so great coming off those three days.

      I wrote a lot of bad poetry in high school and took a very damaging poetry workshop my first year of college that put my off poetry for years. I didn’t start writing poetry again until I started teaching adult literacy classes. I couldn’t very well expect my students to try writing poetry if I was afraid to try it myself. I won’t go so far as to say I’m a good poet today, but at least of opened the door again!


  2. Thanks for sharing this experience…I loved that photograph of Sanchez and you, you could tell that the talkshop was an amazing experience. Poetry is hard to write – especially if you love reading the greats – you become neurotic and self conscious, and unable to write!


    1. Going back to my response to Elizabeth, I have to say that teaching new readers/writers to write poetry was really such a freeing experience for me as far as trying to write my own poetry. I used to get so intimidated, too! Now I can read and appreciate wonderful poetry and not feel at all hesitant to put my own awkward words on the page. A real gift I got from teaching!


  3. Thank you! Thank you! And one more thank you! Because of your slice of life, I feel like I got to be in the room too. So glad you included the photos . . . I adore the one of you + Sonia.
    Happy writing,


    1. Thanks, Ruth. That was really such a special “talkshop” for me. Sanchez is truly a delight and for two hours I got to have my aunt back. I don’t think anything could have made that workshop more special.


  4. What an amazing experience. I am glad that your friend from your writing group convinced you that you weren’t being selfish for attending this session. It will be an experience that you will never forget.


  5. molly

    Hey, I’ve got tears in my eyes, you are both so beautiful. Thank you so much for this post, which I will read again. And I am so grateful that it’s about teaching, which is what I do (and you do). And we do teach about life, I know that. I like it that somebody sees it and says it out loud.
    Her face! Her face is so amazing.


    1. I love that there was such a focus on teaching, not ‘just’ on writing poetry. That was one of the Mildred-esque things about the workshop. Mildred had a way of seeing every situation as a teachable moment, and she would always bring you into the teaching aspect of it. Sanchez clearly comes from that same school.


  6. Again,
    Thanks for including me in the sessions and sharing the gems that you received.
    I love the idea, “You’ve got to say: “I’m seditious,” and decide that you’re going to take control of your classrooms.”
    I was called seditious once when I had parents speak up about their children’s education. I knew then that to be seditious was alright with me!


    1. I was once accused of being a ‘bad teacher’ because I encouraged students to speak out about problems they saw with the way the school we were in was being run, the ways their needs were not being met. I have no problem being that kind of ‘bad’ teacher! I very much like the label ‘seditious.’


    1. Thanks, Inmate. At the WE LEARN conference in early March, we talked about the fact that we are taught to apologize for showing emotion, and on some level, I think that’s what I was doing with my little disclaimer after the photo. Thanks for calling me on it. I’ve been trying to catch myself, but didn’t notice that one. I’m definitely not ashamed of the experience I had, so I wouldn’t want to sound as if I was.


Your turn ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s