2016 Shelley Memorial Award
Selected by Fred Moten and D.A. Powell
Cultural hero, political activist, playwright, performer and consummate poet, Sonia Sanchez fuses jazz rhythms, percussive vocalizations and dexterous typographical play into electric poems empowered and enriched by black aesthetics and traditions. Born in Birmingham, AL, and coming of age in Harlem, NY, Sanchez became and has remained a passionate, relevant, and innovative voice in poetry, revitalizing older forms such as the haiku or Chaucer's rime royal into quick, lively, unconventional lyric expressions of love, instruction, regret, celebration and sorrow. Sanchez embraces the vernacular by making it visible through alternate spellings, slash marks, non-hierarchical capitalization, and abbreviation; her work builds community, celebrates heritage and affirms identity as a thing of beauty and a source of pride. Though Sonia Sanchez has held academic positions at institutions such as Temple University and San Francisco State (where she helped lay the foundation for the first Black Studies programs in the U.S.), Sanchez's work is decidedly free of bourgeois, intellectual or academic concerns; her poetry is open, approachable, egalitarian in mind and spirit without capitulating to the standards of caucasian-heavy official verse cultures. From the early, unabashedly political work of Homecomings and We a BaddDDD People through the eloquent, painful elegy of Does Your House Have Lions? and in her up-to-the-minute spoken word and incantatory invocations of the spirits of community and ancestral powers, Sanchez has maintained immediacy and relevance of vision: "this is for real," she tells us; "my feet," she writes, "are crying/blues." Here is a poet disarmingly present in language as urgent as the daily news. "Sonia Sanchez is a lion in literature's forest," wrote Maya Angelou. "When she writes she roars."