Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez will kick off this year's First Person Arts Festival. Credit: Erika Vonie
Everybody has a story, even a poet laureate.
Or, perhaps we should say everybody has a story, especially a poet laureate. Sonia Sanchez, Philadelphia’s current poet laureate, will be joined by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove for Conversation and Song: Walking the Laureate Road, the kick-off event of this year’s First Person Arts Festival, Nov. 6 at the Drexel University main auditorium on Chestnut Street.
“Instead of letting them get up and do a reading, I thought it would be great to have a conversation about their works, about the country and being women who write that kind of thing,” Sanchez says. “I feel people can get more into their lives with a conversation instead of getting up there and reading and a question and answer. “The conversation will be constantly flowing and then we will open it up to the audience.”
There will be a lot of literary weight up there. Morrison’s novels include “Beloved” and she won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. Dove, primarily a poet, was the first African American to be named poet laureate of the United States, also in 1993.
As for Sanchez, she was born in Birmingham, Ala. in 1934, came of age in Harlem and has called Philadelphia home since she started teaching at Temple in the late ‘70s. A leading light of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, there is music, power, compassion and urgency in her voice.
Her two-year term as Philadelphia poet laureate expires at the end of the year. In her tenure, she’s forwarded the concept of peace in her “Peace Is A Haiku Song” initiative, where messages of peace were artistically framed on bus shelters, subway stops and sidewalks in the city. The “Peace Is A Haiku Song” mural, a collaboration with the Mural Arts Program which featured her haiku along with verse and words of Morrison, Maya Angelou, Common, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and more, was dedicated this past June at 1425 Christian St.
“After two years, you’re just gearing up,” says Sanchez, 79, of her tenure as city poet laureate. “I wanted very much to do great things for the city. I wanted them to come out, listen and feel praised because what we’re doing here in the city of Philadelphia.”
It’s a return engagement for Sanchez at the First Person Arts Festival, the flagship event for the city’s non-profit First Person Arts. The fest, now in its 12th year, is a celebration of storytelling in various forms. This year’s talent includes, along with Sanchez, Morrison and Dove, master storyteller Mike Daisey; Kevin Allison’s “RISK!;” Moth Grandslam champion Peter Aguero in the Philly premiere of his one-man show; a new story and song event hosted by Martha Graham Cracker, and much more.
Also, Sanchez returns in the fest with Angela Davis and Ana Castillo in the Politics of Poetry, Nov. 14 at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, which explores the area where activism and writing intersect.
Perhaps Sanchez will return to the First Person in future years as the poet laureate of the United States.
“[Writing is] a calling that you do, and if any award comes along, then good, but you’re not writing for awards, you’re writing because that’s what we’re driven to do,” Sanchez says. “I’ve been blessed to be able to do that which I love best.”
Conversation and Song: Walking the Laureate Road with Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison and Rita Dove with music by Ruth Naomi Floyd Wednesday, Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m. Drexel University Main Auditorium 3141 Chestnut St. $35 ($28 for First Person Arts members) www.firstpersonarts.org
12th Annual First Person Arts Festival Wednesday, Nov. 6 to Saturday, Nov. 16 Christ Church Neighborhood House, Independence Seaport Museum, the Painted Bride Art Center and Drexel University Ticket prices vary www.firstpersonarts.org