Poet Sonia Sanchez is the winner of this year's Gish Prize For over 60 years, poet and activist Sonia Sanchez has helped redefine American culture, politics and education. She is this year's winner of the Gish Prize, a $250,000 lifetime achievement honor.

For poet Sonia Sanchez — at age 87 — there's more work to be done

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The poet Sonia Sanchez was a leading figure in the 1960s Black arts movement and set up one of the country's first Black studies programs. She recently won the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which is a $250,000 lifetime achievement honor. NPR's Jeevika Verma looks back at Sanchez's legacy.

JEEVIKA VERMA, BYLINE: Maya Angelou once called Sonia Sanchez a lion in literature's forest. Today, 87 years old and the author of more than 20 books, as Angelou says, Sanchez still roars.

SONIA SANCHEZ: From the first time that ancient man after his wife had given birth went (screaming), that was the beginning of poetry.

VERMA: The spoken word and its power to create change - that is at the core of Sanchez's work. And while it's difficult to list everything she's done, her contributions to the Black arts movement alone put her in good company.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: Her contemporaries, her friends are Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin. You know, it's like you find yourself in the middle of the Marvel Universe.

VERMA: That's Reginald Dwayne Betts. He's a poet who was incarcerated when he first read Sanchez's poems. Now a 2021 MacArthur Fellow and the author of three books, he says the first poetry book he bought with his own money was Sanchez's 1987 collection, "Under A Soprano Sky."

BETTS: And I carried it around with me, prison after prison. And, you know, she was somebody who taught me that poetry could be not just about what you experienced and what you saw, but about what you knew to be the truth of the world around you.

VERMA: As a poet, Sanchez is never a bigger force than when she's up on stage, reading her work out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEF POETRY JAM")

SANCHEZ: (Reading) Saw her sitting on the floor. She said, Mama, where you been? Mama, I call for you. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. They hurt me something bad. I want to go home, Mama.

VERMA: That's her performing on the Tony Award-winning HBO series "Def Poetry Jam." Show creator Danny Simmons is an artist in Philadelphia, where Sanchez now lives.

DANNY SIMMONS: Her body gets into it and her voice. Sonia's all into it.

VERMA: Sanchez moved to Philly after establishing herself as a major influence in the Black arts movement. Inspired by Malcolm X, Sanchez and her contemporaries worked vigorously to lift Black identity through art. When they spoke, she says...

SANCHEZ: People would jump up - I mean, literally jump up - and just start stamping their feet.

VERMA: Sanchez took that movement into the world of education by pioneering one of the first Black studies programs in the country, including a class on Black women writers. Imani Perry is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University.

IMANI PERRY: She will talk about her childhood in Birmingham and the kind of local celebrations of Black culture as a kid. So even before she's involved in the formal institutionalization of Black studies in higher education, she brings the work that teachers did in the Deep South to bear on her long-term work.

VERMA: Perry says that part of Sanchez's power comes from always advocating for her people. But the poet says her work is just a continuation of what came before her, with much more left to be done.

SANCHEZ: And I always try to tell younger poets that when someone reads, you listen very carefully, especially when they're ending, because what you want to do is you want to pick up that ending and continue that trail of beauty.

VERMA: Sanchez was awarded the Gish Prize for a lifetime's work of paving that trail for future generations of poets, like Reginald Betts.

BETTS: I've been in dark places where her poems brought me to light. And it's kind of cool to see the world catching up. But the truth is, Gish Prize or no Gish Prize, you know, I once was shackled and handcuffed for 17 hours. And the most valuable thing that was in my property was "Under A Soprano Sky."

VERMA: Jeevika Verma, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "UNDER A SOPRANO SKY")

SANCHEZ: (Reading) Once I lived on pillars in a green house, bordered by lilacs that rocked voices into weeds.

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