Poet Sekai’afua Zankel is synonymous with West Philly. Born, raised and still residing in Cedar Park off of Baltimore Avenue, she is a pillar of the neighborhood’s liberatory and artistic culture. In fact, she is so intertwined with the area’s history that in 2003 a local artist painted her likeness (with permission) on a mural at 50th and Baltimore as part of Philly’s MuralArts Project.
After decades of honing her craft on the page and stage as well as collaborations with other
poets, dancers, musicians and artists, Zankel recently released her debut chapbook What I
Heard from Moonstone Press in Philadelphia. A testament to the vibrancy that comes from a lifetime of experimentation and self-discovery, What I Heard captures all of the theatricality, joy and vitality of Zankel’s essence.
To fully understand her relationship with spoken word, Zankel took me back to 1972. At 19,
Zankel, who wanted to be a dancer at the time, was an explosive young star at the Freedom
Theater on Broad Street. The theater’s founders, John E. Allen Jr and Robert E. Leslie
recognized her talents early on, and it wasn’t long before she starred in almost every production.
As she became more involved with the Freedom Theater, Zankel realized that there was a whole world of literature that she simply hadn’t been exposed to before. “It was an awakening, a reality, that I didn’t learn too much in high school,” Zankel said. “And so, Freedom Theater decided to, once I joined the theater, they decided to create an African American reading list.”
That reading list exposed her to the great writers of African American literature and history, and Zankel credits the list with introducing her to some of her favorite and most impactful influences. “That’s where I fell in love with James Baldwin–I have a lot of respect for him in my writing,” she said. “I read everything that he wrote. And so, I tell everybody, it was James Baldwin that taught me how to read.”
It was also through Freedom Theater that Zankel developed her personal performance style. Allowing her to develop what she calls her “own little world” of spoken word intertwined with music and theater, it was clear that she was becoming a uniquely interdisciplinary artist and performer. It is still clear to this day, as she said that music heavily influences her throughout the writing process.
“I bring the poetry into the dance,” she said. “When I create a poem, I use a lot of music, mostly R&B music, the old school music which I love because, really, in the 70s it changed my life.” Zankel added that Chaka Khan was a life-changing artist for her, and that she often returns to her favorite records to inform her poetry as she writes.
At times, this process has led her to collaborate with her husband, jazz saxophonist Bobby
Zankel. In fact, the couple most recently performed together for a New Year’s Eve stream for
family and friends. Though she loves her husband’s music, Zankel says that she still prefers
performing with recorded tracks so that she can accurately recreate the mental and emotional space she occupied while writing her poems. The one exception to this, she said, was a song Bobby wrote some time ago titled “Emerging from the Earth,” for which she wrote a poem to perform together.
But at her heart, Sekai’afua Zankel is a one-woman show. As a matter of fact, she has performed as the principle artist in several one-woman shows over the course of her career; she began her creative relationship with Larry Robin, the founder of Moonstone Arts, when Steve Satell wrote a play called A Brighter Coming Day and asked her to read and perform his one-woman show about historic poet and Underground Railroad abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Zankel would also go on to write and perform her own poetry play, Miss Pearl’s Spirit: In the Mysteries of Mirrors, which is largely autobiographical.
For several years, Zankel has also developed her unmistakable poetic voice with the Osage Poets, a weekly community workshop located nearby in West Philly that meets on Saturdays. She said that the Osage Poets led her right back to Robins, they urged her to publish her work. The first opportunity came in 2006, when she published “Sometimes, I Just Want to Cry” in Poetry Ink: The Tenth Anniversary Anthology from Moonstone, and her name has appeared regularly in Moonstone anthologies and at their readings ever since.
According to Zankel, What I Heard has been in the works since September 2019. After being
introduced to editor Sean Hanrahan through Moonstone and her regular process of getting
mentored and support from Leonard Gontarek & the Osage Poets, Zankel is proud to present this chapbook to the poetry community. “I hated edits at first,” she said. “After this experience, I learned how to appreciate the edits, and appreciate those who read the poetry and help me with it.”
A limited number of copies of What I Heard are available to order from Moonstone Press.