Poet Laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson Combines Art and Activism
Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson doesn’t believe in accidents. San Antonio’s first African-American Poet Laureate stepped into her role this spring during a tumultuous time with a firm belief in the healing power of poetry.
“It was very timely. I don’t believe in accidents or mistakes. Things are purposeful in the universe,” said Sanderson, a San Antonio native who was named the city’s fifth Poet Laureate in March. “I try to take the responsibility and the mantle with a lot of thought. I’m trying to create programming and initiatives in the city. I’ve been thinking about that and how I can act in a positive way and help people feel uplifted and loved and heal some of the trauma that is ongoing. “
From musical performances to public art, Sanderson seems to be everywhere in San Antonio this summer. She’s on a mission to help her neighbors of all ethnicities find their voices. Sanderson, a published poet, noted spoken word artist and singer, has hit the ground running with a series of innovative initiatives. And she’s just getting started.
‘Start with Something Small’
The city invested Sanderson as its Poet Laureate just after authorities declared COVID a pandemic and just before nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. Her mission quickly turned to helping others create in a period of crisis. As one of her first initiatives in her new role, she launched a series of poetry prompts via social media and inspired hundreds of poems from residents from children to grandparents.
Sanderson’s Invite to Write program for adults and youth encouraged residents of all ages to process the events of 2020 with a series of writing prompts. Her #MyTongueIsChallenge encouraged writers and others of all ages to share digital posters about their tongues and the power of language.
“If you start with something small it can be so meaningful,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson is also building a reputation as a community leader. She helped launch the new community organization Black Lives and Allies in Community (BLAC) this year. She also organized a livestream musical event “Love Sounds” as a fundraiser for social justice organizations.
In June, Sanderson teamed up with the San Antonio Museum of Art to create Action Bags filled with blank postcards and colored pencils. Combined with an online workshop with the poet laureate, the Action Bags encouraged residents to reach out to public officials using poetry.
For Sanderson, the nexus of art and activism came together in an amazing way last week. On August 4, as part of a community-led, city-supported project with the Centro San Antonio community development corporation, residents painted lines from Sanderson’s poetry in bright yellow letters in the streets around Travis Park in downtown San Antonio. The street mural reads: “Jubilant and exuberant is the melanin of our skin / From despair, we have arisen.”
A Poet Laureate Who ‘Lives in Music’
Sanderson is known as a connector, but also a creator. And 2020 has been a huge year for Sanderson as an artist. Her new collection of poems “She Lives in Music” was published earlier this year and is available online through Target, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Last month, the San Antonio-based arts organization Urban-15 featured Sanderson on its monthly “Hidden Histories” program, performing her poetic elegy to Breonna Taylor.
Sanderson is also a sought-after vocalist, and her new music video “Nouveaux” with musician James Digger premiered last week. The video celebrates the city’s arts scene and was filmed at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Sanderson is also collaborating with San Antonio-based filmmaker and musician Dat Mayne Deewayne and hip-hop artist Lil Aubrey on the new album “Policing” slated for release this year.
For Sanderson, who got her start in slam poetry and spoken word, music and poetry are inextricably intertwined.
“It’s all very musical to me when I think of poetry,” she said. “Sometimes I hear the music in my head. My poetry’s inspired by music in cadence and rhythm.”
‘Poetry Saved Me’
Sanderson was born and raised in San Antonio and fell in love with poetry in early elementary school. She remembers cranking out poems for her mother on her aunt’s old-school typewriter as a young kid. “I was fascinated with that typewriter,” she said with a laugh.
In middle school, she discovered the iconic poet Maya Angelou who has been an influence on her life and work. And in her early teens, poetry helped Sanderson get through challenging times, including losing a friend to domestic violence at the age of 13.
Sanderson started doing slam poetry and open mics after high school in the early 2000s. She became a rising star on the spoken word scene, competing at universities around the country. With influences from the Bible to classic soul music to the greats of American poetry, she found a unique musical voice that has made her an important force in the city she still calls home.
“Writing is so fascinating to me. Being eloquent with words, or being angry with words. Whatever emotion that you’re feeling inside. I definitely feel like poetry saved me on a lot of different fronts,” she said. “Coupling that with my spirituality and understanding that this is an outlet and a manifestation of my relationship with God.”
‘We Can Speak Out’
Sanderson is San Antonio’s fifth poet laureate. The city’s former mayor (and former Democratic presidential hopeful) Julian Castro launched the cultural program in 2012, with the poet and children’s book author Carmen Tafolla in the inaugural post.
Sanderson’s three-year term as Poet Laureate is just getting rolling. She has big plans for her tenure, including a large-scale poetry mural at the Ella Austin Community Center on San Antonio’s historically African-American East Side. She and filmmaker Javier Rubio are working on a series of digital workshops to help poets build their audience and get published. Sanderson will also be a featured speaker at Palo Alto College’s virtual Hope Rising TEDx talk Sept. 26.
“Our words have power. We can still use our voice. That’s kind of been my ongoing message, reinforcing with every different initiative that we do have power within our voice,” Sanderson said. “We’re not helpless. We can speak out, whether it be in love or in protest or artistic expression.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.