Andrea (Vocab) Sanderson: Building Solidarity through Poetic Presence

photograph by Arlene Mejorado

by Elizabeth Rodriguez

“I want to establish poetry spots that will last for decades to come. I want folks to call me a visionary and a bridge to helping them find their purpose.”

Vibrant souls of all ages gather to watch poets perform with a live jazz band. The room fills with an air that transports you to a jazz performance of the past, such as, The Keyhole Club, a successful local music venue in the San Antonio entertainment scene from the 1940s-1960s. People mingle, order tapas and drinks, as they prepare for the show. The historic bar, Carmen’s De La Calle, is packed with an artsy crowd, people’s elbows touching as they seek seating and greet friends. The band tunes their instruments to melodic laughter and chatter in the background. The crowd’s gaze suddenly shifts to the stage. All eyes grasp onto the poetic presence of “Vocab.” She walks onto the stage, joining the band with a welcome of gratitude and clever humor. The poet graces the cafe with an offering through song and the air becomes lighter. The dim lighting illuminates her glowing skin, her hickory eyes grounded with an anchor of creative fire, as her lovely smile charms the audience, capturing their attention. Vocab’s sparkling personality, a wavelength that blurs the lines between music and poetry, creates a space of infinite imagination for the audience.

“I began writing when I was six years old, really. I remember my aunt had a typewriter and I just thought it was the most awesome thing ever,” she states. I sat with the artist, also known as Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, to learn more about her trajectory as an artist, her influences, hopes, and experiences as a writer. Vocab’s first piece was for her mother. “I wrote a love poem and I remember reading it to her and being really excited to see how she would respond.” Thus, a typewriter and a hope to impress a parent, became the birthing space for Vocab’s artistic expression.

It was early on that Vocab learned she could also use writing as a healing form to express her emotions. When she was 12 years old a friend died. “She was murdered and that really affected me and kind of sent me down a path of truly writing through a teacher that I had who taught me how to channel my emotions into words,” she states. She then wrote a poem for her friend and read it at a tribute held at her middle school to honor her. Learning to put words to complex emotions is not the only skill one needs in becoming a poet. I ask Vocab to tell me about the obstacles she had to overcome on her path as a writer and she answers quickly and with certainty that she has to believe in herself.

photograph by Arlene Mejorado
photograph by Arlene Mejorado

“I have been toiling around with stereotypes associated with big black women so much lately. So I guess that’s a mixture of race and body image. Realizing that how people perceive me before I even speak to them has really had an effect on me my entire life. SO many folks feel threatened by my appearance or intimidated. I am not a violent person or even an angry person. But I feel like I have to be extra nice so that I don’t scare folks off at times. I always put extra sugar in my tone. Sometimes all of it makes me weary. Most that know me, would consider me a nice person, but I don’t feel like faking it for folks anymore. I don’t feel like being extra nice. I also don’t feel like smiling for men so they can feel better about… whatever.”

This is particularly important to me because communal spaces have been hosted by men who believe they are revolutionary, but perpetuate misogyny through their actions. Art cannot become something visionary when ego and hate enter the air. To have a conscious woman host these spaces is a revolutionary act.

For many women of color, learning to take up space unapologetically is a trait that can take a lifetime to build.

For many women of color, learning to take up space unapologetically is a trait that can take a lifetime to build. As a friend of Vocab and fellow poet, I can say that her presence and support have helped me become more comfortable in sharing my vulnerable stories and becoming confident to read my work publicly. “I feel like we need to be empowering and uplifting of each other,” she reminds us. One of the ways she does this is by simply existing as a powerful and motivational woman of color in an often male-dominated scene. Her presence in the communities of San Antonio is very influential as her versatile skillset allows her to express herself creatively through various venues. With such a multi-talented nature , it would be limiting to focus on just one form of creative expression . “I try to do that so that people…don’t feel like they gotta be put in one box…there are times when I separate the two but then there are times when I’m like I’m not gonna separate it and I don’t think it needs to be, I can do them both, or three, whatever, like sometimes I’m hosting, featuring and singing, all on one setting,” she explains.

Vocab is an artist with many roles: singer, MC, and poet. The multiple titles she holds come together to create a unique type of art. For example, her music influences her writing and vice versa. She describes her creative process and says, “I like the idea of manipulating my voice as far as pitch and tone…and I lot of times when I read poems I think whether I want to speak them or whether it’s something that I want to just be heard or read off a page.” Music is an important influence in her work as she mentions that her father is a Deejay. It is important to know that Vocab often writes to music or imagines a beat in her head, first This rhythm can be heard in her voice as she recites her poetry. Another important influence in her work is her spirituality as she was raised in the church. Her work carrying a tone that portrays the sacred in life, with a foundation of love. When you witness Vocab’s verbal art, all your faculties become engaged with the messages in her pieces, done intentionally to activate the audience’s beings into connecting with their feelings.

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Hosting events that awaken solidarity amongst powerful communities is Vocab’s craft. Historically, the Black and Brown communities of San Antonio have been divided, physically and figuratively. The East Side of the city is predominantly black and the West and South Sides of town are predominantly Brown. The split between these two communities exists as a result of white supremacy and segregation, being pitted against each other as an attempt to undermine the individual and combined power in Black and Brown harmony. I feel that social justice movements in San Antonio can benefit from the unity of marginalized communities. One way to heal this split is to create spaces in which they come together to share their experiences and stories. Vocab states, “This is unifying in many ways…any under-represented folks need to come and have their voice and narrative be heard in these kinds of public spaces. I always look at my list and try to bring in both men and women and Latino/Black voices. Most folks come to me now, but I still ask certain people that haven’t spoken each month to come read.” The audience is welcomed into a space where they can engage with people of color experiences on a personal level through a creative form. Each event is a tool for social transformation. Difficult topics to discuss, such as systems of oppression, homophobia, police brutality, racism, trauma, sexism, to painful heartbreak and even lighter subjects – accounts of love and humor, can be portrayed by poets in an artistic manner, allowing for audiences to comprehend many experiences. Vocab asserts, “This culture has been going on for decades and decades. We are adding to it. Jazz and poetry go well together.”

For Vocab, inciting emotion in an audience, manifests in various forms of spoken or performed art. For example, she sees the value in literary poets and spoken words poets and hopes to break barriers that separate groups of artists. She says, “There’s a gap that we have to bridge between the literary community and then people that are in spoken word and people that are in slam.” It is to be noted that Vocab has a craft of blurring borders to establish spaces of connection between communities that have been divided historically. The next creation that Vocab is working on is a book that “combines myth, urban legends, and spiritual lore to poetically tell the tales of real live people”. She is also working on becoming a Barrio writer and teaching courses at the Central Library of San Antonio. Look out for the new EP that her band, The Foreign Arm, is currently finalizing. San Antonio is lucky to have you. Gracias.

Jazz and Poetry with a Purpose is held the last Thursday of every month at Carmens De La Calle on 320 N. Flores St. For more information on this place, please visit www.carmensdelacalle.com

2nd Verse takes place every 2nd Friday of the month at the Continental Cafe and Event Center on 6390 Fairdale Drive. For more information on this venue, go to www.continentaleventcenter.com

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