Skip to main content

Actor Michael Imperioli.

Actor Michael Imperioli. He currently stars as Christopher In the HBO series "The Sopranos" and wrote one of this season's episodes. He's also appeared In five Spike Lee films, and starred In, co-wrote and executive produced Lee's latest film "Summer of Sam." Imperioli also appeared In the films "Goodfellas," "Malcolm X," "Clockers," and "Household Saints."


Other segments from the episode on March 9, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 9, 2000: Interview with Michael Imperioli; Interview with Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper.


Date: MARCH 09, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030901np.217
Head: Michael Imperioli Discusses His Television and Film Career
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On last week's episode of "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano's impulsive nephew, Christopher, was shot several times. On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with the actor who plays Christopher, Michael Imperioli. Among the over 30 films he's appeared in is "Goodfellas," in which he was shot by Joe Pesci.

Also we talk with Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper, two of the writers featured on a CD collecting African-American poets of the 20th century. We'll hear poems by Sanchez and Harper, and they'll play selections by poets who inspired them.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


ACTOR: Yo, (inaudible).

ACTOR: What's up?

ACTOR: Hey, what's up, man?



GROSS: At the end of last week's episode of "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano's nephew and protege, Christopher Moltisanti, was shot several times by two young guys who work for him. So what's going to happen to Christopher?

My guest is the actor who plays him, Michael Imperioli. He's not about to divulge any Soprano secrets, but we will get a chance to find out more about the show and about Michael Imperioli's work.

Imperioli has appeared in over 30 films, including "Goodfellas," "Jungle Fever," "Clockers," "Household Saints," and "I Shot Andy Warhol." He co-wrote and executive produced Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam."

Imperioli's character on "The Sopranos," Christopher, likes to go his own way, and that always creates a lot of tension between him and his uncle. A couple of episodes ago, Christopher didn't show up to Tony's son's confirmation. When Christopher showed up later for the party, Tony was pretty angry.


ACTOR: (inaudible) (bleep) (inaudible).

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI, ACTOR: Sorry, (inaudible).

ACTOR: I got one son, and you miss his confirmation ceremony?

IMPERIOLI: Ah, I figured with all my sins, I don't want the church caving in on (inaudible). (inaudible), all right, Ton? I'm not in the mood.

ACTOR: I agree. I'm going to go back in there and be with my guests. Exactly 10 minutes I'm going to look up. If you're not here, I'm going to assume that you went to look for whatever the (bleep) it is that's calling you out there, and that I will never see you again.

If you are still here, then I'm going to assume that you had no other desire in the world but to be with me, and your actions will show that in every (bleep)ing second of every (bleep)ing day. Do you understand me? Don't answer me. Take the 10 minutes. You think about it.


GROSS: I asked Michael Imperioli to tell us more about his character on "The Sopranos."

IMPERIOLI: I'm kind of a younger, more hotheaded, impulsive young mobster who wants to be made into the Mafia, which means officially become a member and go through the oath and ritual, which assures you a lifetime place in that family. And often my attempts to do that kind of backfire and cause me to get into more trouble. That's -- but he's a hard worker, and I think he has a good heart.

GROSS: When you started working on "The Sopranos," was most of your knowledge about the mob from movies and TV shows?

IMPERIOLI: Well, yes, I mean, I had done a couple of roles, and for those roles I did a lot of research. So, I mean, the territory was not unfamiliar because of that, you know, because of the research that I did, and just the history of, you know, how the mob began and, you know, took root in New York and then in the rest of the country, you know, from, like, the '20s, I guess, onward.

So I was familiar with that stuff, and I guess just the life and the kind of characterizations and the type of people was something that I was familiar with from growing up.

GROSS: What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?

IMPERIOLI: I grew up in a mostly Italian neighborhood in Mount Vernon, which is right on the border of the Bronx in New York.

GROSS: Were there guys who were rumored to be in the Mafia, or guys who you knew for sure were?

IMPERIOLI: There were guys were connected to them, but not guys who I would say were, like, were made guys, who were part of the family, that lived in my immediate neighborhood, no.

GROSS: And what was your attitude toward them? Were they people you looked up to or people you wanted to stay away from?

IMPERIOLI: Well, you know, when we were kids growing up, "The Godfather" was, like, hero. You know, that was hero worship to us. "The Godfather" kind of made us proud to be Italian, because, I mean, we didn't look at them -- those characters as just violent, you know, criminals, we looked at them with appreciation because of their sense of being empowered in the American society, and being able to kind of take the law into their own hands.

And we also were attracted to these bonds of loyalty and blood, you know, blood -- family, that version of blood -- and tradition. And it -- we actually had a sense of pride about those characters.

And I think a lot of -- I think that's why a lot of that -- a lot of people still, you know, I guess, look up to that movie. They feel something for these characters. They don't feel a revulsion to these characters. They really feel, like, a respect and an admiration for just the way they treated each other and they way they looked at what their lives were about.

GROSS: When you said that you did research on the mob, did you try to go out and meet guys who were connected, or just read books?

IMPERIOLI: Well, no, it's more like reading books and kind of observing, you know, going to certain places and observing. I would never, like, seek out people that I didn't know and try to, you know -- Also, I don't really know who these people are. I mean, I wouldn't know where to...

I mean, you can see, like, they used to have -- they used to show the social club that Gotti, you know, worked out of in Little Italy. Everyone kind of knew where that was. But I would never think of going knocking on the door and saying, "I'm an actor doing a movie, I'd love to talk to you guys." I mean, you -- you know, there's certain clubs or restaurants where people of that world may frequent, and you can go and try to absorb and drink...

GROSS: Did you do that?

IMPERIOLI: Yes, I did that at different times.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Michael Imperioli, one of the stars now of "The Sopranos." He plays Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano's nephew and soldier.

When we left off in "The Sopranos," your character was shot at the end of the episode, and, you know, we don't know what's going to happen to him, whether he'll pull through, and if he does, how this is going to change his life, his attitudes, his health. When did you know that your character was going to be shot?

IMPERIOLI: I think I knew that about a year ago.

GROSS: Really?

IMPERIOLI: Yes, maybe a little bit less.

GROSS: Gee, I'm really surprised. I wouldn't have thought that they'd think it through that completely -- I mean, that far along.

IMPERIOLI: Oh, they think it through very completely.

GROSS: Well, when you're shot, you don't know whether you're getting written out of the series or not. Or did they tell you that you weren't?

IMPERIOLI: I have no idea. I didn't know what they were doing. And I still don't. You know, we taped two different versions of the rest of the season, one where I live and one where I die. And I don't know which one -- what they're going to go with on the air.

GROSS: Seriously?


GROSS: Oh, oh. (laughs) OK.

IMPERIOLI: (laughs) No, I -- you know what? We're all sworn to secrecy.

GROSS: Right. Are there things you've had to learn to do for "The Sopranos" that you haven't had to do before? Even things like saying in a really, you know, whiny, annoyed way, "Whaaaat?" You -- I didn't get that quite right, but -- (laughs)

IMPERIOLI: Oh, that's from being, you know, Italian-American, and the -- you know, a New Yorker, or -- he's from New Jersey, my character, but it's pretty much -- the metropolitan area there, that I haven't -- I don't have to work on. That's in there.

GROSS: What have you had to work on?

IMPERIOLI: I did have to -- I did have to get a driver's license, though.

GROSS: Right, because you're the driver in it.

IMPERIOLI: And I never knew -- I never really knew how to drive. Actually smashed a car during the shooting of the pilot during a take. But I had...

GROSS: Who taught you to drive?

IMPERIOLI: I took lessons.

GROSS: Like, from a Joe's Driving School kind of place, or...

IMPERIOLI: Yes, in Manhattan, which is probably the...

GROSS: Oh, Manhattan's awful to learn to drive in!

IMPERIOLI: The worst place. My first lesson, the guy comes to my house, picks me up. At the time, I was living on the block -- it was 54th Street near Lexington, which was -- at the time was the worst block in the city for traffic. He picks me up in the middle of the day, in the afternoon, says, "OK, get in, drive." I'm, like, "What? In this?" And the traffic wasn't even moving. It was horrendous.

But now I drive.

GROSS: You drive in Manhattan?

IMPERIOLI: No, I drive in the -- on the show. I don't really drive in real life, because I don't have enough experience.

GROSS: (laughs)

My guest is Michael Imperioli, and he plays Christopher Moltisanti in "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano's nephew and soldier.

Now, you -- before "The Sopranos," you had a small part in "Goodfellas," one of Martin Scorsese's movies about the mob, about people at the lower echelon. (laughs) Describe your part in "Goodfellas."

IMPERIOLI: I played a kid who worked in the social club where these wiseguys hung out, and, you know, when young kids do that kind of job, they do anything for them, like, sweeping up to, you know, going to make food runs or make coffee or bring coffee or -- In this -- in the movie, specifically, you see me serving drinks at a card game. I may go buy them a sandwich if they wanted it or make them a sandwich for the card game or, you know, clean up when they're done and do whatever they need.

And kind of like a gopher of sorts, that's what I -- that was my character. His name was Spider.

GROSS: And you got shot.

IMPERIOLI: Yes, well, that was based on a true story, apparently, from what I understand, that there was a character who was this kid, and one of the guys kind of was getting a little hot under the collar and was fooling around and wanted me, to, like, in an old Western, you know, move a little quicker, so he was shooting the ground, and he wound up shooting me in the foot.

And then in the next scene he's kind of bothering me, and saying, Come on, you know, kind of doing the same thing, and I have this huge bandage on my foot. And I get upset and kind of tell him to go, you know, blah-blah-blah. And he gets really upset and winds up killing me.

But it's kind of a -- it happens right in the middle of the movie, and it's -- I think -- there was no reason, really, for me to -- my character to die. And it kind of really showed -- that was Joe Pesci who shot my character in the movie. And it was a point in the movie where it really kind of shows he's taken a turn into, like, I guess, depravity, where he's really -- it's not about business any more, it's really he's just kind of becoming psychotic, where he's just killing whoever he wants to for whatever reason.

GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of that scene.


JOE PESCI, ACTOR: And even though you got that, you could dance, huh? Give us a little -- give us couple of (bleep)ing steps here (inaudible). (inaudible) to you. (inaudible) you're looking for sympathy, is that it, sweetie?

IMPERIOLI: Why don't you go (bleep) yourself, Tommy?


ACTOR: (inaudible) you're right, I couldn't believe what I just heard. Hey, (inaudible), yeah, this is for you, attaboy. (inaudible) got a lot of (bleep)ing balls, this kid. Good for you. Don't take no (bleep) off nobody.

(inaudible), he shoots him in the foot, he tells him to go (bleep) himself.


ACTOR: (inaudible), you gonna let him get away with that? You gonna let the punk get away with that? What's the matter with you? What's the world coming to?


PESCI: (bleep) the world is coming to. How do you like that?


GROSS: When the Joe Pesci character is really going over the edge as he's shooting at you, did you feel that Joe Pesci was really doing something transformational in himself in that scene?

IMPERIOLI: Oh, no, I mean, I was -- I mean, you get into it, and you're -- you know, you're doing your thing. I mean, I think I was too involved in my thing to, like, be taken out of it and think, Wow, he's really going somewhere else. I mean, we were into our own parts and playing it to the hilt. I mean, I never felt he was out of control or, you know, or that I had to -- you know...

Although I did get hurt, you know, when they -- in the scene when they killed me. In the first take, when I'm getting shot, I hit the ground, and I had an actual glass in my hand, which shattered. And I sliced two of my fingers open. So I got rushed to a hospital out in Queens, but I had these huge bullet holes, and blood all over my chest.

GROSS: (laughs)

IMPERIOLI: And as they rushed me to the hospital, they -- as I went into the hospital, they rushed at me and put me on a stretcher, and I'm trying to explain to them that it was my hand, and they just thought I was delirious and wouldn't listen to anything I was saying and thought, you know, they were going to have to do some kind of, I don't know, trauma surgery or whatever the hell they were going to have to do.

And then they finally understood, and saw all the rigging for the blood packs and stuff like that, and everybody kind of had a laugh. And it was -- there was a -- it was very funny.

GROSS: Sounds to me like a very effective way to get by the triage nurse.

IMPERIOLI: It was exactly that. And -- but once they found out that it was just -- then -- just my fingers, they made me wait a long time.

GROSS: Tell me what it was like to work on a movie with DeNiro and Joe Pesci and Scorsese.

IMPERIOLI: You know, I learned a lot watching Robert DeNiro. I mean, to be 22 years old and all of a sudden be on the set with Robert DeNiro, and being an Italian kid from New York and be working with this guy, that was, like, I mean, it was really a dream, those two days. I mean, the whole experience of being in that proximity was really a dream.

But I watched him a lot, and what I watched from him was economy. He would come to the set and immediately, when he'd be on the set, he wouldn't kind of just dissipate his energies. He would be very focused, and immediately start to be involved with his props or his -- you know, if he was sitting at the card table, when he got to the set, he'd sit down. He'd get his drink and, you know, his prop drink and his props, and shuffle the cards or whatever, but no -- I remember watching him, and on the set, no time was ever wasted, like, just kind of sitting around, you know, talking or just, you know, socializing or anything like that.

When they cut, he would leave the set. Like, he treated the space of the set as something almost sacred, not to be wasted, not to expend superfluous energy on, that -- like a -- you know, like a stage. When an actor does a play, you come onto the stage and you do your part and then you get off the stage. And it seemed he was treating the movie set the same way, whereas a movie set, you can come on and just, like, talk and fool around, and some people do that, and that's fine.

But economy was the thing that I kept seeing that he was doing to keep his energies there, so when the camera's rolling and he's doing a take, you can have your energy be full out.

GROSS: So you were 22. Did you want to talk to DeNiro all about "The Godfather" and "Taxi Driver," or did you want to leave him alone?

IMPERIOLI: No, the first day Scorsese came up to me and said, "The only thing I ask of you is, on and off camera you treat them as their characters," which actually was very freeing, because I would have been a nervous, stumbling -- you know, you know, fan if I had to say, Well, what was it like doing this or that? You know, what -- this actually took the pressure off, because the first time I actually was in the room with DeNiro, he came and sat down on the set, and I went up to him and asked him what he wanted to drink...

GROSS: (laughs)

IMPERIOLI: ... because I was in charge of the drinks. And he kind of just looked at me, and then he said, "Take a shot of Scotch and a glass of water." There was no alcohol on the set, it was all props. But it made it very easy, because I didn't have to be -- you know, he didn't have to be one of the greatest actors of all time, and I'm this, you know, young guy who admires him so much. Although, in essence, that's kind of what our characters were, because he was a very well-respected mobster, and I was someone who looked up to him.

But to -- I didn't break that character till I was done with the two days and I said goodbye to him. And he was very kind and offered me words of encouragement, and that was it. But it made it very easy to do that.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Imperioli. He plays Christopher Moltisanti on "The Sopranos." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Imperioli. He plays Tony Soprano's nephew, Christopher, on "The Sopranos."

Anyone in your family or extended family ever say to you, Michael, why are you doing all these Mafia roles, it stereotypes Italians?

IMPERIOLI: Not in my family.

GROSS: (laughs)

IMPERIOLI: Also, the funny thing is, I think I've done -- I've done about maybe 35 or something, more than that, movies, a handful of TV roles, a bunch of plays, and out of all those roles, I think I've only done about four, maybe five mobsters.

GROSS: But some of those are your best-known work.

IMPERIOLI: That's -- well, the people love those movies and stuff, so that's -- so -- I mean, I've never felt typecast, because I've always -- you know, since I started working, I've always...

GROSS: Oh, sure, well, you were on "Ondine (ph)" and "I Shot Andy Warhol"...

IMPERIOLI: Yes, I've always been...

GROSS: ... you were in a lot of independent films playing all kinds of characters.

IMPERIOLI: Yes. I've been offered a range of characters, and I haven't felt typecast. The thing about "Sopranos" is, it's not like doing a movie. This is something that's over an extended period of time, you know, now we're in our second season. So, I mean, we've already shot 26 episodes, so that's 26 hours, which is, you know, about 13 feature films. So that's a lot of time spent on one character. But that's the nature of doing TV, and it's a luxury when you're playing characters that are so, you know, thought out and working with such great material and great company.

GROSS: Yes, on "The Sopranos," you work with a lot of character actors, many of whom are from an older generation than you are. And I'm wondering if you think that the opportunities for character actors are different for your generation than older generations, in part because a lot of actors like you have started off in independent films, or, like you, had -- have their own -- or had their own production companies, and therefore are more kind of -- more freedom and more flexibility, more -- maybe more opportunity?

IMPERIOLI: Oh, I think there's more opportunity. I think there's just a lot more things to act in these days. I mean, there's just -- I mean, look at how many channels there are. You have to -- you know, you got to fill those up with stuff, you know. Before, when I was growing up, there was, what, five channels.

There wasn't really an independent film thing the way there is today. There wasn't a lot of low-budget movies. There was people who made films independently, you know, like Cassavetes and people like that, but there wasn't a ton of, like, low-budget films being made in New York that you could, as a young actor, start to get into and cut your teeth on.

I think back then, it was a lot more closed, you know, it was a lot more hard to break in.

GROSS: I'm wondering if any of the character actors have spoken to you, or if you've overheard them talking to each other, about some of the frustrations that they've faced not having leading man good looks.

IMPERIOLI: No. I think you're better off, because there's a lot fewer leading men, see. It's -- and a lot fewer parts. I mean, if you think about it, in one year, how many leading men roles are there, and how many actors get to fill those things out? You know, because you got to be box office if you're going to be a leading man and a big star. There's only a handful of people who fill those shoes.

Whereas if you're, you know -- if you get -- if you can do that, and you're in that world, then you're set. But, you know, for character actors who are not of that kind of type, there's, you know, lots of parts, some big, some small, some medium, that you -- and, you know, all the time, so it's -- I think it's a little bit easier.

GROSS: What else do you have coming up?

IMPERIOLI: The March 12 episode that premiers is something that is a episode that I wrote, which was a lot of fun, and...

GROSS: Well, that's the episode right after the episode in which you got shot.

IMPERIOLI: That's right.

GROSS: So does that mean that you had the power to determine what happens to your character, or were that you given (ph) parameters and you could write within them?


GROSS: OK. And you're not going to tell us anything. (laughs)


GROSS: Right.

IMPERIOLI: No, you know what it is, I wouldn't want to spoil it for anybody.

GROSS: Right. Right.

IMPERIOLI: I don't even tell my family.

GROSS: That's like being in the CIA.

IMPERIOLI: It's -- I guess so. I wonder.

GROSS: Michael Imperioli. He plays Christopher Moltisanti on "The Sopranos."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Imperioli
High: Actor Michael Imperioli stars as Christopher in the HBO series "The Sopranos" and wrote one of this season's episodes. He has also appeared in five Spike Lee films, and starred in, co-wrote and executive produced Lee's latest film, "Summer of Sam." Imperioli also appeared in the films "Goodfellas," "Malcolm X," "Clockers," and "Household Saints."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Movie Industry

Please note, this is not the final feed of recordCopy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Michael Imperioli Discusses His Television and Film Career

Date: MARCH 09, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030902np.217
Head: CD Features Readings of African-American Poets
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton are among the great 20th century writers represented on the new double CD anthology, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work." The CD collects historical recordings along with readings by contemporary poets, including a rap record by Public Enemy.

My guests are two of the poets represented on the CD, Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper. I asked them each to choose a track by a late poet who inspired them. Michael Harper chose a poem called "Strong Men" by Sterling Brown (ph). I asked Harper to tell us a little about Sterling Brown and the poem.

MICHAEL HARPER, POET: Well, Sterling wrote this poem in 1929, and Sterling was a virtuoso, knew everything. He studied the blues, was a classical scholar, knew a great deal about Shakespeare, knew Chaucer, knew John Milton, knew the Romantics. And at the same time, he knew his people, loved his people.

GROSS: Well, let's hear this poem by Sterling Brown, recorded by Sterling Brown at the Library of Congress in 1973. This is "Strong Men."


STERLING BROWN: Strong Men. "The strong men keep coming on" -- Carl Sandburg.

They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffels (ph),
They huddled you, spoon-fashion, in filthy hatches.
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

They broke you in like oxen,
They scourged you, they branded you,
They made your women breeders,
They swelled your numbers with bastards.
They taught you the religion they disgraced.

You sang, "Keep inchin' along like a po-inch (ph) worm."
You sang, "Bye and bye, I'm gonna lay down this heavy load."
You sang, "Walk together, chillun, don't you get weary."

The strong men keep a-comin' on, the strong men get stronger.

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,
They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them,
They put hammers in your hands and said,
"Drive so much before sundown."

You sang, "Ain't no hammer in this land
Strikes line mine, Betty (ph), strikes like mine."

They cooped (ph) you in their kitchen,
They penned you in their factories,
They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,
They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.

You sang, "Me and my baby gonna shine, shine,
Me and my baby gonna shine."

The strong men keep a-comin' on, the strong men get stronger.

They bought off some of your leaders,
You stumbled, as blind men will.
They coaxed you, unwontedly soft-voiced,
You followed away, then laughed as usual.
They heard the laugh and wondered, uncomfortable,
Unadmitting a deeper terror.

The strong men keep a-comin' on, getting stronger.

What from the slums where they've hemmed you,
What from the tiny huts they could not keep from you,
What reaches in, making them ill at ease, fearful?

Today they shout prohibitions at you,
Thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that,
Reserved for whites only.

You laugh.

One thing they cannot prohibit.
The strong men coming on,
The strong men getting stronger.
Strong men, stronger.


GROSS: That was Sterling Brown reading his poem "Strong Men," as recorded at the Library of Congress in 1973. And that poem is included on the new CD, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work."

And I have two poets in the studio with me, Michael Harper and Sonia Sanchez.

Michael Harper, you chose to play that poem. Sterling Brown read it really well. I'm wondering if you feel he influenced your style of performing your poetry.

HARPER: Well, he certainly did. You know, I heard his voice on the FM radio one day. I was driving down the freeway. And I couldn't -- I just literally couldn't believe the resonance in the voice that he had. And, of course, I went down the public library in San Francisco -- I was living in San Francisco at the time -- and there was a Folkways album that he had made of his poems.

And I read them. And there was no collection at the time. He had been in anthologies. But the voice, the resonance and the range that he had was tremendously influential, even before I met him. Luckily, I met him in 1972, and we were close until he died.

But he was a preeminent man. Not only was he a tremendous scholar and teacher, magnificent teacher, but he was a tremendous reader of his own work.

GROSS: Did you get close to him, and did he give you any advice about what it would be to live life as a poet?

HARPER: Well, he gave me a lot of advice. He was known as an autodidact. I mean, you know, a short answer for Sterling Brown was an hour or more. He was an incredible man. You know, he -- the first thing he told me was, is that black writers, by definition, were here to disturb the peace -- that is to say, to tell the truth -- and that the popularity -- they couldn't expect popularity, and they couldn't expect to be in publication often. Sometimes he'd -- they'd be running counter to the market, whatever it was.

And he also had long experience with being out of print, and he used to say that one of the responsibilities for any black artist was to be true to the people. And if it took you to revolutionary stance, the reason why it was a revolutionary stance is simply because it was truthful. And so much of American society is based on lies.

GROSS: Michael Harper, I'm going to ask you to read one of your own poems for us.

HARPER: OK. I'll read "Dear John, Dear Coltrane."

GROSS: That happens to be the poem of yours -- or one of the poems of yours that's included on the CD, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers." But I'm going to ask you to read it for us.


Dear John, dear Coltrane,
(singing) A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.

Sex, fingers, toes
In the marketplace
Near your father's church
In Hamlet (ph), North Carolina,
Witness to this love
In this confallow (ph)
Of these minds,

There is no substitute for pain.
Genitals gone or going,
Sea (ph) burned out,
You tuck the roots in the earth,
Turn back and move by river
Through the swamps, singing,
(singing) A love supreme, a love supreme.

What does it all mean?
Loss, so great each black woman
Expects your failure
In new change.
The seed gone.

You plod up into the electric city,
Your song now crystal and the blues.
You pick up the horn with some will
And blow into the freezing night,
(singing) A love supreme, a love supreme.

Dawn comes, and you cook up the thick sin (ph)
'Tween impotence and death,
Fuel the tenor sax cannibal heart,
Genitals and sweat
That makes you clean.
(singing) A love supreme, a love supreme.

Why are you so black?
'Cause I am.
Why are you so funky?
'Cause I am.
Why are you so black?
'Cause I am.
Why are you sweet?
'Cause I am.
Why are you so black?
'Cause I am.
(singing) A love supreme, a love supreme.

So sick, you couldn't play "Naima (ph),"
So flat we ached for song
You'd concealed with your own blood.
Your diseased liver gave out its purity,
The inflated heart pumps out
The tenor kiss, tenor love.
(singing) A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.

GROSS: That's Michael Harper reading his poem, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane."

Were you listening to -- obviously you must have been listening to a lot of Coltrane while writing this. Had you seen him perform shortly before writing this?

HARPER: Well, I began to watch Coltrane play live in about 1955, and I wrote the poem actually before Coltrane died. Coltrane died in 1967, I wrote the poem in 1966. And I was terrified, because, you know, as poets, you sometimes have material select you. And I, of course, knew his music and listened to him live many times. I'd written about his great drummer, Elvin Jones (ph), and McCoy Tiner (ph) was a friend of mine. We were the same age, and we pretty much grew up together.

But Coltrane was a special figure, and he was not a terribly talkative man. And I had spent many, many times being in his company. But when I wrote this poem, I was terrified that I was -- you know, I was -- you know, I was writing his death warrant or something. And the reason why the refrain, "A love supreme," is because he himself had played that in 1964, and he and his musicians had chanted that.

And it was a refrain, a kind of anthem, which became widespread among -- certainly among the black community, the musical community. And Coltrane was the superior musician of his generation.

GROSS: Speaking with poet Michael Harper. He'll be back with poet Sonia Sanchez after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are poets Michael Harper and Sonia Sanchez. They're both featured on the new CD, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work."

Here's a track featuring Sonia Sanchez reading her poem "Song Number Two," recorded in 1994.


I say, all you young girls waiting to live,
I say, all you young girls taking your pill,
I say, all you sisters tired of standing still,
I say, all you sisters thinking you won't but you will,

Don't let them kill you with their stare.
Don't let them closet you with no air.
Don't let them seize your sex (inaudible).
Don't let them offer you any old (inaudible).

I say, step back, sisters, we rising from the dead.
I say, step back, Johnnies, we dancing on our heads.
I say, step back, man, no mo' hanging by a thread.
I say, step back, world, can't let it all go unsaid, too (ph).

I say, all you young girls molested at 10,
I say, all you young girls giving it up again and again,
I say, all you sisters hanging out in every den,
I say, all you sisters needing your own oxygen,

Don't let them trap you with their cult,
Don't let them treat you like one fat joke.
Don't let them bleed you till you're broke.
Don't let them blind you in masculine smoke.

I say, step back, sisters, we rising from the dead.
I say, step back, Johnnies, we dancing on our heads.
I say, step back, man, no mo' hanging by a thread.
I say, step back, world, can't let it all go unsaid.

I say, step back, world, can't let it all go unsaid.


GROSS: That's Sonia Sanchez as featured on a new CD featuring African-American poets reading their work.

I asked her to choose a track featuring a late poet who inspired her. She chose the poem "For My People" by Margaret Walker. Before we hear it, let's talk about Margaret Walker.

Sonia, you said you met Margaret Walker. She was the kind of person you could pick up the phone and just talk to. What did it mean to you as a young poet to have somebody like her to commiserate with when you were getting your bearings as a writer?

SONIA SANCHEZ, POET: She certainly was one who had gone through a lot here in this country, and she certainly was one who could give you great information on people who had gone before. I mean, you could call her when you were teaching Langston Hughes or anyone, and she would tell you some really relevant and pertinent information about those people.

But the thing that one really loved about what -- we used to call her Miss Margaret -- was simply that she had a look. She looked at this earth and made a decision to be a certain kind of poet, a certain kind of woman, and she never veered from that at all.

GROSS: Sonia, could I ask you -- this might be too personal, but can I ask you of an example of a time when you felt you really needed to commiserate with Margaret Walker, when something had happened with your writing or with your work as a teacher or a performer of your poetry, and you just really felt you needed her advice?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think the thing that finally happened with Margaret Walker -- and I'm sure it probably happened also with you, Michael, with Sterling -- is that at some point, you were not the student and you were not -- and she was not the teacher, but you were friends. But I wanted from Miss Margaret a great deal, was to hear how she had made it through.

I think it's so important for many women to understand how some women had to navigate five children or had to work, had to go back to school part time, had to farm their children out to relatives, had to take care of a husband who had been injured in the war, had to live on $6,000 a year and do all of that and pay mortgage.

I wanted to understand how she then could look up, and in her midnight hours and her midnight mornings, still write poetry and still be sane at the same time, and still be not only an inspiration but also give us the brilliant jubileeing, give it -- give us the brilliant poetry that she did.

And it was amazing that she wrote as much as she did, considering all of those -- all the things that she had to -- you know, (inaudible) -- that she came up against.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the poem that you've chosen. This is "For My People." Margaret Walker recorded this in 1954.


For my people everywhere,
Singing their slave songs repeatedly,
Their dirges and their ditties
And their blues and jubilees,
Praying their prayers nightly
To an unknown God,
Bending their knees humbly
To an unseen power.

For my people, lending their strength
To the years, to the gone years
And the now years and the maybe years,
Washing, ironing, cooking, scrubbing,
Sewing, mending, hoeing, plowing,
Digging, planting, pruning, patching,
Dragging along, never gaining,
Never reaping, never knowing
And never understanding.

For my playmates
In the clay and dust and sand
Of Alabama back yards,
Playing baptizing and preaching
And doctor and jail
And soldier and school
And Mama and cooking
And playhouse and concert
And store and hair,
And Miss Ztsumbe (ph) and company.

For the cramped, bewildered years we went to school
To learn the (inaudible) reasons why
And the answers too,
And the people who
And the places where
And the days when.

In memory of the bitter hours
When we discovered we were black,
And poor, and small, and different,
And nobody cared,
And nobody wondered,
And nobody understood.

For the boys and girls
Who grew in spite of these things,
To be man and woman,
To laugh and dance and sing and play
And drink their wine and religion and success,
To marry their playmates and bear children
And then die of consumption and anemia and lynching.

For my people,
Thronging Forty-seventh Street in Chicago,
And Lenox Avenue in New York,
And Rampart Street in New Orleans,
Lost, disinherited, dispossessed, and happy people,
Filling the cabarets and taverns
And other people's pockets,
Needing bread and shoes and milk
And bland (ph) and money and something,
Something all our own.

For my people,
Walking blindly, spreading joy,
Losing time, being lazy,
Sleeping when hungry,
Shouting when burdened,
Drinking when hopeless,
Tired and shackled and tangled among ourselves
By the unseen preachers
Who tower over us omnisciently
And laugh.

For my people,
Blundering and groping and floundering
In the dark of churches and schools and clubs and societies,
Associations and councils and committees and conventions,
Distressed and disturbed and deceived and devoured
By money-hungry, glory-craving leeches,
Preyed on by (inaudible) force of state
And fad and novelty,
By false prophet and holy believer.

For my people,
Standing staring, trying to fashion
A better way from confusion,
From hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
Trying to fashion a world
That will hold all the people,
All the faces,
All the Adams and Eves
And their countless generations.

Let a new earth rise.
Let another world be born.
Let a bloody peace be written in the sky.
Let a second generation full of courage issue forth.
Let a people loving (inaudible) come to growth.
Let a beauty full of healing
And the strength of final clenching
Be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood.
Let the martial songs be written,
Let the dirges disappear.
Let a race of men now rise
And take control.


GROSS: That was Margaret Walker reading her poem "For My People," recorded in 1954, from the new CD anthology of African-American poets called "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers."

My guests, poets Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper, will be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper, two of the poets featured on the new CD "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work."

You both mentioned the importance of meeting Malcolm X. I'm wondering if his style of speaking affected you, I mean, because he was so powerful in the way he used words.

SANCHEZ: Oh, yes.

GROSS: So did that have an impact on your writing or performing, do you think?

SANCHEZ: Oh, yes...

HARPER: Well...


HARPER: ... you know, for me, Malcolm could bring you tears, because the first thing he did was shame you. And he shamed you because he was so straightforward, so honest. I remember, and, you know, I had -- we had recordings of his speeches that we played to ourselves and to groups of people, and then later on, when I was teaching in East Bay a little bit north of Oakland, and we had people like Bobby Seale and various other people who were invited to the campus, you know, for outreach, for discussion and whatever, it was always Malcolm that was the focus of it all.

And, you know, "You left your mind in Africa," he would say, or any one of a number of other slogans. And I know the impact was great on Sonia, because at that time, of course, we were dispersed everywhere, but we were on the same page.

GROSS: Sonia, what was the impact on your writing or performance style of meeting and speaking with Malcolm X?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think it was a dual thing. I think that one of the things that happened to any would-be writer at that time is that the moment you heard Malcolm speak, then your poems changed, the content changed, and also the way you delivered. We began to study Malcolm very carefully. We learned exactly how to read.

I began to -- I learned how to read a poem by listening to him. I learned, you know, from him, because he was a master orator, he was a master person, you know, when it came to information. I began to infuse my poetry with African history because he would mention something in a speech someplace, and you had no information on it. You run to the Schaumberg, because -- so therefore, yes, so you learned how to deliver your poetry by listening to him. So he was indeed a master teacher.

GROSS: Now, I get the impression that music was also very influential on both of you. Michael Harper, do you feel that you have learned about language and its rhythms from reading with musicians, as you've occasionally done?

HARPER: Absolutely. And the most important thing you learn from musicians is phrasing. And you learn it from the singers, you know, the Bessie Smiths, the Billy Holidays, the Mamie Smiths, the Aretha Franklins, even. But you also learn, more than anything else, about the authenticity of phrasing, because musicians take you to places that you might not necessarily want to go, and they go instantly to the transcendent.

And, of course, the mastery of their playing is not technical mastery, it is spiritual mastery. It is to take you to a place that perhaps is not your mode. And when we are in performance with musicians, they take us to places sometimes we don't want to go, we're not prepared to go. They take us instantly there.

And it seems to me that the pioneering efforts of great musicians, and Coltrane is just one of many, gives us a way, indicates the path. And, of course, they're on the frontier, which is one of the reasons why we lose so many, because they're forced to live at the cutting edge of the society. And oftentimes that sacrifice to themselves -- and I'm not only talking about drugs, I'm talking about the rigor with which they have to express themselves, bring themselves.

And, of course, the pressure that black people in particular are under and always have been, the musicians are the -- they're the frontier, they're on the frontier. And, you know, we have to learn how to follow.

SANCHEZ: Well, they were never protected, actually, you know. If you've ever been with musicians, I mean, really great ones, you're right, they do take you places you've never been before, and you go with them, and you realize that if they go here two and three sets at a time in one night, that is very dangerous. We do it maybe once with musicians, you see, but they do it two and three times a night.

There was a time that these men and women played three sets a night in a smoke-filled club someplace, and you and I know that was not a healthy situation. So it's not just the obvious in terms of liquor, alcohol, and drugs, but it's also going each time to a place that is very hard to come down from, and in an hour, again, you're going up there again too.

GROSS: Sonia Sanchez, you teach at Temple University. Michael Harper, you teach at Brown University. You've both taught for a long time. I'm wondering if you feel most of your students are interested in poetry -- where poetry seems to fit in culturally with the students that you teach now. Has rap had an impact for better or for worse on their interest in it? Does rap translate to an interest in printed poems?

Sonia, your thoughts?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think that rap has certainly influenced many of the students who come into my class. I've retired from Temple, so I'm not teaching any more. And they come in quite often rhyming, writing raps. But they also -- you teach them also Hagen (ph) and Walker and Brown and Brooks and Baraka and all the people who have written before, and they understand that.

I think the joy of rap is that it has certainly brought them back to poetry, and now you can see them all of the -- what I call the masters, the people who've gone before, they come with a rhythm, they come with an idea of rhyme. And you give them rhyming dictionaries, you make them understand the need to go other places, the need -- besides getting up on a stage and performing, also sitting down in a room someplace writing and learning and understanding what form is. And you teach form, and you make them deal with it in very real terms.

And so therefore, you get some of the young rappers like Mustef (ph) and Taleeb (ph) and Rakim (ph) and the people who are really writing some of the most fantastically beautiful things, which means that they are writing poetry, not just rap.

GROSS: Michael Harper?

HARPER: Well, the best of hip-hop and rap music, of course, has a certain resonance and a certain kind of sustained, marvelous inventiveness that I think is in the best of all poetry. But I think that what young people have to realize is that they're not reinventing the wheel, that people have gone before.

And what Sonia said briefly before was that she teaches literacy, and I think that's our responsibility, you know, for all young people. Young people are living in a contemporary time, and of course they think that the most important thing is the times that they're living in. But people have preceded them. That's why the tradition, that's why Sonia teaches the -- you know, a Margaret or a Hayden (ph), that's why I teach a Sterling or a Gwendolyn Brooks.

I mean, who needs -- who has written a better poem than "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks? I mean, it's amazing. It's an amazing poem. And that poem was written, I think, in 1959. And it might be a master poem for the 20th century, for all I know.

GROSS: Michael Harper and Sonia Sanchez. They're two of the poets featured on the new double CD, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work."

GROSS: FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Naomi Person, Amy Salit, and Phyllis Myers, with Monique Nazareth, Anne Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Sonia Sanchez, Michael Harper
High: Poets Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper are featured on a new CD anthology, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers," a collection of African-American poetry from 1919 to 1999. It includes the work of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Maya Angelou, Gil Scott-Heron, Amiri Baraka and others.
Spec: Minorities; Race Relations; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of recordCopy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: CD Features Readings of African-American Poets
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue