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Matt Rourke, Associated Press
Philadelphia poet laureate Sonia Sanchez gestures as she makes remarks during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011, in Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter named 77-year-old Sanchez, a noted poet and teacher, to the post Thursday morning.

PHILADELPHIA — The city that anchors one end of the Walt Whitman Bridge has named a teacher and activist its first poet laureate.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter bestowed the honor Thursday on poet Sonia Sanchez, calling her the longtime conscience of the city.

Sanchez, 77, said she seeks to explore what it means to be human in the 21st century. To her, that means trying to instill peace in yourself and others.

One current project involves gathering haikus from fellow writers — including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou — and from the public for a mural in South Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia can go around the world exporting peace," said the high-spirited Sanchez, who wears her graying hair in long ringlets. "I know I teach English, but ain't that something!"

Sanchez, who lives in West Philadelphia, also serves as the poet in residence at Temple University. She has written many poetry collections, along with plays and children's books.

Her new duties as poet laureate include mentoring a youth poet laureate and taking part in other spoken word and poetry events at City Hall, the Free Library of Philadelphia and elsewhere.

"Poetry is an extraordinary and powerful art form," Nutter said. "Ms. Sanchez exemplifies the role a poet can play in helping to define a city and helping its citizens discover beauty."

Sanchez said she dreams of a day when poets and writers will become political leaders in the United States, as they sometimes do abroad. She read aloud her "Poem for July 4, 1994," written to honor Vaclav Havel, the playwright turned president of the Czech Republic who died earlier this month.

The poem seeks a day when all citizens of the world will enjoy racial, sexual, economic and religious freedom.

"This is the time for the creative Man. Woman. Who must decide that She. He. Can live in peace," Sanchez read in a mix of verse, song, whispers and cries.

"It is essential that we always repeat: we the people, we the people, we the people."