Poet of the Spirit: Sunni Patterson

To conclude my Black History Month themed posts, I interviewed poet Sunni Patterson. Patterson was instrumental in giving voice to New Orleans through her poetry after Hurricane Katrina. The performance of her poem “We Made It” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam has over six hundred thousand views on YouTube. In many ways Patterson has become the face of New Orleans spoken word.

How has New Orleans shaped your poetry?
When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you can’t help but have poetry in your bones. Even if you don’t know what it is, or what to call it, it’s there. From the way a story is told, the sayings, the anecdotes—all of it shapes my artistry. I know the music, air, culture, thickness of the city contributes to the sound of my poems.

Take us back to your appearance on Def Poetry Jam in 2007, what was that moment like for you?
I was asked to do it years before that performance. For some reason, I didn’t want to do it. Fast forward to after Hurricane Katrina. I’d just finished speaking at the University of Houston when I got the call from producers. I agreed immediately! I knew my voice and point of view about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the city and residents needed to be heard.

I had no clothes after Katrina. A box of clothing from a church in Houston was sent to me. Most of the things I didn’t keep. I kept a crop top. I already had some denim material I wanted to use. I was leaving the next day, I called Mama Rukiya, she sewed something quickly with mudcloth and made detachable sleeves. Chile, I was sewing myself into the dress until it was time to go on stage! The needle and thread were still in the seams. It was a great experience.

Who are some of your poetry influences?
Ayi Kwei Armah, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Neville Goddard, Zora Neale Hurston, Acklyn Lynch, Brenda Marie Osbey, Arturo Pfister, Rumi, Kalamu ya Salaam, Mona Lisa Saloy, and Sonia Sanchez.

What message do you have for the future writers of New Orleans?
My hope for the next generation of writers is to have hope. To hold the light. To honor the ancestors, elders, culture, children, and spirit of the city, but most importantly, to do the ugly, yet necessary, work of the heart. Those are the things that’ll keep them and us alive.

Sunni Patterson. (Credit: Gus Bennett, Jr. / 2016 New Orleans People Project)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Tsunami Rising

Caption: 

“Black women are crafting a collective response / to centuries of being under everybody’s water / We are a rising tsunami of fury come back / to take back what was carried away/without consent....” Staceyann Chin reads “Tsunami Rising” from her debut poetry collection, Crossfire: A Litany for Survival (Haymarket Books, 2019), for the Unbound series in Brooklyn, copresented by BAM and Greenlight Bookstore.

Growing in Writing: Part Two

In part two of my conversation with poet Deonte Osayande, I want to highlight his role in helping other writers share their work on stages in Detroit. Deonte was one of the first writers to introduce me to the Readings & Workshops program and the mini-grants offered to poets and writers. As an independent artist, Deonte was able to receive funding through the R&W program for his reading appearances and for leading writing workshops. As a series curator, Deonte has applied for, and received, a number of mini-grants for writers that he has invited to take part in events. Together we ran the Detroit slam series known as Freshwater Wordsmiths, which was first awarded funding from the R&W program in 2015.

Deonte says that he discovered the mini-grants from a peer and thought it would help the Freshwater Wordsmiths series grow. “I wanted a better way to pay people to come and perform for us, and I found it as an excellent way to recruit incoming writers,” says Deonte. The ability to fund writers in this way allowed Deonte to invite many who had never been to the Midwest before. Some of the writers who shared their work at Freshwater Wordsmiths and were funded through the R&W program include Troy Cunio, Safia Elhillo, Joel Greene, Robert Lashley, Ed Mabrey, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Paul Tran.

In turn, local writers and fans of the literary arts in Detroit have been able to experience and build connections with writers from around the country. The ability to receive funding for writers also allows small venues in the city to lure traveling artists to their events even if the backing of a large university or organization is not present.

Interest in the literary world has expanded among the local writers who have been to reading series such as Freshwater Wordsmiths, and the many series that have been established in Detroit since the series closed. Through this support system, we are building community and sharing inspiration for our writing.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.

Saints and Sinners Literary Festival

If you’re looking for more community and a spirited festival, you should look into Saints and Sinners. Founded in 2003, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival highlights LGBTQ writers and publishers from the United States and beyond. The three-day event features panel discussions, workshops, and readings and is held each spring in the French Quarter at the Hotel Monteleone—an official literary landmark that has welcomed William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams to its rooms.

The 2020 festival is set for March 27–29 and will feature poet Savannah Sipple, fiction writer Leona Beasley, historian Frank Perez, and many others. Registration is open now with day passes and student rates available.

Saints and Sinners is a project of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, which I’ve attended several times in the past. The two festivals overlap so it’s possible to attend events from both. Last year, Saints and Sinners kicked off the festival with the return of their open mic slam and first-ever Drag Queen show. And to conclude the event, there are Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame awards given to those who best embody the mission of the festival.

My poet friend Brad Richard has attended the festival and speaks highly of it: “The Saints and Sinners Festival is a wonderful community within the larger community of the Tennessee Williams Festival. I’ve met writers I’ve always wanted to meet and discovered new ones, and found a publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, for my third book, Butcher’s Sugar.”

Although I haven’t had the chance to attend Saints and Sinners yet, I look forward to supporting the festival and attendees in the coming year.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Write About Now Poetry

Hey gente, I am picking up where I left off in the last two blog posts and focusing on a few reading and performance series that call Houston home.

This week is a look at the Write About Now poetry slam and open mic series. Of the four series I have decided to write about, WAN (as it is known around here) is the youngest. This nonprofit poetry collective has been around for less than ten years, but in that time the vibrant platform has garnered a great following with younger writers here in H-Town. Currently the series is hosted at a space that has been home to several other notable reading series, AvantGarden. In their back courtyard you’ll find WAN events every Wednesday night, and every performance is worth the $5 to get in.

The weekly events are almost always hosted by WAN’s founder, Amir Safi, and usually take the form of a slam. Judges are selected on the night of the slam and there is a featured reader who closes out the night. The slams start at 7:00 PM and end around 10:00 PM, and sometimes a little later. There is a super healthy crowd that attends and the energy is electric. I always have a great time when I’m able to go and I look forward to hearing new up-and-coming poets read their work.

AvantGarden is a local bar that has had a few names and changed with the times. The one thing I love about the space is that it has always been home to a poetry community—it’s actually one of the few spaces that was around in my early days of open mics. I can confidently recommend a WAN show to anyone. It is always a good time.

Write About Now poetry slam and open mic series at AvantGarden in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Camonghne Felix

Caption: 

“Today, today I said I would write my own healing.” In this 2015 video, Camonghne Felix reads her poem “Presence” at the Strivers Row’s Poetic Soul live performance series. Felix is the author of Build Yourself a Boat (Haymarket Books, 2019) and is featured in “Poetic Lenses: Our Fifteenth Annual Look at Debut Poetry” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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