Poet, Singer, Visionary, Educator and Activist.
Sunni Patterson – poet, singer, visionary, educator and activist, according to fans and admirers alike, Sunni retains her place as a sure diamond in the metaphoric rough, combining the heritage, culture, and traditions of her native town, with a spiritual worldview, creating powerful music and poetry Sunni become an irreplaceable poetess in her field, undeniably relevant regarding every day, while multi-talented barely seems to cover the depth and breadth of her accomplishments, and unrivalled influence, on stage, on record, in the classroom or just facilitating todays activists. Sunni has become recognised not only as a spokesperson for black culture and people, and women, but also for people who are committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States, and beyond, and while her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit, Sunni’s poetry benefits from her performance of it, a type of expression that can be traced to African-American oral traditions, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss. In essence, her way of expression setting her apart from poets today, and Whispermaze caught up with Sunny recently, and when we spoke over the phone, she is on her porch taking in the view of passers-by, taking the share of voice and telling a story of her graceful refinement, and objectives.
Firstly, how are you Sunni?
There’s a lot going on, universally, so making sure I’m keeping it tight, taking care of the family, drinking a lot of water, it can be a lot, I can get bombarded with a lot of calls and visits from people who are not sure how to process everything that’s happening right now, especially my youngest activists, and it takes time, because as an artist, as an activist, speaking true to power, when you have this passion, as I did when it was a younger me you tend to be ‘blah blah blah’, or ‘yes yes yes’, and before you know it you’re burnt out, and it reminds me of a time when one of my elders tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sunny, love us, but don’t trust us,” and I took such great offence to that, I couldn’t understand what he meant by saying that, because I’m thinking if you love the people you’ve got to trust the people, as always…‘the’ people, because we objectify people, and he went on to say, “Daughter, we are such a famished people, we’re so starving for fresh water and we’re lapping up and lapping up and we don’t even know we’re depleting”, and that was the truth, and in the end thank God for those reminders, and we can also be those reminders for one another because that’s what it’s about.
As an expressionist of black and human feelings, speaking of black feelings, what is it about Black expression that sets Black expression apart from other social groups?
You fuse anything that you do with your experience, your culture, your truth, and your expression of God and what that means of spirit...if truly we are these spiritual beings, and having these experiences, this is how we are expressing it, and the rhythm that has to come with it, because it’s a completely different rhythm when we’re dealing with this diaspora, and what these boat stops meant for many of us, and how we express this, through food, through music, through sound, because it’s a stance, it’s a walk, and that’s what poetry does, it sends us through…this gander of emotion, it’s a pot of good food filled with onions, and bell peppers, and celery and garlic, it’s all of these kind of things and everyone has a different pizazz and a different oomph that it gives, for ‘us’ it’s the salt, and they say we’re the salt of the earth and this right here is the real thing, and we have to enthuse that, and though everybody brings their own culture and expressions to a space, I know that the essence of black expression is extremely unique, based upon just creation in general, because we’re dealing with self and the make-up of a person, we’re dealing with cultural genetics that have been passed down and what it is that we’re picking up, not just from these experiences that we’re walking, but experiences that have been walked before us, and we pick that up, and we’re able to tap into that essence, and its movement in order to create something…superior even.
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poetry?
Yes, because I’ve changed, and I was a very young writer, and in New Orleans most of us grew-up Catholic, with all of these Saints, these Saints being really just a front for so many of our other deities’, and I’ve grown up amongst this knowledge where people would express this type of beauty, and in my experience, in this particular church, I was the one who was pushed out front to be a speaker, and to write, and I remember the preacher saying to me, and this was when I was a little girl, he said, “Sunny, can you write one of those militant poems, the Archbishop is coming and we need to shake shit-up around here”, and he would say things like that all the time, more so after Katrina, and it was around these kinds of people that promoted this kind of us openness, and promoted this kind of expression, and it’s almost as if you don’t have a choice, you’re pushed into that kind of way, and I don’t even know if I spoke of something else what the reaction would have been, I don’t even know what else I was going to talk about because this type of expression has always been me.
What are you trying to communicate with your art?
I’m big on remembrance, and ancestors, and the remembering in the real sense of the word, the re-memory, putting ourselves together, re-visioning…re-imagining even, that’s the main thing for me, I want to present us and present our stories in a way that we’re able to see ourselves, past, present, and future, yes we have these problems –quote on quote we see the problems- whatever this is, whatever the thing is, but it’s still coupled with solution, within in it I’m still able to see myself through, I’m able to see myself out, I’m able to see something beyond this space, my art deals with what the coverage looks like, in the face of lack, and scarcity and everything else, daring to dream, daring to tap into and call on the names of these ancestors who have really called on you, meaning for us to call on them what has already been called on us, so it’s to move and rhyme, and move in time, it may not necessarily be on time, but it’s always in time.
What keeps you inspired?
I’ve always tried to make sure that I’m present, here, in the moment, when the moment calls for stimulus, and my children keep me inspired, my husband and my parents keep me inspired, granted, I know it’s agift; to pull out the silver lining, or create one or invent one if it’s not there, and after hurricane Katrina, because we lost everything- house, clothes, books- in my case, if I didn’t have anything with me when I left, I did not have it, of which meant I had two dresses, and one pair of shoes, after I evacuated myself
and my Mother, and my Father and my two nieces, because the storm hit on the Monday, August 29th, 2005, and we left on that Sunday, on the 28th, and we waited so long because at one point we we’re thinking it might not be a big storm, then it was; it is a big storm, and then it was; I think we might need to move out, it was like that, and had we not this could’ve been a very different kind of conversation , if it is a conversation at all, so yeah; we lost everything, we packed enough for Wednesday because we thought we’d go home by then, and several Wednesday s had come and gone since then, and what I learnt was a divine kind of detachment, because when you lose everything there’s only two ways to go, either you flat out on the ground, or bounce completely up, there’s nothing else that you can do, and for me that’s inspiration for me, because you’re pulling from spaces where you least expect this good to come, and especially when so many people don’t know how to pull this kind of good, don’t know how to see this kind of good and don’t know how to remember that a certain point in their lives…there was good! So, you kinda’ have to train this mind to able to go back to these spaces, to create these kind of thoughts, because it’s one thing to say you got to think differently but this is where we have to be gentle with ourselves, gentle but tough, like water, water can drown you, or it can soothe you, so we have to be gentle because we’ve seen so much trauma, trauma after trauma after trauma, especially now that we’re seeing trauma in HD, its full colour, and it’s on repeat, and it’s about how do we get to a space where there still is good, in all of that, and it gets, and got to a point where I had to force myself…in a gentle way, in order for me to survive this my thoughts can’t be here, I don’t want my body to conform to that shape, I don’t want my body to be that hunchback, and it’s like that, I had to say: “I can’t give you that.”
With the Flint water crisis, and ‘Black Lives Matter’, not forgetting the implications of New Orleans and the Chicago murder rate, along with Donald Trumps, often racist rhetoric, in your personal opinion, how does it feel to be a Black/African American right now?
It’s exhausting, because you’re hit with so much, you’re hit with you gotta’ play football, you’ve got to play basketball, you’ve got to entertain us…you gotta’ jive, shuffle, dance, cook the food, and then you got to protest because ‘we’re’ going to kill all of them, and then it goes to what I was saying, it’s about finding…and remembering the diamond of you, in the midst of all of this, and it’s difficult, it’s a difficult thing when you’re in the midst of it, and I have a group who I call: ‘the then what’s’’, because after all of this; ‘then what’, then it means that we have to find an end, because everything that comes to an end deserves a proper burial, and this frame of mind, this institution is coming to an end…I firmly believe that, this way, this thought is coming to an end and with proper training; because you can’t just jump into being this kind of activist, yes sometimes we’re thrown into these kind of spaces, especially lately, where so many have been thrown into this pool of activism but the truth is they haven’t been really trained on what it means to be this kind of activist, this person to bear this task we are confronted with, because it’s beyond holding a picket sign, it’s beyond a boycott, because when we’re dealing with what it means to organise we’re dealing with an internal peace, which means what is our inner value law, what is our internal landscape, and as I see it now it’s not for me to be on the frontline; of which I have been, for me, I feel it’s about facilitating a dialogue with ourselves, that’s my role, and this is the same thing to do with freedom, and liberation, in its completion, and I ask people what does this look like? It’s to know you know what it looks like, because we’re so caught in somebody else’s reality the challenge is how do we invent and create our own, and I remember one of my teachers would say this- “if you are not your own reality, then who’s illusion are you” – and it goes to that, is your fear your fear, is your dream your dream, is it yours? And that’s the question needing answering.
What is your cause, what do you want the world to know about your cause?
It goes back to re…membering, re…imagining, it goes back to those words, are we able to see ourselves, our high selves, our future self, our past self, are you able to tap into that space in our lives where we can see our self, but not just see ourselves within our self, but see ourselves within one another, and what that looks like, what that feels like, to know who’s staring back at me when I’m looking at you, or when looking at a tree, whatever it is, am I seeing myself, not just myself as an expression of God, but I’m seeing you, as myself, as expression of God as well, to add to that I have a workshop practising presence beyond the stage, or beyond the page, and essentially it’s about being; the continuity of you, and what that looks like for your lineage, what that looks like for your legacy, what that looks like for your ancestral line, in the end just being able to tap into that space, and honouring those whose breath you still move on, whose shoulders we stand on, and we hear this all the time, for me, if I can’t come in my great Grandmother’s name, then I can’t come, if I can’t come in the name of all of these people and these essences, then how can I come.
Ultimately, what makes you happy?
I refuse to fall into an inner me, cemetery thought, because this can’t be how we move, from an inner sense of place this can’t be that, so it has to come from a very deliberate love, it has to come from that, because if I listen to this type of destruction all day, every day, then certainly I would die, so I need some comedy, I need these soap operas that I watch on T.V., like the ‘Young and the Restless, and I like to cook, I like to bake, I laugh at my children, I laugh with my children, laugh at myself and my parents, we’ve got to find that because its happiness that should drive us, it can’t be anger all the time, yes there are things to be angry about, but after a while, even the anger has to transform itself into an undying, unending love, like a log that doesn’t shake, and if it does shake it does so with an ecstatic…orgasmic kind of movement, and if it’s not doing that I’m not interested in it, there’s a saying –‘misery loves company, but hates happiness’- I don’t want it, I don’t want any part of a movement that requires us to be angry all the time, that requires struggle…all the time, because it doesn’t solve anything, it only makes people mean, and bitter, and Marcus Garvey once said; of which is relevant, he said; “ when we have our land, we don’t want everybody here, because if you’re no good here, then you’ll be no good there”, and I don’t want that.
It’s been an absolute pleasure Sunni, and no doubt I’ll keep leaning on your words and work as a source of inspiration.
Thank you my brother, and peace.