How art can change the world: Renowned poet/activist Sunni Patterson speaks out
Celebrated spoken word artist, poet, and activist Sunni Patterson heads to UC Santa Cruz on Sunday, May 6, to take part in the sixth annual Birth of Word Festival, presented by Rainbow Theater. Prior to her visit, GT caught up with Patterson to discuss her craft, the role of an artist in today’s world, the culture of her hometown, New Orleans, and more.
Good Times: When were you first introduced to poetry, and spoken word, in particular?
Sunni Patterson: It’s been around all my life. I’ve always been a writer. I’m fortunate that my parents have always placed me around writers and performers. I was introduced to it at an early age, then going to college, it kept growing until I couldn’t stop.
GT: How has the culture of New Orleans impacted your poetry?
SP: I’m biased, but New Orleans is a magical place. Everything about it—from the food, to the culture, to the jazz, and funerals, even weddings, how you celebrate a birth and a death. It’s such a great mix of Africa and America and everywhere in between—Haiti, Santo Domingo. … Only in New Orleans would African Americans pay homage to Native Americans on an Italian holiday (St. Joseph’s Day). There are altars set up, and cakes and cookies, and the Indians come out. This great mix of cultures—you can’t help but be touched by it in some way.
GT: Your poems always have hard-hitting messages, whether they be about persecution, racism, slavery, death, the working class, or nutrition. How important is it for artists, and poets especially, to use their voice to promote positive change?
SP: I think that’s the most important piece. As cultural workers we are obligated to at least voice something besides what feels good at the moment, in order to promote awareness. It goes beyond art for art’s sake. How do we promote a collective consciousness that can vibrate real change? When creating something as serious as a poem, at some point we have to be very deliberate.
To be given a platform to say something and implement change and alter atmospheres … how do we utilize that gift of creativity? First and foremost we [write poetry] for ourselves, and people are touched in the process. It’s about speaking out against injustice and every “ism”—racism, sexism, etc.—and be fearless and honest while doing it. We have to show them we can do it. I dare you to tell us something different. We have to acknowledge what happened in the past and visualize what we want for our children’s children.
GT: Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?
SP: It’s a mix of everything from my own life and outside. Certain things sound so bizarre and fictional, but it’s all real stories—even watching the news. My own struggles, victories, triumphs, failures, mistakes, and truths all play a part in an artist’s life. When I examine my own landscape, I have to figure out how to put it into a form that others can relate to. It’s not about pointing the finger at someone else. You have to make it sound good too. We shouldn’t just write about our problems. When you’re charged to present, you should give some tangible solution—but it all takes time.
GT: What do you hope audiences take away from your poems and performances?
SP: A sense of Self, with a capital “S”—that divine part of Self that we sometimes neglect. We’re shown so many images of self-sabotaging. Even though we have these experiences of depression, enslavement, relationship breakups, and everything, on the other side of that, love always prevails; it always cycles. We can always create something new. We are powerful if we come together, even in the midst of chaos. There is a oneness that prevails. If we have the will, we can go higher and come out feeling good. There’s so much to feel bad about, but I can think of a million things to feel good about.
Sunni Patterson will perform at the sixth annual Birth of Word Festival at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, May 6. UC Santa Cruz Stevenson Event Center, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. No Cover. For more information about Patterson, visit sunnipatterson.com.