There are things we read, every one in a while, that hit us like a drum. The sound rings clear and beats a strange, rhythmic humming in the chest. What does this poem mean to me we might ask ourselves. Then, an even more calculated thought, Why does this imagery feel familiar? Like I’ve felt that feeling too or smelt that same smell, been washed over by that same wave of romance or tinted blue wandering?
And the answer to this always seem to vary depending on who you ask. Some might say it’s because the human experience, regardless of one’s background or upbringing, is similar in terms of the emotions we have access to. Tears are tears and laugher is laughter, so to speak. But then there are those who would suggest that our tears and laughs are different, that the size of the laugh and what its components are matter just as much as why such a sound existed in the first place, and why it was so enthusiastic or polite.
Now if you were to ask me this question, and without sounding too poetic, I would tell you that although the human experience might vary in terms of experiencing, and despite the fact that someone across the pond would call it tA-MAH-TOE versus TUH-MAE-TOE, our stories will, more often than not, will overlap with our neighbor’s in terms of our use of the four pillars of emotion: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and one’s relationship with management.
In other words, and just like the fruit metaphor (yes, tomato is a fruit!), even though our recollection of how to pronounce the word itself may be different, our exact intentions were the same in that we intended to reference the same fruit, for whatever reason. To me this is also the core of damn good storytelling: coming across a story most different yet so similar. Because aren’t we all, in some uncanny way, most different yet similar?
Patterson (aka @poetryntings) was one the first people I came across on social media whose work had me reflect on not necessarily life, but the human experience as a whole; the mechanics of how a person approaches time, morals, and finding morals in everyday concepts, like nature, or something along the lines of the ”busy bird too distracted to see what lies waiting in the weeds.” In many cases, Patterson brilliantly reweaves the world together with ink, introducing these very metaphors and questions, and ultimately allows the reader to hold her binoculars (her writing) and peer out at the world with a brand new set of spectacles. Other times, the phycological fog we once experienced might simply be lifted, leaving our soul not too entirely polished but evidently more confident, less alone.
All this is exactly why I felt incredibly honored to be able to interview Patterson. For not only does her unique storytelling continue to impact myself and many others, it is really the story behind the writing, the root of it all, that gives a person the opportunity to truly appreciate the entire origin of the art. Where does this ”lightbulb” of creativity come from? Does the artist ever have trouble replacing the bulb? Finding the switch in the dark?
All of this and more is upcoming.
Hughes: Tell us about yourself. Where are you based? What was your childhood like?
Patterson: I grew up in Seattle, Washington. My childhood was both happy and difficult. My earliest happiest memories are of growing up in the Central District of Seattle which is the most historically black neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. Although to other people it was rough around the edges, there was a deep sense of pride and community growing up there. I had loads of cousins, uncles, and aunts which I could not explain how exactly we were related. I felt safe and happy despite the violence that plagued the neighborhood at the time.
Eventually, my family moved to a nearby suburb for me to go to school. I was always the student who finished their work quickly and distracted other students by chatting away as the teacher reprimanded me.
At about school age, I started to write poetry. I became painfully aware that my dad was an alcoholic. Forbidden from talking about his addiction to anyone outside of our family, there was a lot of pain I kept inside because I wasn’t able to express my feelings, even to close friends and family. My earliest memory of poetry was in fourth grade. I remember learning about how poets used language to say things without explicitly stating them. At the time it gave me a safe outlet to process what was going on in my household without being “found out” or worrying about the repercussions.
Hughes: Describe your first memory of creating something that caught the attention of someone else. What was their reaction?
Patterson: When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who gave us fifteen minutes of free time every single morning to put our thoughts on paper. I remember him really encouraging me to think outside the box and to push beyond conventional boundaries of the page. “Turn your notebook upside down,” “draw everything you want to say,” and “as long as there is something on the paper you have written,” are all things I remember the teacher saying.
In my spirit, I am an anarchist who’s always questioning conventionality and norms and it was the first safe space I found to explore myself as a writer. When we started a poetry unit, the end of unit assignment was to put together a poetry portfolio. I remember spending copious amounts of time inside versus playing with friends. I begged my dad to teach me how to do innovative things in word so that I could format each poem exactly how I wanted them. My mom took me to Michael’s craft store to buy special paper with designs on it that represented the tone of each poem. At the end, the teacher asked my mom to come in and meet with him, which made me anxious because my parents were no stranger to having to come to school to hear about my latest shenanigans. But my teacher described to her how proud he was of all the work I put into that project and how a particular poem I’d written about my sister touched his heart. It was the first time I remember feeling that my mom was truly proud of me.
Hughes: Is anyone else in your family creative?
Patterson: My father actually is quite the music connoisseur and photographer. There was always music playing in my household from contemporary hip hop and R & B to classic Black music like jazz, soul, blues, and Motown. Because of that I had an affinity for music from an early age.
The first job I dreamed of having was as a singer/songwriter. He was also always around documenting our lives on video and camcorder. I think because of this, in my earliest years, I got to see a really healthy balance of how art and life art intertwined with one another, and as a result I was always encouraged to pursue my hobbies with as much passion as any other type of work.
Both of my grandmothers were phenomenal storytellers. I would curl up in their laps and listen to stories of their childhood with close intent and adoration. One grandmother from Philly would tell me stories about growing up in one of America’s biggest roughest cities. She would describe people in our family who had since passed like tall tale’s, like my great grandmother who was barely five-foot-tall but towered over people like a giant in her presence. The other grandmother, a second generation Irish-Catholic, would tell me stories about growing up on a cattle ranch in Montana. I remember her describing the first time she saw the Wizard of Oz in color as a girl and the ever-present awe in her eyes that never faded as she recounted how vivid and special that moment was for her as a little girl in a small town.
Hughes: The following is a quote by African-American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes: ‘’I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class, and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everybody knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythms, so they elected me class poet.’’ What is your interpretation of this quote? Do you believe there is a 21 st century relevance of Hughes’ experience? If so, describe this reflection.
Patterson: This is an interesting question and it makes me think about some of the ancestry research that I’ve done. My family is black and Irish, culturally both sides of my family really value oral storytelling and speak a lot in hyperbole and metaphor. Because of this there are parts of poetry that I feel have come somewhat naturally while others I’ve really struggled with. For example, writing from my experience and being descriptive yet abstract is natural. At the same time, I’ve struggled to find my voice with format and punctuation. Because of my identity as a Black female poet, people often expect to see me on a stage versus in publications. Thus as a writer, I’m often challenged by others’ expectations of me to be a spoken word artist. Personally, I really enjoy seeing my writing on paper, I enjoy watching people read it, and I enjoy hearing their reflections about it. For me getting in front of an audience to recite or perform is incredibly uncomfortable and it takes away from the meaning of my message. Whenever I tell people that I’m a poet they often ask where I perform or when they will get to see me perform, so I think that even though there are a lot of opportunities within poetry for Black artists there are still boxes that many of us are trying to climb out of.
Hughes: Define the role of a poet to society.
Patterson: I think the role of art in our society is to function as a mirror. For me as a writer, it gives me the space to reflect deeply about who I am and what different events mean. It forces me to sit with myself and to uncover truths that may be hidden deep inside of me. Because of this, and as an artist, I feel my poems are always deeply personal and healing because they are written for me first.
For the audience, the most powerful art also functions as a reflection in my opinion. It forces you back into yourself to unearth your connection. It requires that you ask and answer questions about who you are and what that means no matter how uncomfortable or pleasant it might make you feel which can change the very fabric of your being.
Hughes: Define the role of society to a poet.
Patterson: Building off of my last answer I would say the role of the poet is to give society the space to see itself from a different lens. I do believe that every poet holds a different mirror and that every poet has their own unique role. For some poets, it may be to affirm people’s feelings about the nuances and difficulties of being in love. For other poets, it may be to guide people along a path to self-discovery and self-love. For others, calling attention to injustice and the biases that persist in our society and inspiring people to see themselves as change makers of the future. Because of this I think there is limitless opportunity for everyone to see themselves as poets in our society and to find their voice through poetry.
Hughes: Define the role of a poet to oneself.
Patterson: I think it differs for every poet, and is directly tied to why you write. If you understand the ”why” you write and how you use writing it helps you to develop a deep sense of purpose around your poetry. For me the role of being a poet to myself is about remaining true to my authentic voice as a writer—which is first about enlightenment and introspection. I have an obligation to myself to dig deep and uncover my inner most thoughts, reflections, and emotions as I try to process my environment and the events which have an impact on who I am as a person.
Hughes: One thing I’ve always admired about your writing is how pure and translucent your words are. Is this a hard thing to do? To be honest?
Patterson: This is such a kind compliment and I appreciate you bestowing it upon me. Before I ever considered myself a poet, I was just simply someone who needed to write poetry. For me, poetry was a form of therapy because of how I came to writing in my childhood. Every time I sit down to write it is very personal, and it is a reflection of what I’m processing about my own experiences in life. I feel very safe in my journal to take risks and to say things that may not be palatable because I may be the only person who reads them.
Sharing my poetry with others is a whole different story. I actually didn’t share my poetry publically until February of 2018 when I was thirty years old. My wonderful therapist at the time was helping me to process some of unhealthy coping habits that I have and we discussed how poetry was a healthy habit. Through our sessions together, I realized that by not sharing my poetry I wasn’t allowing myself to truly be vulnerable and move forward on the path of healing. I started my Instagram anonymously to allow me the space to be honest without judgement. When I decided not to be anonymous anymore I remember feeling a tremendous amount of support from other writers. The community that comes with shared experiences has given me the courage to try to be as honest as possible even though it isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
Hughes: In relation to the previous, many writers of both nonfiction and fiction struggle with the thought of being ‘’too vulnerable’’ in their writing—this often leading to the piece either being locked away or entirely erased. Do you relate to this at all? Also, what advice would you give to someone who wants to relieve this?
Patterson: I believe that writing is a deeply personal act. For me vulnerability is key in getting to the root of feelings and emotions I’m trying to express. I heard this great idea once, The thing you are most afraid to write. Write that. (Nayyirah Waheed, Salt). This idea really resonates with me as a writer because I’ve used writing to guide me through trauma’s that I could never speak vulnerably about. In my daily writing I often ask myself, “What is the thing I’m holding on to? Why am I afraid to talk about it? If this situation was a person what might I say to it? What do I need to be able to move on from it?” Approaching writing in this way has empowered me with the language to first acknowledge the power something might have over me and then to develop the language to understand it. After that I can treat myself with empathy and work to overcome it. I often find that in times when I experience a “writer’s block” it is because I’m grappling with something I haven’t allowed myself to approach with vulnerability.
I’d add that it’s a scary fuckin thing to confront yourself, but through vulnerability we also find grace and compassion toward ourselves.
Hughes: The following is a caption once posted on your Instagram: ‘’I don’t believe in writer’s block; I believe in balance.’’ This is such an interesting philosophy! Can you expand on this? For instance, why is balance important in the creative process?
Patterson: Because I write from experience, I think it’s important to get out and experience the world. Often times I feel I don’t have anything important to say until something happens and it sparks the need to put pen to the paper . . . I once went five years without writing and I thought that I had lost “it“. At the end of that five years, once the situation that I was going through was over, my pen just burst onto the paper and all of these feelings and thoughts that I didn’t even realize were locked away inside of me sort of came out. So while I think it’s important to have like regular routines around writing I also know that if you’re like me and you write from experience then it’s really hard to feel motivated and inspired to write if you have nothing important to say.
Hughes: What’s one thing you wish you could tell your teenage self?
Patterson: You know, I’ve been asked this before and I always struggle to answer the question and I think it’s because I don’t wish to tell my teenage self anything. My teenage years specifically sixteen-nineteen were probably the most difficult years of my life. It was also a time in my life when my life could’ve gone in so many different ways. I was on honor roll and making the dean’s list while also running the streets and even getting arrested. I remember just feeling utterly defeated and questioning whether or not my life would ever go in the direction of having stability and happiness. I struggled a lot with the concept of duality because from my race and ethnicity to my socio-economic status and education there were so many things that seemed to be in conflict with one another.
I never felt like I truly had a place to belong while also being surrounded with friends. But those struggles have certainly impacted my love of working with young people though my job as an educator and they’ve certainly made from some salacious and interesting poetry.
Hughes: The following is a quote by African-American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer, and editor W. E. B. Du Bois: ‘’The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.’’ What aspect of the ‘’color line’’ do you believe Du Bois was mostly referring to? Also, do you believe there has been any physiological improvement of this, in 2019?
Patterson: In my opinion, he was referring to implicit racism and discrimination versus explicit. At the time of his life there were dramatic changes happening in society around what it meant to be Black in America, but he still lived in a time where racism and discrimination were very explicit and concrete. In the time we live in there is a lot of social movement, for young people in particular, to be “woke.” Because people think they are woke or aware of circumstances which face Black communities and other communities of color, it’s really hard for them to fathom that there is such a thing as the color line or that it still exists.
In many ways our society and our communities have made advancements toward more racial harmony and opportunities for all, but there is still an invisible colorline that exists and permeates many of our systems, (education, health care, and criminal justice for example). As these color lines become more obscure or harder to recognize I actually think that the role of poets in society becomes even more critical, as again I think that a poets role in society is to hold up a mirror and force people to reckon with the truth.
Hughes: What makes you happy?
Patterson: For me dancing is when I experienced the highest level of joy. I’ve been dancing since I was four years old. I started with ballet then move to more contemporary styles like hip-hop. After that onto cheerleading and dance teams, before finally settling into salsa dancing. I’ve been salsa dancing now for a little over 10 years. I feel like dancing gives me that meditative feeling that many people describe with yoga, but I’m such a busybody I need something high energy to keep my attention. I also really appreciate that no matter where I travel in the world I can always find a salsa club. Many people wonder how I solo travel so much and it’s because in any city I go to, I can always find a strong dance community of people who also love salsa music. I’ve been dancing in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Canada, and in Seattle, Baltimore, New Haven, San Francisco and many more places. While these places differ in terms of demographics and culture some of my best memories are showing up to places and immediately feeling a sense of community around dancing.
Hughes: What makes you sullen?
Patterson: Sometimes I worry that the world is becoming less compassionate and is lacking in empathy and this usually causes me to feel sullen. I read the news, go on social media, and see unfathomable atrocities happening all around the world. I perceive sometimes that people are just able to sort of continue on about their day without confronting the realities of what’s happening in our world. This perception is constantly challenged though in my regular job as a pre-K and kindergarten teacher. I have the opportunity to work with young people and it gives me a lot of hope for the future. Young people are naturally kind, thoughtful, and have a great deal of optimism about the future and I think it helps me to stay grounded and purposeful toward ensuring that they feel empowered to make positive changes in our society.
Hughes: The following is a quote by American scientist Maria Mitchell: ‘’We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.’’ What is your interpretation of this?
Patterson: There’s two things that came to mind when I read it. One of those things is my students, and the natural imagination and curiosity that they bring to learning. The thing about mathematics is that numbers have no meaning without the ideas that we impose upon them. When we’re able to think more flexibly, like how we would approach beauty or poetry, we are able to draw more meaning. The other thing that came to mind is how we might use science to sort of solve issues within society, for example climate change or social issues like poverty. In many ways, in order to solve these kinds of problems we can’t just look at them numerically or as sets of data but as real human circumstance which require emotion and innovation. It takes a great deal of innovation to solve the problems of today and tomorrow, and innovation is intertwined with imagination. Without new ideas and new approaches, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes and get the same results . . . which is the scientific definition of insanity!
Hughes: In relation to the previous, how might the impact of the ‘’imagination’’ in poetry also be found in how we approach political conversations? For example, does solving hot topics such as the threat of climate change require more imagination than law? Both?
Patterson: The world needs people who can think numerically and concretely, and it also needs people who can think poetically and use their imaginations. The thing about laws is they are just ideas that we put on paper. I actually think laws can be a bit more formulaic than we may be intend for them to be. If we had people in the room like poets and artists, we might be able to create more policies with people in mind versus processes and policies. Poets understand emotions in a way that other people do not or are unable to put words to.
At the end of the day, if we want to cultivate a happy society where everyone feels valued then we need to be thinking about the types of emotions and values that we are cultivating.
Hughes: Use two of the four seasons to describe your writing as a whole. Why these choices?
Patterson: I purposefully included ”Wild” and ”Wilting” in the title of my book because I believe my writing and journey to self-actualization is represented by two important seasons in the life cycle of a flower; which is codified most in fall and spring.
The flower itself in my opinion represents a divine femininity and the journey of becoming a woman. The wild is a coming into yourself and stepping into who you are meant to be by accepting what comes to you naturally despite the archetypes that are placed on us in today’s society. On the other hand, the wilting is the season of decay or the low points in our lives where we may struggle to maintain our elegance and strength. But this season, is also necessary for us because it teaches us how strong and resilient each of us are while also allowing us the space to let go. In order for the plants and trees to thrive there must be a reckoning because what no longer serves them will eventually pollute and destroy the entire being. The acceptance of our authentic self and contentment with life’s cycle of ups and downs are both a part of my becoming which is a balance I grapple with a lot in my writing.
Hughes: Does the writer hold the pen or does the pen hold the writer?
Patterson: I think it depends. I certainly have times when I am in charge and other times it just pours out.
Hughes: I noticed you like to travel! What’s your advice to someone who may struggle getting out of their comfort zone? Traveling alone?
Patterson: I do love to travel and I never imagined that it would become such a huge part of my life. There’s a wonderful quote that has stuck with me which says “You must leave the city of your comfort and journey into the wilderness of your discomfort. What you will find will be amazing, what you will find will be yourself.”
My best advice to anyone struggling to get outside of their comfort zone is to do the things that make you most uncomfortable. Though I’ve always loved to travel, from the time I was four to twenty-three years old, I lived in a pretty insular community. Though it was a diverse and somewhat peaceful community many people never really leave and have similar value systems as a result. Leaving home, no matter how many times I had done it, was always a really scary and uncomfortable process. To this day, I’m so anxious and fearful of flying that I get panic attacks and extreme anxiety which causes my heart to feel like it’s going to burst outside of my chest. But I force myself to do it anyway because I would never overcome it and grow into a stronger version of myself if I did not.
Through travel I’ve been able to interrogate myself and determine my true beliefs and values which has come as a result of seeing the way that communities different from my own function and interact. Through travel I’ve come to understand how connected people truly are and the how beautiful the human spirit can be when allowed flourish. I’ve also been able to find my own strength in overcoming anxiety which is a consistent and challenging process but a worthy one to confront. For some people the discomfort is not in travel but in other things. Regardless, of the discomfort, my advice is to embrace the challenge and trample through it because on the other side of that fear is a better version of yourself.
Hughes: Favorite poem from your collection thus far? Why this piece?
Patterson: My favorite piece changes with each passing season. Most of my favorite pieces are longer form poems which are special to me because of how they’ve poured out of me and onto the page. There’s a poem at the end of my book titled ”In the Sitting Room” which feels raw to me each time I read it and I often cite it as my favorite. I remember when I wrote it, I was sitting in a room in Cuba, it was decorated in all white, and to be honest I was fed up with myself. The conditions I had created for my travel there were chaotic and represented everything that I disliked about myself at the time. I distinctly remember thinking through who I would call to help me. I decided I did not want to call my mom, my sister, or my father to help me in my time of need because I knew that they would grill me about how I got to the space I was in. If I forced to sit with them I knew I’d have to confront truths about how I ended up there. So instead of dealing with the emergency I wrote a poem which is seventeen stanzas long (I was really skirting responsibility at that point). But it unfolded into this multi-layered piece that it forced me to sit with myself. It forced me to reconcile things about my childhood that I was running from while still using as an excuse to behave in ways that were detrimental to my well-being.
That messy situation and poem were a nothing short of a crucible which melted away a self that I was ready to reform. The poem has become a beautiful reminder of a life lesson which I’m grateful for.
Hughes: What would you consider the most important thing when creating (anything?)
Patterson: The most important thing (for me) is to create without the intention of being understood or liked. I think in this day and age because there is so much instant gratification we can interpret the lack of engagement with our work as a representation of how “good” it is. This can cause us to question the creative process and question whether or not we are meant to be creating. Lately, I’ve been slowing down my own creative process to allow time to pass before I fear that a piece I’ve worked on won’t be loved by people who read it. Creativity comes from our gut and we must trust that we are poised to represent our genuine voices in all of their uniqueness. Funny enough I’ve found that my most published or “liked” work are the pieces where I’ve pushed my own boundaries. Pieces where I questioned whether or not I was capable of writing but where I did not allow the questioning of myself to get in the way of struggling through it.
Hughes: Now for a fun one! Extraterrestrials have invaded Earth. The leader approaches and demands you to recommend the one person who can give them one reason to abort their mission of destroying mankind. Who would this individual be? Why?
Patterson: Yay! I love fun questions and I’m going to give you a fun answer. I am a huge “why” person. So before I can answer their question I need to know why they have made this their mission. For example, are they trying to protect the planet from the pollution we are putting into the earth? Because then I might suggest someone like Al Gore who can convince them that there are interventions he can impose upon people. Do they believe that humans lack compassion toward one another and will destroy themselves? In this scenario, I might choose Ellen DeGeneres who would show them multiple examples of the innate goodness in people through her kindness campaign.
Maybe, they are afraid that if we are able to finally engage in space travel we will bring nothing of value to the galaxy. In this case, I would strongly encourage them to reach out to Beyonce’s publicist to set up a meeting. But before I can pick the right person for the job . . . I need to know why.