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In the Hands of a Poet-Priestess: Thank you, Sunni Patterson

“Blackness was rippling across the auditorium, turning the air—and I felt it then, Sunni’s voice igniting the star-white text with a vitality that began but would not end in that room.”

“but come, come children

rally round

and maybe together we can make a sound

that’ll shake the trees and

rattle the ground

make strong our knees

we’s a freedom bound!”

— from the poem “We Know This Place”

The first time I was in the same room as Sunni Patterson was outside of work. I was part of Ashé Cultural Arts Center’s February 2020 production of The Vagina Monologues—an endeavor that, as none of us could have known, would just skirt the Covid-19 lockdown. Sunni was the guest performer for one of the two nights, performing the poem “Xx Marks the Spot,” an original composition for the show. 

Two things I didn’t know as I lurked in the backstage wing, listening to her perform: 1) this production would be the last large-scale social anything I’d undertake for months, years really; and 2) over the course of lockdown and beyond, Sunni would become a treasured collaborator in my professional life—the very poem she was performing would even find its way into We Know This Place, her debut print collection that I’d have the honor of editing.

Fast forward two and a half years to August 2022, when Sunni gave her inaugural reading for We Know This Place at the André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice, housed in the former St. Rose de Lima Church on Bayou Road. I met up with Abram and his daughter Simone, and we filed into the auditorium. I felt excited but admittedly cagey, too, even though almost everyone in attendance was masked. After having the privilege of working from home and laying low for much of the pandemic, this would be the first in-person, indoor event I’d attended since “coronavirus” had become a household name. But it was a room I felt blessed to be in, a reminder of the precious power of congregating when it is safe for a community to do so. As it had turned out, Sunni and her work would stand as symbolic bookends of my pre- and post-Covid existence. 

In the intervening months, she and I had gone through rounds of edits and copyedits, which entailed conversation about the nuances of transmuting poetry created to be performed orally to the perpetuity of the page. In true New Orleanian fashion, email wasn’t enough for Sunni; what started as a long phone call turned into an invitation to her home, where I was lucky to spend a few hours among Sunni, her children, her mother, and her sweet dog, Annie. A beacon of Oshunic hospitality, Sunni offered me a mimosa made with fresh-squeezed orange juice and a plate of grits. 

These gifts I enjoyed as we waded through the tracked changes I’d worked into her manuscript after reading each poem aloud to myself while reclined on my living room couch, attempting to find cohesion between the words reverberating on the air and the characters and spaces as they might be arranged on the page. In turn, Sunni considered the possible changes for each poem aloud, allowing her senses, intuition, and artistry to determine the final line breaks, punctuation choices, and syntax.

She thanked me over and over for my patience with her process, yet it was her patience and generosity I was struck by: with her children and dog’s bids for attention as we worked, with her dropping-by neighbors, with the inevitable snags of technology, and with her own work—art built by the confluence of soul-breaths and so many small yet indispensable decisions. Hers was not the hermetic process of the archetypally self-serious artist, but a process pervaded by her home and the loved ones drawn to and sustained by it.

By the performance at the André Cailloux Center, this springtime meeting was a pleasant but more distant memory. The book was no longer in flux, but complete, printed, and in Sunni’s hands as she commanded the audience’s attention from the stage. From orature to written word to orature once again, Sunni preached, gracing the stage with power and poise. Intermixed with her reading were performances from a variety of guests: a student theater group, dancers, and Sunni’s own daughter, who showed off her ventriloquism skills with a few words from her puppet. It was a truly communal offering that left me and, I would guess, the rest of the audience brimming with spirit. I was simultaneously brought back to the poems I’d pored over and totally renewed in my regard of them. And, it must be said, Sunni looked fantastic: West African priestess meeting reduxed flapper meeting New Orleanian funky cool. 

In our consideration of We Know This Place’s visual aesthetics, I wondered about graphically offsetting the title poem in some way. Sunni liked my suggestion of inverting the colors of the poem’s pages and its text, so that the words would be white on a black background. In this transposal, blackness would become a new kind of focal point. In theory the change would be a simple yet striking interruption of the usual visual order, reflecting the poem’s and the collection’s overriding ethic of Black sovereignty in a city built on colonialism, chattel slavery, segregation, stolen bodies and labor, incarceration, and, yes, alongside all of that, Black memory, creativity, language, healing, community, and joy. 

When I flipped through a copy of Sunni’s book fresh from the printer, I wasn’t fully convinced of this effect. But sitting in the auditorium, following along in my copy as Sunni closed the reading with her titular poem, I looked around at all the pairs of hands holding their books open to those same pages. Blackness was rippling across the auditorium, turning the air—and I felt it then, Sunni’s voice igniting the star-white text with a vitality that began but would not end in that room. 

Thank you, Sunni Patterson, for all of your incantations.

We Know This Place is available for purchase now.

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