A conversation with poet Natalie Patterson

A portrait of poet Natalie Patterson

For Black History Month 2024, we’re celebrating by highlighting Black art and artists that inspire us. Natalie Patterson (she/her/Queen), director of training and programs at BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective), is also a longtime professional poet with a career spanning over 20 years. I was introduced to Natalie and her poetry last year during domestic awareness violence month, perusing the BEAM Instagram page where I stumbled upon “Rich Soil.”

“I am miraculous, unstoppable, and gorgeously flawed,” she said with a beautiful smile. “There will be terrible days. There will be harm and hurt, and words you can’t unhear, but remember, all your ancestors survived so you could thrive. You are miraculous, unstoppable, gorgeously flawed, with a story etched into your DNA and one day, one day, I hope you tell someone, so their path becomes clearer because they too, they too are miraculous, unstoppable, and worthy of healing.” I got a chance to sit down with Natalie and talk poetry, BEAM, and her why behind it all.

Shikiri: In episode four [of the podcast Let’s End DV: Heal, Restore, Prevent, recorded in front of a live audience], we highlighted the disproportionate impact of domestic violence on Black families and community and ended with your poem. Natalie, I saw some folks crying. They got emotional. I felt like the poem was perfect to end with, because we see the disproportionate realities of violence in our community and your poem humanized the experience by explaining our resilience through it all. We met you through BEAM, part of our multigenerational domestic violence prevention work. What would you say BEAM does and what is some of the work that you are most proud of?

Natalie: First, thank you for sharing the reaction in the room. Oftentimes, particularly when video content is shared, I'm not in the room, so I don't get that experience. It's always really wonderful to hear the way the work is moving in a room, and particularly a room I'm not physically in, so I really appreciate that. 

We are a national training, movement building, and grantmaking institution that is dedicated to the healing, wellness, and liberation of Black and marginalized communities. A lot of the work that serves our community is the unseen work that happens on a really local, communal level. Black Masculinity Reimagined, Heart Space healing circles. We have official trainings that are based on our curriculum that has been externally evaluated, seen as statistically significant and really changing the hearts and minds of how folks are relating to their mental health. But actually, asking community, how do we see ourselves as a resource to ourselves, but also each other?

A sign in a New York subway station reading Dear Black Men

We did a campaign in New York subways last year to write love letters to Black folks. We do a tremendous amount of work. It looks different all the time because we get to be the decision makers about what is important and urgent and relevant to our community. We continue to grow and expand and try to be really intentional and thoughtful about the needs of our community.

Shikiri: Wow, that is so inspiring. How long have you written poetry?

Natalie: I've really written poetry since as early as I could write. It was only as I got older that I realized like ohh, wait, there is no difference between what I'm saying and Langston Hughes or Shakespeare. There is no difference. I'm just using the current language, right. 

I started to take myself a bit more seriously around college and I was like, OK, and I started scoping out different poetry venues and kind of seeing what else was happening on the scene. College is really when I fell in love with poetry and professionally did it for 10 years full time. It's been a long, long time. You know, despite my fountain of youth spin, I've been doing this for over 20 years.

Shikiri: For your poetry, would you say that you have a process of writing?

Natalie: Oh, absolutely. I think being good at anything requires being clear about how you feel. That's a practice that has to happen every day. I utilize things like the feelings wheel when I journal. I'm a verbal processor, so I'll talk to my friends or a therapist to be able to get through and get to the heart of what I want to say. My process is a lot of self-maintenance, a lot of emotional intelligence work, a lot of being grounded, being clear, taking care of myself, then being able to, when I sit down on a blank page, have something worthy of someone else hearing. 

I think my job as a poet is really that being a translator between the human emotion and the lived experience. The bridge is the poetry. I'm always trying to transmute and be connected to: what am I actually feeling and what do I really want to say if I wasn't afraid, if I wasn't nervous, if I wasn't anxious, what would I – what am I really trying to say into the world or to this person, or about this thing? What is the thing that needs to be said? I think as a poet, that's my job.

Shikiri: What is the why for the poetry? Where does the inspiration come from? 

Natalie: I never know the why of a poem when I'm writing it. I believe that these things are gifts. The agreement that I made with creation was: I'm going to do my job. I'm going to write the poem, and You put it where it needs to go. I think about having trust and faith in that this is a gift, and that my gift will take me into every room I'm supposed to be in. I think about the magnificence of my poem being attached to a moment with Angela Davis and how important Angela Davis is to my family, to this community. I wrote that poem to be in a different room, to be in a room to celebrate Black people. You all could see the brilliance in this poem and how effective it was around domestic violence. I think about how that connects to my mother's story and being a survivor and that that was not the intention of me writing the poem. But that's where the poem was supposed to go. The why is because I think healing is part of our birthright, and art is a mechanism and a tool for that being true. I always want to be a person who does their part.

I know that these tremendously large issues, that I myself will not solve them, but I can do my part in the solution making. I can do my part each day. Poetry is one way that I do that, being a leader in a national institution is one way I do that, and I think that I've been gifted with many skills and many tools and resources. It is my responsibility to use them such that the things that need to happen through and with me happen.

And so that's the why. Because when I take my last breath, I want to be OK with what has happened. I don't want to be filled with regret and ohh, I should have or if I would have. I want to do the things, even if I have to do them scared. I want to do them because I know that healing is required and is part of this journey. As much as I can be a part of that process for myself and other people, that is what my responsibility is.

Shikiri: Thank you for that answer. I will be absorbing all of it in. You said that you've been doing this for 20 years. I had no idea. Where can we find your poetry from past, present, and then future?

Natalie: The majority of my public work exists on my website, natalieispoetry.com, or my Instagram @Natalieispoetry, where you can see past work. My goal this year is to do my first public show in several years, so I'm hoping to be able to do that in November. So, the work is in the world. You can find me all over the internet.

Shikiri: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and you sharing your gifts. Know that we are receiving them.

Natalie: Well, I appreciate it. Thanks for making the ask. It's my pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

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