Editor’s Note: Welcome to national poetry month. Twice a week in April, KQED Arts & Culture will present a poem by a Bay Area poet. This series is organized by correct host Pendarvis Harshaw, who also speaks with each poet about their work.
“Making Donuts”, by Lyn Patterson
Labyrinths of joy on asphalt; like the joyful chalky lines of hopscotch, which decorate our summer sidewalks.
Round rotundas of vigorous jovial resistance. Symbols of our fresh-faced resilience.
Some things just don’t need to be explained; like why mom’s macaroni always smells, or the nervous goodness of young love’s first taste of brown sugar and molasses, eating the sidewalk is spiritual and there’s a reason we call it food for the soul.
The screeching of skid marks and the stench of burning rubber seep into our senses. Reminding us that life is more than just a hamster wheel.
That we are more than specks of dust trapped by the pull of the great whirlwind. And it’s our God-given right to be so young and reckless.
So, we bend the concrete, rotate the rear, take off and pray we don’t erase it.
Because even though there’s so much ahead of us, there’s even more uncertainty about what’s to come.
That’s why we always pour a little Henny before our endless battle against gravity.
Because we are becoming more and more aware of the fact that we are stuck in a cycle of endings and beginnings from which everyone is not a winner. And before we meet our end, we flirt with our own immortality.
You see, it’s an evolutionary human need to stand tall. Thus, we spell our names in an infinity of endless arrays, which remind everyone who passes by that we were there.
At every turn we teeter on the brink of whiplash, fate, or destruction. Write the eloquent language of our rage in the filth.
Because it could be so easy for us to be thrown out of this orbit. But for this moment, we are the epitome of time itself. Rotate around the sun and leave our mark engraved on the Earth.
Pendarvis Harshaw: Was there a specific case that inspired this piece? If so, tell me about it.
Lyn Patterson: There were a few examples that inspired this piece. First of all, I live in Oakland one block from the estuary. I knew immediately when I arrived in the neighborhood that I wanted to live here. I fell in love with my neighborhood almost immediately. During the day you have the water and a wonderful dog park where I often go to sit and write. At night, especially on weekends, people show up with their hot rods to do stunts and donuts. I live around the corner from my building, so every weekend I get to see a side show in action. I love its party culture, stunts, postures, listening to loud music and hanging out with friends. It reminded me a lot of where I grew up in Seattle.
Watching this made me think of my own youth and making donuts with my friends. I feel like in my neighborhood, making donuts was like a rite of passage — maybe a little reckless, but a way to celebrate one’s youth and leave one’s mark on the sidewalk. For me, this period of life coincided with the loss of a few friends and the realization that I was not guaranteed forever on this Earth. There’s a saying that everyone quotes that basically goes, “Sometime in your childhood, you and your friends went out to play together for the last time, and no one knew about it.” I wanted to take that idea further and kind of explore those ideas of youthfulness and savagery and existentialism through this poem.
Have you ever shared this? If so, how was the response?
I shared this poem on Instagram and in a graduate poetry class I’m taking at Mills College. The response has been excellent. Again, this is about that time in your youth when you feel so alive and connected to the friends you have around you. Where nothing matters and being reckless is just part of what makes this time of your youth so special. I think most people can resonate with the spirit of the poem even if they’ve never made donuts.
I will say that as a black poet, these are often the types of life experiences that I want to capture. I think for too long traditional black storytelling has centered narratives of struggle and resistance, which are important, but not the epitome of who I am as a human being. In my work, I am interested in centering black joy and humanity. I often try to connect with experiences like carelessness, falling in love, feeling uncertain about the future, and coming of age — and wanting to tell stories about those life experiences through my lens as a black woman.
Where are you from and what does it mean to be a poet in the Bay Area right now?
I come from the central district of Seattle, although my family now resides in Renton, Washington. Just before coming to the Bay, my husband and I sold all of our stuff and spent 11 months on the road traveling in the US and overseas, figuring out where we wanted to settle. For the previous 10 years I lived on the East Coast, primarily in Baltimore, Philly, New York and New Haven. Coming back to the West Coast felt like coming home in a way. When I was on the East Coast, I started my journey into poetry and had some wonderful communities that I was part of. At the same time, there was always an air of jostling and trying to “get it” that kept me from really feeling part of a particular community. This hustler mentality also meant that I was constantly working. When I moved to the bay, I found myself saying “no worries” again, and I really meant it. It was a complete lifestyle change where I felt like I had the opportunity to slow down.
I also found many supportive artistic communities here. I joined an organization called gold beams, which supports black artists in the bay and organizes really awesome experiences for artists to showcase their talents. Working with them I have met so many wonderful people and fellow poets. The artist community here is unlike any place I’ve lived. At the same time, I recognize that there is a lot going on in the bay right now; for example, the effects of the housing crisis, environmental impacts and gentrification are truly palpable. There is such a powerful history in Oakland of black activism that poets and artists have always been a part of. And I want to be part of it! But I also think that as a poet transplanted to the wonderful city of Oakland, it is my responsibility to listen, observe and be aware of my impact. So, I’m still figuring out what it means to me to be a poet in the bay right now.
What is the purpose of poetry?
I think poetry is an important component of understanding life. As a teacher, I see a lot of what we teach children about history and experience based on research or non-fiction writing, but I think poetry is just as important! It is writing that helps us unpack the most ambiguous concepts of life and of being human. My favorite poet, Audre Lorde, once said: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity for our existence. It forms the quality of light in which we announce our hopes and our dreams towards the survival and change, first transformed into language, then into an idea, then into more tangible action. I have learned by sharing my poetry with others that poetry can often create communities of care through shared experiences , and has the power to move the hearts and minds of people.There is a reason why you can find poetry in the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas and so many other religious texts.To me, the purpose of poetry is to make tangible the magic of life that we cannot understand through science.Those things that we all feel but struggle to put into exact words.