Doing my job

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October 3, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Vernon Patterson


Downtown streets

Vernon Patterson says people call him the "street corner poet." The Kansas City native has been writing poetry since 1978, he said, and he's been selling his self-published books Downtown for the past three years.

Others have called him a panhandler -- and worse -- but Patterson is neither homeless nor begging. Patterson's description of his job comes off as half sales job, half personal outreach mission.

"This is how I make my living," said Patterson, who lives in North Minneapolis with his wife Ginger, a jazz singer. The University of Missouri journalism grad said he's shared stages with poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. He said he was involved with the Inner City Theatre and Metropolitan Cultural Arts Center for 13 years, until 1999.

Now, poetry is his only gig.

Patterson's topics include personal relationships, love of self and community, and "social ills" such as drive-by shootings, the AIDS epidemic and social injustice. His six self-published chapbooks include humble typos, some of which tend to the poetic: "I wonder what shadows have I really caste in my lifetime?"

Patterson's style is unpolished and ranges from journal-like free verse to metered rhyme that approaches greeting card quality, at its worst. The majority is a personal, sometimes poignant reflection on a black man's life -- and life in general -- in America.

One book, "Dreams of an Average Man," is an autobiographical work about overcoming racism, which Patterson said hasn't completely happened.

"It was getting better," he said. "You have to understand, racism isn't totally about race, it's economical. As long as they keep us from growing economically, there's going to be a class difference."

Another self-reflecting book deals with alcohol and drug addiction, which Patterson said he fell into for a couple of years after his son was killed in 1992. In another book, he alludes to "spending three years, two months and 14 days in prison for something I didn't do."

One subject Patterson said he rarely writes about is his service in Vietnam. "It's a little too intense," he said. "I keep it off to the side."

The books sell for $5 apiece, or three for $10. Patterson said he sells two books an hour, on average. "That's $10 an hour, a good working man's income," he said. "I don't complain," he added. "There aren't many cities where you can sell poetry on the street."

Though police once told him he needed a $125 license to peddle his poetry, Minneapolis License Inspector Ken Ziegler told Patterson -- and confirmed for Downtown Journal -- that it's not necessary for literature.

Patterson said he used to get $10 per book, before the economy turned, "when Mr. Bush came and started taking all the money. People started losing their jobs. It's a wonder half the country's not totally poverty-stricken."

Patterson said some people have thrown his books in the street and "called me a nigger." One man, after feigning interest, tore his books in half, which Patterson did not take lightly. "I hit him; the police arrested me," Patterson said, adding that he was let go by a lieutenant who knew him.

But personal interaction fuels Patterson, as well. Conversations, comments and feedback on his work "gives me insight into what people think," Patterson said. "It allows me to write what I write."

"I refuse to say how good or bad a poet I am," Patterson writes in one book's introduction, "but I do hope that the words... will stir someone's imagination."

Patterson will recite his poetry with jazz accompaniment Oct. 15 at the Tyler Street Gallery, 1331 NE Tyler St.