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Lamont Steptoe reads from Crowns and Halos

I knew that Lamont Steptoe had had a book published through a PEW Fellowship, Crowns and Halos, and I wanted to document him reading from it. My archive of Philadelphia poets would never be complete without the addition of this poet, who lives in West Philadelphia when he isn’t traveling, a lovely neighborhood sprawling as they tend to do in many parts of the city. Lonnie’s apartment is stacked from floor to ceiling with books and art, a clean clutter, but there was more space out on the back porch to read. Classical music was playing somewhere, and construction was going on as well, house repairs with men up and down loud ladders—but Lonnie read very clearly, a man of plain lyric schooled in African-American oral tradition and song, empowered by his experience as a writer, a black man, a father, a Vietnam vet, a civil rights activist here and abroad, and that is what one hears—When Lamont Steptoe reads, the sounds of his neighborhood and the hammers of men recede.



I always type out some of the poems of the poet for each blog post I do; as I’ve explained before, it gives me a feel for the rhythm of the writing. With Lamont Steptoe’s poetry, when I started typing, I didn’t want to stop, that is how pleasurable it was. His poems are often short, often no more than a page, and there is a profound simplicity that reminded me of the 19th Century writers, Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane, and Langston Hughes too who came along a little later.


In Stillness

I enter the sound
And leave the world

Die while living
Grasping immortality by the hand

I expand like the mouth of an anaconda
Swallowing worlds

In stillness
I digest wisdom

I am mystery
Understand nothing

I am child
Each second revelation

(2000)


Across Time

I am looking at my daughter
Almost sixteen

I am looking at my sister
Through a lens of the past

I am looking at my mother
Before I was born

(2000)


Peaches

I sell my books
Out of a bag like peaches
In season
All year long!

(2005)


Upstairs in Nigger Heaven

We was directed upstairs
To see shows and follies

While they set downstairs

Some folks was close to heaven

While other folks
Was closer to hell

(2002)


Exile

I am an exile
In the land of my birth

I am an exile
On planet earth

O stars!
O stars!

(1994)


Both Lamont and I were born in Pennsylvania in the same year, 1949, Lamont in Pittsburgh, and me at the other end of the state in Lebanon, cities of steel foundries back in the day. Lamont was born in February, I was born in August. “Same month as Jimmy Baldwin,” he informs me. “He was born on the 2nd, you both are Leos.” I must admit here that I’m a little envious because Lonnie and James Baldwin were friends and he gets to call him “Jimmy” while it’s always going to be “James” for me. The night they first met, Lonnie had gone early to the Afro American Museum at 5:30 pm for the 8 pm talk. The auditorium was packed. Baldwin arrived with a security detail of four men because there had been a death threat. Lonnie was sitting in the first row with ten books in his lap to be signed after the reading, but when the reading was over, a trustee announced that there would be no book signing, that it was too dangerous, and everyone should leave. Lonnie had such a sick look on his face that one of the security guards took pity and brought him to James Baldwin. “Mr. Baldwin,” Lonnie told him, “I have waited my whole life for this moment!” As Baldwin signed his books, they began to talk, and when he was finished, it was established that they were friends, and they would continue to get together and correspond until his death.


Lamont was close to Etheridge Knight too, a poet I truly miss from time to time, and knew in Philadelphia back in the 1970s when I was there. It was a great time for poets. I moved to New York at the end of the decade, and Lonnie remained, a mainstay, an ambassador for visiting poets, and an activist too. I have typed out two more poems to show that one of the great gifts writers receive are their friends.


Visiting the Grave of Etheridge Knight

The bones in this coffin
Did time in jail
Listen to the wind wail

(2005)


Catching the Wind

My hand are eighteen years old
I’ve just moved to Philadelphia
I’m on a subway reading Notes of a Native Son
I’m not yet a father
I’m not yet a soldier
I’ve not yet declared “I’m in the Life!”
Nor have I learned or heard such a sentence uttered
Somewhere faraway
Jimmy Baldwin lives and breathes
As I stumble my way
Into the matrix of his genius
I’ve just began to imbibe alcohol
I’m still a virgin
On the eve of entering college
Baldwin mentions
Bessie Smith, Richard Wright, jazz
Harlem, Paris, Switzerland
The world waits as my heart balloons like a sail
Catching the wind
Fatherless and a po’ Black boy
I open a jewel box of dreams

(2004)


Crowns and Halos is published by Whirlwind Press. You can check them out here:

https://whirlwindmagazine.org/




James Baldwin and Lamont Steptoe


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