I was a wiry, spike-haired, nineteen year old, hanging out in Philly, places like Bacchanal, Dobbs, Franks, when I walked into a used bookstore on South Street. A kid from Jersey, I had an idea that some lyrics I was writing for a band were probably not going to cut it in the latest post-punk explosion, and were probably more akin to poetry than I would allow myself to admit. The bookstore was a high-shelved place with lousy carpets and too many cats. Wandering around the stacks, I found the poetry section loaded with Yeats and Keats and Burns, a litany of names linked to a stain of High School English classes where I was made to feel angrily ignorant. In one corner of the shelf, a row of slick, thin volumes drew my eye. I opened the first to these lines “I want to paint tonight/pick up brushes and bleed/slash creative jugulars and splash/canvas with the juices of life” Back then, those lines seemed raw and beautiful, seductive and powerful. They had an energy aligned with those things in my journal I’d been calling “irregular songs”. It was the first poem where I had felt connection. So, I looked at the name, Lamont B. Steptoe, and thought: I wonder when this guy died. I left the store with my first book of poetry, an issue of The Painted Bride Quarterly, and continued to read as I walked back to the subway, turning the pages, running my hands over the lines which, I was certain, was a kind of music.
A week later, on a friend’s request, I went to my first poetry reading. It was held on the second floor of what was The Middle East Restaurant, a place famous for politics and belly dancing. I had grown up with the nephew of the owner and felt a familiarity with the place. When I walked in, I signed a piece of paper that I had mistaken for a mailing list and took a seat at the back of the bar. One after one, the poets appeared, wild, emphatic people. The poetry was mostly bad, but I had no idea then, no preconceptions, and was open to its fresh, engaging methods, the exchange of subtlety for confrontation, humility for truth. Mostly, I liked the sound of their voices, the passion, the dexterity of tongue. When the host called out my name from the others, I realized my mistake and reached into my bag, pulled out a few poems I had folded into the PBQ edition I had bought the previous week, and made my way to the podium.
I didn’t know much about Aristotle or catharsis then, but what happened next terrified me. I read my poem, a short piece about a jazz drummer who played Tuesdays at Bacchanal. The poem wasn’t sad or powerful, or very good, but I started to cry as I read it, really cried, trembled even, making the words even harder to get out. I didn’t know what I was crying for, exactly, and still don’t, but managed my way through the poem. After the reading, a wonderfully impressive African-American woman named Mbali Umoja came over to me. She reached out, arms flung wide, and hugged me deeply, pulling me into her vast and brown and warm bosom. “Welcome, young Poet.” She said, and walked away.
That was a long time ago. I didn’t know that soon I’d be reading at The Painted Bride Arts Center, that I’d get to hang out with Etheridge Knight and William Stafford, that I’d go on to Graduate School and teaching, quite improbably, at a college. I did not know that a month after walking into that bookstore I would very nervously approach a very living Lamont Steptoe to ask if he might want to hear some of my work. I knew none of that. I was sitting on a train, heading back to Jersey after my first reading, a sense of something like life in my hands.