Featured Poetry by Lamont Steptoe:
Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon Tour
Tour Log: August 15th, 1998
Interview with Lamont Steptoe
Lamont B. Steptoe is a poet / photographer / publisher born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is author of eight books of poetry including In the Kitchens of the Master, Mad Minute, Uncle's South Sea China Blue Nightmare, Cat Fish and Neckbone Jazz, Dusty Road, Common Salt and Trinkets and Beads. Steptoe is a father, Vietnam veteran, and founder of Whirlwind Press.
In the Kitchens of the Master can be acquired through Iniquity Press / Vendetta Books, c/o Dave Roskos, POB 54, Manasquan, NJ 08736. Lamont Steptoe can be contacted through Whirlwind Press, POB 109, Camden, NJ 08101-0109.
Jordan Green: I donít think poets realize that there are things to get engaged in; there are things you can say that will get you in lots of trouble.
Lamont Steptoe: I was in trouble when I went to Nicaragua. The Justice Department issued a statement about me going to Nicaragua.
Jordan: In the middle '80s?
Lamont: Yeah, I went to Nicaragua twice. I went in 1987 with Sonia Sanchez. Pete Seeger was there. The late poet Thomas McGrath was there. Ann Waldman was there. We met with the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardinal for an hour. The last surviving member of the FSLN (Sandista Liberation Front) Tomas Borges. We went into the warzone and checked out what the United States was doing, what the Contras were doing.
Every Thursday morning, there would be a demonstration at the US embassy by Americans in Nicaragua. Pete Seeger and Sonia Sanchez spoke. When we went there that morning the officials are standing at the embassy gate. There was a still photographer taking pictures and then they had a video camera running. I spoke up and said, 'My name is Lamont Steptoe. Iím a Vietnam veteran and a poet and Iím here in Nicaragua because I donít want Nicaragua to be the next Vietnam.' As soon as I said those words, they took about six or seven shots of me. A guy opens the gate, comes within three feet of me, takes my picture, and goes back in the embassy gate.
When I get to the Miami (airport), my suitcase comes out and someone has taken a razor and cut it down three sides, so that when my suitcase comes off the baggage rack, everything falls out on the floor. That was just a warning to say, 'We donít like what you did or what you said.'
There was this radio announcer in Pittsburgh who wanted to do an interview with those of us that went to Nicaragua. He wanted the Justice Department to send someone to rebut those of us who were pro-Sandinista.
The Justice Department said, 'We wonít do it, but we will issue a statement.' They said, 'Dennis Brutus, Lamont Steptoe, Mose Sager' -- and they named a few other people -- 'aided and abetted the enemy by travelling to Nicaragua.'
You must know -- I donít care what color you are; I donít care if youíre purple -- when you begin to write in America and get published, someone somewhere begins to keep a file on you. Especially if youíre Black. The State Department murdered Jimmy Baldwin around his whole goddamn life.
Mark Stosberg: Theyíre keeping tabs on the college students around the corner that are doing Empty the Shelters. They have the phones tapped. When I was there, the police were in an un-marked van in front.
Jordan: Your trip to Nicaragua strikes me as being really similar to Amiri Baraka going down to Cuba to document (the Castro revolution) in the early Ď60s.
Lamont: When he went down to Cuba, the Cubans helped him understand using the word as a way to transform society -- and not dealing with art for artís sake. And that was a real revelation.
Jordan: Iím a journalist by trade, but I found out that most journalists are pretty spineless and not really willing to put themselves on the line to document whatís really happening. And Amiri Baraka definitely saw the truth of the situation in Cuba and was willing to write about it. So I think part of the role of the poet is to go where journalists are afraid to go and maybe donít have the spirituality and consciousness to go.
Lamont: You know, Iím a journalist too. I worked for ABC News a couple years ago. I have a journalism background. I wrote for my high school newspaper. I wrote my own column for Pittsburghís only Black newspaper in my junior and senior year of high school. And then I had my degree from Temple University in Radio, Television, and Film. I thought that I might make a living in journalism. And then I went to work for ABC and it became very apparent to me that this is a bastion of conservatism. People who are in journalism, whether it might be broadcast or print, are some of the most conservative people in the world. Theyíre not out to change the status quo. They want the status quo to stay the same. Theyíre not about telling the truth; theyíre about controlling information. When I discovered that, I had to leave. Itís my feeling that the poet has to be the embodiment of truth. And you canít compromise that in any way. When I left there, I owned a ten-room house. I lost my house. I fell into very hard times, but it was a price that I was willing to pay.
People were like, 'You left that good job? Are you crazy?' But I have to look at myself in the mirror and I could not look at myself in the mirror if I was about perpetuating lies. That was one of my last corporate jobs. Then I went into the non-profit world where I could at least be around the arts. And Iíve been there ever since right up until I retired in Ď95.
Jordan: What job was that that you retired from?
Lamont: My last job as an arts administrator. I worked as an arts administrator for eleven and a half years. Eight years at the Walt Whitman Center in Camden (New Jersey). Thatís how I got to meet all these wonderful poets, people that were like idols, you know.
Do you know John OíNeil -- (aka) Junebug Jabbo Jones?
Jordan: I donít actually know him, but Iím a big fan of his. He writes a column for the magazine Iím involved with, Southern Exposure.
Lamont: Junebug is a founding member of the Free Southern Theater. Now whatís Southern Exposure?
Jordan: Southern Exposure is a magazine that comes out of the Institute for Southern Studies that was founded by Julian Bond. He decided that the Civil Rights movement needed a research department to do research for grassroots campaigns. So basically Southern Exposure does stories about civil rights struggles and the environmental justice movement and the labor struggle in the South.
Lamont: Yeah, I met Julian Bond. Every February in Philadelphia, Moonstone, Larry Robbinsí bookstore, sponsors the Black Writers Celebration. He was up here for one of those and I saw him. I said his famous poem to him: 'Look at that gal shake that thang; We canít all be like Martin Luther King.'
Jordan: Oh yeah, that's right!
Lamont: He said, 'Give me a dollar!' Yeah, Julian Bond. His father was Horace Mann Bond, who was close to a man named Mercer Cook, who wrote a book called The Militant Black Writer. Julian Bondís father and Mercer Cook collaborated with the CIA and the State Department in terms of keeping tabs on the Black literary expatriate community in Paris.
Jordan: I think Julian Bond is from that Black aristocracy of Atlanta. His family was really influential in bringing down northern philanthropic money to fund Black colleges in the South.
Lamont: Well, his way was clear because they owed his daddy a favor for cooperating.
Jordan: Do you want to talk a little bit about highlighting the issues of Vietnam vets?
Jordan: Did your desire to be a poet and communicate come out of having to deal with that experience or is it broader than that?
Lamont: No, I was writing poetry before I went to war. I began writing when I was ten. I went to Vietnam conscious of the fact that I would write about this experience. Some of the contemporary Vietnam vet poets writing did not realize they were poets when they went to the war. But the experience of the war showed them that that is in fact what they were. I went there knowing that I was a poet.
I kept journals, notebooks while I was there. But when I got back, I jumped immediately back into college. I got back in 1970. I went back to college in Ď71, finished up in Ď75. All through that I was writing little thoughts about my experience in the war. But I really hadnít thought of doing a collection.
It was really when I met the poet Aaron Perry in 1982 that he began to encourage me to put together a collection of work specifically dealing with my Vietnam experience. By the early Ď80s, I began to understand that Vietnam was going to be a major metaphor in my life, that it was going to be something that was going to be with me the rest of my life. Because I didnít get physically wounded even though I was a combat soldier, I thought that, hey, I got away scot-free; I made it; itís done. But as the years progressed I began to have dreams about the war.
People that knew me before I went -- when I got back, they would say things like 'thereís something different about you' or 'youíve lost something'. I couldnít put my finger on it, but as time went on I began to understand how profoundly Vietnam affected me.
So now I feel like Bruce Weigl says in the introduction to Mad Minute. Bruce Weigl is a tenured professor, PhD type at Penn State University up in Happy Valley. He compares me -- and Iím proud of this -- to the guy in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (by Coleridge), a person who insists on telling his tale.
People say, 'Why are you still talking about the war? Itís been over 30 years.' Well, that would be nice if in fact that was true, but with the post-war situation with Vietnam vets is such, as I said, that thereís 700,000 of us with post-traumatic stress disorder. The legacy of the Vietnam War will not be over until the last one of us has dirt shoveled over our face. As long as Iím alive, I have to talk about this war. I have to talk about those young men who never got to be 21. I feel that itís my duty to keep Vietnam alive in peopleís memory because you could end up being called up for the next war. Young people need to know what theyíre getting into when you put on that uniform. The militaryís about one thing: death, killing people. I donít care what your job is; you might be a cook and cook for the soldiers, but youíre part of this huge machine whose basic mission is to kill. The most effective soldiers are the very young: 17, 18, 19. You have the body and you have the mind. Youíre able to be molded to become a killing machine. So itís important to me as a poet to expose my work to the young, people who are vulnerable to being drafted or ending up in military uniform and also children, so that children begin to get a sense of how terrible war is.
Jordan: Does Vietnam, for your generation, epitomize an understanding of US imperialism and racism?
Lamont: Yes, when I got to Vietnam, I identified immediately with the Vietnamese. I never used the word 'gook', never. I couldnít buy into that because to me it was the same as saying 'nigger'. Why would I be calling these people 'gooks' when the people that called me 'nigger' called them 'gook'. That wouldnít make sense to me.
James Baldwin, in his works, talks about how when he went into exile in France -- the further away you travel from home, the more clearly you are able to see it. Thatís what Vietnam did for me. It made me be able to look back at American society and see it for what it really was. I was in a war before I went to Vietnam. Like I say in the poem, 'On Patrol': 20 years later, Iím still at war because Americaís at war with me, with the color of me,' i.e James Bird who was chained to the back of a truck in Jasper, Texas, and dragged Ďtil his body broke into how many pieces. And it was strictly because he was a Black man. It couldíve happened to me. Iíve had Philadelphia police put their guns in my belly and threaten to kill me. Iíve had Philadelphia police rough me up, strictly because I was Black walking down the street when they drove by. Iíve had Philadelphia cops try to pin a robbery on me. And I was just standing there waiting for the El.
Iím an endangered species in American society. Like I say in one place, 'I feel like a Jew in Berlin in 1939.' I grew up in the Ď50s when there was hope, when people thought that with integration we could overcome segregation, that integration would solve the problem. But thatís not what has happened.
America is different. America is mean-spirited. The current Republican Congress is a mean-spirited congress. People have embraced racism more than ever. We have the rise of the Klan, which has been there since the Reconstruction, the neo-Nazis, the Order. We have all these white supremacist groups. If you go on the internet, and use the search and type in 'hate groups', the names of 200 groups will come up. Their agenda is to start a race war in the year 2000.
The late African American scholar WEB duBois made a statement in 1900. He said, 'The last great battle of the West will not be a war with a foreign power, but it will be a war between the races.'
I am living in that kind of climate right now. Just because things are constitutionally-enacted, it has not changed a significant number of American hearts that such tragedies can be prevented. It seems that those people that are entrenched in that mindset are feeling more empowered because they can disguise themselves as the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
It scared the hell out of me when Pat Buchanan won Louisiana. Even though he didnít make the White House, many of the more draconian forms of laws are slowly but surely eking their way into American reality. And I really think a great tragedy is gonna happen in this country. Thereís 30 million black people and the powers-that-be are pushing the idea that 'well, Black people will be out-numbered by the year 2000 by Hispanics." Then you look at things like AIDS. And itís my firm belief that AIDS is biological warfare, imported to Dietrich, Maryland by the United States Army with the intention of eradicating certain groups of people that are not desired, i.e. Blacks and gays.
Things are getting worse along those lines and while Iím optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I think thereís light in the end of the tunnel only after some great tragedy.
Jordan: This anthology that youíre gonna be a part of ...
Lamont: From Both Sides Now.
Jordan: that's an anthology of American soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers, members of the peace movement ...
Lamont: Right, as well as people who fought on the side of the South as well as people who fought on the side of the North, so all of us will be in there. Iíve sat down in the room with Viet Cong, former NVA soldiers and we would say things to each other like, 'Iím so glad I didnít meet you 20 years ago because one of us wouldnít have walked away.' One of us would have been dead. Thatís an uncanny feeling. I canít even describe it. When I hear the Vietnamese language it takes me back. Hearing helicopters takes me back. One of the things Iím trying to do is get back to Vietnam Ďcause when I think of Vietnam all the images I have in my head are of a war-torn Vietnam. I want to go back to Vietnam to see it at peace and close the circle.
Jordan: What possibility do you think there is for a change in consciousness from hearing all those voices at the same time? And what response do you think will come from the Establishment?
Lamont: Well, given that a mainstream publisher is putting this book out ... I think it will be a consciousness-raising for Americans who will be exposed to it because still most Americans are illiterate. American culture is a hodge podge of things, but Americans tend to follow things in trends. Like Black people were in vogue in the 1920s. Then later we were in vogue in the 1960s. Now weíre not in vogue!
Weíre right now in this environment of multiculturalism. Itís an opportunity where people can be exposed to many different kinds of literature. Itís important I think for Americans to be able to see the Vietnamese in a humanistic light and to actually be exposed to their poetry. Vietnam is a very sophisticated culture. The Vietnamese -- when I got back from Vietnam one of the first things I did when I got back to college was to take a course in south-east Asian history. In that course, I learned that the Vietnamese people had been fighting for their cultural hegemony for over 2,000 years because China for 2,000 years had been trying to annex Vietnam. The Vietnamese are fiercely nationalistic. Had the American public been informed of the 2,000 year history of Vietnam, I think it would have made a difference in terms of people thinking we could go over there and try to beat these people in a minute. They would have realize that the Vietnamese had been fighting for their territorial sovereignty for over 2,000 years and our involvement short of using an atomic weapon was not going to defeat their resolve.
Culture is very important. Like if you go to the sea shore towns around here, there is no culture in most of these towns. I mean, what they consider culture is like amusement parks? It's horrible. There's no literature.
I got a Eurocentric education and all a Eurocentric education did for me was to prepare me to go mad. By the time I reached 18 years of age, I was not only full of rage at how America had treated me, but my very education did nothing to empower me. I had to spend the next 20 years reading the kind of books that I should have been exposed to, to give me a sense of who I am and who African people are in this part of the world. Still to this day you hear the term in reference to Black people in America -- you're still defined as a minority. Yeah, there are only 30 million of us in America. However, there are 500 million of us on the African continent. There's another 500 million of us dispersed around the globe in the Diaspora -- of which this 30 million is part of the greater Diaspora. So who's in the minority.
And I even hear other Black people refer to themselves as "minorities". One of the things that I constantly speak out against when I go into a school -- whether it's a Black school or a White school -- I tell people, "Stop buying into this. Stop defining yourself as a minority. You're not a minority. You're part of the African Diaspora dispersed around the world and all life began in Africa."
As the poet Amiri Baraka says, "If you don't have African blood in you, then you're not from this planet." Even Europeans have African blood in them. How can you not have African blood in you.
These kinds of concepts get people killed. Because when I'm demeaned as a bisexual, when I'm demeaned as a Black person, that demonizes me and it gives other people the legitimacy to attack and hurt me and kill me. And the media does a lot of demonization. It demonizes Blacks. It demonizes gays. It demonizes longhairs. What they're doing is they're setting you up to get killed. It's that real.
I try to see my work as a way of transforming society. I've always felt like my purpose and the reason I was allowed to come back from Vietnam -- besides being the biological gateway for my daughter La Mer to come into the world -- was to do my work, which is to transform society. So I'm an activist poet. I'm not a poet that sits in a lonely garret, writes, and sends my work out through the mail, and never goes to the barricades.
I'll go to the barricades. I want to go to Chiapas. One of the reasons I went to Nicaragua was to be where poetry was engaged in the society. Many poets died in the Nicaraguan Revolution. I wanted to be there with these poets who literally put their ass and their life on the line.
In America, we live in an environment where people don't have to do what they say. In other words, people could be as radical as they want on the page, but then they have this really conservative and safe lifestyle. They're not gonna be out there when the police are beating in heads. They're not gonna be out there when people are getting gassed and trampled by horses. I'm one of those people who tries to make my life an example of radicalism.
Jordan: You describe yourself as a "poet-adventurer" when you went to Vietnam.
Lamont: Yeah because I had bought into reading the World War I poets. I'd read Hemingway. I was 18 years old, man. I was romantic. I'd never been anywhere. I was just a poor, Black kid that never had the opportunity ... my first plane ride was courtesy of Uncle Sam, my first train ride courtesy of Uncle Sam.
Jordan: But at the same time you had a desire and a drive to be where the shit was going down.
Lamont: I wanted to escape. I wanted to see the world. My mother raised four of us by herself as a domestic worker in the homes of rich White people for 20 years. I had to work my way through high school in order for me to have money for lunch and clothes. I had three paper routes and I worked in a bowling alley as a pin boy. If I didn't do those things I wouldn't have had money to eat. I wouldn't have had clothes on my back. The little bit of money that my mother brought in was just enough to pay the rent.
That's where my anger would start to come in. The rage started to build because I went to a predominantly Jewish high school and my fellow classmates didn't have to work when they went home; all they had to do was study. And I was angry because I had to do other things because I wanted to study, but I couldn't.
And then you have to take into account some other elements in terms of my life and my work. I'm five-foot-three. I'm very dark-skinned. America punished me for those two things, things which I had no control over. All my life people have terrorized me, either verbally or physically for being five-foot-three and for being dark-skinned. My mother was a very light-skinned woman. And when I was very young, she said to me, "Lamont, you have a lot of relatives that I cannot take you around because they're light-skinned and they don't like dark-skinned people, and they'll just hurt you."
So right within the Black race itself, there is this prejudice against people of my complexion. The person who has the most difficulty in American society, in my estimation, is Black males of my complexion.
And my mother was over-protective. If I was in a fight with another kid, she would run out and break it up.
Because I only met my father once in my life, for five minutes. I'll say this poem about that experience. It's called "No Check, No Letters": "Mama and me ran across my daddy in a Pittsburgh street in 1953/ He said, "What's he like?"/ She said, "Just like you, stubborn."/ We walked away that day/ I said, "Who was that?"/ She said, "That was your father."/ Three years later, in 1956, I asked Mama what I was supposed to write on the forms at school in the space for father/ She said, "Write `deceased'."/ And I did, from 1956 to the present/ At some point, Daddy really did die, which I never knew for sure/ `Til one night in a Spiritualist church in Philadelphia in the 1970s a medium uttered, "Your father's here and would like you to forgive him for not being a father to you in life."/ I forgave him intellectually, but my belly and heart still remain in turmoil `bout Black daddies that disappear on Black mothers and don't never send no checks, no letters, not even a teardrop.
I wanted to do the rough thing. My older brother played football for his high school and he was a Green Beret ranger and a paratrooper for 23 years in the military. So he was a real tough guy and I wanted to prove my toughness. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the time that Pittsburgh was known for its steel production, I would go down to the steel mills during high school in the summer and try to get a summer job. They would look at me and say, "You're too small. We can't hire you." So by the time I got out of high school, I was ready to do something to prove myself.
What was happening at that time? I wanted to throw myself into something that would test me physically, mentally, and spiritually, and what would do that? Vietnam.
Ironically, it was the death of Martin Luther King, April 4, 1968. I was in Paley Library on Temple's campus doing my term paper comparing and contrasting the lives of Ghandi and King. I come out of the library at 8:30 in the evening and start across campus and someone walks up to me and says, "Did you hear what happened?"
I said, "No."
And they said, "Martin Luther King was killed." It was like you had hit me between the eyes with a sledge hammer. I'd been studying the life of this man and to come outside and find out that he's been murdered?
The next day I participated in a march down Broad Street to Independence Hall. All the Black kids in the high schools in Philadelphia walked out, converged on Broad Street and walked downtown for a rally. The thing that left a profound expression on me that day was that I'd met a number of people that had been my friends -- White friends in college. I stood there that day and watched their mommies and daddies come from the suburbs and drive them out of North Philadelphia where Temple University is. Temple University is in the Black community. I watched them, their mommies, and daddies drive them to the safety of the suburbs. That left such a profound impression on me and I said, "I have got to get out of this country." But how does a poor kid get out of this country? The United States military.
So the day after that I went to military recruiter and said, "I want to volunteer for Vietnam. How soon can you get me out of here?"
He said, "Three weeks."
I said, "You got it." I was sworn in the United States Army and on my way out. King opposed the Vietnam War. It made no political sense. A hundred people had tried to talk me out of it.
I said, "No, this is something I've got to do. I'm not going for patriotic reasons." This is like a thing where you hand me a spear and say, "I don't want to see you until you come back with a lion." It was my way of going to find out what I was made of. When I say a "confused poet adventure", I was filled with such rage that I didn't care whether I came back from Vietnam dead or alive. Part of me was hoping that I would be killed because then I would be out of this psychic pain of being an 18-year old black man in America. But when I got to Vietnam, I realized how much I wanted to live, how very badly I wanted to live. I did everything in my power to stay alive.
Jordan: To shift gears a little bit, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Herbie Nicks, and Louis Armstrong all figure in strongly to your poetry. What have these guys meant to you in your life?
Lamont: Jazz was something that was an evolutionary thing for me because I was raised in a very spiritual and religious home. I wasn't allowed to listen to that kind of music. In fact, I have a poem that's gonna be published in this other commercial anthology that's gonna be coming out from Penguin called Identity. It's called "Rascal of the Blues". It talks about how I wasn't allowed to listen to that kind of music. One time when I was growing up, I used the word "man".
And my mother said, "What did you say?"
And I said, "Oh man!"
She said, "You're not gonna talk like that! Do you understand me?" So I wasn't allowed to use any hip talk. I wasn't allowed to listen to the boogie woogie, the blues, none of that stuff.
I was always a voracious reader. I was a book worm. Like I said, being five-foot-three, the bigger kids in my neighborhood always bullied me. I would always have to fight the bullies who wanted to make their reputation off of me. Finally I figured it out. I said, "Oh, I know how to beat these guys. I will develop my mind."
We always lived in other people's houses. We rented two or three rooms. They would want their electricity off at a certain time, generally at ten o'clock at night. I wanted to read so I would go to bed at night, take a flashlight and read under the covers. I just intuitively knew that the way to overcome this powerlessness, this silence that I saw come over the older Black adults around me who lacked a lot of academic skills, that the way for me to overcome was the books.
They would encourage me. They would say, "You stick with those books, boy." Because they realized that I was gonna have opportunities that they never had. What that did is it imbued me with a sense of mission. I said, "I will speak for these people who cannot speak for themselves. I feel that as long as I have breath I must honor these people who infused in me certain spiritual values, superstitions, and stories from their life in the South, that the best way for me to honor them was to master the word.
For me, jazz music was something that I never really understood. The first inkling I began to have of jazz and the blues -- well, when I was a kid, maybe about four or five, I remember this Black man that would show up at our house and he would always be impeccably dressed. He would have black and white shoes on. He would play the boogie woogie on this piano. I think he was a friend of a couple of my mother's brothers.
I was like, "Wow! What kind of music is that?"
Then when I got 16 and I started reading James Baldwin. James Baldwin talked in Notes Of a Native Son about how he went to that mountain in Switzerland to write Go Tell It On the Mountain. And he took along his Bessie Smith records and how important it was for him to play those records in that Alpine Swiss village where he was the only Black man, and how it connected him to his experiences in Harlem. Baldwin was the first one to give me an inkling of the connection of music to our lives. Secular music: the blues, jazz.
One of the other profound things was reading one of Amiri Baraka's early works, Blues People, where he takes and puts the music in a historical continuum. One of my more fantastic experiences was performing my work at a festival put together by Craig Harris at PS 122 in New York City. I did my work with the jazz bass player Fred Hopkins. It was an incredible improvisational experience. I write now in terms of certain rhythms that I've gleaned from musicians.
Jordan: Does the jazz figure represent independence and thumbing your nose at white dominance?
Lamont: Well, when I began to understand that jazz and the blues were the only music indigenous to America -- it was totally American and was part of Black people's contribution to this country -- I began to understand its revolutionary potential. Ishmael Reed is very much influenced by jazz. Baraka's influenced by jazz. I began to see how all these artists who were conscious of their history were utilizing the music and how important the music was in terms of reaching the masses.
Someday I hope to have 20 novels under my belt before I get out of here, but I wanted to start with the building blocks of language, so I became a poet first. If I'm gonna tackle a novel, I want to make sure that my language is at a certain level. Because a novel just seems so much more intimidating. It has a certain terror. James Baldwin speaks very eloquently about that terror.
Jordan: Well I think that's true. If you write a novel, you have to create an entire world. You have a certain responsibility for the things in that world, but at the same you have to find your independence from it.
Lamont: Exactly. I tend to be an inspirational poet. I don't sit down and write every day. Just like somebody asked Billy the Kid, "Do you practice your aim every day?"
And he said, "I'm always aiming." Talking to a writer is like talking to a reporter. You're never off duty. You should know that when you're talking to a writer. Expect if you say something to a writer, you might see it in print, whether you like it or not.
So in that sense, people like Charlie "Bird" Parker and Herbie Nicks, who was in Philadelphia -- these people became important to me and it became important for me to acknowledge their influence on me. I love to write praise poems about people that have accomplished great deeds.
Jordan: Speaking of which, for those who don't know, what is the legacy and importance of Etheridge Knight? And what has he meant to you?
Lamont: Etheridge Knight was for me one of the first poets that I was able to develop a long-term relationship with, in the sense of drinking alcohol, smoking reefer, talking about anything and everything and who really infused in me the knowledge that the poem really has to work, not just on the page, but in the air and in the ear. Etheridge was a very oracular poet. He didn't buy a poet showing up and saying, "Oh, I left my work at home. I don't have any poems." You're supposed to have the poems in your head. He brought that whole thing to me, the understanding that the very best poetry is "common speech used uncommon ways" and also the importance of getting out there on the road and exploring the country and taking your work to living audiences like an African griot.
A lot of people call themselves "griots", in the African tradition of one who is a keeper of the culture. I came up with a term and refer to myself as a "spoet" and that's taking the "S" from the word "spoken" and combining it with the word "poet", so that it goes like: "We be spoets/ We be saints/ Wrapped in flesh/ Trapped in flesh/ Jazz music, funny side up/ Scrambled with the blues."
One of the things I say to students is, "Not only is it your job to use the language, but it's your job to invent the language." I think that a number of poets forget this. We're supposed to have fun with the language, you know. I like to push the poetic form to its limit.
Jordan: Well that's a huge thrill, to be able to infuse meaning into something and see how it travels.
Lamont: Exactly, and one day the word "spoet" will end up in a dictionary. I've created other words in terms of my Vietnam experience.
Vietnam was a tropical paradise. If you went to Vietnam you would be overwhelmed by the tropical beauty of that country. But at the same time there was a war going on there. And you've heard the saying, "War is hell." So I took the word "hell" and combined it with the word "paradise" to make the word "helladise". So if you ask me what Vietnam was to me, it was a helladise.
Jordan: Another question I wanted to ask you was -- you were born in Pittsburgh and spent a major part of your life in Philadelphia -- in other words, what you consider to be the Upsouth. In your experience, what is the significance of this area in terms of Black migration and the Black quest for liberation?
Lamont: Well, Philadelphia was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. I also found out that there was a very radical tradition in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Southern planters would bring their slaves with them on trips through Pittsburgh. There was a secret underground organization of Black men who would any time a southern planter came into Pittsburgh with a slave, they would be told where the hotel was and they would kidnap the slave and tell them, "Look, if you want to stay, we will hide you or if you want to go further north, we will get you to Canada.
And it got so severe that southern planters stopped coming through Pittsburgh. It upset the business community of Pittsburgh who had all these business dealings with the South.
Philadelphia is a place that has an incredible history of involvement with the Underground Railroad -- Blacks coming through here because of the Quakers guiding them up through Philadelphia. This is the city where -- like in my poem "In the Kitchens of the Master" -- Henry Box Brown shipped himself from Richmond, Virginia in a box here to Philadelphia to William Still, who was head of the Abolitionist Society. They opened the box and he was a free man. You have Mother Bethel Church down on Sixth and Lombard founded by Richard Allen, who walked out of St. George's Church with Absolom Jones because he got tired of sitting in "nigger's heaven". You have the nineteenth century poet Francis E.W. Harper who lived right at Tenth and Bainbridge. Philadelphia is rife with Black history and the history of the founding of this nation. The Philadelphia Art Museum was designed by a Black architect. They don't like to promote it.
But Philadelphia is still in many ways a very southern city. It's close to the Mason-Dixon line here. Ben Franklin lived here and he sold slaves right out of his home at the corner of Third and Market Street. There was slave-holding going on right here. The worst elements of the South in terms of racism have somehow remained. It's a very, very racist city. There are parts of Philadelphia like where your friend Mark was staying, Kensington where -- I can't let the sun set on me in Kensington. If I go to Kensington, they will throw rocks and bottles at me and beat me with a baseball bat. The far north-east part of the city where the policemen and firemen live the same thing will happen to me there.
Because it's like the "cradle of civilization" -- a lot of things that start here come to pass in the rest of the country -- that's why it's so significant that they bombed MOVE here. When Gregor Sambor, the police chief at the time, began the assault on the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985 at six o'clock in the morning, the first words out of his mouth before they fired ten thousands rounds into the house was, "This is United States of America. Come out. Surrender." Now since when can a city police chief speak for an entire country as his jurisdiction? And, as was later revealed, there was complicity with the Philadelphia Police Department and the FBI. The FBI gave them the military explosives to use.
There's still a real sharp struggle here between the have's and the have-not's. Although poor Whites are suffering from the same thing that poor Blacks are suffering from, somehow they're convinced that just because they have white skins that they're superior. And they're getting fucked just as hard as the rest of us.
Jordan: I guess they're convinced that welfare and immigration are the problems that are holding them back.
Lamont: Right, it's just the elite of elite, the one percent that owns the goddamn world.
Jordan: Okay, I would like to ask you a question about that's kind of specifically about In the Kitchens of the Master -- that book to me talks about the resilience to survive poverty, and to keep a voice -- I wanted to ask you how you maintain your voice through the poverty of being a poet.
Lamont: It comes about as a result of me realizing that I'm an instrument of a greater power, that I am in a continuum. There's this poetic tradition that existed before me and will exist after me, and I have a role to play. I tend to be a medium mystic poet. I'll read you a piece that appeared in Gathering of the Tribes, issue six. It opens with, "It ain't always me talkin' to ya, chillun/ It ain't always me mixin' up gasoline utterances, scarin' muthafuckas to death with guilt/ It ain't always me talkin' to ya, chillun." I believe that as much as it is me writing the poem, I am medium for this force. The poet Ishmael Reed has a book called Secretary to the Spirit and he maintains that when you're an inspirational poet, it's a kind of possession, the same kind of possession that exists in the religion of Voodoo where a deity comes to ride a particular host.
When I begin a poem, I don't know what the next line is going to be! I couldn't tell you what the next line's gonna be until it's written.
Ever since I was a small child I've always known that I was protected because I have a mission. Even if somebody sat across from me with a gun and pulled the trigger, nothing would happen because I'm protected until I get this work done. I am humble. I realize that this is a gift. I only let my ego get so big because it could be taken away tomorrow. While some people may be impressed by the power of my work, I know where my power comes from and I never forget it. And I am thankful. These days when I finish a poem, I look at the sky and say, "Thank you." Because I've seen so many other poets in my short time who have been all about ego and something unfortold has happened to them. Either they underwent some sort of catastrophic illness that left them unable to do their work or they're dead because they let their ego get out of proportion. These are gifts; these are not something where you say, "Oh, I'm doing this."
Jordan: Along the same lines, I wondered if you could talk about some of your sources and your poetic lineage that you come out of, talk about where you hope to go in the future with your work.
Lamont: I would like to be as famous as James Baldwin. I want people to be talking about me 50 years after I'm dead. See, that's where my ego comes in. Ben Franklin said, "If you want to be remembered, do something memorable." When I was in college, classmates of mine said, "You live your life like you're writing a book."
I said, "You got it!" I've always lived my life with this kind of histrionic sense.
But I've always sat at the feet of elders. I wanted to hear these stories, what their life was like in the South. I listened to the cadence of their language. I've always found old people fascinating. If you don't learn from the old, who the hell else are you gonna learn from? It was important to me growing up in Pittsburgh, sitting on those front porches waiting for the house to cool off at the end of the day to listen to those stories.
My mother would tell us stories about other family members, experiences in her life. And these are the things that keep her alive and keep all these other people alive for me. My dreams are very important to me because I'm a psychic person. That's why it's so terrible that I can only sleep two hours a day.
I'm interested in the deeper meaning of life, the mysticism of life. I don't care about the trends that come and go.
There are two things that sustain me because I could have left here long time ago: my mother's love and the love of my daughter. I don't have any significant others in my life. Loneliness has been like an albatross all my life because I don't have a lot of money and don't have the classic good looks like my brother does.
Certain people things come to when you're very young. Like Thomas Wolfe. But then he was dead at 38. Hey, I'm not in competition with anybody. I don't worry about that. I'm on my own clock. My goal for myself is to leave 70 titles on the shelf.
Sonia Sanchez has a book out called Does Your House Have Lions? It's about her brother who died of AIDS in 1981 before everybody knew what AIDS was. Sonia is a southern writer. Sonia was born in Alabama and then she was raised in New York. Her brother came Upsouth and lived on the streets of New York and got caught up in the gay lifestyle. The book is all in rhyme royal. She should have gotten a Pulitzer Prize for this book.
Sonia is one of the biggest of proponents of gay writers of anybody who has a national reputation coming out of the Black Arts movement. Amiri Baraka had a reputation for a long time of being homophobic. Same with Ishmael Reed.
In the last interview with James Baldwin by Quincy True, he asks him, "Who's the person that's hurt you the most?"
Jimmy had two weeks to live. Jimmy said, "Ishmael Reed."
He says, "Why?"
He says, "Because he called me a cocksucker and all I've ever said about him is that he's a great writer." He said, "I don't have to put up with it and I won't."
And I asked Ishmael over the phone, "Did you call Jimmy Baldwin a cocksucker?"
"I didn't say that! I didn't say that!"
Jordan: But Baraka came to terms with him, right?
Lamont: Yeah. That's the other thing. I wish you could be around for like a month or something. The last Saturday of every month Baraka gives performances at his house in Newark. It's open. You pay eight bucks and for eight bucks you get all you can eat and drink and then you go there and read. They'll feature either a jazz musician and / or a poet. Then there's an open mic afterwards. If you have your stuff to sell, you can sell it. It's wonderful!
In the basement of his house he has a theater which is named after his sister who was murdered by a homeless drifter she took in in New York. And her name was Kimaku. And it's called Kimaku's Blues Beat. It's a good mix of people: Puerto Ricans, Jews, Blacks, and Whites, and we're all there celebrating the word, you know.
He just turned 65. He has diabetes, you know. I'm trying to do an interview with him because one of the other projects I'm gonna work on is a book about the Black beats. I have a two-hour interview with the writer Ted Joans who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris.
There were three significant Afro-Americans on the scene: Ann Charters has a book out on the Beats and she does not mention any of them! It's like she's trying to revise history.
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