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Monday, September 28, 2015

Some Philadelphia Poets

                      THE LOCAL LENS

   The City of Philadelphia is currently looking for a new Poet Laureate. Sonia Sanchez, the city's first poet laureate (Philadelphia’s current poet laureate is Frank Sherlock) had an exceptional ability to work with mainstream audiences through the city’s Mural Arts Project. ''The black artist is dangerous,” Sanchez has written. “Black art controls the "Negro's" reality, negates negative influences, and creates positive images.''  Born in Alabama in 1934 as Wilsonia Benita Driver, she graduated from New York’s Hunter College after moving to Harlem as a young girl, then studied for a while at New York University under Louise Bogan. She married Albert Sanchez but kept his surname after her divorce and remarriage to poet Etheridge Knight. Well known as an activist for racial equality, Sanchez began her years as a teacher at San Francisco State in 1965 and joined the Nation of Islam in 1972 because of then burgeoning views on Black separatism but left the organization in 1975 because of that group’s views on women’s rights. Her more than 12 published poetry volumes include Morning Haiku (2010) and Does your house have lions? (1995).
   In 2011, the 77 year old poet, teacher and activist Philadelphia was named the city's first poet laureate by Mayor Michael Nutter in a ceremony in City Hall. Since that time she has appeared in many poetry readings throughout the city, along with other local poets who have begun to establish national reputations, like Philadelphia’s CAConrad, who writes that his childhood consisted of “selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.” 69 Conrad continues to stun audiences with his Deviant Propulsion word missiles (e.g., "It's True I Tell Ya My Father is a 50 cent Party Balloon"). The award winning poet is the author of many books and chapbooks, including The Frank Poems, advanced ELVIS, and end-begin w/chants, a collaboration with Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate, Frank Sherlock. Attending a CAConrad reading can be an unforgettable experience. Part stand up comic, slam theater experience, Conrad dazzles with oversized rhinestone glasses, feathers, or even bathtub recitations.  
   With poem titles like “I Still Have Keys to the Apartment,” “Bran Muffins Have Nothing to Do With it! So There!” and “Leaving the Only Bed in America That Keeps Me Satisfied,” Conrad’s irreverent style might not go over at the city’s Union League but his cult following is symbolic of poetry’s status in the city. The “new style” Philadelphia poet is often cantankerously unique and sports some sort of physical signature like a big hat, a monocle or the wearing of several scarves. These styles have given poetry an urban  mystique.  The poetic signature look is an apt description that can be applied to poet Lamont Steptoe, who grew up in Pittsburgh and who found his wings as a poet while serving in the Republic of South Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 as a Scout Dog Handler, meaning someone whose job it was to walk point element for combat patrols.  Assigned to the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi, the accomplished poet, photographer and founder of Whirlwind Press, has published many volumes of poetry, including Crimson River and American Morning/Mourning. Conrad and Steptoe could be a future Philadelphia Poet Laureate, despite Steptoe’s antiwar polemic. For years, Steptoe could be seen walking around town in army fatigues, heavy back gear, a large Miraculous Medal and other talismans as if the gritty streets of the city were the jungles of Indo-China.
         Another great Philadelphia poet is the Rev. John P. McNamee, Pastor Emeritus of Saint Malachy Church in North Philadelphia, who was ordained a priest by John Cardinal O’Hara in 1959. Fr. McNamee, who has spent most of his priesthood serving the poor and disadvantaged, is credited with bringing Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to Philadelphia. An award winning poet, his books, “Clay Vessels” and “Endurance—The Rhythm of Faith,” have been popular spiritual bestsellers. His autobiography, “Diary of a City Priest,” won the Catholic Press Association Book Award, and was made into a movie for television starring actor David Morse in 2001. An international speaker, Fr. McNamee received a Doctor of Humanities honorary degree from Villanova University in 2001. In 2006, he published Donegal Suite, a collection of contemplative and mystical poems which derives from a summer of solitude he spent in Northern Ireland. The second half of the book concentrates more on the pathos of daily life in Philadelphia.
            While the mystical poems of a priest might not be ideal to represent the City of Philadelphia, a secular mystic poet like Leonard Gontarek, the recipient of five Pushcart Prize nominations. Like the Philly poet Jim Cory, author of a number of books and chapbooks and editor of the 1997 Black Sparrow Press edition of James Broughton’s poems, Packing Up For Paradise, Gontarek’s Wallace Stevens insurance salesman look means that neither he nor Cory would be “recognized” as poets in the street, at least if one is going by the “uniform” of younger urban poets which tends towards affectation, such as the arrangement of neck scarves.  This style can range from the minimalist placement of one scarf to the piling on of two or three so that one thinks of café habitués in Paris or of certain Middle Eastern revolutionaries. While the poetic uniform is usually relegated to the young—consider prose writer George Lippard’s flamboyant dress—other poets seem happier to blend with the scenery much the same way that Walt Whitman, who dressed as if he was a farmer, blended in with his Camden townsfolk.    

   Jim Cory believes that poetry can be different things to different people at different times, and he told me that when he was 12 he stumbled on The Mentor Book of Major American Poets on the paperback rack at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center (in CT). “It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five years later it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my 60s, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into 7 lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.”  He also believes that it is important for poets to take poetry—“not their poetry but poetry in the broad sense—more seriously than they take themselves.”  

      Philadelphia’s most famous modern poet, who almost always wore a suit and tie, was the 1973-1974 Poet Laureate of the United States, Daniel Hoffman. Hoffman’s poetry is almost always just a little sad, but it is also noted for its joy in the small things of life. As he once told an interviewer, “Even when a poet writes about something negative the fact that he puts it into a form controls it, makes it positive.”  The author of more than 25 books moved to Philadelphia in 1948 with his wife, the poet Elizabeth MacFarland. At this time Philadelphia was on the verge of a rebirth, just a few years before architect Vincent Kling and City Planner Edmund Bacon would change the face of downtown. It was also the era of Mayor Richardson Dilworth, the first Democratic mayor after decades of “corrupt and contented” Republican politics. Change was in the air, and Hoffman, feeling the pulse, felt no leftover homesickness for New York City, which he once labeled “a city that cannibalizes its own past.” Hoffman, who in school had been a classmate of poet Allen Ginsberg’s, went on to teach English and Poetry at the University of Pennsylvania.  By all accounts, he became a good teacher yet admitted that he’d be the first to castigate a student if he heard that the student did not read poetry by other poets because of the fear of influence.

    Blunt to a fault, Hoffman said that he wouldn’t want students like this in his class, even though he expressed sensitivity towards the pitfalls of being a 17 year old beginning poet, for whom all poetry generally means,   “my love affair.” Young poets of this caliber, Hoffman explains, all write “the same verbal spaghetti without any control or form,” all the more reason to make them “read good poetry. ”One teaching method he used to cure the “my love affair” view of poetry was to copy out police reports and have the students choose one and then write a poem about why the culprit was arrested. This exercise was important, he says, to get the students “out of themselves.”
    Born in 1923, Hoffman died on March 30, 2013 in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
   French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s line, “You must change your life,” set the tone for Philadelphia’s Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. Born in 1940 in Oakland, California, Moore’s first book of poems, Dawn Visions, was published in 1964 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. This was the Beat Generation era, when Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, also published by City Lights, was changing the poetic landscape. In 1972, Moore followed up with another City Lights volume, Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, about the human carnage in Vietnam. In the late 1960s he founded and directed The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in Berkeley, California, and later presented two major productions, The Walls Are Running Blood, and Bliss Apocalypse.  The world was changing, and for some meant a reinvention of the Self. Moore, who was then a self described Zen Buddhist whose normal routine was to get up early every morning, “sit zazen, smoke a joint, do half an hour of yoga, then read the Mathnawi of Rumi, the long mystical poem of that great Persian Sufi of the thirteenth century,” life was about to change. 7
    Moore converted to Sufi Islam in 1970, riding a wave of spiritual self transformation that affected other writers and poets in the Bay area, most notably Eugene Rose, an atheist and Marxist whose devotion to Nietzcshe nearly drove him mad before he read the writings of the Desert Fathers. Rose, who would go on to become an Orthodox priest and co-founder of Holy Trinity monastery near Redding, California, is now considered by many to be a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. As for Moore, his spiritual transformation inspired him to travel to Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Nigeria, but finally back to California where he would publish The Desert is the Only Way Out.  
      In many ways, Philadelphia would prove to be Moore’s desert, although he did not become a Philadelphian until 1990. Before that date he lived for a while in Boston’s North End, where he remembers meeting the poet John Weiners, the shy Irish Catholic poet whom Allen Ginsberg once referred to as “a pure poet” and who was really the Walt Whitman of New England.
     While living in Philadelphia, Moore published The Ramadan Sonnets (Jusoor/City Lights), and in 2002, The Blind Beekeeper (Jusoor/Syracuse University Press).  San Francisco poet, playwright and novelist Michael McClure has written that Moore’s poems are like Frank O’Hara’s, where “there are no boundaries or limits to possible subject matter,” and where “imagination runs rampant and it glides.” 

      Moore is not a poet of empty things and ideas but aspects of the spiritual as the divine seem to invade every word he writes.  He was viewed as legendary in the California of the 1960s, in part because he was able to be “spiritual” without losing his sense of humor.  He is the spiritual poet with a comedic wink. 
   Moore works with Larry Robin at Philadelphia’s Moonstone Arts Center where he helps coordinate Moonstone’s annual Poetry Ink readings of 100 Poets. In 2011, 2012 and 2014 he was awarded the Nazim Hikmet Prize for Poetry, and in 2013 he won an American Book Award.
    In this age of ongoing dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the sacred person known as the Virgin Mary, mentioned some thirty-four times in the Koran. The sacred person concept is not lost on Moore, who writes in Five Short Meditations on the Virgin Mary:

I saw Mary board a bus at Broad and State
her head covered and her face radiant
small and held within herself
careful and preoccupied

a heaven seeming to be wrapped around her
her cheeks red her lips dry her eyes lowered
interior moisture her preferred cloister
the bus passengers sudden ghosts before her
her shoes small and tattered
her hands carrying a book
If any had spoken to her she might have become lost
If she had spoken to anyone
they might have become saved