Literary Philadelphia is more beautiful than you could imagine. It’s not like NYC at all, which beats you over the head with its awe-inspiring cultural wealth on every corner. (I almost said “on every coroner,” which could also be true, if you think about it.) Not long ago I was invited to go to a reading of the poets Jane Miller and Catherine Pierce at Drexel University. Harriet Levin had told me about it, and I was eager to go since I trusted her judgment on these things. I had known of Jane Miller and her work since 1985 when she was on the cover of American Poetry Review. I was curious about where a poet like that much younger, daring poet would be at this point in her life and career. The Living Arts Lounge at Drexel U was a very nice carpeted room with good lighting. Henry Israeli, the publisher, was getting sandwiches for the readers when the event was supposed to start. So Harriet started the event, which was attended by the chair of the English Department and the poets Don Riggs and myself and a pretty large number of students.
When Henry got there, he was, indeed, carrying the sandwiches for the featured poets. He looked a little embarrassed about being late, but he did a nice job with the intros. I think everyone there was well aware of how stellar a press Saturnalia was.
I think that they were webcasting the event, also. I hadn’t thought about that until too late—I was sitting up front not very far from the readers, so it was likely that I was in the view of the camera. That meant that I suddenly felt like I had to “act” interested even if I wasn’t because I didn’t want other poets and students god-knows-where-in-the-world to see me zoning out at a poetry reading!
Fortunately, I didn’t have to act interested. They were both more than interesting, and they both read for a reasonable length of time. Both of them read works that resonated well. It was, in fact, moving the way you’d hope a poetry reading would be in an ideal world.
Afterwards, Harriet was wonderful and introduced me to both of the featured poets. They were both sincerely friendly and wanted to talk. Being at work at Muhlenberg College all spring 60 miles away, I hadn’t had many chances to meet with other poets. This was a great way to break that ice. By coincidence, Catherine Pierce was familiar with one of my favorite formative influences in the poetry world, Etheridge Knight.
That reminded me of the first times I’d heard poets reading in Philly.
Also, not so long ago, I went out of my way to see a poetry reading a few blocks away from my house. Jabiya Dragonsun, formerly of Philly, was reading here again. I hadn’t seen him in 23-24 years or so. Jabiya also had been greatly influenced by Etheridge Knight. Lamont Steptoe came and Bob Small was the host of the series. So it was like really being back “home”—in a very deep way, Philadelphia as a poetry community was where I first heard a lot of what poetry is capable of—and incapable of, if you know what I mean. The audience was small, maybe ten—maybe twelve people. There were mostly younger poets there for the open reading.
This was the Poets & Prophets series, which had been running forever—more than two decades, I think. In poet years, that might as well be a hundred and fifty years. I mean, like dogs, poets live approximately seven years during every normal human year.
It really made me remember those early times when Jabiya mentioned Jerome Robinson. I had heard that he had passed away. He also mentioned CarolAnn Robertson in his reading, someone who first helped me get started in the poetry world. CarolAnn had written to me even many years later. It was CarolAnn who had introduced me to Etheridge Knight when I was just twenty or so—in the spring of 1983. Jabiya had a very dramatic performance style.
It took a while for Jabiya to recognize me. Lamont had to remind him who I was.
A lot of poets would like to forget that there was a poet like Etheridge, would like to forget that a poor black convict from a penitentiary could become so famous and influential. It was because of the soul and the blues, those depths that glowed in the undercurrent of the Philly sound, that made his poetry so beautiful.
Without being able to articulate it then, I understood this at some level when I was just a young pup in Po Biz.
What Etheridge brought so powerfully into poetry in Philadelphia and Bethlehem and everywhere else that he went to read was this fulfillment of the promise. He showed in reality an idea that others wished could be true—that someone who was supposed to be crushed, inconsequential and invisible could matter and make great art out of even the most brutal experiences.
I don’t fully understand why or how he cared about me, then. I can’t imagine what he saw in me. I know I was grateful, though, and it was a life-altering experience to hear him read, over and over. I know that when I heard about the passing of Etheridge it was like one kind of world had vanished and another kind of music was entering the world—the deepest root to the blues in American poetry was silenced.
By another coincidence, this spring in Syracuse I read with another poet who had also been influenced by Etheridge Knight. His name was Randall Horton. We did not know each other at all. He was surprised that Etheridge was a big influence on me. Most people would assume that an Asian-American would not be so influenced by someone so different on the outside.
But poetic influences are not about the outsides of people; they are more mysterious and, sometimes, even transcendent than that.
Today, just by chance I bumped into a novelist, Allison Whitenberg. She had her seven-week old infant in a pouch in front of her. The last time I had seen her, she had still been carrying the child inside. I had meant to get in touch with her and vice versa. I finally got her email in my address book, then, just a half block north of Rittenhouse Square. She said her new book is doing well and getting some good reviews. She was happy to bump into me and vice versa, even if it only happens a few times a year and by chance on the street.