A Tribute to my Mentor’s Mentor: Sam Allen


Sam Allen at Romare Bearden Collection

Samuel Washington Allen lived for almost a century, from 1917 to 2015, and in his life he fought for justice, as a lawyer, a scholar, but most importantly, as a poet. Richard Wright first introduced Sam Allen to the literary world via the Parisian journal Présence Africaine; Allen later published under the pseudonym Paul Vesey (in order to keep his legal and literary lives separate), and we at Whirlwind had the honor of publishing him last in 2014.

Sam Allen’s poems in our second issue, “Nat Turner or Let Him Come an Invitational Appeal” and “Law and Order” showcase the late poet’s many rhetorical nuances while maintaining a straightforward, almost demanding exhortation that invokes freedom and equality in his signature song-like voice stemmed from, but also innovating upon his African heritage. In the 90’s Allen read his hymn-like Nat Turner poem in the Sorbonne, one of his many Alma Maters; his student, Lamont B. Steptoe, reproduces that moment through the poem entitled “Spirits Movin’ in the Sorbonne,” which we have the honor of sharing with you. Through the letters, poems, and photographs in the following pages, we wish to offer our readers some insight into how this exemplary American author, Samuel Allen, perceived and wrote about injustice under the Empire.

As our founder’s mentor, Sam Allen wrote Lamont B. Steptoe over 160 letters, only a few of which are featured here. In the letter entitled “Congratulations Lamont,” Allen displays joy at Steptoe’s “flourishing” career, and expresses gratitude for Larry Robin’s organizing of a series on African Francophone poets. In another letter, Allen commends Steptoe’s reading style as an integral facet of communicating his poetry.

Sam Allen’s graciousness to curators of poetry is apparent in his thank you letter to a now extinct arts program at the Walt Whitman Center for hosting him in a residence. During that same visit the mayor of Camden, NJ awarded Allen a key to the city. Allen praised Steptoe later on in the letter as a “highly valuable asset” in booking famous poets to visit and perform at the cultural center in Camden, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Dennis Brutus.

Sam Allen, Everett Hoagland, Sonia Sanchez, Dennis Brutus, and Larry Robin

Sam Allen, Everett Hoagland, Sonia Sanchez, Dennis Brutus, and Larry Robin

Steptoe wanted to do even more for fellow poets, and so he founded Whirlwind Press in order to publish the poetry of exiled anti-Apartheid activist Dennis Brutus. The subsequent book, Airs and Tributes, included an introduction by Samuel Allen, in which he proclaimed that the book stood as an “…eloquent testimony to the triumph of the creative spirit over the rigors of imprisonment and exile which have so vainly sought to silence [Brutus].”

And finally, we have the delight of witnessing the poetic processes of Sam Allen and Lamont B. Steptoe, as the former advises his mentee on editing Steptoe’s poems “Bleeding Diamonds” and “A Rose for Oliver Tambo.” Through these edits it’s apparent that Allen understood rhythm and the syntactical significance of words, even in the seemingly simplest of contexts, at a profound level, which proves to be highly edifying for his readers and students.

The genius of Samuel Allen remains evident throughout these letters, and it’s truly an honor and a pleasure to be able to share this literary giant’s writings. However, Allen has not yet received enough recognition for his talent and life’s work. At the time of this writing, one can find information online about Allen by prestigious institutions such as Oxford and Yale, but you have to google “Sam Allen poet” – because if you just google “Sam Allen” it comes up with some boring old businessman in a suit.

Not only that, but major outlets have not even reported on the poet’s death. So far the only media evidence of Sam Allen passing away comes from an obituary in The Columbus Dispatch. Let us hope that Samuel Allen receives the recognition he deserves as a literary great in his death, although his remarkable voice lives on through many of us regardless. The late Baraka once told Steptoe that he “must be one of the advanced.” Certainly this was due to the brilliance of Steptoe’s mentor Samuel Allen.

It is our responsibility as a community of poets and socially-aware humans to make sure that Allen’s legacy will endure. That legacy will arise in the same way as Samuel Allen wrote of Nat Turner, “In his name I say Come / For the thousands gone, Come / For the living the dead and the not yet born, I say Come…”

Indeed, the day will come. Otherwise we’re doomed to cynical nihilism. Thank you Sam Allen, for your words. Your spirit. The Empire collapses from within due to you.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

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