(says jonesie while walking thru the park alone [he’s always alone] his pants are falling down and he’s worried about other people around him seeing him and making fun of him in their minds but in reality no one notices him and he hasn’t figured this out yet that he lives in a new century where people don’t pay attention to other attractive people let alone ugly dirty lonely old men and the saddest thing is that he isn’t sad he just forgot to put on a belt this morning)
“what i must express
or rather how i am expected
to convey this is what i must say
and also predicate
this is what i must express”
(says the student who doesn’t think who only mimics who only consumes)
this is what is deemed expressible
this is what is only digital
no more meaning
[i would like to say that i have felt something through this process this microcosm of nothingness this of course being life or rather my perception of my own experience as an individual this is a footnote and is completely unnecessary like all footnotes like human life but it exists and because it does it is and since it is it will in some way and it has and so this is not a justification or a vindication or an any kind of vacation this is not logic this is not surrealism this is not post-modernism this might be meta but that’s not the point the point is that it doesn’t matter that this is pointless there are some feelings that seem like forever and that makes things okay for a fraction of an instant so that has to be good enough i guess]
Every day I try to maintain or reconfigure my poetic compass. Although I don’t necessarily write a poem once a day. I like the idea of writing poetry each and every day, like William Stafford did, but I think choosing not to write a poem at a given moment can do as much nurturing as writing one would. I went to a reading where Curtis Bauer mentioned this as an important question that the poet needs to ask, should I write this thought or experience as a poem? I find that if I internalize a subject, a poetic idea in particular, then all different perspectives of it brew in my mind, sometimes subconsciously, and so I’ll get to the point where the poem blooms out of me seemingly spontaneously. Yet how can this be true? Shouldn’t the poet be content with attempting to create something out of nothing at the moment the idea sprouts? That’s true, but there needs to be a reason for searching for reason.
For me, not writing a poem helps me think poetically. Much of my poetry has to do with observation, hence relating external reality to internal semi-reality. I used to think that there was no such thing as objective, external truth. Surprisingly enough poetry has changed that for me. I hear people say that poetry is the most subjective form of expression when it comes to literature, and I couldn’t disagree more. Good poetry should strive to be universal. And no, I don’t claim to believe now that poetry is in the business of telling the truth, not only because that’s cliché, but because it’s insincere when poets exclaim that, and also not humble. Apparently the mindset for many in contemporary poetry is that you’re in one of two camps: the self righteous truth-seekers, or the insincere, excessive irony users. I’m not explicitly in the business of irony because that’s all been said and done before. America’s popular culture and capitalist society are irony-laden enough already, there’s no reason to unnecessarily inject more into the mix.
What’s the point of irony if you’re only unveiling something that’s thinly veiled? I’ll be honest; my poems are often dotted with observations of the ironic. Take On a Corner of “the French Quarter” for example. It’s a poem that at first sight is simply observational, a street scene, one that is stated to be insignificant in the first line. But there’s more to it underneath. “A cameraman from Channel 6 Action News/ﬁlms insigniﬁcance on/the corner of 18th and Walnut./A police car is parked in front/of TD Bank across the street./The trash can named/’Big Belly Solar Compactor’/overﬂows with debris and grafﬁti/has been sprayed on the side.”
These first three images belie irony because they allude to larger societal problems that can be seen in the dichotomy between the rich people strutting around and those who come up to me asking for a cigarette or spare change at the end of the poem. The cameraman is filming a supposedly innocuous street scene that in reality portrays the outward signs of income disparity in a section of the city that caters to the upper class. The police aren’t protecting people but banks. The supposedly high tech, “green” trash compactor doesn’t do its intended job and has been reclaimed by the streets with a graffiti tag. These are just two images that are at first only observational but then become ironic given societal implications.
And yet the irony in this poem is not overblown and not meant to be obfuscating. It’s even originally unintentional, as I set out to simply describe what was happening before me. Yet as I revised the poem I arrived at a point where I was able to extract meaning out of the seemingly mundane, the otherwise insignificant. I realized that the poem reflected a nurturing step on my poetic path. My goal is to reconcile truth and irony, and in order to do that I must nurture my writing at times by not writing, but thinking poetically. I try to analyze the world around me because there is meaning in the mundane. And doing so helps me fight against nihilism, which is the reason why I write poetry in the first place.
(This article originally appeared in The Gleaner.)
“They now call this place out if its name / After one of their own who trafficked in human flesh”
Philadelphia’s Congo Square lies a block away from the most historic building in America, Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers boldly began their rebellion against the British Empire. The park, more commonly known as Washington Square, is advertised as a somber burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers, Continental and British alike. However, thousands more buried in the square remain overlooked, including slaves, free blacks, Catholics, and victims of various epidemics. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, the centerpiece monument of the park, marginalizes the unmarked graves of the oppressed by barely mentioning their presence underneath. This is in spite of the fact that the square had been a “stranger’s burial ground” (and consequently a gathering place for what Steptoe affectionately calls saltwater Africans) for almost a century before the Revolutionary War began. Through “Meditations in Congo Square” American Book Award Winner and Pew Fellow poet, Lamont B. Steptoe, undertakes the daunting task of providing a voice for disregarded human beings buried in the dregs of American history.
Steptoe’s poetry uses meditation and spiritual creativity in order to shed light on the everyday life of not only his African ancestors, but also everyone else buried in Congo Square, including, “…the hearts brains and bones [of soldiers]…” and “the corpses felled by plague.” The underworld of Philadelphia’s hidden history comes alive from the very first line of Steptoe’s book, when he proclaims, “I dance with the ghosts of Congo Square / Meet and marry what isn’t there.” Readers come to understand that writing Meditations in Congo Square was no mere pet project for Steptoe, as the poet mentions in the book’s introduction that his three days a week meditation schedule on the burial ground lasted for a period of five years. Each poem in the collection conveys the poet’s psychological descent into an otherworldly realm, while managing to guide the reader along with him much like Virgil did for Dante in Inferno. Throughout the book the poet digs deeper and deeper into the square’s sacred grounds until his voice ultimately becomes one with the departed, culminating with the collection’s final poem, Untold Stories, in which Steptoe calls for the whispers of the forgotten dead to be “…loud enough to enter history’s ears!”
Reading Meditations in Congo Square is not a front to back cover endeavor, as many of the poems in this short book can easily stand on their own. This is because Steptoe’s “Meditations…” functions not only as a testament to colonial people’s history, but also often as a warning against war and oppression in the present and the future.
Steptoe’s ability to translate the humdrum of an average day into existential prophecy is frankly impressive, “…we are snowflakes falling on a / summer day vanishing in air while the unborn await their turn / to imagine our lives we are empty vessels dreaming of fullness.” In another poem Steptoe muses that when he was young he never would have thought the subject of weather would be a topic of conversation for him, let alone a metaphor for the transcendence of physical to spiritual. In this respect, Steptoe refers to the path of tropical storms originating in West Africa and crossing the Atlantic, the same route that saltwater Africans were forced to take. In No Name Worthy to Claim Steptoe speaks for a dead African joyous of being able to journey back home across the Atlantic, “I rushed across waves and plowed through storms / I entered the tabernacle of my youth.” Altogether, Steptoe’s Meditations… focuses on balancing historical and contemporary forms of life and death in Congo Square, and his unique method of meditative writing transforms the mundane into something spectacular.
(Steptoe recently read on campus in support of Rutgers Camden professor Ewuare Osayande’s anthology Stand Our Ground and stated that it is important for Meditations in Congo Square to be made available everywhere. The book is currently on sale at La Unique bookstore on 6th and Market in Camden, and the Penn Book Center on 34th and Sansom in Philadelphia.)