Hooked on poetry: A Philadelphia memoir (c.1980)

Poets’ Night at the London Pub: A 1980 memoir

4 minute read
Could I inhabit the same stage with Lamont B. Steptoe (above)?
Could I inhabit the same stage with Lamont B. Steptoe (above)?
There was once a time in Philadelphia— the late '70s and early '80s— when I got drunk on poetry once a week. I was inebriated and intoxicated in the Dionysian sense of the word, celebrating the Bacchic demons, the awakening of the inspiring spirit of the Muses, the body dancing to verbal rhythms.

This spirit came alive on Monday nights at the Writers and Readers Showcase at the London Pub in Fairmount. I found myself there one night with a handful of my old poems that I'd never read in public. Connecting with a live audience, consisting mostly of poets, was a life-changing experience: I, a solitary writer, had finally "come out"!

From then on I was hooked, a regular at the London's open reading portion, following the weekly feature presentations by poets like Aschak, Mbali Umoja, Lamont B. Steptoe, Jean, Joe Scuderi (aka River Reed), Elliott Levin, DMT Brown and Jerome Robinson. The series was usually hosted by the personable Ketan Ben Caesar, who welcomed a myriad of poets and would-be poets. For me, those Monday nights turned out to be my equivalent of party night, shared with a familial circle of poet/performers.

Audience confrontation

The Writers and Readers Showcase was an open-minded, inclusive series that welcomed all types of poetry and extensions thereof. Granted, whenever you allow anyone to read, you risk hearing some pretty bad attempts at poetry. But that openness in itself produced a free environment in which poetry and poets could flourish in Philadelphia.

This scene didn't spring up spontaneously, of course. It traced its origins to the little poetry magazines of the 1970s and, before them, to the Greenwich Village Beat poets of the '50s.

I soon realized that the poets at the London were doing something unique, unlike the relatively subdued "literary" readings that typified Philadelphia in the '70s. The oral dynamic requires a type of audience confrontation that I rarely witnessed elsewhere in those days. The London Pub poets, on the other hand, were out-front with their work, eager to share it with the widest possible audience.

Ethnic and racial stew

Another important element of the London scene was its high level of ethnic and racial integration. The mix was especially significant in furthering a distinct American brand of poetry that was just beginning to come into its own after the cultural turmoil of the '60s and early '70s. Much of that spirit, I've always felt, was contributed by the African American poets among us, who were immersed in a strong oral tradition that had direct relevance to their community, as well as an assortment of third-generation ethnic Americans (Italian, Jewish and Irish) with roots among the working class.

A definite sense of community— more than a "scene"— developed at these gatherings, with an almost proselytizing mission to spread the poetic word. Here were poets in "real life"—to the extent that one makes art one's life. As cultural workers in their communities, they helped to define a mission for poetry: Poetry for the people!

The Writers and Readers Showcase always consisted of a diversity of poetic types, too— not a single school but a gathering of bards and vulgar rhymesters, many of them neophytes. It was never a self-consciously "critical" scene with overriding theoretical concerns (although some among us thought deeply about poetics).

Grassroots trend

Often a strain of rhetoric could be detected in the poetry—which was understandable, as we had important social messages to deliver. But equally important was the form of the message— the urge to express oneself in lyric poetry, to feel the musicality of the language.

In another sense, the London group reflected a larger trend in grassroots poetry around the country. We were "local" poets (an American cultural phenomenon) doing poetry in a way that was a prelude to the popular poetry movement of the 1990s. By the late '70s, similar grassroots movements were springing up around the country, many of them unaware of each other's existence.

The London poets eventually took poetry out of the backrooms of bars, venturing into public venues around the city during the '80s. We've stayed in touch even as we've scattered in new artistic and geographical directions, and even as some of our greatest artists, like Wil Perkins and Jerome Robinson, have passed on.

What survives now from that long-ago spirit of community is the body of poetry out of our local roots— that, and the one precious commodity that time can't erase: our words.♦

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation