ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
What I am saying is that through extension we are humanists in the beginning,
but how are you going to love or speak to somebody else if you cant
speak to your own brothers and sisters?
Books by Etheridge Knight
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Etheridge Knight Speaks
Poeting, Hustling & the Black Aesthetic
I think the Black Aesthetic differs from the European Aesthetic mainly . . . because it does not separate art or aesthetics from the other levels of life. It does not separate art from politics, art from economics, art from ethics, or art from religion. Art is a functional and a commercial endeavor. The artist is not separate from the people. If you were to trace the separation of art from life historically, you would trace it back to the Greeks when Plato and others made the head thing the idealreasoning being the idealthere was a separation between reason and emotion. There was a separation.
It is like people trying to separate church and state. How in the hell can you separate church and state? A mans politics is determined by how he views the world, how he sees God. Aesthetics, to me, means how one sees beauty, truth and love as they relate to all levels of lifenot just watching the sunset, but how ones politics are dealt with and how ones economics are dealt with. All art stems basically from economics. All the Western dances and all the songs, that people call classical music grew out of formulasEuropean formulas.
All of our blues and things that we considered cultural grew out of our economics. People sing about the river rising because their crops are going to be fucked up. Its economics. I dont make the distinction between aesthetics and ethics and politics or whatever other aspect of a mans existence. One might say this is political, and this is not political. As Gwendolyn Brooks says, just being Black in this country and walking down the street is a political act. Anytime you walk into a place where there is a whole bunch of peckerwoods, you are making a political act.
When you are wearing bell bottom pants and a beard and a big Afro, you are making a political statement by merely walking in there. Everything is political, everything is aesthetical, and everything is ethical.
Politics, Religion & Economics
A group of people controlled by another group of peopleevery level of existence is political. There is no black preacher that ever preached that wasnt making a political statement. If I had to lump it together, I would lump it closer to religion and economics. It is no accident that most of our leaders, even before Nat Turner, were religiously inclined. They have all been preachers. From Nat Turner to Malcolm X, they have been heavy into religion. I see religion as a total view of life. Religion includes economics, politics, ethics, aesthetics, and all that. Thats how I view religion. Historically, artists were connected with the church first. The priest and the artist were one and the same.
Politics & Art
In the first place, I would say such critics are coming from European definitions. Even though Imamu Baraka and I differ on a lot of things, I would say he has evolved honestly and naturally. Art would necessarily lead to his position. If you are a black artist in this country at this time, you cannot help but be a politician, a wheeler-dealer. Thats whats necessaryto deal. One of the statements that he made is that it is all theater. In a lot of ways it is theater. Whats happening with him and that Dago in Newark is theater. He calls Baraka the slick nigger and Baraka calls him Moby Dick, the big white whale.
What I am saying is that the idea that poetry or the other arts do not involve all the other levels of life is a European concept. Baraka is a total person, not only an artist; he is not an artist separated from the community. In my opinion, the greatest artist alive in this country today is Elijah Mohammad. A lot of people aint got onto the Messenger. I cant accept his theology because I have been schooled in the European thing, too. That brother has survived, and all us are dealing with the psychological fallout of his teachingblack education, black economics, etc., which he talked about in the 1930s, when they put him in jail. Remember, he wouldnt go to fight the Japanese in the 1940s.
We have all of these war protesters now. This was a brother who wouldnt go way back then, and the put him in jail and he spent his time and kept on doing what he was doing. Thats just a little old nigger man with a fourth-grade education. He didnt have a formal education. To me, he is the greatest artist. Imamu Baraka, as a poet, as an artist, as a person, has evolved logically.
I disagree with some of his methods, because in a lot of ways he is still playing out the European temperamentalist bag, which I dont think we can afford. In some ways, I am a realist. Things hurt me, and I know they hurt me, and I say that. I dont fool myself, give you the snow job, of whats going on. It hurts to be aware in this country. They are killing us.
The brother, Kalamu ya Salaam, who was talking about the Delta and the flooding, you still got Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, Indiana. These peckerwoods can still raise enough food to feed half the world. He [Kalamu] has a small view of that flooding. If you are in the immediate vicinity of the flooding areas, you are, of course, concerned, but in three hours time you can be in Montana where honky farmers are still plowing hundreds and thousands of acres. . .
Poeting & Hustling
Let me tell you something. I have no secrets, no private life. There have been magazines, like the North West Review, that have asked me for poems. Theyd pay me $50 or $100. I would sit down and write a poem. I am not like you; I dont have academic credentials. I did not finish high school. I live by poeting. I live from the people. I dont do anything but poet. Sometimes people attach me to universities. If I dont poet, then I am a thief because thats what I was doing before I was poeting.
I dont know anything else to do but hustle or poet. I write poems for publications. They look good and I can use them when I list my credentialsI have been published here and there. But my real poems are for people. What happens at a reading is very important to me. This has been verified for people who doubted, and by other poets who have all the credentialsthe University of Cambridge, the whole thing.
For example, a white poet, Donald Hall, who is a good friend of mine, has the aristocratic New England thinghe went to Harvard and Cambridge. I asked him if he had a choice between publishing and reading which he would prefer? He wrote back and said, Why did you ask me such a silly-ass question? Publishing, I would throw it awaywhere its at it’s whats happening with me and the audience. I had placed him in a different bag, to tell you the truth. Coming from my background, I had taken a kind of anti-intellectual position. Before I met him, I thought he would say, He aint a college graduate; what the fuck he knows?
When I met him, I found out he was just another guy who might have reflected more than I did. As soon as something happened to me, I just acted right off. He stopped and reflected a minute. That was the main difference. He is a helluva poet. A lot of black poets say, Well, he is white. Just as we are sitting here drinking a bear and liquor, I was in his living room, and he said, Imamu Baraka thinks that I cant get to him. I can get to him. He did. So, it aint just racial.
Sure, black poetry is ideological. There are other characteristics that distinguish it. To say that other people cant get to it is crazy. Then we would have to admit that you cant get to William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway. But I know well you can.
Black Audience First?
Yes. Who else? That argument has come up, and to me it is a racists reaction. Nobody says anything about the Irish playwrights or Shakespeare, or the German or French writing to German or French people. There is always an audience in mind. Jean Paul Sartre made it clearI always use him because people accept him as an authority. In his essay, For Whom Does One Write, he pointed out clearly that to the people in the French underground during the Nazi occupation the word boche meant something completely different from what it meant to anybody else.
Just like the word motherfucker means something different to usnobody else can understand it. What I am saying is that through extension we are humanists in the beginning, but how are you going to love or speak to somebody else if you cant speak to your own brothers and sisters? What business do I have speaking to the Chinese, Japanese, French, Italians, the English, if I cant speak to a brother? No Chinese can tell me anything speaking to me, because I am going to ask. It is important that (a Japanese, a Chinese, an Italian or a Frenchman) knows what he is saying to his people first.
You definitely have to speak to people of your own experiences or your own history. By extensions of history, all human beings are the same. We have our Sampsons and our Jezebels. Instead of Sampson, we have John Henry. Instead of Jezebel, we have Frankie and Johnnie. All people have the same history, the same men, the same heroes. They are just played on differently. We have some pretty good ones. You talk about John Henry and Staggerlee. Just means niggers. . . .
Gwendolyn Brooks said, once when she came to the prison where I was to read, Everybody defines poetry. Her definition was that poetry is a telescope turned upside down. You are looking at life from one little specific thing. All art is specific, really. Now, from this specific comes the general. If I get into me, if I am true to me, I assume I can bet that just about have where you are also. I know damn well if three-headed man in a flying saucer landed right there, I would get scared and so would you. Just by my own feelings, I bet you that you got scared.
recognized my [art] stems from the specific. If he is honest, a black artist cant help directing his art to a black audience. The same way a French artist cant help but direct his art to a French audience. It doesnt mean that the other people cant understand it, cant get into it, on a lot of levels. I cannot get into Rudyard Kipling. He is an imperialist, an English colonist motherfucker. I have gotten into If, but where he was coming from does not enlighten me.
I came to poetry not through any academic channels. The first poet I was introduced to was a village poet, Hound Mouth. I never knew any other name but Hound Mouth. He never wrote anything, but he would sit in the park and tell toasts. They were really narrative poems, although we called them toasts. For example, he would tell us about the flood of 1937. The fire burning down a dance hall in Tupelo, Mississippihe would tell us about that. The sinking of the Titanic, the signifying monkey, the pool;-shooting monkeyhed tell them all for hours. He had them all in his head. If somebody said something about publishing some of it, he would not know how to write to a magazine.
Family OriginsMississippi & Kentucky
Paducah, Kentucky. My daddy was a common laborer. He didnt make it as a farmer. He did not like to work hard enough to be a farmer, so he moved into town. At that time, the Kentucky Dam was being built. There was a great need for black labor, strong black backs. So he moved uphe caught a freight train up in 1939, right after the big flood, worked two or three months and sent money back. At that time, there were my mother, my two oldest brothers, my oldest sister, and me.
Later on, there were four other sisters, younger children, who were born. Anyway, we moved up to Paducah, Kentucky. Thats a helluva town. Its claim to fame is Alben Barkley, who was Trumans Vice President, and Irving Cobb, the home spun humorist. The town was named after Chief Paducah, a helluva Indian, who killed a lot of [whites].
My teenage life was spent in Kentucky. Actually, Kentucky is no different from Mississippi. When I was 11, 12, 13 and 14, I came back to Mississippi to spend the summers. My mother and father would send us back to my uncle in the country to spend the summers to keep us out of trouble in big cities. All that time, I started running away from homeI started noticing things and people. I didnt like my old man too much. I grew up, and at 17 went to the Army.
I said I am not going to wind up in this town and accept the same kind of destiny that my father accepted. I am going to break out here, so I went to the Army. In the Army I went to Korea, saw people and some things, and, also, got hooked on drugs. I got out of the Army in 1950. All of the 1950s were the whole drug sceneskagI mean for the heavy drug scene. Pimps, whores, etc. Then I fell and went to prison in 1960 for armed robbery to get some money to get some drugs. I stayed in prison eight years, until 1968, and I have been poeting ever since.
Dying & Resurrection
Died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life. Etheridge Knight
I began to define myself as a poet in prison. Before then, I had been writing toast about incidents, about things in the neighborhood. I would make them up. When I would go to jail, guys would come around and say, Hey, Knightthis was especially after supper like a social hour in jailHey, Knight, tell us a tale. I would start telling about somebody who OD-ed or somebody who is fucking somebody elses old lady. I started creating. Then I got in what is called legitimate poetry in prison and started submitting to a wider audience.
Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall are mainly responsible for that. Two beautiful people, man. They would come down the joint and see me. They would give me advice, and I would give them advice. I started writing in the sense you mean it in prison. In Korea I was awfully confusedyou have to remember that I was only seventeen and I dug some things that were too heavy for a seventeen year old to handle, so I quit.
I said to myself I am not going to be involved in this shit anymore. I aint going to fightyou take your guns; I aint going to kill and they said, You are crazy. I said, you call me whatever you want to call me, and I gave my gun to my Company Commander. He couldnt understand it. I said, I refuse to be involved in this kind of shit anymore. You got me over here about to be killed, about to have me kill someone, and it has nothing to do with me.
You see, thats true because I understand poetry and the poet as a songas a chant; the poem and the poet are like songs. They are mystical. When you say things in chant, they take on a different meaning from what you sayand you may be saying the same wordsin everyday speech. Whats involved is musica kind of arrangement of the sounds that create in you a certain feeling. When you go to church, for example, certain things happen in church.
The preachers preaching and the choirs singing create in you a certain receptivenessthe feeling that you are in church. If everybody starts bowing their heads, you bow your head. In music, a certain beat is set up and you find yourself patting your foot. These are the same rituals in poetry. Thats the reason for the devices in poetryrhyme and rhythm. They set up a oneness. If anyone is patting their feet at the same time, a ritual is being played out. Basically, I see the poet as singing in a sense that his sounds are put together in harmony or in a structure which differs from just plain talking.
I see poets basically as singers, as preachers, as prophets. The poems that I look at, the poems that I see, the things that I call poetryyou knowspeak about big things in human lifedeath, war, freedom, and birth. These kinds of things can only be spoken about in a way that you can feel them. They can only be spoken about in symbols, in myths. You deal with these big things, not in terms of how much a product costse.g., the price of breadbut whether you are a slave or whether you are not a slave, or whether you are a good man or a bad man, etc.
When you are speaking of feelings, you cant present them in prose, in everyday English; they must be present through symbols or myths. Thats why religion has been so effective in speaking to people. The big questions concern economics, politics, medicine, etc. All of these things answer the question: Where did I come from and where am I going? Religion and poetry speak in symbols and myths and try to answer big questions.
Poetry, Conception & Musicality
It does not come with the conception. The conception comes with an awareness of life, and the music comes with trying to express that certain awarenessthat certain feeling. You have a preacher, a politician, an economist seeing the same situationlets say, the energy crisis. The economist would tell you all about the production of oil and supply and demand, but the politician would tell you which country has got the oillike the Jews or the Arabs. The preacher would put it in that same context. The economist would write a paper, the politician would make a speech, and the preacher would preach a sermon about the same thing, but they are coming from different places. The poet would write a poem.
Writing in and Out of Prison
Actually it [Belly Songs and Other Poems] was not easier, because in all the real senses I am still in prison. If I can articulate a minute. To make a poem or to preach a sermon or to create in any sense, you become extremely aware. I think it is what the Greeks meant when you are caught up in the Muses. For the Nigerians, among the Yoruba people, there is a word which refers to the power taking over you. In other words, you become extremely aware. Its that you are able to relate to the whole world what you see and hear.
Prison is very painful reality. If you walk into a meadow and see flowers, while the sun is shining brightly, and you are in love with a young girl, you are extremely aware then, too. Those things you are aware of are pleasant. You are just as aware when you are caught up in prison, but there aint no flowers. Thats painful. All of us are going to try to avoid pain. Thats why its harder. You can sit and write about the sunset and love; or sit, watch the sun go down on the sea, and that does not hurtthat aint painful. Thats why it is hard. Its difficult.
Collective Vision of Black People
Sometimes you do things in poems that you dont consciously do, and you find out that you want to do them later if you think about it. What hangs me up is being aware, being aware of what is wrong with what is happening. Then you know or you feel that common feeling with all people. If you know yourselfyour own feelings well enoughyou cant be pretty certain that they are the feeling among people in the same situation. Being aware means that you are one with the feelings of other peopletheir dreams and fears, everything else.
If you can articulate or express those feelings in your art honestly, then you are expressing the general feelings of other people. It is like in prison. In prison, maybe only two percent of the people participate in a riot, but if that riot is honestis based on honest feelingsyou can bet ninety-nine percent of the prisoners felt the same way while only two percent took action. They are reflecting the feelings of ninety-nine percent of the people in prison.
It is the same way with the artist in society. If he is honest with his feelings and expresses them honestly, then he is expressing the feelings of most of the people. One man is afraid to say to another, Hey, I am scared. I dont think that this is right. I dont want to do it. In the Watergate affair, if one of those guys had said, Hey, naw, I aint going to do this; this is wrong, it wouldnt have happened. You get caught up in your own images.
I think an artist is obligated like a priest. A preacher is obligated to tell the truth no matter what happens. People look to priests, poets, an artists to tell the truth, and by identification they somehow change their own feelings. People know if an artist is full of bullshit. They know if a preacher is bullshitting them. Everybody in this country knows that black people are being fucked over.
The dumbest, most illiterate hillbilly sharecropper knows that black people are being fucked over. And if an artist stands up and says that black people are being fucked over, the people know he is not telling the truth. He loses their respect. Black artists should tell the truth about reality. The only thing you can be aware of is your reality.
Any black artist whose main theme is not enslavement has to be lying or crazy, because the most real thing to a human being is whether he is free or not. And we are not free. Everything else takes second place to that.
Oral Narrative Form of Black Folk
I didnt have it in mind. It came about naturally to me out of my experience. I grew up in Kentucky. When I was seven or eight years old, I would hang around in poolrooms and listen to toasts, and later I started telling them. So, you see, I grew up telling tales such as Shine and the Signifying Monkey. I grew up listening to Baptist preachersthe form, for example of Martin Luther King and the rhythm of the folk sermon. So I grew up with that. Long before I published, I was telling toastsall the time I was in the Army, in prison and on the streets. Therefore, it was not a conscious thing; it just naturally developed.
Genesis of For Freckled-Faced Gerald
I was lying in my cell reading one night, when all the guys came in. I had been working on the prison newspaper and had gotten off work early. When they came in, the word came that a young brother had been raped in the prison laundry by some older cons.
At the time I was reading James Baldwins Another Country. You remember that in the novel Rufus commits suicide. I got a little angry. Here was this young brotheronly sixteen and in prison. Also, at the same time he came into the joint, there were about five or six youngsters in there. But he was the youngest. There was also a young white boy from Indianapolis who had burglarized some home and shot some people. He had gotten life, too. When he came to prison, the warden made him houseboy and kept him outside the wallsprotected him.
But the warden put Gerald back inside the wall because he was just a nigger. I was thinking of all of that. And I was thinking about Baldwins character, Rufus, who committed suicide. And here was Gerald struggling to survive. (Suicide is such an uncommon thing among black people. We kill ourselves through alcohol or drugs, or we kill each other. But direct suicide is uncommon.) I wrote that poem that night.
All of those things led up to it. I was trying to express what I saw happening around me and to talk about the subject of oppression. Here we areblack people, oppressed. In this country, we are oppressed racially and sexually. Women are oppressed. Homosexuals in prison and in the larger society are oppressed. If you are black, a woman, a lesbian and youre in prison, you are oppressed four times.
Black men will talk about being free, yet theyll have a woman walking four paces behind them and go fag hunting. We cannot win our freedom at the expense of anybody. Many blacksartists, educators, politicians, and other leaderswill say theres nothing to womens liberation or gay liberation. Or they will argue that if we have to become fascists to win our freedom, its better for us to have the oppressors in jail than for them to have us. But I dont feel that way; I dont think we can be free that way.
I dont think that conditions of the world would allow us to be free at the expense of anybody else. The Europeans were the last people to dominate the world racially. I dont think we can dominate the world racially. If youre going to come from a point of view of race, then the Chinese will win since there are more of them than anyone else. We cannot say that naturals are the best things in the world.
If we argue that way, the Chinese can say slanted eyes are the best. Since there are more of them, they would have to be right. I dont think we can come from that. Everybody has to be free. I was feeling those things and thinking about Gerald when I wrote the poem. Why did Rufus kill himself? Was it because he was black, or was it because he was a homosexual? Thats how the poem came about.
The Idea of Ancestry
: It has to do with identitybeing one with other people. That poem came when I was in prison also. I had just gone through a thing of being in the hole for days. The first two or three days in the hole, you sing songs, recite Shakespeare, masturbate, and think about the streets. After about ten days in there, you stop singing songs and start remembering your early life. You deal with those kinds of thing when you go into prison. When you first go there, they take away your namethe name given you at birth. If youre black, you dont accept that name anyway. You know somewhere names means more than that. Its the whole thing of identity. Youre not called Etheridge Knight, but 35652. When they bring your mail, they say 35652. The letter could be from your mother. If anybody knows your name, she does. But they yell 35652. Its the question of identity. To keep your sanity, you have to place yourself in the context of the world somehow. I had just been in the hole some thirty or forty days and that poem came.
I write haiku for two reasons. After I began to define myself as a poet, I understood that you should master your art form. John Coltrane mastered the tenor saxophone and two or three other instruments. In order for him to communicate well what he felt, he had to master his art form. To me writing haiku is good exercise. I dig and respect them because they create an imagepaint a pictureso precisely. They draw pictures in very clean lines. You say what you want to say symbolically. I work with haiku a lot in my attempt to handle the languagethe word. I dont see haiku as a black form, but, then, you utilize whatever modes or vehicles are available to you.
The Lyricism of Ilu the Talking Drum
I have begun to understand in the past five or six years what black artreally all artis about. And as I developed and defined myself more in the first year of my poeting, I accepted a European definition of what is good, what is bad, what is art and what is not, what is red, what is white. I accepted European definitions, and they caused a big conflict in me. I was trying to be one thing and I felt another. During the first years of my poeting, I didnt define myself as a poet, and therefore, I did not get into the responsibility and the directions.
As I developed more, I began to define myself and the responsibilities of being who I am and what I am. No matter who you are, with that come certain responsibilities. As I began to define myself, I began to thin more about itI developed, I took more interest, I did more work in trying to say what I wanted to say as exactly as possible. Imamu Baraka says that is the duty of the artist to say what is real as exactly as possible.
For instance, I used to refuse to sell my books myself. I was hung up in that European artistic thing, until I found out that Langston Hughes used to pay his way from campus to campus by selling his books. When I discovered what Hughes did, I did not have that kind of art-for-arts-sake hangup anymore, because the duty of the artist is to communicate with his people. However thats done, you do it; you work at it. Whos going to write a musical composition and play it and nobody is going to hear it? He is an irresponsible artist. I studies more and tried to develop more exactly what I wanted to say.
GenesisThe Nature & Effect of Poetry
Poetry is one of the art forms that has had very little influence, until recently, on black people. Music has, however, influenced black people. All art to me is based on love. Poetry is one art form. But in the past black people did not relate to poetry. I guess in Genesis I was protesting that artists are people who come to poetry out of love. I guess it hurts to offer love and have it rejected. Poetry is low on the totem pole as far as black people are concernedthat is, poetry that is acknowledged and generally considered legitimate. We have always had real poetry, but it was not always recognized as poetry as defined as poetry. The musician, the preacher, and the dancer are the true artists in the black community that have been respected and admired and have always been influential. But the poet is not. I think that is what I was screaming and protesting about or trying to say.
After Watching B.B. King on T.V.— An Attitude Toward the Blues
We talked about that a whole lot, trying to define what is culture or what is not. I dont want to get into a lot of definitions. To me culture generally is the way people live, how that is recorded, in what formthats the culture. The communication of the feelings and the aspirations of a peoplehow they are communicated are cultural forms, what we call fine arts.
To me, religion is an art form because religion just expresses the same thing: the feelings of the people. They deal with these feelings through myths, symbols, and rituals. Blues to me do certain things: they validate a peoples existence; they essentially tell people they are good, that their life is good; they tell them that they are bad; and they tell them that they are good people. When you study religion, you find that almost all religion traces the origin of these people back to God. If you are in Africa, God is black. If you are China, God looks Chinese. If you are in Europe, God has blue eyes.
What I am saying that all art deals with the feelings and history of the people. Music is a cultural form. People have had to exist. Art validates whatever is necessary for people to exist at that time. If there is a period in the history of the people to fight a long time, then all that art will be about war; the poems, the music, the painting, the sculpture and everything will have to do with whatever traits are needed for warstrength, marathons, relays, whatever.
If it is an agricultural people, all art will have to do with farming. There will be all kinds of dances that will have to do with economics. If people are enslaved, and if it is necessary for them to surviveto quote Booker T. Washington or somebodyWe have to take two steps while it looks like we are slipping back one in order to advance. If it is a period of accommodation to the slave master, then the art of that period will reflect that.
What I am saying is that the blues to me represents an era of accommodation. It is a music or song of protest, not that it is not valid. You have to understand that a protest art is different from a revolutionary art. A protest art tells you to accommodate; a revolutionary tells you not to accommodate but to createto build something new. In the blues we screamed about our painit was an outlet, it allowed us to live, it allowed us to survive, but it did not teach us, it did not move us to any kind of change.
When I see culture and when Sonia [Sanchez] sees culture, she, I think, is speaking of revolutionary culturea culture that is dynamic, that moves and brings about change in a culture that validates an old system. I grew up on B.B. King. I came out of the 1940sB.B. King and Bird, the whole era. I listen to B.B. and feel good.
It is like most of the sermons that I hear that allow me to get it outall the shit I got into my belly that I had to swallow, by just living. It allows me to get it out; it allows me to live. It does not move me to get up and do anything about it. It moves me to accept a kick in the ass and still make it. The music of B.B. King says that to me.
The music of Pharoh Sanders moves me to changeto stop talking the kicking in the ass, to stop it some kind of way. To me, thats where the most valid culture is right now. Culture, ultimately, to me, is not the vehicle that teaches a people to accommodate; it is a vehicle that teaches people to move for some kind of change toward their freedom. No longer do you just stand pat, but rather you take some kind of action. That is what I think is happening in that poem.
Source: Charles H. Rowell. An Interview with Etheridge Knight. Callaloo. 19.4 (Fall 1996): 94046. This interview was conducted in the poets home in Indianapolis, Indiana, between mid1975 and late 1978, after Dudley Randall issued Belly Song and Other Poems from Broadside Press.
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Etheridge Knight Poet and Prisoner—An Introduction
By Jean Anaporte-Easton
As an adolescent in Kentucky, Knight ran away from home repeatedly, and at seventeen forged his parents signature to enlist for Korea. Sometime between leaving Korea and returning to Indianapolis, Indiana, where his family had moved, he became addicted to heroin. His twenties were spent on the streets, doing and dealing drugs, pimping, and stealing until his arrest and conviction for armed robbery in 1960. Such was his rage that prison officials labeled him an incorrigible and transferred him from the Indiana State Reformatory to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. He was so angry, he told Art Powers, that he had no memory of his first few months at the prison. But then, realizing prison could destroy him, he pulled himself together, read voraciously, and committed himself to poetry.
His first poem, a tribute to Dinah Washington, was published in Hoyt Fullers Negro Digest in 1965. Poets no less prestigious than Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall visited him at Michigan City. His first book, Poems from Prison, was published by Randalls Broadside Press in 1968, while Knight was still in prison. He corresponded with Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez, poets active in the Black Arts Movement, and married Sanchez in 1969 upon his release. He left prison already a major spokesman for the Black Aesthetic, along with Amiri Baraka, Clarence Major, and Haki Madhubuti.
Outside the prison walls, success carried Knight forward faster than he was able to move without losing his balance. As he confessed in his April 5, 1970, letter to Dudley Randall, he was using heroin again by about August 1969. Knights sense of failure in this letter is so thorough and his personal losses so great that, in spite of his optimism each time he returned to a rehab center or hospital, he may have lost confidence that he really could change. Nevertheless, while he dropped in and out of jails and hospitals, honors accumulated. Roberto Giammanco, an Italian sociologist and historian, contacted Knight about assembling and editing a book to which Knight contributed a preface, poems, several essays about prison, and a selection of writings by other inmates at Michigan City. Voci Dal Caracere [Black Voices from Prison] was published in Bari, Italy, in 1969. The book was published in English in 1970, and in 1973 Broadside Press brought out Knights second book of poems, Belly Song and Other Poems. His third and fourth collections of poems, Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980) and The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986), were published, respectively, by Houghton-Mifflin and the University of Pittsburg Press.
Knight received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985 the Poetry Society of America bestowed the Shelley Memorial Award for distinguished achievement, and in 1986 he received the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in poetry for The Essential Etheridge Knight. In addition, Knight served as poet-in-residence at the University of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania; Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; and the University of Hartford in Connecticut. In November 1990, Martin University in Indianapolis gave him an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree and commissioned him its Poet Laureate. He died of lung cancer, which had metastasized to the liver, in March 1991, six weeks short of his sixtieth birthday. Disregarding intense pain, he kept saying that if only he could hang on till spring, he could live another year.
In spite of the achievements and honors Knight received for his poetry, and in spite of his own commitment to poetry as a means of social and spiritual healing for both poet and audience (Price 17275, McCullough, 22) poetry could not save Knight. The letter to Dudley Randall, included here, is only the first in a series of defeats. For the rest of his life, Knight repeated the cycle of death and resurrection, moving back and forth between periods of productive writing and drug and alcohol use. That poetry could not save him is testimony to the power of his addiction and his own immense self-doubt.
In the interview included here, the earliest Ive found, Rowell poses the crucial questions that later interviewers ask. His questions also reveal Knights points of unease regarding his views of himself as poet and his relation to black and white audiences. The interview serves as a measure of change and continuity in Knights thinking and a paradigm for the tangents Knight used in an effort to please all factions without being co-opted. It also illustrates Knights confusion about who he was and who others wanted him to be. Rowells questions fall into three categories: Knights opinions and practice regarding the politics of that aesthetic, and the relation between his poetry and his prison experience.
The responses Knight gives to Rowells questions regarding a Black Aesthetic are his own poetics as wellthe inseparable relation between art and life, the oral nature of poetry, its rhythms, its conception. Knights answers reveal the early stages of his poetics of the trinity of the poet, the poem, and the people. The circle of communication among the three elements creates a unity so that Your sense of your individual self diminishes, and your sense of your Greater-SelfI guess religionists would call it your sense of your God-selfbecomes emphasized more (McCullough 5). In his best poems and in his readings, Knight transforms this poetics into experience.
On the relation between Knights practice and the politics of the Black Aesthetic, however, Knight is on a slippery slope. In 1968, before his release from prison, he had written in the Negro Digest that the black poet must create new forms, symbols, values, and legends; that he must be accountable only to the Black people, and that he must hasten his own dissolution as an individual (in the Western sense) (Neal). Yet by the time this interview take place, Madhubuti has criticized Knights first published his second book, Belly Song and Other Poems, in which the poetic voice often stems from a lyric and personal source; and Knight has married a white woman and become a popular poet with white audiences. Rowell asks Knight to discuss the question of whether the poetic source should be communal or individual, and he gives Knight three opportunities to talk about his relation to the white audiences to whom he reads. . . .
Like many of us, when he feels in control, as when he offers Healy advice or includes him in a book, he is confident; but when he feels threatened, as in the fight with McAnally, he tightens up. In prison, whether he believed in his role or not, he was regarded as the spokesman for the African-American inmates. Prison is also where he was first recognized as a poet. He wrote a column for the prison newspaper; he wrote letters for illiterate inmates; he told toasts; and, if prodded, he showed his poems. Powers claims Knight was regarded among friends as an arrogant sonofabitch, although Powers found him to have the gentle, easy-going heart of a poet. Powers cant resist adding, nonetheless, that Knight could be mean and a petty at times, out of sorts with everyone and everything around him. (117).
Whatever the men may have thought, Knight apparently felt no pressure to win their approval. Young prisoners wrote him letters attacking his politics and he replied with more of the same, no equivocation. Regardless of the pain, prison may have been the place where Knight experienced more clearly who he was (see also McCullough, 4).
Knight told the interviewer Ron Price that his major metaphor was prison (168). Through his last reading, Knight continued to include the early poems about his prison experience and at least one prison joke. He frequently referred to prison in his conversation. Prison stood for emptiness and aloneness. Yet Knight writes in letters from the Bridgeport jail descriptions of the jail sounds at night and of a convict called Countrylegendary in the way that Hard Rock was legendarywith a poignancy that approaches romanticization.
If Knights major metaphor was prison, his metaphor for art was freedom (Price). Freedom stood for love, for reaching out, being at the center of life. Yet whenever Knight reached freedom, he let go. A previously unpublished poem, I Am a Tree, My Lovers Fly to and from Me, expresses both emptiness and fear. As in Belly Song, the individual lover faced with his beloved falls back into the state of aloneness which love could assuage. The pain of that aloneness is also an alienation from himself, and we are back at Junkys Song: A war, me against my / self / . Instead of wholeness there was the hole of solitary confinement or the emptiness of looking within triggered by physical freedom. The love of self that he speaks of to Healy and Randall is something he appears never really to have learned. Lacking that love or too vulnerable to counter the pain, Knight may not have been able to, as he exhorts Healy, write, write, write, write, letting the truths about who he was spill through the typewriter.
Knights contributions to American poetry lie in his enduring populism as he called it. His language is clear and direct, understandable to people who are not writers and critics. He improvised on blues, folk rhythms and folk narratives to explore his own experiences and contemporary lore (Tracy 910 and Hill). To the subject matter and language of American poetry, he added the prison experience and street slang. The strength of his best poems comes from the humility with which he told the truths about his life. His humility and his loving inclusion of whomever attended his readings enabled people who had never shared his experiences to recognize themselves. In his times of confidence, he knew that we all shared these truthswe all lie; we all desire and fear love; we are all incomplete, longing for the freedom of wholeness yet sometimes lacking the courage to reach.
Although Knight loops away from direct answers in great arcs, he is at the same time developing one of the main supports of his poetics: When the poet speaks from his own specific experience as honestly as possibleKnight invokes Gwendolyn Brooks for supporthe becomes most universal, most understandable, not only to those who share his background and experience, but to others. (In fact, Knight had taken this same position in prison, complaining to Powers that he could speak for all black inmates: I speak only for Etheridge Knight! . Nevertheless, Knight does avoid answering these questions directly. And it is not until a 1982 Callaloo interview that Knight finally confronts head-on, the issue of reading for white audience: Some people say, then if you see the black people as your main audience, then why do you read to white people? That really aint a very cool question (McCullough
Griswold, H. Jack, Mike Misenheimer, Art Powers, and Ed Tromanhauser, eds. An Eye for an Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Hill, Patricia Liggins. Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy: Etheridge Knights Craft in the Black Oral Tradition. Mississippi Quarterly 36 (Winter 198283): 2138.
Knight, Etheridge. I Am a Tree, My Lovers Fly to and from Me, and Junkys Song. Papers from the Estate of Etheridge Knight housed at Irwin Library, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana.
. Letters. The Etheridge Knight Papers, 19641991. The Ward M. Canaday Center for special collections, The University of Toledo Librarys manuscript collection.
McCullough, Ken. Communication and Excommunication: An Interview with Etheridge Knight. Callaloo 5.12 (FebruaryMay 1982): 210.
McKee, Louis. A Conversation with Elizabeth McKim and Etheridge Knight. Callapooya Collage 15 (August 1991).
Neal, Larry, ed. Black Writers Views on Literary Lions and Values. Negro Digest 17.3 (January 1968): 38+
Price, Ron. The Physicality of Poetry: An Interview with Etheridge Knight. New Letters 52.2/3 (WinterSpring 1986): 16776.
Tracy Steven. A MELUS Interview: Etheridge Knight. MELUS 12.2 (Summer 1985): 723.
Source: Callaloo 19.4 (Fall 1996): 94046
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The Idea of Ancestry
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7 year old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). Hes discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My fathers mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybodys birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for whereabouts unknown.
Each Fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting
the cold oceanleaping and bucking up his birthstream/I
hitchhiked my way from L.A. with 16 caps in my pocket and a
monkey on my back. and I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmothers backyard/I smelled the old
land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/
I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost
contended/I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croakers crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no sons
to float in the space between.
To Dinah Washington
I have heard your voice floating, royal and real,
Across the dusky neighborhoods,
And the eyes of old men grow bright, remembering;
Children stop their play to listen,
Rememberingthough they have never heard you before,
You are familiar to them:
Queen of the Blues, singing an eternal song.
In the scarred booths of Forty-Third street,
Long Johns suck in their bellies,
On the brass studded leather of Elite-town,
Silk-suited Bucks raise their chins
Wherever a man is without a warm woman,
Or a woman without her muscled man,
The eternal song is sung.
Some say youre sleeping,
But I say youre singing.
Portrait of Malcolm X
For Charles Baker
He has the sign
of the time shining
in his eyes the high sign
His throat moans
Moses on Sinai and cracks
His lips lay full and flowered
by the breast of Mother Africa
His forehead is red
and sacrosanct and
smooth as time and
love for you
For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide
Black Poets should livenot leap
From steel bridges, like the white boys do.
Black Poets should livenot lay
Their necks on railroad tracks, (like the white boys do.
Black Poets should seek, but not search
Too much in sweet dark caves
Or hunt for snipes down psychic trails
(Like the white boys do:
For Black Poets belong to Black People.
Are the flutes of Black LoversAre
The organs of Black SorrowsAre
The trumpets of Black Warriors.
Let all Black Poets die as trumpets,
And be buried in the dust of marching feet.
The Poetry of Black America. Copyright © 1973 by Arnold Adoff. Introduction copyright © 1973 by Gwendolyn Brooks Blakely Harper & Row New York, N.Y. 10022
posted 18 December 2005
Etheridge Knight, born in Corinth, Mississippi, perhaps will be remembered for his excellence in blending oral and poetic traditions as he tried to create works that confronted personal and social dimensions with relentless honesty. Some critics praised him on his ability to render the genre of the toast as high art. He began writing poetry in 1963 while he was incarcerated at Indiana prison. His books include Poems from Prison, Black Voices from Prison, Belly Song and Other Poems, Born of a Woman, and the Essential Etheridge Knight. Knight received NEA grants in 1972 and 1980 and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974. His work is included in such anthologies as Dices and Black Bones, Norton Anthology of American Poets, New Black Voices, and Black Poets. Etheridge died in 1991.
Source: Black Southern Voices, Edited by John Oliver Killens and Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
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Guide to the Etheridge Knight Collection
Special Collections and Rare Books, Irwin Library, Butler University
Etheridge Knight was born on April 19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi. In 1947, two years after dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Knight joined the army. He saw active duty in the Korean War, during which he received a shrapnel wound. By the time he was discharged from the army in 1957, Knight was suffering from addictions to drugs and alcohol. He turned to crime to support his habit, and in 1960 was arrested for robbery. While serving an eight-year prison term in the Indiana State Prison Knight wrote poetry. Renowned poet Gwendolyn Brooks met Knight during a prison visit and encouraged his writing. In 1968 Knight saw his first book published, Poems from Prison (Broadside Press).
Knight entered into a successful period during the early 1970s, enjoying Popularity and recognition. He led Free Peoples Poetry Workshops (including one in Indianapolis), gave numerous readings, and was a poet in residence at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. His critical acclaim included a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1972) and a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation (1974). He continued to be plagued, however, by his addictions, and periodically sought treatment from veterans’ hospitals.
The next decade saw the publication of two volumes of poetry, including The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986), which brought together pieces from his five volumes of poetry. In 1989 Knight once again led a Free Peoples Poetry Workshop in Indianapolis, which ran until his death. He worked with Butler Universitys Writers Studio in 1990, the same year that he earned a bachelors degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. On March 10, 1991, Knight died from lung cancer. The Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts was held in Indianapolis in 1992 and 1993, and in 1993 the Indiana Arts Commission posthumously awarded Knight the Governors Arts Award.
Scope and Content
This collection contains the personal and literary papers in Etheridge Knights possession upon his death. Some items date as far back as 1965, but most fall into the period from 1982 to 1991. A collection of Knights earlier literary and personal papers is housed at the Ward M. Canaday Center at the University of Toledo. The bulk of this collection is received correspondence, although there is a series of letters written by Etheridge Knight. The received correspondence has been subdivided into two categories: personal and professional. http://www.butler.edu/library/PDF/rare/knight.pdf
Contact Information: Special Collections and Rare Books / Irwin Library / Butler University / 4600 Sunset Avenue / Indianapolis, Indiana 46208-3485 USA / Phone: 317.940.9265 / Fax: 317.940.8039 / email@example.com / http://www.butler.edu/library/libinfo/rare/
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 3 January 2009