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"The Sea in Me...
The Sea in You"*

Etheridge Knight, Community Poet 

As I read through letters, poem and essay drafts, cards, newspapers, and flyers in the archives, I discovered Etheridge Knight the Community Poet. Here was not only the prison poet or Black Arts Movement poet as he is commonly hailed, but someone who lived in the Word, who made and found communities that mapped onto his identities, who could connect with anyone through the sharing of feelings. For Knight, the personal became public and the personal public as he poeted through his deepest suffering and greatest blisses. He took a specific experience -- Black, formerly incarcerated, junkie -- and made it universal through speaking in ways people could understand and by evoking what he called "the universality of feelings." He found community by speaking his poems among the people not only on college campuses and in poetry reading audiences, but in prisons, high schools, workshops, political affinity groups, family, and friends. They recognized the intensity, joy, love, and hurt in his poetry in their hearts or their own lives, and enjoyed both his work and his company. 

Audiences found inspiration in Knight because he was confident and charismatic, he stood in his identity as a Black man, and he crafted people-centered and people-seeking poetry. Knight established the Free Peoples' Poetry Workshops where he encouraged others to write from their own experiences and to connect to others through the universality of feelings. In turn, Knight found inspiration from these interactions: he hosted readings and workshops to test his work with audiences and revised poems after speaking them, sometimes decades later. For Knight, community was the notion of being and working among the people, experiencing mutual interchange of influence, and forging connections across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, class, age, and occupation.

I hope that these pieces will offer a deeper insight into Etheridge Knight, as someone whose life and work resides in community, whose poems brought him not only artistic recognition, but also the recognition and admiration of his poetic peers, elders, and descendants. I also hope that these pieces might reinvigorate existing and inspire new communities of the poetic Word, centered around the universality of feelings.

*"The Sea in Me...The Sea in You" is drawn from Knight's poem "Belly Song," published in Belly Song and Other Poems, Broadside Press, 1973

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