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Etheridge Knight feels like he has died twice–once in the Korean War and once in prison. but 18 years after he was brought back to life the second time, Knight is praised as the best contemporary Afro-American poet.
The first time his poetry was published in 1968, Knight was an inmate in Indiana State Prison. His work was praised by black writers and critics as an excellent example of “Blackness” in art.
“I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me,” Knight said.
In 1960, Knight was given a 10-25 year indeterminate sentence for a robbery committed in Indianapolis Indiana, to support his habit. In November of 1968 he was granted parole. It was in prison that Knight found poetry.
“I died in 1960 from a prison sentence,” he said, “and poetry brought me back to life.”
Born in 1939 in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, with 4 sisters and 2 brothers. He frequented the streets, bars and poolrooms, quitting school after the 8th grade and running away. It was from the men in these places that he learned various toasts and other repartee. Toasts are long narrative poems, usually in rhyming couplets, memorized and told by black men to each other in certain social gatherings.
Knight became a master toast reciter while in prison. It was then that he began to apply his understanding of toasts to written poetry. According to Knight, toasts were used to pass the time while in prison.
“It's a form of social intercourse," he said, “the same way that guys rap now."
By 1963, Knight had begun writing and submitting poetry for publication. According to the poet, he sent out poems for three or four years and all were rejected. During this time, Knight made connections with black poets, writers and publishers. One in particular, was Gwendolyn Brooks, who visited Indiana state prison for a reading, read some of Knight's work and began writing him with advice.
“She was the first one who got me
Toast teller turned to poet
Knight writes on prison life
By COLLEEN COWETTE
Knight became poet in spite of time in prison
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when I read her poems,” Knight said.
Knight's first two books, Poems for Prison and Black Voices from Prison deal with prison life and the emergence of the black power ethic. Most of Knight’s poems are biographical – some even containing his name.
“Ideas are not the source of poetry,” he said. “It's feelings. Sometimes the source of a poem may be an idea. For me it's passion and feeling. Then the intellect comes into play. It starts in the belly and then into the head.”
“The way I see it in any creative writing, the first address is to the poet,'' he said. “When you write letters to someone you talk in you head. Then you address other selves with the same historical experience. You use a language, especially in poetry, that is evocative, has nuances and inflection.”
Most, if not all, of Knight’s poetry is aimed at black males, for which he has been criticized.
“I don't see it (poetry) being as narrow as it was in the 60’s,'' he said. “My poetry is also important to white people because it invokes feelings. The feelings are common whether or not the situations that create the feelings are common. I might feel fear in a small town in Iowa. You might be afraid if you got off the subway in Harlem. It's the same fear but the situations are different.”
“My poems are open to everybody. I don't think it will address the general audience as clearly though. The language and my impulse is black males about love.”
“If you're trying to address everyone out there, you have to use a catch-all phrase. You can't do that with poetry. You're trying to be specific.”
According to Knight, universality can be a trap.
“It's a position that's pushed by a certain group who has an interest in things staying the way they are,'' he said. “The only universality I see is the universality of feelings.”
For Knight, his poetry is not complete until it is read aloud to an audience. “Poems are made up to be said aloud,'' Knight said. “A poet is primarily a sayer, a singer, a chanter. The written word is an extension of the spoken word. Punctuation itself connotes an oral.”
“I don't know if I’d define myself as a poet. I already had an audience before prison. I was already a toast teller. Prison kills creativity. I'm a poet in spite of prison.”
For now, Knight lives in Boston writing down the feelings he longs to tell the world.
Image: Etheridge Knight for Equinox taken by Donald C. Himsel
Image description: Knight holds a book of poetry open on his palm as he stands at a podium, reciting at a poetry reading
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