NEW PITTSBURG HIGH COURIER, DECEMBER 20, 1986
Poet Etheridge Knight Discusses Life of Writing
By WALTER RAY WATSON JR.
Courier Entertainment Writer
Image description: Black and white photo of Knight, wearing a flat top cap, glasses, and dark blazer speaks at a reading.
Image caption: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS LIBERATOR–Poet Etheridge Knight recently read at the University of Pittsburgh at first annual commemoration of “International Human Rights Day.” Knight’s first published book in five years, “The Essential Etheridge Knight,” will be out later this month from the University of Pittsburgh Press. (SAIHOU NJIE Photo)
Fifty-five-year-old poet Etheridge Knight credits poetry with playing a major part in saving his life. The Corinth, Miss., native acknowledged in a recent interview that his life had little direction before he discovered creative expression through writing.
Knight was here last week as a guest poet at the University of Pittsburgh in the first observance by the English department and other groups of “International Human Rights Day.” Knight also was present for the announcement of a newly published collection of his best and latest work by the University of Pittsburgh Press entitled “The Essential Etheridge Knight.”
During the Korean conflict of the mid-1950’s, Knight served as an Army-trained medical technician. “I wasn’t used to seein all that blood and dying,” he noted, recalling that he was in Korea at age 17. “I got hooked on morphine, I got hooked on drugs.”
Knight left the Army and found he couldn’t shake his drug habit. As a result, Knight was often found stealing to pay for his addiction and subsequently was arrested for his continued use and related offenses. By early 1960, Knight was convicted of armed robbery in Indiana, and sentenced to 10-20 years in the Indiana State Penitentiary. During his stay, which lasted six years and eight months with parole in Nov., 1968, Knight came to poetry through an appreciation for oral “toasts” and tales, such as the “Signifying Monkey” and “Shine on the Titanic.”
“I come out of that tradition of black folk poetry. My mentor was a wino. It was later on that I defined myself as a poet,” he said. “Once I defined myself as a poet, it required a discipline. I was already into reading other poets, but I started to get into the theory behind poems as I began studying the other poets.”
He noted that such poets as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were among the first he read. Yet he felt that by reading black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and Langston Hughes, as well as the so-called “beat-generation” poets such as Allen Ginsberg taught him something more immediate about poetry than what had “reached” him intellectually.
Around 1962, Knight began submitting his poetry to literary magazines. For the first few years, Knight received letters of rejection from editors who, when they were generous, told Knight point blank that he was “too abstract” or “too prosy.”
“Man, you gotta imagine: I’m already in the penitentiary, where I’m already rejected by society. I come home from work, and find I got more reject letters in the mail.”
Knight said that as disheartening as the experience was to not be accepted by the editors of various publications, he found a friend in poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who also offered that he used too many words. “She was helpful, because she turned me on to haiku. Years later, I asked her why she taught haiku and she said, ‘You were too wordy.’”
“I understood that there was a power in words, a power in language,” he said, noting that his early misconception of writing, in general, and poetry, specifically, was that the bigger the word, the more powerful a piece of writing would become.
Once Knight was able to recognize that his writing delivered concepts rather than pictures, he was able to draft better poems that eventually found acceptance among editors.
By the mid-1960’s, Knight was the recipient of his first letter of acceptance from then-Negro Digest editor Hoyt Fuller. The poem was a reflection of the late singer Dinah Washington, whom Knight has learned was dead.
“Dinah Washington was called ‘Queen of the Blues,’” Knight said, “and I could understand why: I mean, she was married seven times, man. She knew what the blues were all about,” he laughed. “I went through the penitentiary showing the letter to everybody,” Knight said.
Knight has been quoted as saying, “Prison is my major metaphor.” When asked to explain, Knight said that the aloneness of any poet or artist is something which is topical and part of the creative condition. “Beyond the metaphor,” he added, “is the reality of my life in America, the reality of being a black male in this country is a prison of a sort because of the existence of institutionalized racism.”
He offered that life for black American males is excessively stressful due to racism. “People say, ‘it’s the diet that’s wrong, they eat too much salt…it’s this or that or it’s inherited.’ That’s b.s. In the South, poor whites eat the same diet, as Blacks do. Brothers in Africa don’t have high blood pressure. Nobody talks about the political or sociological factors–all of this stress in being a black man in this country….” He noted that his father and a brother have died of high blood pressure-related illnesses and that another brother is currently hospitalized for a condition of diabetes.
Knight admits that poetry has had therapeutic effects upon him, though he finds his work to largely consist of a psychological freeing or liberation. “It is not only a way of breaking out of one’s aloneness, or prison. But also a liberating force while being a black male in this country. All art is freedom-seeking: poetry is no different,” he said.
Knight, who recently celebrated his 18th year out of Indiana State Penitentiary, offered that “If it were not for poetry, I would probably be back in prison or a junkie or dead.” He believes that his consciousness as an artist, his continuous self-examination rewarding.
He said that poetry since the ‘beat generation’ has become more “alive.” “When you are hearing poetry read aloud, you are involved with a different process than when it’s on the page. When it’s on the page and you see it there, you can choose to ignore it. When it’s read to you, it can’t be ignored. It touches you.”