Most poets who never met Etheridge Knight consider him one of the most influential poets of our era. And one of the most beloved. Yet his legacy rides on a mere handful of poems (and a surfeit of tall tales).
I became aware that Knight had sold his papers to two academic institutions: Butler University and the University of Toledo. Legend has it that Knight scammed them by stuffing the boxes with newspaper clippings and telephone bills. While the collections are indeed filled with these and other ephemera, including parking tickets and letters appealing those parking tickets, I discovered a great many poems that were typed or neatly written and carefully preserved.
I recently visited a college class that had been reading Knight’s "The Idea of Ancestry.” They had found it on Poem Hunter and were surprised when I read the poem to discover that it has a second stanza with the poignant ending “…and I have no children / to float in the space between.”
I used that moment as an opportunity to hold up my copy of The Essential Etheridge Knight, in which an authorized version appears, and to stress the importance of books. Then I picked up my newly minted copy of The Lost Etheridge: Uncollected Poems of Etheridge Knight, with its silky black cover and satisfying weight of 13.1 ounces (compared with the 6.2-ounce Essential) and read some of the earliest poems written while Knight was in prison as well as some later poems, such as “A Watts Mother Mourns While Boiling Beans,” “Prayers of a Prisoner,” and “Things Awfully Quiet in America” to a room full of gaping mouths and shouts of “hell yeah”.
There’s a war going on in America,
And we’re killing our sons in America,
In the many, many prisons in America.
Things awfully quiet in America, yeah —
Much too quiet in America.
(from “Things Awfully Quiet in America”)
The Lost Etheridge contains over two hundred poems and three essays from out-of-print books, literary journals, and those left in typescript and notebook form. It serves as a companion to The Essential Etheridge Knight, an indispensable, albeit slim, volume of poetry published by University of Pittsburgh Press thirty-five years ago.
Chris Jansen started Kinchafoonee Creek Press from his home in Athens, Georgia, to publish his translations of Rumi, Pablo Neruda, and Juan Ramón Jiménez. He also wanted to create an outlet for works that might not be given proper treatment by another press, such as Jim Watt’s Work Toward Knowing: Beginning with Blake and Elizabeth McKim’s forthcoming memoir, Elizabetheridge, about her life with Etheridge Knight.
Woman of my wanderings —
Wife of my comings and goings —
Sister of my rap and rhyme…
…our rivers flow
together. Who knows
what the weather / will
be tomorrow, We row
for sunshine, not storm,
We row for joy not sorrow
(from “O Elizabeth”)
With the blessing of McKim (also Knight’s literary executor) and Knight’s family in Indianapolis, we decided that it would be best to go with Kinchafoonee so that we would have complete control over the production and quality of the book.
As a designer I am often frustrated by the lack of attention to the art of typesetting and overall design. For example, I wanted to use typefaces that best embody Knight’s words and have significance to the spirit of his work. The body text is set in Freight, which was designed by Joshua Darden, the first known African American typeface designer.
The cover is a nod to the albums by some of Knight’s favorite musicians, particularly those designed by Reid Miles for Blue Note Records in the fifties and sixties. It features Knight cast in blue (he is, according to Terrance Hayes, an “essential blues poet”) peering out from the virgule (slash) that Knight uses in his poems. It appears that he has just told a joke—or made a toast—and is suppressing a laugh.
i / git ass tired,
of everybody, including
me, always telling
blk / people what
blk / people got to do;
blk / people ain’t got to do
a damn / thing
stay black, and die.
“While some may see Etheridge as a trickster straight out of African American folklore or central-casting, decked out in his blue denim overalls,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa in his foreword to The Lost Etheridge, “we could also rightfully say that he was an intellectual survivalist who knew the sharp turns of urban America.”
During another class visit, a student asked me about Knight’s use of vulgar language and raw subject matter, whether it was appropriate “now that we are woke.” Neither time nor patience allowed me to unpack this, so I posited the notion of Knight as a truth-telling trickster, someone who won’t fit neatly into any category of our tribal milieu. His poems are, as Frank Allen notes in his essay, “A Grin and a Grace of Whirling,” “the throaty, uncomfortable, wrinkly, idiomatic, irregularly vigorous kind of poetry” in contrast to “the structured, upper-middle class, intense, deeply informed, with bright, high gloss” kind.
This sun is hot, this hoe is heavy,
This grass grows farther than I can reach;
And as I look at this cotton field —
I think I musta been called to preach!
(“This Sun Is Hot”)
Knight is a true “spoken word” poet in the sense that poetry does not exist in books but in the people. Knight says, “A poem ain’t a poem until it’s heard by somebody.” He often spoke of what he called the “trinity: the poet, the poem, and the people.” If you take away one of these elements, Knight explains, then you have art-for-art’s-sake. This is what happens with much of today’s poetry manufactured and assembled in colleges and universities.
Lord, they locked / me in their jail, baby,
And then they threw away the key;
Said they locked / me up in their jails, mama,
They even tried to hush my song;
The white / boys laughed at me, mama,
And some brothers laughed right / along;
But when the sun rises and the laughter’s gone —
Don’t you know I’ll still be going strong.
(from “Still Going Strong Blues”)
Many poets are in search of what they think is their voice, I explained to the students, while Knight searches for the nature of experience. “Who today, among poets, is as exuberant and honest, as gentle and fierce, as Etheridge Knight,” Allen asks. Even if this means having deep fault lines. “[Knight] would have been the first among us to stand up and say, ‘I’m not perfect,’” Yusef Komunyakaa writes in the foreword to The Lost Etheridge. “And at that moment the mask would have shifted slightly askance.”
The great jazz pianist Bill Evans once remarked that there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. In jazz, these imperfections are often seen as opportunities; they are the result of risk-taking. Miles Davis was known for his flubbed and cracked notes, which have become a part of his aesthetic. Because flaws in jazz sustain the value of improvisation, it is the resolutions of these imperfections that we should be paying attention to.
We reject these poems because of the space taken
that they do not speak of the promised horse of healing.
We reject these bone dark words
because they are joyless in shape
and silent of a rising wind.
Poetry should be easier, forgiven like,
not drug from innards,
too much of old men in dying light,
those moon sorrowed people
living in sexless rooms.
Put this darkness back into your pen.
Don’t mail this scorpion again.
Submit something of a turn lifting,
the beginning of the sun about all frozen,
written fully in a day of light.
It is a cliché to compare any poet to Walt Whitman, especially the contradiction and containing multitudes bit, but “Etheridge wanted to appear in contradiction,” Komunyakaa informs us, “not wrestling with but embracing a duality: unlettered and wise, rural and urban, good and bad, or tough and sweet, cool and uncool.”
I see no single thread that binds me one to all; even the common dead each took the single fall.
No universal laws
or human misery
create a common cause
or common history
that ease my private pains
or break my private chains.
(“I See No Single Thread”)
The American poet William Stafford once remarked that Etheridge Knight “dives into experience and comes back—to our benefit—with a poem.” It is indeed to our benefit that Knight comes back. Is brought back. Recovered.