The African American poet Etheridge Knight was raised Indianapolis and for the most part made his home here after an eight-year stint in prison in the 1960’s. He discovered poetry while incarcerated, publishing his first collection, Poems from Prison, a year before his 1968 release. According to Poets.org, “The book was a success, and Knight soon joined such poets as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez (to whom he was once married) in what came to be called the Black Arts Movement.
“This movement, according to the poet and critic Larry Neal, was 'radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.' Knight embraced these ideals in his own work and in 1970 edited a collection entitled Black Voices From Prison.”
His sister, Eunice Knight-Bowens, established the Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts after his death in 1991 to celebrate his life and work and to encourage people, young and old, to choose words as a way of expressing themselves and changing the world they live in.
Last weekend, the Writers’ Center co-sponsored the EK Festival’s “The House that Etheridge Built” as part of our “Be a Better Writer” craft lecture series. The program featured four African poets who never knew the poet Etheridge Knight, but were profoundly influenced by his work and his life. Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, Marcus Jackson, and John Murillo read their own work and Etheridge’s, reflecting along the way about what might be called Knight’s literary family tree.
The night before the festival, we hosted a “conversation” at the Writers’ Center and invited people who’d known Etheridge to talk with the visiting poets about their personal relationships with Knight. He was a mentor to African American poets Michael L.L. Collins and Sonny Bates. Saundra Jo Holiday only met him once, when her college creative writing class visited him in his apartment. She’d been having difficulty in the class, nobody seemed to be able to relate to her poems at all, and she was about to give up on writing. She was shy, sat down on a couch while others in the class clustered around EK. But he left them and came and sat beside her and said, “We are an aural people.”
“As if he knew I was struggling,” she said. “It changed my life.”
Kittrell Andis talked about going to a poetry reading at the Hummingbird Café in the 70’s and being blown away by Etheridge Kight who “said” his poems, who “knew how to take up the space.” Later that evening, he read a poem of his own and Knight came up to him afterward and said he should come back. He did—and developed a close relationship with Knight over the years.
I never met EK myself. I might have; he was in and out of Indianapolis a lot in the years after I started writing. He read around town, hung out at the Hummingbird Café and the Chatterbox, gave his legendary Free People Poetry Workshops. But I was put off by how people were in awe of his prison creds, thrilled by his outrageous behavior. He drank to excess, did drugs, conned people out of money. Fairly regularly, he’d show up drunk or stoned or worse at readings that people had gone to a lot of trouble to put together for him—if he showed up at all.
Why would I want to know somebody like that?
Growing up in a household with an alcoholic father had scared me away from drinking or drugs —or anything likely to make me lose control. It gave me a nasty little puritan streak that I am sorry to say still occasionally plagues me.
But over the years, I’ve come to love Etheridge Knight’s poetry, its honesty and originality, its depth of intelligence and compassion. I understand that he wrote them to save his life—and they did save his life. Listening to Friday night’s conversation, I understood something else about him. Writers—the best ones, the ones with promise—are people who don’t really fit anywhere, solitary in their pursuit of words. EK recognized them, embraced them, and made himself the community that each one needed. He was the guy at the reading who said, “Come back;” the mentor who said, “Be your own self.” the one who saw right through you. He was your friend, your literary father, your own lost dad. He was the poem slid under the prison door.
I wish I’d had the courage show up at a Free People’s Poetry Workshop when I was just beginning. Who knows how completely or subtly different my work might have been for it.