by Debra Kang Dean
Spalding MFA Faculty, Poetry
In the winter of 1988, during my second quarter in the MFA program at the University of Montana, some of my classmates had organized a conference on campus called “The Life of the Poet: Developing a Social Conscience,” which featured Carolyn Forché, C.K. Williams, and Etheridge Knight. I was immediately drawn to Etheridge. Perhaps it was, to borrow a label from Richard Hugo, the case of one Snopes recognizing another. Hugo himself was a Snopes—as he put it, one who “feels [oneself to be] a wrong thing in a right world” and who thus, in the act of writing, struggles to see the self and the world anew.
Through an odd set of circumstances, Etheridge gave his reading in the Court House in downtown Missoula. He did not pass up the opportunity to comment on the poetic justice of an ex-con reading there. After Greg Pape’s brief introduction that included statements Etheridge used to describe his life—“I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and drugs resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life”—Etheridge got up, made sure we could all hear him, joking that he had been “a champion hog-caller down home,” so he didn’t need a microphone, then formally opened with “Willow, Weep for Me.”
His singing voice—loud, slightly off-key at times, but always unmistakably rising from the belly—reflected all of the qualities one hears and appreciates in the voice through which his poems speak. When he finished the song, the audience clapped and clapped and clapped. Clapping, it is said, is a symbolic act through which an audience embraces a performer, and in response, Etheridge lifted his right hand, clutched in a loose fist, and moved it toward and away from his heart. Poet and people, two of the three parts of the poetic trinity Etheridge spoke of, had connected; a common space had been created where poems, the third part of his poetic trinity, could be given and received.
Apart from the gift of his own poems and numerous jokes both bawdy and political—lies, he called them—that night Etheridge reminded us through word and deed that poetry has a communal dimension, that it has its roots in an oral tradition. He introduced us to a new vocabulary to reinforce these ideas: poems were things he made up, and so they were things to be said, not read; the language he spoke was American, not English.
He described preachers, politicians, poets—and professors—as talkers, as the users and abusers of language, and said that the poet also worked with memory and imagination. Without apology, he said that his prison poems, most of which were made out of memories, reflected emotional lows borne of a limited vision that was both literal and figurative, and he implied that the imagination was a force that helped him enlarge his vision and lift his spirits. For poets, the principal obligation, he went on, was to give voice to passions the world aroused in them—that is, to record faithfully reality as they experienced it, and thereby to affirm the value of all lives. Etymologically, “passion” can be traced back to a word that means “to suffer, endure,” and it is useful to remember that both hate and love hurt. As Plato does in the Gorgias, a dialogue in which Socrates argues that it is better to suffer than to do evil, Etheridge was also making distinctions between rhetoric and philosophy, between what is pleasurable and what is good.
Reading poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, Carl Sandburg, and others, Etheridge also introduced and invited us into his poetry community. By the force of his example, he reminded us that we each had to locate ourselves in relation to poets both living and dead in ways that would allow us to be true to our own experiences as well as to the kind of art we aspired to create. To hear him read was oddly both a kind of ear training and a return to a place I knew. This was especially true when he read “Ilu, the Talking Drum,” a poem in which the rhythm of drumming makes audible the rhythm of the heart, which finds the words to hear and see how the speaker, an African American, is intimately joined with Nigerians, from whom, up to that point, he had held himself apart. “The deadness was threatening us,” the speaker says, as they sat “on the wide green lawn of the big white house”; and in the Court House, there was Etheridge’s resonant voice saying a poem that used the simple conjunction “and” as a thread of connection across the measured beats and pauses of the poem’s generative rhythms.
In themselves, his poems and wise sayings would have been more than enough. But for me, and, I assume, for others who participated in the conference that year, there was still more. When I arrived at the home of Jim and Lois Welch after the reading, I found him in a small den, I think the room was, already surrounded by a handful of students. One by one he had been inviting them to say one of their own poems, and he waved me in to join them. After I recited one of my poems, I mentioned that it had been accepted for publication, and without missing a beat Etheridge said, “You know, that’s not the most important thing”; almost as soon as my words were out, I had wanted to take them back, as perhaps he did.
I don’t remember much of what went on between that moment and my leaving as the reception wound down, but it happened that I did so just ahead of Etheridge. Outside the house, he stopped me and asked, “Are you poeting yet?” It was a question I had gone to the University of Montana to find an answer to, but up to that point, being in the MFA program had only heightened my anxieties about whether I belonged there. I was in my early thirties and had moved with my son to Montana while my late husband had remained in Connecticut to finish his Ph.D. program.
I hesitated, and I’m certain Etheridge could see I was distressed by his question. And perhaps he remembered that at a talk he had delivered titled “The Black Voice,” I had asked him whether or not he felt alienated sometimes; he, too, had hesitated then sighed, “Yeah.” I was the only student of color in the graduate program, and not until I had traveled to California to visit my brother and felt my whole body begin to relax, did I realize how that anxiety was being written deep into my person.
I looked at his face, as if I might find an answer there then answered, “I don’t know.” I’d been watching him during the conference, and though he moved with grace, I caught glimpses of the pressures and difficulties, the conflicting forces of the life and of the work, and I was afraid. I think he knew and respected that. But in his way, he also wanted me to know, I think, that despite the feelings of loneliness and alienation that accompany the continual struggle to affirm one’s own life, and through it the life of one’s people—a word I use in its broadest sense—he thought poeting was a way of life worth living.
The last thing he said to me that evening was, “When you decide to start poeting, send me a postcard.” And then the next evening, before Carolyn Forché’s reading, he came over to me and again said, “Send me a postcard.” Unfortunately, I never did. He died of lung cancer a few years later.
Even though I knew back then that I would not be the kind of poet he was, I did know I was seeing not only where life and art sometimes collided, but also where they intersected, and I was registering something essential about the poet’s twin tasks of seeing and making. I also knew that the encounter between us was, to borrow a saying from Zen, about the moon, not the finger pointing. The person whose finger was doing the pointing, imperfect as I am imperfect, would remain for me, ultimately, an admonishing and an affirming voice reminding me to keep the poet, the poem, and the people all in play in my work as a poet.
Last week I read, among other things, two articles: “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” which discusses how one can be changed by writing—not by the writing, but by the process of revising one’s story until it rings true—and “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered,” which draws a direct line between alienation and addiction, and discusses the salve connection with others can be. While in prison, Etheridge was encouraged by Dudley Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others, to keep writing, and they helped to bring his work to readers. By some small miracle, he had found his way to an art he had a gift for—although before he arrived on the page and began learning its conventions, he had spent years in practice training his ear, first in toasting and later in telling tales; and then he had been found by people who had embraced his work.
I am now the same age he was when he died in 1991. How strange it is to be affiliated with a university in Kentucky, the state he was raised in, and to be living in Indiana, the state he lived in before, during, and after his incarceration. (He was born in Mississippi, the state where, as an Air Force recruit, I had spent time in Tech School.) Although I am very glad to have as a kind of place holder an inscribed copy of The Essential Etheridge Knight, rather than ending this remembrance with the text of one of his poems, I think it more fitting to include a link to a recording of Etheridge reading a poem I love to hear, for a sound that is so familiar to me.
In “Belly Song,” Etheridge takes for its rhythm the not-absolutely-predictable movement of the sea rather than an abstracted pattern, and makes it an enactment of the ebb and flow of emotions that give rise to the words. Drawing on nature for its measure, the poem also embodies the struggle to attain a vision beyond the self as given and the world as it is, a vision the process of revision refracts. When we are lucky, this process goes beyond the work of the hand to engage the whole self in a quest for the exacting words that will sound within the widest and deepest channels of expression and be a vital force for connection with the Other inside an other.