One of the great bits of luck I had as a young woman was to meet and learn from Memphis poet Etheridge Knight. He gave workshops called the Free Peoples Poetry Society. He encouraged creativity and showed us how to work from the soul.
He truly wanted everyone to find that bit of themselves that flowed into words, rhythm and strength. Here’s a description of his from the Poetry Foundation:
“Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi. He dropped out of high school while still a teenager and joined the army to serve in the Korea war. Wounded by shrapnel during the conflict, he returned to civilian life with an injury that led to drug addiction. Knight was convicted of robbery in 1960 and served eight years in the Indiana State Prison. According to Terrance Hayes, Knight’s “biography is a story of restless Americanness, African Americanness, and poetry. It has some Faulknerian family saga in it, some midcentury migration story, lots of masculine tragedy, lots of soul-of-the-artist lore.” While in prison, Knight began to write poetry, and he corresponded with, and received visits from, Black literary luminaries such as Dudley Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks. His first collection, Poems from Prison (1968) included the following text on its back cover: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” Knight’s work was immediately lauded as “another excellent example of the powerful truth of blackness in art,” wrote Shirley Lumpkin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “His work became important in Afro-American poetry and poetics and in the strain of Anglo-American poetry descended from Walt Whitman.”
“Knight was married to poet Sonia Sanchez, and both were important members of the poets and artists connected to the Black Arts Movement. His work should be read in the context of that movement’s goals to inspire collective action and develop Black cultural identities distinct from dominant white power structures. As Craig Werner observes in Obsidian: Black Literature in Review: “Technically, Knight merges musical rhythms with traditional metrical devices, reflecting the assertion of an Afro-American cultural identity within a Euro-American context. Thematically, he denies that the figures of the singer… and the warrior… are or can be separate.” Knight went on to attain recognition as a major poet, earning both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations for Belly Song and Other Poems (1973). Knights honors and awards included fellowships and prizes from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. In 1990 he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis.
“Etheridge Knight died in 1991.“
Etheridge was a great storyteller and he encouraged everyone to write. He was kind and encouraging to writers of all races, including me, a 17 year old nerdy white girl trying to find her voice in a city muddled by race and class problems. One of his beliefs was that poetry should be spoken and we went to public places to recite our poems, including bars. We did readings a club called Bill’s Twilight Lounge, often to the bewilderment of the customers who had come to drink, relax and listen to the juke box.
A person who supports my art on Patreon told me she was inspired to write poetry when Etheridge visited her school. I was so happy to find that we had both been inspired by Etheridge that I painted a portrait of him for her, based on a photograph on the cover of his book Born of A Woman.
It was such a spiritual experience working on this portrait, remembering Etheridge, his poetry group, the belief we held that finding your voice would bring you to life. I pulled out phrases from his poems to add to his portrait. He seemed at times to be a walking poem. In a difficult world, living a difficult life, his poems loved us all.
You can find out more about him and read some of his poems here at the Poetry Foundation.
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