Poems from the Inside
Etheridge Knight: Beyond this green field, men assault the trees, the earth, building a prison.
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, poems from the inside. For the past few weeks, prisoners in many correctional institutions around the country have been on strike. They’re protesting against slave labor, basically working for pennies on the dollar. Some are refusing to go to work, others are not shopping in prison commissaries, others are reportedly on hunger strike. Most of us don’t think much about what life is like for the millions of men and women in American prisons. Occasionally though, there’s a prison strike or we hear a voice from the insider, from prisoners who become writes and poets. The most influential of our prison poets is probably Etheridge Knight who was championed by none other than Gwendolyn Brooks.
Gwendolyn Brooks: Etheridge Knight is perceptive. His vision is merciless. He spares himself nothing, he spares you nothing.
Curtis Fox: Brooks introduced Etheridge Knight at a reading at the Library of Congress in 1986, about five years before he died. We’re going to hear a few of the poems he read on that occasion, and a we’re also going to hear from Tony Rehagen. Tony’s a freelance writer who recently wrote a piece for our website about Etheridge Knight. It’s called “No Square Poet’s Job”. He joins me from his home outside of St Louis. Hi Tony.
Tony Rehagen: How are you?
Curtis Fox: I’m good. A lot of people may have heard the name Etheridge Knight but they don’t necessarily know his story. Give us a little thumbnail about who he was and how he ended up in prison.
Tony Rehagen: He followed his father around to a couple places, but he ended up in Indianapolis. There, he fell into street life, became addicted to opioids and drugs, allegedly through his military career. He was kind of in and out of trouble as a youth and that kind of followed him into adulthood where he got pinched for an armed robbery and ended up in Indiana street prison.
Curtis Fox: I think it’s probably safe to say that he wouldn’t have become a poet if he hadn’t gone to prison. Is that reasonable?
Tony Rehagen: I asked several of his contemporaries and several people who have done the research. They seemed to think that the poet was there, but it wouldn’t have manifested itself in the same way. This is something he dealt with later in his career, that lightning focus that comes from having nothing but time and confinement to be alone with your thoughts and focus that toward your art form. It’s a complicated question, but a lot of people say that the soul of the poet was there. When he was coming up, he was out in the streets hanging around pool halls and what not and really picked up the oral tradition, the African American tradition of toasting. A lot of people I talked to thought he already was a poet, but it manifested in it’s formal form, as formal as he got anyway, while he was behind bars.
Curtis Fox: So following the publication of some of his poems in the magazine Negro Digest, I guess this was 1965, 1966, he started getting a lot of attention from the African American literary world, including Gwendolyn Brooks as I mentioned. He just sort of exploded on the scene in the mid 60s. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Tony Rehagen: Yeah, he did and from all accounts that I found he solicited that. He wrote a little bit for prison publications, but then he started sending his work out. He believed in it. Fortunately, Gwendolyn Brooks took him under wing and really fostered and cultivated his raw talent. It was the right thing at the right time because so much was going on in the black arts movement and the Civil Rights movement. That perspective from being in jail and being able to articulate it so viscerally and so powerfully really rang true. It was the right thing at the right time.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear a bit of what got them interested in Etheridge Knight. This poem is called “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane”.
Hard Rock / was / “known not to take no shit
From nobody,” and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.
The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn’t a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.
As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: “Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole.” “Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?” “He set
The record for time in the Hole—67 straight days!”
“Ol Hard Rock! man, that’s one crazy nigger.”
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.
The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn’t lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
From before shook him down and barked in his face.
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.
And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.
Curtis Fox: So that was Etheridge Knight reading “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane”. Tony, at the end of that poem he says “The fears of years, like a biting whip, / Had cut deep bloody grooves / Across our backs.” I think I know what he’s referring there to, but I want to get your take on that ending.
Tony Rehagen: I think it’s a pretty clear allusion to slavery and the effects it’s had a hundred years later, and the effects it’s still having. I think it’s a pretty clear allusion to that and the weight that it’s at the basis of all of this, of mass incarceration, of the things he talks about. Again, in that typical Knight was of being able to provide it so viscerally and so brutally. Making no buts about it, that that’s what we’re talking about here.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, the prison strikers I mentioned at the top of the program are making the same claim, that basically modern prisons are institutions of slavery. Many critics of mass incarceration are saying the same thing. It’s not clear what happened to Hard Rock, but a lobotomy is rumoured. What do you make of what happened to Hard Rock?
Tony Rehagen: The “bored a hole in his head” points pretty much to a lobotomy, but I think it’s that metaphorical lobotomy, this trying not only to sweep the undesirables under the rug by putting them in prison, and it’s not rehabilitation in the positive sense that people would like to have you mean it, but it’s trying to homogenize them or at least make them “safe” for society.
Curtis Fox: It’s about control, right. Lobotomies they don’t do anymore, but in more recent times solitary confinement has been deployed as a similar way to control prisoners with pretty devastating effects as well.
Tony Rehagen: Absolutely, it’s been deemed inhumane by a lot of states. There’s also an interesting thing I noticed in the second stanza where he talks about Indians, that second to last line of the second stanza.
Etheridge Knight: And we all waited and watched, like Indians at a corral,
To see if the WORD was true.
Tony Rehagen: He later changed that line, because now the poem reads “And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,” That points to the idea that he didn’t see things black and white, even though he was lumped into the black arts movement, some of his contemporaries said he was more of a class guy, he was more about socioeconomic status. That included inviting people of all ethnicities. The changing of that line shows how he became sensitive to that. He got rid of the Indians and put in a herd of sheep.
Curtis Fox: Interesting, that must have happened right at the end of his life before he died. Etheridge Knight had emotional and tonal range. I don’t know if you know this one, but I want to play a darkly comic poem for you called “Rehabilitation and Treatment in the Prisons of America”.
Etheridge Knight: The convict strolled into the prison administration building to get assistance and counselling for his personal problems. Just inside the main door were several other doors proclaiming: Doctor, Lawyer, Teacher, Counsellor, Therapist, etc. He chose the proper door, and was confronted with two more doors: Custody and Treatment. He chose Treatment, went in, and was confronted with two more doors: First Offender and Previous Offender. Again he chose the proper door and was confronted with two more doors: Adult and Juvenile. He was an adult, so he walked through that door and ran smack into two more doors: Democrat and Republican. He was a Democrat, so he rushed through that door and ran smack into two more doors: Black and White. He was Black, so he rushed—ran—through that door—and fell nine stories to the street.
Curtis Fox: Tony, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that ending, that is something else. It’s got the dark humour of Kafka, but it’s got something folksy or fairytale like about it. Is that typical of his work?
Tony Rehagen: It is. It’s typical of his life story too. That was the challenging thing of telling his life story, was that one of his friends had told me you’re going to get the legend of Etheridge Knight. He kind of fostered that. It’s all rooted in that oral history, the tradition of the toast where you embellish, you take things that are based in fact and you push things and embellish it and exaggerate it, partially for entertainment but also the practice of doing it, creating that legend. It’s rooted in both his work and his actual life outside of it. That’s what makes it so complicated because when you’re trying to build a biography of somebody, you want to be able to rely on their work, but especially with Etheridge Knight you can’t rely on his work to be autobiographical. He’s going to try to bob and weave and get out from under you.
Curtis Fox: You point this out in your piece, his story is really hard to pin down. Even the fact that he says he served in Korea during the Korean war, but there’s no real evidence that he did. There’s no evidence that he didn’t either, right?
Tony Rehagen: Right, there was the fire that burned through his records. There were records of his enlistment, he was definitely a veteran, he was definitely in the military. But as far as actual documented proof that he served in the Korean conflict, there’s nothing there. A biographer and then one of his friends told me that they heard from pretty reputable sources that he’d never done that and he kind of just ran with that story. It’s in his author’s note.
Curtis Fox: He partly ran with it to explain his opium habit right? He came out of the war traumatized and really took up heroin and other drugs.
Tony Rehagen: It’s being able to go the the counter, it’s the tie to the veteran’s hospital which is where he’d be able to get some of the opiums and some of the medications, the morphine and things. It’s all kind of tied up in that, at least according to some of his contemporaries.
Curtis Fox: Etheridge Knight has been very important and very influential to many poets. Can you talk about that? His influence today, and all the people who continue to cite him as important influences?
Tony Rehagen: Absolutely. And the influence is really wide ranging. Of course he was an influence on Reginald Dwayne Betts and Randal Horton, both of whom had served time in jail and became very prominent and accomplished poets, but also other poets like John Murillo, Christopher Gilbert and Terrance Hayes who of course is a major figure now, is putting out a book To Float in the Space Between which is built completely around one of Etheridge’s marquee poems, the foundation of Poems from Prison, his first book which is “The Idea of Ancestry”.
Curtis Fox: We’re going to hear that in a minute, go ahead.
Tony Rehagen: Yeah, the entire book To Float in the Space Between is basically taking that poem, “Idea of Ancestry” line by line and sketching essays to each line. Some of them are biographical about Etheridge Knight, although Hayes — I talked to him for the story — had mentioned the same thing I did. You set out to write a book about Etheridge Knight, the biography is impossible because there’s just a maze of facts and myth that you have to cypher out. He wrote this and I got a great chance to read the advance copy of this great book which takes every line of “The Idea of Ancestry” and sketches it out. Terrance Hayes has cited both in his work directly that he was influenced by Knight and his realness, the rhythm of his poetry as well.
Curtis Fox: Let’s go out on that poem actually. It’s fairly long and it may be his greatest poem, it’s certainly his most famous. Even though it’s on the long side for this podcast, it really does work as an audio poem. As you said, it’s called “The Idea of Ancestry”. It started in his prison cell when he has decorated the wall with family pictures.
Etheridge Knight: I started making up this poem when I was in solitary one time. After being called for a number for 5 years, 300562, I was beginning to forget who I was.
The Idea of Ancestry
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.
Curtis Fox: That was Etheridge Knight reading “The Idea of Ancestry”. Tony, thanks so much.
Tony Rehagen: Thanks for having me.
Curtis Fox: Tony Rehagen wrote a piece for us about Etheridge Knight called “No Square Poets Job”. You can read it and some poems by Knight on our website. Send us your comments and suggestions. Email us at email@example.com. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.
During the current nationwide prison strike, we look back at Etheridge Knight's influential poems he wrote while incarcerated.