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To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight

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“Hayes leaves resonance cleaving the air.” —NPR

In these works based on his Bagley Wright lectures on the poet Etheridge Knight, Terrance Hayes offers not quite a biography but a compilation “as speculative, motley, and adrift as Knight himself.” Personal yet investigative, poetic yet scholarly, this multi-genre collection of writings and drawings enacts one poet’s search for another and in doing so constellates a powerful vision of black literature and art in America.

The future Etheridge Knight biographer will simultaneously write an autobiography. Fathers who go missing and fathers who are distant will become the bones of the stories.
There will be a fable about a giant who grew too tall to be kissed by his father. My father must have kissed me when I was boy. I can’t really say. . . . By the time I was eleven or even ten years old I was as tall as him. I was six inches taller than him by the time I was fifteen. My biography about Knight would be about intimacy, heartache.

Terrance Hayes is the author of How to Be Drawn, which received a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry; Lighthead, which won the 2010 National Book Award for poetry; and three other award-winning poetry collections. He is the poetry editor at the New York Times Magazine and also teaches at the Universityy of Pittsburgh. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin will also be forthcoming in 2018.

ISBN-13: 9781940696614

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Wave Books

Publication Date: 09-04-2018

Pages: 224

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Age Range: 16 Years

Series: Bagley Wright Lecture Series

Terrance Hayes is the author of How to Be Drawn, which received a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry, Lighthead, which won the 2010 National Book Award for poetry, and three other award-winning poetry collections. His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship. He is the poetry editor at the New York Times Magazine and also teaches at the Universityof Pittsburgh. American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin will also be forthcoming in 2018.

Read an Excerpt

What Were the Critical Decisions That Defined the Trajectory of This Life?
When I began collecting interviews and stories about Etheridge Knight more than a decade ago, I said, mostly to the few people I cornered for interviews, that I'd never write a biography because it would take more than a decade to do it. This is not a biography. But perhaps it will encourage a future Knight biographer. Consider this a collection of essays as speculative, motley, and adrift as Knight himself. His various personas grace the book covers that are at any given moment resting beside my bed or on my desk. The bespectacled Knight in a prison cell on the back of 1968's Poems from Prison; the nappy bohemian Knight on the cover of 1973's Belly Song and Other Poems; the Mississippi Knight in cap and overalls on the cover 1980's Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems; and the sober intellectual Knight on the cover of 1986's The Essential Etheridge Knight. Because he has been on my mind for virtually all my writing life, he has appeared from time to time among my poems: influencing perspective (as in "Poet Dying at the Window," from my first book), influencing voice (as in "The Blue Etheridge" from my third book), influencing form (as in "Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report," from my fifth book). Each time I've returned to my work on Knight between publications of my own poetry books, only the impossibility of a biography has remained consistent. He remains both a muse and mystery.

When Were the Critical Decisions That Defined the Trajectory of This Life Made?
At some point in my years wandering/wondering in and between the lines of "The Idea of Ancestry," I began to think of myself as a real-life Charles Kinbote, the deranged scholar in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962). Except where Kinbote is literally a mad professor unraveling a 999-line poem by his neighbor-poet, the murdered John Shade, I'm me: a poet, a brother, a southerner unraveling "The Idea of Ancestry," a poem by Etheridge Knight. The distinction between a scholar on the trail of a poet and a poet on the trail of a poet is an important one. The scholar looks upon his subject as if through a window. The scholar aims to frame the poet's work according to things like genre, talent, culture, history. A clear pane of logic, interpretation, and appreciation separates him from his subject. Conversely, a poet looking upon the poetry of another poet sees something of himself reflected in the pane. Process, imitation, and competition are reflected in the work. A poet looks upon the work of another poet not only through a window but also through a mirror. (Please forgive my generalizations.) What's odd about Charles Kinbote is (1) he believes the window is a mirror—he sees only himself when he looks into it; and (2) he means to lift the window and climb, as a Peeping Tom (or Goldilocks) would, into the lines of his subject. He sees himself everywhere in the poem. Any interpretation of the poem is hogtied to the interpreter. The great, distorting power of Kinbote's imagination gives Nabokov's novel its tension and trajectory. Lampooning the practice of "close reading," Pale Fire shows how
"expertise" slides down a slippery slope into delusion. Delusion, depending on how you look at it, is a form of the imagination. Can imagination be a form of critical study? For more than a decade I have been imagining my way into the slants and shades of Etheridge Knight.

What Was the Contribution of Neighbors?
In 2005, I interviewed Knight's sister, Eunice Knight-Bowens, during my visit to Indianapolis to read in her 14th Annual Etheridge Knight Festival. The reading took place in a suburban mall in Indianapolis. Eunice had inaugurated the festival in 1992, a year after her brother's death from cancer. The roster included local poets who knew Knight, local high school students who might be the next Etheridge Knight, and poets like me who were drawn by Knight's ghost: Sonia Sanchez, his ex-wife, Amiri Baraka, his peer, groups of brother poets like John Murillo and Reginald Dwayne Betts. After a twenty-year run the festival ended in 2012, a year before Eunice passed away. What was the contribution of neighbors? The festival was made of, by, and for the neighbors of Indianapolis. Etheridge's Indianapolis, Eunice's Indianapolis. When Eunice looked into the window of her brother's poetry she saw her own stories reflected. Did she know from the get-go that her brother was a great, rare kind of poet? I can't say. I know she was happy that I came asking for stories. She put me up in a hotel Knight used to frequent. She said all the black writers met there to talk art and literature, but I was imagining all the booze, tobacco, and jive. The hotel room smelled of the cabbage she brought me and the cigarettes we smoked. I pushed the button on a small tape recorder. "I want people just to tell their stories about Knight, and everything is to come out of those stories," I told Eunice. She didn't miss a beat: "A lot of his poems, like 'The Idea of Ancestry,' were written while he was in prison, in 'the belly of the beast' as he called it," she said almost automatically. I now know she'd told the story behind the poem many times. So had her brother. "He memorized it, he said, to save his sanity. The aunts were true, the cousins. It's just a true poem." Some of what she said contradicted what I'd read about Knight's incarceration, some of what she said complicated what I'd read about his life. Knight may well be chief contributor to the lopsided details surrounding his life before imprisonment. Around whatever was his essential, inexplicable self were several identities: southerner, black, son, male, convict, poet. Around those identities were also several biographical holes, gaps and mysteries. He was the third of five children and third son of Etheridge Sr. and Belzora Cozart-Knight. I did not ask Eunice why he, and not one of his older brothers, Charles and Floydell, was named after his father. Regrettably, I did not interview any of his other living siblings. His mother and father were dead by then, his brother Charles and sister Lois were dead by then. I sat in one chair and Eunice sat in the other.She wore a blue headscarf and a skin the shade of her brother's skin. She and her brother, she said, came from a long line of storytellers. "My mother said that when they were little, before they went out to do their chores and before they went to school every morning, her oldest brother, my uncle Cid, played the organ and they had to sing. And so my mother could sing "do re mi" without music, and so every morning before they went out to do their chores and before they went to school, they had to sing music as an art." A sharp biographer will definitely need to find all of Knight's surviving relatives, his lovers and ex-lovers, his students, his son, Isaac BuShie Blackburn-Knight. I interviewed Mary Karr, who was one of Knight's students. I've interviewed his editor, Ed Ochester. I've interviewed and gossiped with or made plans to interview and gossip with maybe half a dozen other friends of Knight over the years. I've come nowhere close to gathering enough "facts" for a biography. I have not examined Knight's prison or war records; I have not interviewed inmates or staff at the jails and prisons; I have not interviewed the students of the Free People's Workshop. What was the contribution of neighbors? I have not interviewed his teammates on the army football team in Korea, the soldiers within earshot of his jive and tirades, the nurses who nursed him in rehab, the junkies or pushers who knew him. I have not interviewed Knight's lovers: Sonia Sanchez, Mary McAnally, Evelyn Brown, Elizabeth McKim, Charlene Blackburn. Knight's future biographer will have a lengthy chapter on romance. If we are lucky, someday some future biographer will land in Indianapolis and rent a small car and buy a map on his way to the Indiana State Prison or the factory where Knight worked as a punch-press operator during the five months of his parole or to 555 Massachusetts Avenue where Knight died in 1991 of lung cancer. If the future biographer's book is made into a movie, one hopes tropes of the blues and bluesman don't simplify Knight's life. It's an unreasonable hope, maybe. A life has to be simplified if it is to have shape, arc, trajectory: a biography needs a plot. Knight's story doesn't require much, I suppose. A couple of visits to Corinth, Mississippi, where he was born. To Paducah, Kentucky. I once thought a life was simply the accumulation of ideas, but now I think it may simply be the accumulation of details. Somewhere between detail and idea is the truth. Knight was often blowing smoke, as they say. And to write a biography one would need to gather all that smoke into something solid, something you could hold and turn over in your hands. "The Idea of Ancestry" almost suggests the idea of a biography is better than an actual biography.

What Role Was Played by More Distant Influences?
Influence is never distant. Or influence is always distant. This text is about influence. Biographies mean to spell out influence—an impossible task. I felt I had two choices: a rigorously researched biography or a rigorously imagined biography. I imagine the black poet Etheridge Knight was influenced by the black Langston Hughes, for example. But, hell, I can imagine Hughes was a distant influence on every black poet for the last fifty or so years. In the late eighties right about the time I was a sophomore writing a research paper on Hughes, scholar Arnold Rampersad was publishing his encyclopedic, two-volume, nearly 1,000-page long biography on Hughes. Despite reams of source material, treks across the United States, Russia, France, and Italy, and pages of clear-eyed scholarship, Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I, 1902–1941: I, Too, Sing America and The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 1941–1967: I Dream a World are altogether dull. Rampersad casts Hughes as a classy, very normal, Duke Ellington of poetry: no demons, no skeletons, no hang-ups. My Hughes research paper had about as much insight as an encyclopedia entry. I wrote it, made, I think an A, and moved on to your typical high school fantasies of sexual and athletic conquests. Nothing I read or wrote made me think I, the bastard, undereducated son of the South could be a poet. A black poet was respectable, prolific, light-skinned. Years later, after I'd discovered Knight and the boundless galaxy of poetry, I learned there was much unsaid about Hughes. As Darryl Pinckney wrote in his 1989 New York Review of Books piece, Rampersad said too little "about Hughes's small hours and who, if anyone, was with him when he closed his door against the world." By the time I learned there was more than meets the eye to Hughes, I was already chasing Knight—my mirror poet. I was certainly more Kinbote than Rampersad in my pursuit. I sidestepped research for guesswork; I was reading between the lines of photographs, interviews, letters, maps, scraps of details. Online I found the Callaloo special 1996 issue section featuring Knight's poems, letters, and an interview editor Charles Rowell conducted with Knight in Indianapolis between mid-1975 and late 1978. Jean Anaporte-Easton's essay, "Etheridge Knight: Poet and Prisoner—an Introduction" provides thorough and thoughtful preamble. I heard she was working on a book, but that book has not yet materialized. The most comprehensive Knight study to date is Michael S. Collins's Understanding Etheridge Knight, published by the Universityof South Carolina Press in 2012. One of Knight's friends and former students, Collins offers a straightforward examination of Knight's life and poems. Who can define "distant influence"?

What Was the Role of Chance?
The NUCLEOLUS is an essential, inexplicable, unadulterated self: the lover personality, the trickster personality, the intuitive personality, the multiple true names in a cell. The NUCLEUS is a sphere of identity (southerner, black, son, male, convict, poet) around the nucleolus. Identity drifts over the mind and body in a cell. LOVES resemble lightning rods, asymmetrical tracks, slanted crosses, bone-tired bones, prostrate limbs. As in the old footpath of a first love; the barely discernible trail of a crush. It is easier to love without speaking. Orpheus dragged long silences around with him. When I traveled to the smallest part of my body, I found CYTOPLASMIC SPACE. I am often a STRANGER to myself. It is in the restless wrestling to make a song out of despair that the HOPE begins to wheel and vibrate. FAMILY is a vast system of interconnected members, enfolded and convoluted sacks of nurture and/or trouble located in the selves' cytoplasm. Some family smoothly transports nostalgia, hope, esteem, love, and other positive materials through the cell. Some family is a hive, a rough patch, an outbreak that gives the appearance of several chips on a shrugging shoulder. A flattened, layered, sac-like stack of FEARS hovers near the heart of things. FUCKUPS move fear to other regions. Regarding love and addiction: it's not that the highs last, it's that one wants them to end so nostalgia can root itself in the future. Memory is more enduring than event. The influence of TEACHERS, the influence of FRIENDS who become teachers, as in relationships that convert the energy found in ignorance to the energy found in acquaintance, benevolence, fellowship. I'm still mulling the dimensions of a "cell." Biology is chance. Biography is chance.

At What Point Was the Final Fate Initially Specified?
Fate is still waiting to be specified.

When Was [Fate] Ultimately Sealed?
Fate is still waiting to be sealed. I'm thinking of meanings in a word like "cell." The cells adrift in a self adrift in a cell; the self between the cells that make us and the cells we make; the space around the nucleus of sensibility; the membrane around "The Idea of Ancestry." Taped to the wall of Knight's cell were the pictures of serenity, kinship, fellowship. I imagine the black faces of friends and teachers taped to the wall of his cell: a black face beneath a black hand raised like a visor over a squint; I'm imagining a black face adrift above a housedress, black faces gathered beneath an astronomical sky, black faces around a card table, a black face framed by a barn door. A lucky future biographer will need to speak to whoever is still alive among those 47 black faces, and if lucky, retrieve each of the 47 pictures taped to the wall of the cell.

Table of Contents

CONTENTS

"The Idea of Ancestry" (Poem by Etheridge Knight)

Taped to the wall of my cell (Foreword)

across the space (The Poetics of Origin)

I am all of them (Knight’s Vest of Selves)

I am a thief (Poem: "Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report" by Terrance Hayes)

I have at one time or another been in love (Drawing)

I am now in love (The Craft of Love)

I have the same name (The Poetics of Liquid)

an empty space (Prose/Drawing)

whereabouts unknown (Prose)

the graves (Drawing: For Langston Hughes)

messages (The Poetics of Political Poems)

I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men (Prose)

I flirted with the women (Prose)

split/my guts (Drawing)

I had almost caught up with me (Prose)

damming my stream (Poem: "The Blue Etheridge" by Terrance Hayes)

my genes (Prose)

across the space (The Poetics of Community)

I am me (Prose)

Selected Bibliography

Acknowledgments