From To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight, which was published in September by Wave Books. Hayes’s most recent collection of poetry, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, was published this year by Penguin Books. Knight (1931–1991) was a poet who composed his first collection, Poems from Prison, over the course of eight years in Indiana State Prison.
One day Mary Karr sort of appeared along my path like a brush fire. She’s incendiary, combustible, she’s a walking flame. She’ll light up the whole house or she’ll burn that motherfucker down. Recently, when I told her I described her that way to people, she paused and said, “I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a complaint.” I meant it the way she heard it. She is a passionate Texas woman—a bullshitter, a busybody, and shrewd businesswoman. She is around the age of my mother. She shares my mother’s angular intensity and self-consciousness. I met her when I gave a reading at her university one February years ago. Later, as we walked with her students to dinner, she told me what she thought of my performance. Some of my “experiments” made her shake her head. I’d read “Hide,” a two-column poem that could be read three different ways. “The poems are not for you, they’re for your readers,” she said. “Forget that navel gazing, ain’t-I-clever shit people like John Ashbery write,” she said, her high-heeled boots wounding the sidewalk. Her graduate students nodded in agreement. When I said, “I like some of Ashbery’s stuff,” she snapped: “Quote some lines of your favorite poem!” I couldn’t. Earlier in the day, when I’d begun gushing over the great, strange “Dream Song 14” by the great, strange John Berryman, she launched instantly and easily into a recitation of the poem: “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so,” and so on. She recited the poem with the zeal of someone determined to incinerate boredom. Later she would tell me stories of her ex-boyfriend, a writer: she was on her back as he straddled and tried to strangle her on the side of the highway. Some totally nuts shit. But that’s not what this is about. Before we entered the restaurant, I decided to ask what I believed would clarify our differences of opinion about poetry. “Do you think language is mostly like an animal or a machine?” I asked her. “It’s a machine,” she said, without even having to think about it. “A thing finely wrought in language.” We were walking to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Syracuse that night. Cranes leaned beside the buildings under construction and buildings soon to be demolished. Did she believe there was such a thing as a perfect poem? She said, “Definitely.” Her graduate students nodded in agreement. “Yes, my father had a sixth-grade education. I write poems he can read. I write them slowly, labor over them, because hell, if you’re not playing with the big dogs, the ones who have written the perfect works, why play at all?” I happen to believe language is a beast. Language is a little bit Sphinx, a woman’s head on a winged lion’s body and a little bit Chimera, a fire-breathing lion’s head on a goat’s body with a serpent’s tail. Dragons were embroidered on the black velvet curtains of the restaurant. All through dinner I tried to make my case. “In the beginning was the Word,” we are told in the Gospel of John. We are also told the word was made flesh, not that the word was made machine. No one owns language. No one owns the word “blue.” No word can be coaxed or hammered into perfect meaning. Mary tolerated me. The automobile, the pacemaker, those are fine machines. They are improved each year because the dream of perfection is a feasible one. Striving for an orderly language gives us law, blueprints, measurements. We should obviously aim to express ourselves in refined laws and sentences. But a machine does not run if it’s incomplete. Its perfection is closely related to its completeness. That might be true for math, but it ain’t true for language. Even if Mary agreed language is more organism than mechanism, she would have disagreed for the hell of it. In subtle as well as explicit ways she had been flirting with me. I decided it was a test. We decided to become friends. The next morning she sat with me and my tape recorder at the Syracuse airport. There was snow on the tarmac. I told her I wanted to interview her about Etheridge Knight. She said yes immediately. She was an amazing storyteller. When we talked of the years she was Knight’s student in Minneapolis, she told me about the time she babysat for him and Mary McAnally. The house was full of poets: Denise Levertov, Quincy Troupe, James Wright. She made chili for the children, a boy they named Etheridge Bambata and a girl they named Mary Tandiwie. While she stood in the kitchen that night, a famous, handsome white poet showed her his penis. As thick and freckled as a trout, if you can imagine, she said with her eyes cocked. She asked me to keep his name a secret. It’s not here in the story she told me about her adventures with Etheridge Knight:
“I guess I was twenty. It was 1975, I was living with the prettiest man you ever saw. He wound up married to the Clinique girl making like a zillion dollars to fucking model. And I went to a poetry reading. I’d read Etheridge. He’d had a poem, I think ‘Hard Rock,’ in the Norton Anthology. Either ‘Hard Rock’ or ‘The Idea of Ancestry.’ And I went to hear him read and I was just knocked out. I mean you have to understand things that just weren’t as common then. I had been brought up in this small Texas town, I hung out around a lot of redneck storytellers. My father was a great barroom storyteller. He liked to gamble and I realized, early on, the advantage of telling stories as a way to keep people from kicking your ass. Especially if you took their money. And to meet some brothers in college, but you just gotta understand how segregated things were. Until I got to college it was almost not possible to have friends of different colors. My mother marched with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. My father was the only guy I knew who had a black friend. The only white guy I knew with a black friend, and he’d known him since he was a kid. But I remember in 1971 reading Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird. I’d read The New Yorker at the library. I’d read poems mostly because I wanted to be a poet and it was all James Merrill and Bishop and stories by John Cheever and then reading Caged Bird. I remember saying to my mother, I didn’t know you could write about this. And then when I saw Etheridge get up and profess. He’d just moved there with Mary McAnally and they’d adopted these two kids, a little boy and a girl, and Mary was this white woman from Oklahoma, very Southern. I went to see him read and it was the same feeling I had with Maya Angelou. I didn’t know you—he also did ‘Shine,’ which was something I had heard orally. An oral tradition and an oral art was a lot of what he talked about as a teacher. His teaching was one of those deals where you’d pay Etheridge and you’d go meet at his house once a week. It was him, and Robert Bly came maybe a quarter of the time. And Audre came. You gotta imagine twelve or fifteen people in this house in Minneapolis and it’s thirty below outside and you’re slow-dancing with Audre Lorde. He called it the Free People’s Poetry Workshop. This is 1975. I think this was the earliest incarnation of it. In 1974, ’75, there was something called the National Poetry Festival—it happened in Michigan. . . . It was like every poet in America. Ferlinghetti was there. Bill Knott was there. I think I’d gone to hear Bill Knott. The second workshop, Bly came. Bly was translating Rilke then. Who I didn’t like. I didn’t understand it. It didn’t have enough things in it. It didn’t have enough of the world in it. It took me a long time; Haas had to teach me how to read that. Bly was talking about the Soul and the nature of the poet and the Soul. Stuff that actually now I kind of believe, but I remember saying to him—everybody was very reverent, and in the first workshop I kind of didn’t say anything—I was the youngest one, I was twenty. David Wojahn was in this workshop. Bly was talking about the Soul and at the end of it I said, Bullshit, I don’t even think I have a fuckin’ soul. At which point Etheridge busted out laughing and he was like, ‘Oh, Texas, you been sitting there with your mouth shut but it’s all coming out now!’ I felt very freed by him suddenly to write—I was writing so badly. He taught me about Gwendolyn Brooks. He showed me how to read Keats. He had this enormous knowledge of poetry from being in the joint. He loved Yeats. He quoted a lot of Yeats. He spent a lot of time professing and testifying. We would read everybody’s poems, drink wine. I remember him being very generous with everybody. . . . You can’t be a junkie that long and not know how to scam and know how to bob and weave and know how to duck your head and aww shucks and drag your toe and say, I’m so sorry. He had that blight of somebody who’s been in the joint, who feels bad about himself. He had a great love of poetry as this grand Oz-like place, but he was kind of committed to go to poetry with his hat in his hand. In some ways he was a con about it. In some ways he knew it was a con. I mean you never saw him do a poem a different way. He knew which way it worked. He had a rap. He was really a politician. He was about bringing people together. He liked everybody to come over to the house and drink wine and stay up late. I remember my mother, who was then a fifty-five-year-old white woman, coming to visit me, and we went to a party and I’m looking for her and I walked outside and she’s on the back porch smoking a joint with Etheridge. He’s sitting there spread-legged and she stands up with a reefer in her hand and says, I like Etheridge.”