Apr. 19, 2012

Here I Am

by Michael Ryan

on a subway station bench
next to two teens, one pretty, one not:
the pretty one keeps saying how much
she'll miss the unpretty one, kissing her cheeks,
while the unpretty one looks down at her lap
saying no you won't no you won't until the train comes
and on goes the pretty one still smiling,
twirling her red plastic clutch, singing goodbye
I'll call you, and the unpretty one just sits here
like a stone, even after the train is gone,
even after I write this down.

"Here I Am" by Michael Ryan, from This Morning. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Etheridge Knight (books by this author), born in Corinth, Mississippi (1931). His father moved to Paducah, Kentucky, to work construction on the Kentucky Dam, and soon his mother followed with her seven children. Knight dropped out of school when he was 16 and joined the Army. He was sent to the Korean War, where he worked as a medic, suffered a shrapnel wound, and became addicted to morphine. He was discharged from the military, and his drug addiction worsened over the years. He lived hand-to-mouth in Indianapolis, where he met a man who went by the name of "Hound Mouth." Hound Mouth liked to sit in the park and tell stories in meter and rhyme. Knight said: "He never wrote anything, but he would sit in the park and tell toasts. They were really narrative poems, although we called them toasts. For example, he would tell us about the flood of 1937. The fire burning down a dance hall in Tupelo, Mississippi — he would tell us about that. The sinking of the Titanic, the signifying monkey, the pool-shooting monkey — he'd tell them all for hours. He had them all in his head." Knight brought Hound Mouth wine and listened to his toasts, which were often in rhyming couplets. Soon he found himself doing the same thing, composing and reciting these long poems. But he never wrote anything down.

All this time, Knight was committing small crimes to pay for his drug addiction, and one day he stole an old woman's purse. He was arrested and sentenced to serve between 10 and 25 years in the Indiana State Prison. He became the prison storyteller. Every day after dinner, the other inmates would ask for stories, and he would recite whatever came to mind. He said: "Guys in the joint were my first primary audience. If you can play a guitar or paint or say poems, you have an audience. And you get affirmed. I got a lot of support."

He finally had enough confidence to send some poems to the Negro Digest, and the editor there passed them on to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who came to visit Knight in prison, as did poet and editor Dudley Randall. Brooks helped him work through his poems, line by line, and Randall published his first book of poetry, Poems from Prison (1968). He was released on parole that same year, and he went on to publish several more books, including A Poem for Brother Man (1972), Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), and The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986).

He said: "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."

It was on this day in 1927 that actress Mae West was sentenced to 10 days in prison for her starring role in the play Sex, which she also wrote and directed. It was her first Broadway show. Sex got terrible reviews but attracted huge audiences. It had been running for 41 weeks when the police showed up and arrested the cast and crew — although only West was sent to jail. She was charged with "producing an immoral show and maintaining a public nuisance." She said: "I wrote the story myself. It's about a girl who lost her reputation and never missed it."

In jail, West was forced to turn over her silk stockings, but allowed to keep her silk underwear. She got her own private cell, and she charmed the warden and his wife so much that they invited her to eat dinner with them in their home each night. She befriended the other inmates while she made beds and dusted. In her down time, she read business articles comparing various Hollywood studios. She was released two days early for good behavior.

The following year, she wrote and starred in the play Diamond Lil (1928) on Broadway, and it was a big success. She went to Hollywood, got a part in Night After Night (1932), and was allowed to rewrite her scenes. In her first scene, a hatcheck girl says to her "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" and West says, "Goodness has nothing to do with it, dearie." It was a hit, and the next year she co-starred with Cary Grant in I'm No Angel (1933). By 1935, she was said to be the second highest paid person in the United States, after William Randolph Hearst.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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