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Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

The Space Between Everything

March 12, 2015 | by

The elliptical life of Etheridge Knight.


Etheridge Knight

This piece is part of a lecture for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, a nonprofit that provides poets with the opportunity to explore in-depth their own thinking on the subject of poetics. Terrance Hayes will deliver his lecture, Three Acts of Love: As You Leave Me, Upon Your Leaving, and Feeling Fucked Up,’ ” tomorrow at five P.M. at NYU.

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grandfathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st and 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. —Etheridge Knight, “The Idea of Ancestry

Who was Etheridge Knight, and why should he be of interest to me, or more important, to you? Knight himself thought it was enough simply to say, on the back of his 1968 debut collection, Poems from Prison, “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.” If you’ve read anything about him, you’ve likely encountered these lines. Just behind their resurrectional vibe are several unwritten chapters in the biography of a talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic.

Knight died in 1991. He was born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, a town founded only about around eighty years before his birth. Thus the “ancestors” of his most anthologized poem, “The Idea of Ancestry,” only go back not to Africa but to his grandparents. The Cozarts on his mother’s side of the family counted themselves among the town’s founders; they were landowners, cotton farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and storytellers. His father, on the other hand, was a laborer from Ramer, Tennessee, a smaller-than-small town twenty minutes from Corinth. According to Eunice, Knight’s younger sister, their mother, Belzora Cozart, didn’t know a thing about being poor until she married Etheridge Bushie Knight, and then moved with their children nearly two hundred miles north to Paducah, Kentucky, when he took a job working on the Kentucky Dam. Knight was just a boy at the time, but as he writes in “The Idea of Ancestry,” “the brown hills and red gullies of Mississippi” were already calling him back with “their electric messages, galvanizing [his] genes.” Read More »


The King and I

February 3, 2015 | by

Auctioning off the Elvis memorabilia at Graceland Too.


Photo: Eileen Townsend

The Absolute Auction of Graceland Too was over in one fell swoop. This past Saturday morning, about a hundred warmly dressed bidders, journalists, and rubberneckers had assembled on East Gholson Avenue in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The auctioneer informed us that the sale was over not even a minute after it began. Everything available—some six hundred items of variously worthwhile Elvis memorabilia—had sold to an unnamed online buyer for the sum of $54,500.

The crowd was visibly distressed at the news. There were groans, shouts of false advertising. The auctioneer, Greg Kinard, an immaculately dressed man of considerable stature, apologized and explained: this was the way it had to be. This was how Paul MacLeod would have wanted it. Kinard thanked everyone for coming out, assured us that there had been no false advertising, and reminded us to pick up one of the pink or blue T-shirts for sale: GRACELAND TOO FOREVER!

Stripped of its lurid speculative detail and Southern Gothic charm, the story of Graceland Too and its ill-fated proprietor, Paul MacLeod, is a sad and simple one. MacLeod was seventy-one when he died suddenly this past July, a victim of undiagnosed and untreated paranoid obsession. He’d spent the last years of his life poor and without family, in a rotting house without running water. His neighbors, for the most part, disliked him, and though he had multiple visitors nearly every night, he died alone and friendless. Read More »


Insure Yourself with Faulkner

September 25, 2014 | by


From December 1921 until October 1924, William Faulkner enjoyed a famously disastrous tenure as the University of Mississippi’s postmaster. He’d arrive late, leave early, play bridge, and work on his fiction—all while losing mail or simply throwing it away. (“I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp,” he wrote in his brief, pungent resignation letter.)

During these years Faulkner wrote regularly for The Mississippian, the school newspaper. Of his contributions, the strangest and most apocryphal is the mock-advertisement above, for the Bluebird Insurance Co., which offered to indemnify students “against professors and other failures.” It goes on to discuss feet, heartbreak, and hollow logs, none of them very coherently.

Faulkner, minus the u, is listed as one of the company’s three presidents, and apparently it’s never been clear whether he helped write the ad or was named without consent. Whatever the case, in the weeks and months to follow, more ads for Bluebird appeared in The Mississippian and the Ole Miss annual. One of them took a (self-deprecating?) jab at Faulkner’s job performance: “It is a gross injustice to say that President Falkner has permanently retired in the Post Office. He merely takes temporary naps—during business hours.”

Carvel Collins tells the story more completely in the introduction to his William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (1961): Read More »


Fake Locales with Real Visitors, and Other News

March 21, 2014 | by

timberline lodge

The Timberline Lodge, in Mount Hood, Oregon—more often taken for the Overlook Hotel, which it portrayed in 1980’s The Shining. Photo:



Town of Marvels

June 27, 2013 | by

Image via

Image via

The boy and the girl were engaged, driving to California, where the girl wanted to make costumes for the movies. The boy planned to study Native American archaeology; he was just out of the Navy. They were the sort of young people I felt accurate calling beautiful—good-looking, around twenty years old, in love. But it was more than that. The fact is, it’s sustaining, getting older, to meet young adults who are hopeful and naïve, just enough.

They had a car, a dog, a vision. But they didn’t have a book. Leaving New England, they’d heard about a certain book on NPR, and the girl thought it sounded just right. The boy said they’d find a copy on the road somewhere. They drove for days, heading south from New Hampshire: Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee. No book. The girl pressed. The boy promised. Bookstores don’t exactly dot the American highway in the grand manner of Sbarros. Finally, driving through Mississippi, seeing a sign for Oxford, the boy suggested they stop, stretch their legs, find the damn book. Oxford was a university town, there had to be a bookstore somewhere.

They parked in the tiny main square. A bookstore stood on the corner under a sign for Fortune’s Famous Ice Cream. The girl walked the dog, the boy went inside. He asked, Do you have this book?

We do, the clerk said. And there it was, right next to the register, a stack of them. The clerk said, Do you want a signed copy?

I guess so, the boy said.

Wait, but you do know the author was here tonight, right? He just did a reading, the clerk said after a moment. It was about seven P.M., the verge of dusk. The boy was confused. Suddenly, the clerk was pointing out the window, saying, Wait, that’s him going by right there.

No one really knows the value of book tours. Whether or not they’re good ideas, or if they improve book sales. I happen to think the author is the last person you’d want to talk to about a book; they hate it by that point, they’ve already moved on to a new lover. Besides, the author never knows what the book is about anyway. Read More »


The Southern Underbelly: Remembering Lewis Nordan

August 8, 2012 | by

The other night, in order to feel close to my friend Lewis “Buddy” Nordan, who recently died, I started rereading his novel Wolf Whistle, a story inspired by the murder of Emmett Till in 1954. (Buddy grew up in the Mississippi Delta near the place of the murder. He knew the murderers. He became friends with Emmett Till’s mother.)

After reading the opening chapter, I took my dog outside under the moonlight. I felt wrapped in Buddy’s language. The night was cool. The half-moon was bright enough to throw shadows. When my dog disappeared in the shadow of a cedar tree, I started sketching in my mind a few paragraphs of fiction about a boy and his dog. Minutes later, back inside, I had five paragraphs on paper, a novel opening, something I’d been seeking for months. I read it over. There in my sentences, besides the dog and the bright half-moon and shadows, I found an improbable gathering of nouns: frogs, the Battle of Fort Fisher, a flood plane, Bela Fleck, the planet Venus, and a set of plans for a freelance funeral militia. I had opened up to something. Both my opening up and the something were gifts made possible in large part by Buddy’s odd vision—a vision that allowed him to juxtapose thunderbolts and whispers, a vision on display here in his opening to chapter nine of Wolf Whistle, occurring after the murder at the center of the book:

From the eye that Solon’s bullet had knocked from its socket and that hung now upon the child’s moon-dark cheek in the insistent rain, the dead boy saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music, as living boys, still sleeping, in their safe beds, might hear singing from unexpected throats one morning when they wake up, the wind in a willow shade, bream bedding in the shallows of a lake …

The chapter continues from the perspective of the murdered boy’s eye.

Read More »