Bill Knott Week Begins Today
Bill Knott, born in 1940, is a vital and idiosyncratic force in American poetry. His first book of poems, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, was published in 1968 under the fictitious persona of Saint Geraud, a poet who had supposedly committed suicide two years earlier. His subsequent books have appeared under the imprint of presses large, medium, and small, from FSG to Random House to the University of Iowa Press to Salt Mound Press. Many of his books and chapbooks, especially in the last twenty years, have been self-published, or, more recently, made available for free electronic download at Lulu.com, a situation Knott half-balefully and half-gleefully describes as “vanity publishing” in interviews and on the blogspot blogs he carefully maintains.
I first became acquainted with Knott’s work during a 25-city book tour in 2009, in support of my first book. My tourmate was a graduate of the creative writing program at Emerson College, and, consequently, in city after city, I met poets who had been educated at Emerson, and for whom Knott was a formative figure. I heard many stories about his fierceness and agility as a teacher, and, just as often, of his extraordinary gift as a poet. During those weeks I sought out his poetry in bookstores and used bookstores throughout the country, and, later, took it with me during research trips to rural Haiti, where it was a goad and a strange comfort during travel that was sometimes physically and emotionally difficult.
Two poems I committed to memory during those days:
poor children sharing
back and forth their one
set of Dracula’s teeth—
here even the dead
live hand to mouth
(POEM) (CHICAGO) (1967)
If you remember this poem after reading it
Please go to Lincoln Park the corner of Dickens Street and sit
On the bench there where M. and I kissed one night for
a few minutes
It was wonderful even if you forget
Both poems exemplify the strange conflations at the heart of Knott’s best work. There is a sense that these small things — the children passing the Dracula teeth, that kiss in Lincoln Park — matter and matter. But there is also a humorously serious undercutting of both serious matters — and the humor, as it undercuts, also paradoxically bolsters what it undercuts. In the second poem, especially, there is a characteristically self-abasing Knott position, which is to foreground the notion that you might not care, that you might not think any of this matters.
In the poem itself, Knott affirms: “It was wonderful even if you forget.” On his blogs, which are increasingly cranky, he more frequently calls into question whether anyone cares about his poetry, whether the business of poetry in the United States is really about art at all, whether his work will outlast him, whether any of it matters at all.
But he must think it matters, or else he must have a compulsion toward art-making that defies good sense, because in late career he continues to produce at what seems to this observer to be an astonishing clip, and it’s not just poems. It’s also paintings and assemblages and electronic curating of his own work and handmade and hand-stapled one-of-a-kind editions of his poems, which he says he will send for free to anyone who asks. (His schtick is that no one asks and therefore no one cares. He can’t even give his work away!)
Throughout this week, we’ll be spotlighting Knott’s poetry, his visual art, and his work as a teacher and a poet whose work is widely esteemed, starting later this afternoon with a Q&A with poet and essayist Kathleen Rooney. If you would like to contribute a memory or anecdote of Knott, a close reading of one of his paintings or poems, or any other sort of Knott-related thing, please send me an email at kyle (at) kyleminor.com.
Meantime, here are a few links to all things Knott on the Internet: