Lynn poet opens up about ‘a great love’ with the late Etheridge Knight

Elizabeth McKim extended her hand, gratefully accepting the assistance of a well-wisher as she stepped to the stage recently at the Walnut Street Cafe in Lynn.

This 85-year-old poet and teacher was dressed in a flowing shirt, scarf and wide pants, her white hair gathered in a loose bun. In her other hand, she carried a small drum.

“See what good care they take of me?” she said to the audience.

“We’ve got to take care of the Jazz Poet of Lynn,’’ a fellow poet responded. “She’s a local treasure.”

That moniker, the “Jazz Poet of Lynn,” was bequeathed to McKim by North Shore writers because of her improvisational and musical style. She’s also known as “Ms. Liz” by thousands of Massachusetts school children. Since the 1970s, she’s brought her satchels of magic markers, sea stones and marbles to schools, encouraging young people to think and write creatively. And for decades, she served on the faculty at Lesley University.

But to me, she’s simply known as Mom. I’m the only child of this creative, single mother who brought me up in the Boston area, where poetry readings and drum circles were often in place of traditional babysitters.

I admit, I was sometimes embarrassed by this unique parent who knew more about writers Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda than she did about PTO meetings or baking cookies.

But I’ve also always been incredibly proud. And I’m especially proud now that I’m learning more about a part of her life previously unknown to most of her students.

‘Elizabetheridge’

My mother has just completed a memoir called “Elizabetheridge” about her longtime relationship with the anthologized Black Arts poet Etheridge Knight, who died in 1991. The title comes from a name they liked to call themselves as a couple.

Etheridge Knight and Elizabeth McKim

Etheridge Knight and Elizabeth McKim


R. Lee Post


R. Lee Post

Knight found his voice in prison in the 1960s and has long been beloved particularly by the Black community for his brilliant verse and lived experience. After his release on parole in 1968, he won an American Book Award and read his poetry around the country, including in Cambridge and Worcester.

Knight’s legacy has seen a resurgence over the last several years, boosted by writers who personally knew him or admired his poetry. My mother and Knight spent about 10 years together, on and off, as a couple.

“He was a great love,’’ she told me recently in an interview in her downtown artist’s loft in Lynn. “I wanted to have the good times, but I just couldn’t handle the bad times.”

“I wanted to have the good times, but I just couldn’t handle the bad times.”

Elizabeth McKim

I knew Knight in my younger years and didn’t always understand their complicated relationship. Decades later, it’s illuminating to learn about the joys they shared and the struggles they went through in a different light.

Etheridge Knight and Jenifer McKim in late 1980s.

Etheridge Knight and Jenifer McKim during a visit to Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the late 1980s.


Elizabeth McKim

Knight suffered from drug addiction, even after he was released from prison. He openly wrote about these struggles. On the back of one of his first books, “Poems from Prison,” he is quoted as saying, “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.”

My mother and Knight were an incongruous pair navigating their way through the American 1980s. He was a Black man from the South who dropped out of school as a teenager. She was a white woman from Connecticut who attended Vassar College before divorcing my father and seeking a new life as a poet.

United through the love of poetry and community, they lived together in Massachusetts after I went to college — until, as my mother shares, Knight’s drug addiction drove her away. She returned to him when he was diagnosed with cancer, and the two shared an Indianapolis apartment during the last years of his life. He died in her embrace.

“He waited until he could flop back into my arms, and I could put my arms around him and have my hand on his heart, and I heard him just go out,’’ she said. “When you experience that with a person, it’s very deep. It’s life changing.”

Remembering Etheridge Knight

My mother suffers from weak knees and failing hearing. But last June, she received an invitation to speak in Indianapolis at the unveiling of a mural in Knight’s honor. So, after being whisked through Boston Logan International Airport in a wheelchair, she arrived in Indy for a three-day visit fully engaged, telling stories and reminiscing about her life with Knight.

She visited his grave stone. She toured his archives at Butler University, where she discovered multiple poems he’d written to her, including “Blues for a lady in Boston.” And she met his great niece, Hanako Gavia, who serves as the official family liaison.

Gavia says Knight was the “fun uncle” and a “mischievous trickster” in their large family. She said the fact that Knight had flaws makes his story even more powerful.

“We so easily get bogged down by that thought that you have to be perfect to make a difference,’’ she said. “Having somebody that embraces that imperfection is really important.”

The mural celebration was held outside the Chatterbox Jazz Club, where Knight was known to host workshops.

African American woman in a yellow dress talking to white man in front of a large mural of Etheridge Knight, including Knight's face and a picture of a bird.

Hanako Gavia, in a yellow dress, talks to poet Norm Minnick at the unveiling of the Etheridge Knight mural on June 30, 2023 in Indianapolis.


Jenifer McKim

At the event, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett declared June 30 to be Etheridge Knight Day.

“Etheridge Knight is not simply one of the great Indianapolis authors,” the mayor said to the crowd sitting in the hot sun. “But a great American literary figure at the vanguard of the Black Arts Movement and a man whose life can serve as an inspiration for all of us.”

Mat Davis, a writer and artist, was among the crowd that summer day. He grew up reading Knight’s work.

“He lived a lot of the issues and things that he talked about,’’ Davis said. “He also wrote about them, humanized them, whether it’s mass incarceration, reentry, criminal justice — you name it — Black liberation.”

Davis is writing a one-man play about Knight and hosts a podcast series called “Finding Etheridge” on WFYI public radio’s “Cultural Manifesto” program. He interviewed my mother for the podcast while she was in town.

“She is a writer unto herself who has taken and innovated elements of techniques, technical skill, that she learned from the Black oral tradition that she workshopped with Etheridge,” he said.

When Knight died, my mother wasn’t mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times. But during her trip to Indianapolis, my mother said she felt “seen” in ways she hadn’t before.

An artist sharing with her daughter

Back at her home in downtown Lynn — in a loft brimming with art, books and poetry manuscripts — my mother says she is embracing many aspects of her long journey.

Most Wednesday nights, she joins other local musicians and poets at the Speak Up at the Walnut Street Cafe.

She loves the honorary title “The Jazz Poet of Lynn,” a nickname that prompted her to learn more about jazz music.

“When somebody gives you a name that you like, it changes things,” she said. “I realized that jazz and improvisation and the oral tradition is very much part of my work.”

“I realized that jazz and improvisation and the oral tradition is very much part of my work.”

Elizabeth McKim

Looking back at her life with Knight, she says she has no regrets. She loved their life during the good times. They had fun. They traveled and socialized with many great poets and writers. She joined him in what he coined “Free People’s Poetry Workshops,” attended by many young and aspiring poets. She wasn’t willing to give that up, despite the challenges in their relationship.

“They knew this was something important, to be around artists who had a vision,” she said. “He had all these flaws, but he was so beloved. Etheridge, no matter what you can say about him, he had a lot of love. He had a lot of love and he felt a lot of love.”

Free Peoples Poetry Workshop by Stephen Stoller

Free Peoples Poetry Workshop by Stephen Stoller — with Etheridge Knight, Elizabeth McKim and friends


Stephen Stoller gallery

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