A Poem in Prison: A film by Daniel Cantagallo (and Etheridge Knight)

This short film was created utilizing the voice and the 1968 poem of Etheridge Knight, “To Make A Poem in Prison” which goes:

“It is hard
To make a poem in prison.
The air lends itself not
to the singer.
The seasons creep by unseen
And spark no fresh fires.

Soft words are rare, and drunk drunk
Against the clang of keys;
Wide eyes stare fat zeros
And plea only for pity.

Pity is not for the poet;
Yet poems must be primed.
Here is not even sadness for singing,
Not even a beautiful rage rage,
No birds are winging. The air
Is empty of laughter. And love?
Why, love has flown,
Love has gone to glitten.”

Sometimes a voice stops you in your tracks. For me, such was the case with Etheridge Knight. During the past few years, I have been remixing old footage and audio recording into cine-poems. I have always been preoccupied with the artistic notion of the discarded, the left behind, the under-appreciated, buried somewhere deep in the tangles of the Internet and our history, and so I fancy myself a bit of a “connoisseur of detritus.”

Not long ago, I don’t remember quite how, I first came across Etheridge Knight’s work, and then I found his voice: institutionally weary but powerfully alive. Born in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight was a Korean War vet who became a drug addict. Eventually put away for armed robbery, he renounced anger and committed his life to poetry while behind bars. His first volume of “Poems from Prison”, cemented his status in the Black Arts movement, and coincided with his release in 1968.

Knight said, “poetry has the chance to bring us back to life,” and he created a stark beauty in the most inhospitable and inhuman of constructs. I decided to juxtapose his reading with a 1966 CBS News Report called “Men In Cages” (around the time when Knight himself was in prison) and a survey of the purpose of penal institutions, which asked: “what do we intend to accomplish by putting men in cages?” Our society still has few constructive or robust answers to this question, especially with the rise of the American prison-industrial-complex that followed Knight’s own time served and its devastating impact on communities of color.

What do we intend to accomplish by putting men in cages? Certainly not write poetry. For Knight knew, it is hard to make a poem in prison, but he fashioned many, and we should all be grateful he did.


Author bio: Daniel Cantagallo is a “connoisseur of detritus” based in NYC. He has worked in film in various guises from production to distribution. His Vimeo handle is: vimeo.com/connoisseur .



Etheridge Knight (April 19, 1931 – March 10, 1991) was an African-American poet who made his name in 1968 with his debut volume, Poems from Prison. The book recalls in verse his eight-year-long sentence after his arrest for robbery in 1960. By the time he left prison, Knight had prepared a second volume featuring his own writings and works of his fellow inmates. This second book, first published in Italy under the title Voce negre dal carcere, appeared in English in 1970 as Black Voices from Prison. These works established Knight as one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement, which flourished from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s. With roots in the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power Movement, Etheridge Knight and other American artists within the movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African-American cultural and historical experience.

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