Sunday, November 14, 2004


Interview-Jillian Foster Knight by James Abraham

Knight’s retellings bring new meaning to old myths

Jillian Foster Knight is a 27-year-old Clearwater native who writes poetry. And, if that were the end of the story, her tale would be similar to that of thousands of wannabes who write endless lines of prosy while awaiting their big break.

But Knight’s spunk has lifted her out of that cycle. She made her own big break. Years ago, after finally compiling a body of work she wanted to publish; Knight did not wait around. She taught herself bookbinding skills, and soon produced a handsome 9X6 version of retold Greek myths.
Therein lies the value of her art, that her words are framed well in volumes of gorgeous craftsmanship.

"I wanted to create something that looked like I made it," Knight said.

She's done that and more. Her volumes, "Re-Written: tales of Celtic mythology," and "Re-Written: tales of Greek mythology," are retellings of old myths imbued with Knight’s spirit.
The books themselves are singular works. They are printed on heavy paper with canvas-bound covers and stitched binding. Knight shapes the books herself, spending up to eight hours per volume crafting them with an industrial sewing machine, clamps, gluepots and other rude technologies of her.

The pages of her books are ragged, calling to mind the days when books were shipped with pages uncut, and a bibliophile’s first pleasure before reading was slicing open the pages.
"I don’t think anybody should write unless they’ve experienced life," Knight says. Those words, coming from the lips of a woman who looks like a kid, may evoke laughter because of the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of age and statement. After all, how much experience does a 27-year-old have these days, where we see thirty-somethings living at home and berating mommy because she hasn’t purchased the favorite cereal?

But Knight knows of what she speaks. She and her parents are historical reenactors, who traverse the country making and selling homemade artifacts. Knight has her own tent, and makes camp near her parents, selling her wares by day and curling up in a cot in a corner of the big white canopy at night. She lives in the high mountains and deep woods of western Appalachia, and supports herself through her books and her business of selling artifacts she makes or finds in her travels.

So, in a society in which many adults have never left the home of their birth or travel in hermetically sealed containers of steel and rubber, Knight’s life and travels have certainly afforded her the experience needed to produce her work.

That experience is evident in her work. Here’s an example:

I have become your Echo
You became all too many things
I could never compete, never even dared
You were just…
spellbound within yourself.
Everything I hoped to say
Was already spoken.
I was just your Echo.

That, of course, is from the myth of Echo and Narcissus, the story of a young nymph and her unrequited love for a most handsome fellow. Narcissus was so good-looking that he pined away while gazing at his own beauty in a reflecting pool. Echo herself pined away to nothing because Narcissus was too busy admiring himself. An old tale, but the heartache evident in Knight’s retelling speaks to that feeling of abandonment shared by any woman who sacrificed all for a man who barely knew she was there.

Just as abused women blame themselves right down to the last humiliation at the hands of their abusers, so does it appear that Echo faults herself for not being pretty enough. In a society in which women have been taught to be good victims, Echo’s sentiments still ring true.

In "After the Ganconer," from Knight’s book of Gaelic tales, she uses poetic license to reverse the traditional role of the title character’s victims. A ganconer is literally a love-talker, a handsome spirit who loves milkmaids and shepherdesses so well that they are left unsatisfied by mortal hands.

Your sweet smile.
Your honeyed words.
The way you held me
I believed I was it.
The only girl.
Your sweet talk,
But I won’t fall again.
Positions are now reversed.
Now I strip you raw
and leave you wanting,
wanting more
more of the things I will never give you.
I will never give you
What it is you need.
I gave everything once.

Maybe that poem is only a wistful dream of what should have happened, a lyric example of the telling retort or appropriate response that only comes to us when it’s too late.

Both books, while beautiful, describe the ugly aspects of interpersonal relations. If there’s a sun radiating light, there must be a moon to reflect it. Knight’s at a tender age to understand that truth, and her honesty informs her fine collection of handcrafted volumes.

James M. Abraham, a syndicated book columnist, can be reached at

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