Friday, February 19, 2010

Jeffrey Knapp, RIP

We are very sorry to hear of the passing of our old friend from Florida, Jeffrey Knapp, a writer, teacher, artist and gentleman of extraordinary character and grace. Here is his obituary from the Miami Herald:
After 9 years of a most courageous battle with cancer, Jeffrey Ira Knapp passed away on Wednesday, February 17, in his home, with his family at his bedside. Jeffrey was born on March 2, 1949, in Elizabeth, NJ, the son of the late Sam and Roz Knapp. He attended Emerson College, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of Miami, where, as a Samuel Beckett scholar, he received his Masters Degree in Literature and was a recent graduate of the Florence Melton Center for Jewish Education.

Jeffrey lived on Miami Beach for thirty-five years and was a fixture in the city's art and literary communities. He was an avid art collector specializing in Haitian and Outsider folk art. He co-created many art installations and his poetry was brought to life through his wife, Dina's, illustrations.

Jeffrey was a connoisseur of life and celebrated travel, music, fashion, food, art and literature. He spoke fluent Hebrew, French, Arabic, and Creole, wrote and translated poetry, including the poetry of the estimable Haitian poet Felix Morriseau-Leroy.

He founded Florida's Poetry in the Schools program, and was one of three itinerant "Bicycle Poets" who brought poetry to students throughout the State. He served on the Board of Tigertail Productions. He also founded and edited Dial-a-Poem.

His Dada-Surrealist poems appeared in many prestigious literary journals including Ploughshares and Boston Review of the Arts.

Jeffrey held a position at Florida International University since 1989, first as a composition instructor in the English Department. He became Director of the First-Year Interest Groups Program, and in 2002 was named Director of the Academy for the Art of Teaching.

He was a Faculty Senator, the Chair of the University Core Curriculum Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Teaching and Learning with Technology Roundtable, a member of the Access and Equity Committee and the Academic Learning Compacts Committee, and a coordinator for the Title V project.

Jeffrey presented pedagogical papers at a number of leading international and national conferences on learning communities and on teaching and learning with technology. In 2009 Jeffrey was very honored to be the recipient of the President's Access & Equity Award at FIU, presented to a full- time employee who has consistently gone above and beyond his or her job responsibilities to promote and ensure diversity and inclusiveness.

Jeffrey also was a Hebrew School teacher, member of the Board of Education and the Board of Trustees at Temple Beth Shalom and shared the love of his heritage with many students. His wife, the artist Dina Knapp, his daughters Ariel Knapp of Los Angeles, Astra Schwartz Dorf of New York, a grandchild, Athena Dorf, and his two loving poodles, Paris and Colette, survive him.

We first met Jeffrey in the winter or spring of 1981, at one of the weekend monthly Poetry in a Pub events that met at Fort Lauderdale locations back then. We think he used to come with Mitch Kaplan (best known as the owner of the great Books & Books and the big macher behind the Miami International Book Festival) and Jim Hall, then teaching poetry writing at FIU (now best known as James W. Hall, author of the terrific Thorn thrillers).

We liked Jeffrey right away; he had a great sense of humor always and was really smart about poetry and about people. With his wife Dina and others, he created many whimsical yet profound works of visual and literary art. Jeffrey seemed to know a lot about everything, be it practical or undeservedly obscure; we remember the revelation back in the early 1980s when he showed us his translations of the great Haitian Creole poet Felix Morriseau-Leroy. We fondly recall a fun reading together, all humorous poetry and fiction, for the Miami Waves Festival at Miami-Dade Community College's Inter-American Center in Little Havana in the spring of 1983.

A reviewer attending a 2005 reading wrote in Miami Poetry Review:
Jeffrey Knapp: He's the one that offered up that great phrase about reading one poem too few, etc. Jeffrey is the living embodiment of poetic realism. His ability to offer up concrete details and his simple and direct style was a breath of fresh air... Listening to his poetry was like watching a home movie; there was little fluff, but a lot of reality. He also managed to be funny, a feat which is rarely accomplished by your run of the mill poet.

Being with Jeffrey was always fun. In 1996 we once again served with him on the Literature Organizations grant panel for the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and he made those meetings and the days we spent in Tallahassee, a pleasure. We were working as a staff attorney at the University of Florida in those days, and Jeffrey hitched a ride with us as far as Lake City (where I-10 meets I-75) so that a friend from Jacksonville could pick him up. (Jeffrey had friends everywhere.)

Lake City was, in those days, pretty dumpy, and we had time to kill before his friend came, so we walked around a nearly-deserted forlorn mall and found one of those photo booths where they take a strip of paper and put four photos on it. Jeffrey had us pose for the first two, quickly changed places for the third one, and then we rushed back into the photo booth for the fourth pic. When the strip came out, it looked startling: as if one person were, suddenly and momentarily, turned into another. Jeffrey had taken a number of these with other people before, he told us.

It was so like him. He startled people with joy everywhere he went:
"Poetry on wheels" is how Jeffrey Knapp describes his new band of cycling troubadours. He hopes they can stir enthusiasm for verse in the young crowd.
The Bicycle Poets, a group of five local poets, will pedal into two North Central Dade schools and surprise student bodies with a bit of poetry. The group makes its debut Friday.

Knapp worked for 15 years with the Poets-in-Schools program in Dade County Public Schools, in which accomplished poets lead workshops in grade schools. Other Bicycle Poets include Jamaican-born poet Geoffrey Philp, Afro-Cuban poet Adrian Castro and Campbell McGrath, recently arrived from Chicago.

"You'd be amazed how excited the kids get," Knapp says. "Some of them want to stay and write their own poetry. Some even want to skip lunch or P.E. to keep on writing."

He has published more than a dozen books filled with poetry from the children he has visited in Dade, Broward and Monroe county schools. The books bear titles such as Imitations of Immortality, Notes from the Other Ground and Daughter of Notes from the Other Ground.

To find new ways of reaching children, Knapp developed the concept of bicycle poets. Knapp, an avid bicyclist, thought cycling into the poetry readings would add spontaneity.

"I wanted to just get there and say, 'Here we are,'" he says. . .So bent are they on surprising their audiences that they've instructed the schools to not tell the children why they're being brought outside in the middle of the day.
- "Pedaling Poetry to School Kids," Miami Herald, March 10, 1994

Volcanos erupting popcorn, glass grasshoppers, dishpans that revolt and chickens laying square eggs.

Strange notions these kids in Erma Carter's fifth-grade classroom at North Miami Beach Elementary have.

And there's this guy in a short denim jacket and earth shoes with tousled black hair and beard padding around the room, waving a Coke can, bantering back and forth with the kids, and he's actually eliciting all this "square-egged" "glass grasshopper" nonsense from the kids.

Well, it's not nonsense at all. It's poetry. And Jeffrey a poet teaching elementary school kids that poetry isn't necessarily about daisies and sunsets and staring out the window at rain pelt-pelting down.

He's teaching those kids that they too can write poetry, and that it can be fun. "I wouldn't say kids like us more than recess," Knapp confides. "But we're up there on the list."
- "Kids and Poetry Mix in Classroom," Miami News, February 10, 1976

Jeffrey Knapp was up there on a lot of people's lists. We'll miss him a lot. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Dina, his daughters and his granddaughter.

(Thanks to Steve Malagodi for the old photos.)

2 comments: said...

Jeffrey was a tremendous light in my life. I am honored to have known him.


Richard said...

Yes, I feel the same way, Geoffrey.