John Knight (1935-2012) Tribute

John was a teacher to the very end. At the birthday party he threw in his Brisbane home in December there was the usual collection of poets, academics, old protest era activist colleagues and family members. There were also, scattered throughout the packed weatherboard house and its verandas, a number of people made noticeable by their bright, ‘out there’ style and youthful optimism. These were John’s latest students. He had been retired as an Associate Professor in The School of Education, The University of Queensland, where he had pursued interests in policy studies and social and literary theory, for more than a decade. By December 2011 John had been rendered weak and infirm by the cancer he had been fighting for almost a decade but, to the very end, he worked in a mentoring relationship with doctoral students at QUT and elsewhere. They came to his party, they gave him hugs and they spoke to his guests of his great gifts.

Another of John’s characteristics was also on display at that last party – his generosity. An old friend who could not get to the party sent a present instead: a large sum of money. John blew the lot on the best champagne money could buy. He wanted to treat his guests, this one last time, to something they could enjoy and remember. So he sat in his armchair smiling, surrounded by clinking champagne glasses, friends, family and books. John’s house is full of books, many the product of his role as founder and manager of Post Pressed, an indie publisher of verse, fine arts and academic books since 1995. Post Pressed never made money but John nursed it along to give poets and academics a voice in print. Post Pressed was one of the most prolific publishers of haiku in the world and gave a voice in print to around two dozen Australian and New Zealand haiku poets – including Australasia’s best known haijin. John believed that the well preserved printed word would always stand the test of time no matter any technological development relying on the consumption of energy to sustain it.

John Knight was born in Bendigo in 1935 to an evangelist preacher and his New Zealand born wife. In 1938 the family moved to his mother's native country where John soon found himself leading the life of an itinerant as his father travelled from town to town during the war years running a tent mission. In 1946 the family moved to Queensland travelling between towns and cities where his father ministered. After two years of high school and a variety of jobs, John taught in primary schools in Queensland and NSW. He also studied theology at Avondale College. He later transferred to secondary teaching, and after completing a doctorate in the sociology of education and religion in 1977, John lectured in teacher education at the Mt Gravatt College of Advanced Education before moving to the University of Queensland, where he became an Associate Professor.

As well as a number of books on education policy and the sociology of education, John published widely in literary journals and magazines. He was long time poetry editor of the journal Social Alternatives and of Scope. His first book of verse, From Derrida to Sara Lee, was published by Metro Arts in 1994. That was followed by Extracts from the Jerusalem Archives (Sweetwater Press, 1997) and the intense and very personal Letters from the Asylum (Sudden Valley Press, 2009). It was perhaps, however, the haiku form that gave John the greatest joy.

John was introduced to haiku in the late seventies after which he sporadically experimented with the form until 1988 when he came under the spell of haiku masters Jack Stamm, Kazuo Sato and Tohta Kaneko who were brought to Australia by Japan Airlines for Brisbane’s Expo 88. The airline made a novel contribution to that Expo – a beautiful pavilion and garden in which the main focus was on cultural exchange through the medium of haiku written by tens of thousands of Queensland primary school children. The instrument was a haiku contest with extraordinarily generous prizes including free passes to Expo for any school whose students participated. Among the facilitators were the sensei from Japan. One glorious winter afternoon John, Ross Clark and Jacqui Murray joined the masters for a leisurely lunch cruise in a yakatabune, built in Japan and shipped to Brisbane for Expo, up the Brisbane River. The cruise included a haiku master class. More would follow, providing guidance and confidence in equal measure. In haiku John had found a literary form that freed him from the tenets of postmodernist literary criticism. Soon he was soaring, rising to become an accomplished and internationally recognised haijin.

His was an insistent voice behind the formation of the Brisbane-based Paper Wasp haiku group in 1989. He was also a persistent advocate and foundation editor of paper wasp: an Australian journal of haiku. His published haiku includes Wattle Winds: an Australian haiku sequence (with Clark, Murray and Jack Stamm, Paper Wasp, 1993) and his own collection big man catching a small wave (Post Pressed, 2006), described by Jeffrey Harpeng as a “tender collection of graceful haiku ever hopeful in their sadness and their joy”. In the words of Australia’s greatest haiku poet, Janice M. Bostok, John had “developed his own style and voice over the years and while we have perhaps been discussing and arguing about which way is the ‘right’ way to write haiku, he has unassumedly produced glimpses of life, of characters and his own understanding of nature”.

Jacqui Murray, February 2012