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James Douglas Knott

Doug KnottDied: December 23, 2022

Doug Knott described himself as “a poet, writer, performer, mystic…disguised as a lawyer” in his personal essay for the 50th Reunion Class Directory. The course of his life has indeed been atypical and richly unusual for members of our class. Born December 18, 1943 in Richmond, Virginia, son of James Robert and Evelyn Douglas Knott.  He attended Pomfret School before entering Yale in 1961. He took a year off in 1964 to “hitchhike around the world” courtesy of work on a Swedish trans-Pacific freighter. He returned in February of 1965 as a member of the Class of 1966. As a Ranking Scholar and English major he was a columnist for The Yale Daily News and engaged in the literary, dramatic and artistic life of Ezra Stiles College where he was Editor in Chief of the Stonehenge Review. He was a member of Berzelius. After graduation he attended Harvard Law School where he earned his JD degree in 1971. In the midst of law school he spent a year studying in Brazil on a Rotary Scholarship.

After graduating from law school Doug’s path took a sharp turn and landed him in the “hippie life” of Vermont and New Mexico before migrating to Berkeley in 1972 during which time he spent six months in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. In the 1980s he was attracted to the “post punk art and poetry world” of Los Angeles where he has remained ever since, practicing law “just enough to pay the bills” and engaging in performance art which led him to form a five man poetry performance ensemble (Lost Tribe and Carma Bums) which engaged in several West Coast tours as well as video and TV presentations.  He created a one-man stage show entitled “Last of the Knotts” which played, over a period of several years, in L.A., San Francisco and Winnipeg. From 1985 to 1987 he created weekly performance shows entitled “Doug Knott Presents” at a downtown Los Angeles performance nook, The Lhasa Club”. He served as president of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, a “venerable poetry venue, bookstore and community center from 2013 to 2019.

Following a relationship of thirteen years he married Janet Sager Knott on November 22, 2014, Doug and Janet shared life together in their homes in Los Angeles and Ojai. Doug died December 23, 2022 in the ICU accompanied by Janet following a ten day battle with pneumonia and multi-organ system failure triggered by Legionnaire’s Disease.  The source of this rare infection was traced to his accidentally imbibing contaminated tap water during a visit to Mexico.

A fuller appreciation of Doug can be gleaned from his own words in Volume 2 of Yale ’66 at 50 or by viewing “Celebrating the Life of Doug Knott” on YouTube, a video of his March 27, 2023 memorial service organized by Janet and Doug’s many friends.

— Ed Folland

Remembrance of Doug Knott by Peter Lownds:

The following is a transcript of what Doug’s friend and Yale classmate Peter Lownds had to say at his Memorial service:

Yes, yes, it’s true. I’ve known Doug Knott for sixty-four years. ‘How is that possible?’ you say, when I’m so young. It’s possible. We met 64 years ago at a New England prep school where we were both sent by our families to get us away from them and them from us. Doug had a lot of physical abuse in his childhood. I had more psychological abuse than physical. He was a class ahead of me so I didn’t get to know him as a “weenie” which is what the freshmen were called. Doug and I got together a little bit later in what we called “The Pomfret Hymn Singing and Marching Society” which was a group of ‘artsy-craftsy’ guys. We were outliers and, when it came to sex, out and out liars.

I was an actor. Doug was a poet, a nascent poet, and so many other things. I could stand here and tell Doug stories for a long time but I won’t do that because I want to read a poem of his. But first I’ll contextualize the poem, okay? They sent me to the Peace Corps in Brazil. To Brazil in the Peace Corps. That’s a better way of putting it. And, by that time, I’d seen “Black Orpheus” ten times and was already singing and speaking a little Portuguese from the soundtrack. We trained in Chicago where they had five native speakers come, each from a different region of Brazil. So we heard five different dialects. And Brazil is a bigger country than we are here minus Alaska and Hawaii. You can fit the continental U.S. inside Brazil. That’s how big it is. There were 70,000 people when I arrived in 1966. I mean 70 million people. There are now 210 million people in that place.

Doug, I wanted to say, telegraphed me but he couldn’t have. He must have sent me a letter saying “I’m coming, meet me at the airport.” I was in Recife where the international airport is called Guararapes. I went out there on a hot January or February day in the middle of the Brazilian summer. You could go out on the tarmac and meet the plane. And I see Doug climbing down from the plane, he’s got a jacket and a tie on and he’s going ‘uh! uh!’ pulling off his tie in the heat. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years and I give him a hug and he says, “I gotta learn Portuguese! I’ve two weeks before I gotta give a talk, gotta lecture in front of the Rotary Club of Rio. Will you teach me? You got any workbooks? I take him back to the mocambo, the favela, and introduce him to some great native speakers. Doug, like the inveterate traveler and people person he was, is sensing people, feeling their energy, able to slide into and extract himself from scenes that none of us would believe if they were described in detail. None of us! He was protean and he had a facility for entering and exiting. He exited Recife about five or six days after he arrived.

I heard the Rotary speech went well but it was a couple years into the dictatorship and he got caught in a political hassle where the milicos thought he was a Communist and the students at Rio Law School thought he was a CIA spy. A fucked-up situation. So he did a Doug thing, exited via Paraguay. Next thing I know he’s back at my PC site with a 19-year-old sidekick, Tony Knopp who was born and raised in Rio but sounds like a NY cabdriver. They’re dropping in on us on their way to the Amazon! Tony Knopp became a good friend of mine too and he died three months before Doug. Whew! A lot of dying, man, that’s one of the things about getting old. You have to brace yourself for the disappearance of people who meant a lot to you and Doug meant a lot to me. I’m going to read a poem of his that I think was inspired by the adventure we shared in Brazil. “Lesson In Conversational Portuguese.” This is Doug’s poem.

Lesson in Conversational Portuguese
After a prayer meeting with the spurting of chicken blood
in the dusty and livid interior of Brazil
the father of the saints
who had killed the chicken
earlier that afternoon
took a liking to me

“Você tem preconceito místico?”
“Are you of the mystical persuasion?”
“Tenho, sim” I said – “Sure, of course”
“Então só faço bem” – “I just do good,”
he said, In a juicy morse-code flicker of offering
that raced over my heart like a fleet of gazelles
“Mas se você quiser mal…” – “But if you want evil
Conheço alguém” –– I know someone who can help”

I declined, with some regret at opportunity lost
in the quick tropical sunset
reversed and flat like a bed-sheet –
but I had respect for this father of umbanda
like the toad has for the wheel
“Você tem preconceito místico?”
on the chair, my hands shook like bamboo

Of course –– I have seen the fountains go out
in someone’s eyes

In the struggle under the skin
I can go out and be a bad spell ––
And in Brazil, I got into a big taxi-cab
and got the hell out of there

And the father of the saints still sat there in the dark
with the air slightly twitching around him
like a house full of lizards waking up
and he sucked in light like the moon

When I got far away, I felt backwards behind me
and he was still there, a faint lamp on a dark street
and in my wallet there was a fresh card that did not exist
it said: “Só faço bem” –– “I only do good”