An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

Board Member Phillip Richards interviews our featured writer, E. Ethelbert Miller:

PR: What do you feel was the impact of Stephen Henderson’s Institute at Howard on your career as a poet, writer, archivist, and literary historian?

I took two classes from Stephen Henderson prior to my graduating from Howard. He taught a course on “The Black Aesthetic” and one on “Blues, Soul and Black Identity.” The ideas we discussed in these classes helped provide a foundation on how I would view not just black poetry but also black culture. I served as a research assistant to Henderson before he took over the directorship of the newly created Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH) in 1973. When the Institute was established my title was junior research fellow. Sterling A. Brown was the senior research fellow. The Institute would help introduce me to many of the major African American writers around the country. I helped with the planning of the National Black Writers Conferences as well as interviewing writers when they came to the Howard campus. While working at IAH I learned the importance of documenting the black experience. I began to understand the need for preserving flyers, posters and correspondence.

PR: What do you remember about the figure at Howard or the Institute e.g. Sterling Brown, Henderson, Leon Damas – or someone else who impressed you most?

Working at IAH was like being aboard a “literary ark.” I came in almost daily contact with people like Haki Madhubuti, John Killens and Leon Damas. In many ways they provided a model for the type of writer and activist I wanted to be. I loved how Damas dressed and carried himself. There was poetic elegance to almost everything he did. In his last public speech, he made reference to the importance of the work I was doing with my Ascension Poetry Reading Series.

Being around Sterling A. Brown provided me with a blueprint for who I have become today. Brown taught me what it meant to be an elder. One should be accessible and uphold a certain degree of dignity and honor. There is such a thing as black genius and black style. How we write is just as important as how we pose.  How a jazz musician wears his hat is how a poet must craft his stanzas. With coolness must come excellence.

PR: What was Henderson’s background and how did that background affect you?

Before Stephen Henderson came to Howard, he had been a central figure in the Institute of Black World in Atlanta, Georgia. He was brought to Howard by Andrew Billingsley who at the time was Vice President of Academic Affairs of the university. From Chicago, Billingsley brought Haki Madhabuti. Noted sociologist Joyce Ladner also came to Howard. At Howard, Henderson headed the Institute for Arts and Humanities whose mission was to focus the interaction between the school’s academic departments on black studies.  He acquired for the Institute the writer and critic, John Killens. Henderson’s extensive research upon black folklore and blues was an important current of thought in the Howard Institute. Bernice Reagon of the famed spiritual group, Sweet Honey and the Rock, studied for and received her Ph.D at Howard during this time.

Henderson’s literary critical theorizing deeply influenced that of Houston Baker and Shirley Williams. His initial articulations need to be extended by the young black writers coming from the Creative Writing programs

PR: Your writing has a global reach.  But you have written powerfully about the worlds of the Bronx and Washington, D.C. in which you have lived.  Do you have any models for this kind of “localistic” writing? Or are there any writers you admire who do this?

I don’t feel I’ve really written about the South Bronx or Washington D.C. In my memoirs one finds me writing about place but it’s mostly as a location. I really haven’t delved into the history of Washington or the Bronx for material and ideas.

I have been influenced by the first-person perspective poetry of Lee Howard a Kentucky writer who developed storytelling traditions in her writing. Similarly, I have been influenced by the poetry of Ai and Ahmos Zu-Bolton.

PR: The world of publishing has radically changed for black writers.   What was your experience as a young black writer seeking to get your books published by the available presses?  How has your experience changed – if it has?

I’ve been fortunate to have books published as a result of networking. Many of my books however have been published by small independent presses. This has resulted in many people knowing about the work I do but having little sense of what I’ve written. Too often I’ve participated in programs and cultural events, and my books were not available for purchase. If I took a quick trip around the city of Washington, I’m certain few bookstores have my poetry collections on their shelfs. The book I will probably become widely known for is If God Invented Baseball. This book was published in 2019 by David Wilk and his City Point Press. It’s was awarded a 2019 prize by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA). Because this book was distributed by Simon and Schuster it was able to reach a larger audience. In 2019 the Washington Nationals won the World Series and the Washington Post made reference to my work. Rita Dove in June 2019 featured one of the poems from the collection in her New York Times Magazine column. This type of exposure is essential if a poet is to have an audience. I think today many black poets are getting published because they are coming out of creative writing programs. Their work is not as openly political as that of the Black Arts Movement. The MFA programs and organizations like Cave Canem have created a better booster network for black poets. Cave Canem for example has established a network which should help more black writers receive fellowships and awards. To a considerable degree I’m outside of this network. There is a good chance my work could be overlooked by anthologists who only look at certain “groups” of black writers in the future.

The influence and notoriety of Cave Canem and the Dark Room Collective has already produced a serious gap in the literary historical understanding of this period. Important poets such as Wanda Coleman and Ai have been neglected as has the political range of such established writers such as Rita Dove. There was an important continuity of black poets who came up “the hard way’ before the dominance of creative writing programs in the culture of American poetry.

PR: How has travel to Latin America and the Middle East affected your project as a poet and prose writer?  Are you aware of those aspects of other cultures to which you pay most attention?

I’m grateful to see how much my work has been translated over the years. I’ve enjoyed working with the writer and editor Nibir K. Ghosh in India. He has published a considerable amount of my work in “Re-Markings: A Biannual Refereed International Journal of English Letters). In 2009 a volume of my poems was translated into Arabic and published in Abu Dhabi. My travel to places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and Israel have made me think of the international world of letters. Trips to Cuba and Nicaragua were key in my understanding of the Americas as well as my own personal identity. My father was born in Panama.

PR: What has allowed you to write so intimately and in such objective detail about your family, friends, and acquaintances?

In 2019 the idea of privacy no longer exists. I often tell people in workshops that they should write their memoir before someone writes their biography. The soul of the writer is his/her canvas. Art is often the interpretation of the personal, the projection of the self onto the world. We write in order to take back our image, our story or narrative. The complexity of life, the search for love, the overcoming of suffering is why we create art and how we create it.

PR: Are you aware of the differences of perspective that you have brought to your own life in the course of your career?

I’m not aware of the differences of perspective in terms of my work and career. I think the best person to answer or respond to that question might be Kirsten Porter my friend and literary assistant. I feel I’ve become a much better writer the last few years. Kirsten has access and knowledge of all of my unpublished work.

PR: Looking backwards, can you generalize about the importance of the Black Arts movement in poetry?

If there is one thing we often overlook when talking about the Black Arts Movement, it’s the “revolutionary” component. Too often the critical examination of BAM today focuses on blackness. What is forgotten is how black poets and artists of the late sixties and early seventies were attempting to create revolutionary art. Much in the way of artists living during that time in South Africa, Angola or Mozambique. The Cuban Revolution had a significant influence on the Black Arts Movement. We can find the direct link in Amiri Baraka’s collection of essays published under the title “Home.” Along with reading Malcolm, we must also go back and read Fidel.

PR: Can you name poets whose work is especially important at the present moment?

The writers whose work is important to me right now are: Philip Levine, Ocean Vuong, Martin Espada, Charles Johnson, August Wilson, Naomi Ayala, and Susan Sontag.

PR: What poetic projects or undertakings do you do addressing the present political crisis of black people in the United States?

When we look at the present political crisis, we shouldn’t forget the concepts often mention in the work of Amiri Baraka. He spoke of “the changing same” and the motion of history. Once we acknowledge that history is a river then the challenge is to navigate it, to understand how if flows and where it bends. Too few of us have learned how to harvest hope or to walk upon the water. I always think of the words by Leonard Cohen:

 

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said all men will be sailors then until the seas shall free them.

~Leonard Cohen

 


E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer and literary activist. He is the author of two memoirs and several books of poetry including The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller, a comprehensive collection that represents over 40 years of his work. For 17 years Miller served as the editor of Poet Lore, the oldest poetry magazine published in the United States. His poetry has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Miller is a two-time Fulbright Senior Specialist Program Fellow to Israel. He holds an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Emory and Henry College and has taught at several universities.

Miller is host of the weekly WPFW morning radio show On the Margin with E. Ethelbert Miller and host and producer of The Scholars on UDC-TV. In recent years, Miller has been inducted into the 2015 Washington DC Hall of Fame and awarded the 2016 AWP George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature and the 2016 DCMayor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Honor. In 2018, he was inducted into Gamma Xi Phi and appointed as an ambassador for the Authors Guild. Miller’s most recent book If God Invented Baseball, published by City Point Press, was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

Phillip Richards is a professor of literature and writer with a longstanding interest in political and social affairs.  Besides a number of scholarly articles, he has published essays on race and education in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Harper’s Magazine, and Dissent among others.  He has recently published An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland, a memoir about growing up black in the segregated world of Cleveland during the fifties and sixties.  He has held visiting professorships in Gabon (French Central Africa), France (the University of Grenoble), and Germany (the University of Freiburg).  He has a long standing interest in both the Peace Movement and Conflict Resolution.   Richards is a member of the Writing for Peace Board of Directors and Associate Editor of DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts.

 


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