E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He is the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). He is a board member of The Writer’s Center and editor of Poet Lore magazine. Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. Mr. Miller is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. His books and anthologies have appeared with PM Press, Black Classic Press, Curbstone Books, and many others.
Poet and MFA candidate Patrick Lee Clark conducted the following interview.
You wear many head coverings: fly 70s’ hats in your website’s bio pic, baseball-basketball caps, poet-literary activist-educator-director-editor headbands, and father-son-husband-lover-mentor-jokester Dr. Seuss hats, etc. Do you partly credit your intimate “give-and-take” relationship with language that has allowed you to wear these head coverings?
Yes, I wear many different hats. I dress like an elder now – so the only cap I wear is when I’m doing yard work or attending a game. Under the hat I keep my hair cut close. These head coverings are not labels but they do document a degree of motion in my life. I starting out in the late sixties and early seventies defining myself as a black writer (poet), this soon gave way to becoming a cultural worker and eventually I started to use the term literary activist. The only other writer I’ve noticed who describes themselves this way is the poet Nathalie Handal. I don’t connect my use of language with how I dress but there could be something there to explore. I wear ties almost all the time now. The New Formalism? Yet no matter what one wears, it still comes down to how you sound. I know I’m not a performer or entertainer. I don’t do spoken word. My poems wear belts.
If educators had greater selection pools of books to pull from that identified with their students more in appearance and socioeconomics (even faith), then students could see themselves in the readings, which would make the learning process more tangible for them. As a literary activist, are some corporate publishing companies partly responsible for educators not being able to find material applicable to their American students’ experiences?
We can’t place the blame for our oppression on the doorsteps of corporate publishing companies. I think the changes in the industry now make information available to all. The technology of the last decade has removed borders and boundaries. We need to realize, however, that illiteracy is still a major issue in our community. Our neighborhoods still suffer from poor institutions and a lack of resources. We need to define what schools should and can do. Conversations around the cost of education should be undertaken. What are we buying at the end of the day? Education without individual motivation doesn’t amount to much. There are philosophical questions we need to answer. I was thinking the other day about how blackness seldom slows down. What does this mean? It’s another way of examining not just who we are but who we are becoming. What if we consider blackness as “process” and not person? How might this concept alter our entire approach to education and social development?
From your latest book, The Fifth Inning, it is pretty obvious that you enjoy the American pastime, baseball. However, after reading this book, which is a great example of hybrid writing (memoir, prose, and poetry interwoven in the lines), I find that you are a diehard basketball fan, particularly college basketball. Where do you find this personal intersection between sports and poetry?
I love sports. Baseball is the game I know best. It’s also the game of my childhood. Basketball links me to my son. When he was playing ball in high school and college, he gave my heart many moments that became memorable. I often wear the championship ring he won in college. It’s a reminder of the joys of fatherhood. But it passes too quickly. I think a good poet brings magic to his game. I think of Quincy Troupe’s wonderful poem about Magic Johnson. What should we expect from the poet? Leadership – the kind that will “write” our way into a new world. Poets have to share the ball – the fame. I joke about how there are too many poets in the world. Who will we read at the end of the day? This game of writing means nothing without the fans and readers. One also has to learn how to play hurt. This is what I learned from watching my son. Maybe someday a critic will call it Miller Madness.
Are there any young or emerging writers that either you have mentored or are still mentoring that you would like to talk about or give a shout out too?
I’m not mentoring any poets right now. One of my best friends is Grace A. Ali. She’s the editor of the wonderful online publication – Of Note. I’ve been helping her realize her dreams. During the year I write blurbs for writers and I sit down (or Skype) with folks. I don’t attend that many public readings. I think along with mentoring it’s important to find outlets for writers. One thing I try to do as a literary activist is to be an advocate for others. I continue to judge contests and read fellowship applications because it’s a service to the literary field. I continue to go into prisons and senior citizen homes, taking poetry to the people. Now and then I read an interview with a young writer and they list me as one of their mentors. This is what it means to grow old. But if I can give a shout out to one writer it would be Me-K Ahn. She’s a fiction writer teaching in Seoul, South Korea. I met her when she was a student at Bennington. I’m attracted to her concepts of erasure and what that means for a person like myself who has written two memoirs. I’ve been helping Me-K get her work published. A couple of my more recent poems have been dedicated to her.
Concerning versatility, it seems that writers should yield their penmanship to other literary genres or arts. For instance, you produce literary works in genres such as poetry, essays, memoirs, etc. Could you explain your decision to represent artists who are not confined to one genre? Plus, are you hiding songs you’ve written that the world doesn’t know about?
No songs coming from me right now. I’ve written a number of short stories. I would like to write a novel before my eyes close. I would like to be a diplomat or ambassador, bringing politics and culture together. My eyes turn to Pablo Neruda. Why write love poems if one doesn’t love social change?
Could you shed some light on historical movements and experiences that African American poetry has undergone, while giving us an idea where you think it is going?
There is a Sea Change taking place in American poetry and it’s the result of such organizations as Cave Canem and Canto Mundo. I think in the next twenty years African American poets will dominate the prizes and poetry awards the way we do in the N.B.A. What is taking place in African American poetry today surpasses the Harlem Renaissance (New Negro Movement) and the Black Arts Movement (BAM). I expect to see 2-3 African Amercan poets selected to be poet laureate of the United States within the next 12-15 years. More African Americans will chair and direct creative writing programs. Look for border crossings into Brazil and wherever blackness is. What many younger writers must do is produce more critical essays. They need to shape the creative consciousness so that it does not succumb to the consumerism and the free market. We need to produce works of excellence. Our poems should rival Ellington’s sacred music. Come Sunday…we will see.