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8 bars with e. ethelbert miller
Our guest is poet, writer, and literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller.
8 bars with is a series on educated guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
70 year-old, New York City-born, Washington, D.C.-based poet, writer and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller, has written poetry and prose about race, culture, politics, and love for four decades.
1.Your baseball trilogy?
I just completed the third and final collection in the trilogy. How I Found Love Behind The Catcher’s Mask will be published next year by City Point Press. I want to thank David Wilk for publishing the first two books If God Invented Baseball (2018) and When Your Wife has Tommy John Surgery and other Baseball Stories (2021). I view the baseball trilogy as a celebration of the American pastime. It’s also a way of using the game of baseball as a metaphor to examine issues of race and gender. The trilogy describes the joys of playing baseball as a child as well as reflects on what it means to grow old while watching the game one loves. Hopefully this trilogy will be seen by critics as a major contribution to American literature.
2. Your literary heroes?
Writers who have inspired me to write and to continue writing include Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Pablo Neruda, June Jordan, Norman Jordan, Bob Dylan, Sterling A. Brown, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Charles Johnson, Ariel Dorfman, and Edwidge Danticat.
3. Charles Johnson?
Charles Johnson is one of our major American writers. He is a philosopher as well as a cartoonist. His work and life have been influenced by Buddhist teachings. In 2011 I interviewed Johnson every day for an entire year. These interviews culminated in two books, The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson (2015) and The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (2016). With Nibir K. Ghosh (who resides in India), I edited Charles Johnson: Embracing The World (2011).
4. Define literary activist?
I’ve been using this term for many years. Instead of being associated with an institution or organization I prefer to be linked to the work I do. I was an activist before I was a writer. As a literary activist I see myself as a cultural worker. My primary goal is to use culture to bring people together. Cultural bridge building and networking are important to me. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, I believe in the Beloved Community. If today we look around and cannot find this type of inclusive community then one’s duty is to work to bring it into existence. I believe in a common language between people. As a literary activist I understand that there are times when I must speak and work for those who have no voice or who are unable to read or write. I want to live in solidarity with nature and all that is good and YES in the world.
5. Your West Indian parents?
My father was born in Panama. I remember looking at his birth certificate and it was in Spanish. Both my father and mother could trace their roots back to Barbados. I grew up in the South Bronx but many of my cousins and aunts resided in Brooklyn. My parents were working class and so my knowledge of the African American middle class didn’t really begin until I came to Howard University in 1968. I immediately knew I was in the south and no longer the South Bronx. I realized my parents had instilled in me values that were very West Indian. They warned me not to run with the “fast” crowd.
6. Howard University?
I often mention I was baptized into blackness at Howard University. I was among the first students to graduate from HU with a degree in African American Studies. Attending Howard introduced me to the Black experience, especially Black poetry. Because of Howard I came to know Sterling A. Brown, Owen Dodson, Stephen Henderson, Arthur P. Davis, and many other artists and Black intellectuals.
7. Sterling Brown?
I still consider Brown’s 1941 anthology The Negro Caravan a classic. He coedited the anthology with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee. I believe the first poetry reading I ever attended was one given by Brown. From his work I developed a better appreciation of the blues and folklore. I frequently read Brown’s poetry collection Southern Road.
8. The state of poetry today?
It seems as if everyone is writing poetry. I would bet there are more poets than registered voters in our country right now. In terms of Black poetry, one has to applaud the contribution made by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady who founded Cave Canem back in 1996. This literary organization has created a paradigm shift within African American culture by elevating the quality of Black poetry and nurturing a new generation of voices.
What is your favorite baseball team?