A Breath of Fresh Air: Literary Activist E. Ethelbert Miller Visits Milwaukee April 12-13

by Mary Vuk

I never entertained the idea of just becoming a writer and writing a few poems and publishing a few books. To be a poet meant being a cultural worker or cultural ambassador. One embraced politics while advocating the importance of love and brotherhood. …It was what took one into school classrooms, community centers, and prisons. …A true poet is a person of the heart. Somewhere it’s that thing called love that inspires one to sing. Out of pain, joy, and sorrow a man or woman can discover their wings.

~E. Ethelbert Miller,

Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (St. Martin’s Press, 2000)

E. Ethelbert Miller, author of nine poetry volumes, prefers to think of himself as a literary activist who puts equal emphasis on his own poetry, the promotion of other writers and the preservation of literature. Miller will visit Milwaukee on April12 and 13 for a talk at the Milwaukee Public Library (Central) and a reading at Woodland Pattern Book Center.

In a recent telephone interview, I chatted with Miller. He has a soft sweet voice, a gentle modesty, a casual seriousness, and an easy laugh. He also has a palpable love for the past, present and future of African American letters.

Miller’s love of literature serves him well when he wears his other vocational hats as director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University, founding member of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, and board chairperson of the Washington think tank, Institute for Policy Studies. He is a regular guest on National Public Radio on the Diane Rehm show and has his own local television show in Washington, DC.

“You know, many people associate me with poetry,” Miller said. “But during the course of the day, I’m staying involved with the presidential elections, the economy, the war.”

Poetry has become common cultural coin for Miller as he meets people from other countries and travels abroad himself.

As detailed in his memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer, Miller is of West Indian descent and grew up in a working class family in the South Bronx in New York City. Miller’s older brother Richard became a Trappist monk when Ethelbert was still a boy.

“The year before I went off to college, I knew my inability to dance saved me from running with the wrong crowd,” he wrote. “My parents kept my brother, sister and me off the streets. Only when we were older did we realize that we had avoided jail, pregnancy, death and the scars that come with early adulthood. If my brother was saved by candles, holy water and religion, then it was ‘the glove’ that allowed me to survive the housing projects and the killing fields,” he wrote.

What was “the glove”? It was baseball, of course, that all-American sport. Miller loved it and excelled at it.

In 1968, Miller left the South Bronx for Howard University in Washington, DC, with ambitions of becoming a lawyer. He soon found a different calling. His early taste in music included Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs who inspired his first poetry, but at all-black Howard, Dylan soon “collided with music of the Delfonics and the Dells,” Miller wrote.

If the late 1960s marked the high tide of black militancy, the ‘70s ushered in the feminist era.

“I came of age as a writer in the 1970s which coincides with the women’s movement, and so I was very much aware of women’s issues,” Miller said. “Some of my close friends at that time were people like June Jordan and Alice Walker who were changing American letters and the literary landscape.”

Getting married, parenting, trying to make a living from poetry, the untimely death of his brother Richard and the death of his father all were challenges Miller faced after the heady days of the 60s and 70s were spent and a new political era was ushered in.

“Denise [Miller’s wife] and I lived together as the 1980s unfolded,” Miller wrote. “Republicans and black conservatives came to town. Jellybeans were given out along with cheese, and the homeless became more visible. The golden era at Howard was over. The right wing virus would affect even the blackest institution,” he wrote.

Yet despite the difficulties and challenges he faced personally and the changing political climate, Miller continued to write and publish poetry throughout the ‘80s and 90s, win awards and travel internationally in connection with his poetry.

Miller has a special love for poet Langston Hughes and credits Hughes for setting an important example.

“I’ve always tried to be accessible to younger writers,” he said, “because when I look back, I see this tradition of Langston Hughes helping others or Gwendolyn Brooks helping others. I feel it’s the same responsibility I have.”

“My students are doing well in terms of their own careers and that gets back into nurturing and being of help to younger voices,” he said.

Miller has edited two anthologies of African American poetry. One, In Search of Color Everywhere (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1996), is an anthology of historical African American poetry, the other, Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the 21st Century (Black Classic Press, 2002), is an anthology of up-and-coming African American poets.

In his talk at the Milwaukee Public Library on April 12, Miller will be discussing the poetry of Langston Hughes. “In a forum like a public library [where] you’re going face to face with the citizenry, you hope that somebody who comes to a program is a person of ideas, regardless of what their occupation is. Hopefully, if I do a good job, then two or three weeks after I’ve left, someone will come in aND read a Langston Hughes book. There’s a partnership here,” he said.

At the Woodland Pattern reading on April 13, Miller will read his own poems and will also read poems by other poets he admires.

“Beyond the frontier, beyond this world (which once enslaved us), lies a new consciousness,” Miller wrote in his introduction to Beyond the Frontier. “Poetry like prayer restores faith to the heart. It contains the healing power of love and forgiveness.”

After a long, cold Milwaukee winter, celebrating spring with E. Ethelbert Miller might be just the thing to inspire all of us.

If You Go:
Branching Out: Langston Hughes
Thursday, April 12, 7 pm
Centennial Hall, Milwaukee Public Library
733 N. Eighth Street
Poetry Reading with John Keene
Friday, April 13, 7 pm
Woodland Pattern Book Center
720 E. Locust Street

Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2007