Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

Q.What makes good poetry (to you)?

I often asked myself this question when I was teaching in the Bennington Writing Seminars. What did I expect from my students? It's also a question I find myself "going steady with" each time I sit down with a stack of Poet Lore submissions. The good poem begins with its beauty. Selected words placed in an order that gives pleasure to the reader. The good poem kisses me and promises a second read and another date. I look for work that is memorable- the after taste that lingers or the nakedness that seduces again. Visual beauty is important. Control on the page. Order and clarity.I also want to inhale a degree of freshness. The good poem surprises me like magic or a one night affair. I want to take something away with me -even if it's just a fragrance.

Q. Can you talk about the ideas that went into the writing of The 5th Inning?

My second memoir is waiting for the critics to arrive. Don Allen who works at Teaching for Change cast the book as being post-modern. One will find me using excerpts from letters and blogs. I once again created voices to include in the text. This memoir is built around baseball as a metaphor. I refer to the fifth inning as not just middle-age but perhaps the last point in one's life. In baseball the fifth inning can be a complete game - something for the record books. I've written a dark tale but an honest one. When you see my reference to Ettta James then you know I'm also writing about the blues. My book is shaped by loneliness, depression and despair. One will find me constantly exploring what is happening inside the home. Marriage and children. In baseball all things begin and end at home (plate). One must either learn how to pitch or hit in order to survive. Too many people just know how to swing; too many people just know how to throw. Hopefully the reader of my memoir will understand the difference.

Q. What was the greatest word of criticism you ever received, and how did it make you a better poet?

I've been fortunate to have been around a number of writers who gave me excellent criticism. I will always be grateful to my mentor Stephen Henderson. He gave me almost daily feedback on much of my early writing. Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) provided the encouragement I needed to become a poet. June Jordan gave me the love I needed to write. Ahmos Zu-Bolton gave me the criticism of friendship. I remember him rejecting some of my poems for publication. He claimed I didn't know how to write "hoo-doo" poetry. He tried to teach me. Tom Dent reviewed one of my first poetry books for Freedomways and I saw in print what I needed to learn. He said I would one day find my voice. But maybe it was the writer Steve Cannon (one day sitting in my DC apartment) who looked at my work and said it was just the stuff of a beginner; Cannon's tough comment I had to swallow but it made me stop writing poems about p oetry. I stopped making love to myself. I became a poet with something to say and share.

Q.Any advice to emerging poets?

This is a tough question. I really don't have any advice unless someone is seeking it. I think it's important for all poets to ask the basic questions:Who am I? Why am I here?It's important for poets to find pleasure in their work but to understand that it's work and not just pleasure. I often talk about the heart because each day I find so many of us failing at love. Much of my work was created out of desire. Hopefully emerging poets will always attempt to hold their hearts in their hands and try to figure out what makes it go- how the beat creates the line. Only language can hold us together. Emerging poets must find the common language and seek the Beloved Community. If we fail, history will be forever a mistress.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He is the board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C. His most recent publication is The 5th Inning,a second memoir, published by Busboys and Poets Press. Mr. Miller is also one of the editors for Poet Lore magazine. Website:
Photo Credit: Shyree Mezick

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