Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Poetry & Baseball: An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of The Writer's Guide

Poet Lore executive editor and beloved poet E. Ethelbert Miller has hit another home run with his 16th book, If God Invented Baseball. Drawing on his love of sports and baseball's zen like quality, the 49 poems in Miller's new book center around America's favorite pastime. B. Perryman caught up with the Bard of Baseball just in time for spring training.

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BP: This is your 16th book and your first about baseball. What separates these poems from your prior works?

EEM: I’ve become a better writer after years of editing and teaching. I felt when my collected poems edited by Kirsten Porter and published by Willow Books (2016) came out it marked the end of a chapter in my life. Many of those poems were written during my 40-year tenure at Howard University. Since departing from Howard I’ve grown considerably as a result of new opportunities and having more time to read and write. The increase in my leisure time has provided a chance to watch and attend more baseball games. I like how If God Invented Baseball is a collection built around one theme. One will find in this book the game explored from many angles and in a variety of poetic forms. I’ve always made references to baseball in my work but this new book is an expansion of love.

BP: Who is your favorite team?  Favorite player of all time?

EEM: I’m a Washington Nationals fan. I’m happy baseball returned to this city before my last inning. All major cities need ballparks and teams that help develop a sense of community. Look at the importance of the Houston Astros winning the World Series last year after the city of Houston was hit with a terrible hurricane. I love that the Nats play just a subway ride away. Growing up I lived not far from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, so the Yankees were the team I cheered for during my childhood. There are many references to people who played for the New York Yankees in my new book. But I guess my heart will always have a special place for Sandy Koufax who pitched for the Dodgers. When Ichiro Suzuki entered the major leagues in 2001 he was the player I began to follow daily. But going back to my favorite team The Nationals, I’m a fan of Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Michael A. Taylor. Oh, and I miss Dusty Baker.

BP: How is baseball like poetry, for you? What do the disciplines have in common, and what makes baseball so compelling to write about?

EEM: Baseball teaches one patience. Getting a hit is like trying to find the right word. Striking out can be like writer’s block.  Standing alone in the outfield can be as lonely as sitting at one’s desk. We all want to make it to the majors; we what to be successful and win. Baseball instructs us that the majority of the time we won’t get a hit; we will seldom pitch the perfect game. Baseball reminds us that we are human and we make not just mistakes but errors. 

I find baseball compelling because it teaches me how to embrace aging. Every year there is spring training. An older returning player never knows if this is the season a youngster might take his place on the roster. We are all replaceable. I take comfort in the slowness of the game. I admire the beauty of a great fielding play or a majestic homerun. Trying to capture this on the page is what I attempted to do in my new book.

BP: What is your writing process like?  Do you have advice for budding (or established) poets?

EEM: I’m always writing, especially on social media. Some of my poems begin with letters to friends. Lines start in emails and get posted on Facebook. I’ve written more poems the last two years than at any other point in my life. I write fast and revise when I’m sending things out for publication. I’ve been deeply grateful to have my friend Kirsten Porter work as my literary assistant. She is always providing excellent feedback on the new work I create. I’ve been visiting museums more and spending time with visual artists. This has help me look at poetry in terms of color and white space on the page. My daughter has returned to drawing and we’ve begun to have nice conversations around her work. I think it’s very important for poets and writers to be engaged with our changing world. I’ve been trying to add more science and technology to my diet. I want to create art that embraces the new while respecting the past. My advice to writers is that they always attempt to tackle the big philosophical questions – who are you? Why are you here?

BP: When did you first know you were a poet?

EEM: The idea of becoming a writer started during my college years at Howard. I gave my first public reading in 1969 at All Soul’s Church located in Northwest Washington.  I read with poets Carolyn Rodgers, Askia Muhammad Toure, and Ebon. The jazz musician Marion Brown also performed that evening. My early poems were published in the college newspaper (The Hilltop) and read on the radio (WHUR-FM). Having an audience will encourage you to believe in yourself.

BP: When did you first know you’d be a lifelong baseball fan?

EEM: I love sports. One of things I most enjoyed was watching my son play basketball in high school and in college. He remains my favorite basketball player. I keep a picture of him on my desk and I always wear one of his NCAA rings. I admire my daughter for her passion for running and her discipline. Now that both of my children are married I look back at the past and realize it’s been a lifelong journey of not just loving baseball but other sports too. Maybe I knew I would be a lifelong fan after walking into Yankee Stadium as a young boy and looking at a field of green, a sea of grass.

BP: What’s next for you?

EEM: I want to see the public response to If God Invented Baseball. Maybe this is the book that will finally bring me a World Series ring. In the preface to the book I made the following comment:
“I admire Dusty Baker and should have written this book with a toothpick in my mouth.”
Dusty is no longer the Nats manager but what is baseball if not memories of the good times and the people that we loved.