by Remica L. Bingham
Literary artifacts grace every corner of E. Ethelbert Miller’s home and each speaks to his extensive legacy in the writing world. A copy of his memoir, Fathering Words, is the centerpiece on his living room table. Priority Mail envelopes addressed to students and filled to capacity adorn tables and chairs in another room. There is an entire bookcase full of his work and another holds only autographed books. There is Walter Mosley’s artwork, even a rare copy of Time Magazine with James Baldwin gracing the cover—this, too, is signed.
He leads me to his sunroom where pictures sit on his desk. One is a framed flyer from the 1997 Ascension Poetry Reading Series featuring Reetika Vazirani and Zoë Anglesey—good friends of Miller’s who died within months of each other this year. On the third floor of his house there is a small shrine to his father and brother. These things—his personal artifacts—seem to define his true legacy.
Though he has written nine books of poetry including his newest work How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love (Curbstone, 2004), edited four anthologies, ventured into creative non-fiction with his memoir and has published numerous pieces of fiction, Miller feels as though his most important accomplishment is the effect he’s had on the lives of others. Today, the term literary activist is used to describe him, because he reaches out to touch lives in hopes that others will do the same. Miller sat down to talk with me about his work, literary politics and finding his niche teaching at Bennington College.
Remica L. Bingham: I think poet and activist June Jordan described your poetry best in her introduction to your book Season of Hunger/Cry of Rain. She said: “The poetry is [that] of a…Black man preoccupied by the silent fathers of his existence, the women of his hatred and his desire, the friends lost and found within his own mythmaking process.” Even in your earliest work, Andromeda and The Land of Smiles and The Land of No Smiles, you were writing about love and personal exploration. In Buddha Weeping in Winter, the same themes are found in poems like “Devotion” and “Drummers.” Why do think these themes continually take precedence in your work?
E. Ethelbert MIller: I think that’s a good way of summing up, not only my work, but also my life. If someone was analyzing me they would see that there are certain things I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I still struggle with them. As I sit down to write, especially personal material, memoir or poems in the first-person, I still touch on those themes of love and desire.
If I look at the writers whose work I like, such as June Jordan, you can see that she wrote about love throughout her career. I have poems in which I’m constantly making reference to Neruda and his use of those themes. If you look at me as an outgrowth of the Black Arts Movement, then that is a period in which black people were talking about loving oneself, loving one’s blackness and loving one’s people. I was sort of baptized by that. Even in the midst of the 1960’s when people were talking about violence, picking up the gun and getting ‘whitey,’ there was, within the Black Arts Movement, this focus on love.
I remember Eugene Redmond being very supportive of me and the type of work I was writing. He was one of the people I read with in my early career. At that time, he was writing a lot of love poems, too, and telling people that there was a place for it “within the revolution.”
You can also give further support to this idea by looking at Che Guevara. He talked about revolutionaries being motivated by love. That’s why you risk your life to change the status quo. If you’re not motivated out of love or a certain level of passion, perhaps you don’t sacrifice your life, perhaps you don’t commit yourself to fully changing the society in such a way that it is an improvement over what you started out fighting against.
RLB: In Migrant Worker, you began experimenting with Biblical imagery in poems like “Joseph” and “Moses.” Not only did you look to the bible, but also to the Quran in poems like “Who Will Call This Day To Prayer.” You tackle some tough issues like domestic abuse, adultery and terrorism. How did these poems come about?
EEM: The poem “Who Will Call This Day To Prayer” is using poetry to document events that I witnessed. Back in the 1970’s, I happened to be living downtown in D.C. near the buildings that Hanafi Muslims had taken over. So, I felt the incident was important and I needed to document it. I needed to be a witness to what was going on. As for the witness aspect, that idea came from reading Jimmy Baldwin. I think maybe today if it was taking place it might become a piece of creative non-fiction because I’m writing that now, but back then I was writing poems. It was also a time when I was moving away from writing about myself.
The Biblical images come from the way I grew up. I was close to my brother who went to a monastery. If I had to think of a writer who has influenced me and who uses Biblical themes very well, it would be Lucille Clifton. She was someone I was familiar with while writing in the 1970’s. I was using Biblical images and updating them in terms of looking at contemporary urban situations. For instance, the story of Mary and Joseph is very relevant now in terms of affordable housing. I like the Moses image because I grew up with the Michelangelo statue in which Moses is holding the tablets and has horns. My brother had purchased that statue and I think it’s still in my mother’s house. It used to be by the door, so when you came in, there it was.
I do remember an incident that took place in the early 1970’s. I was living by myself and I’d just come out of my marriage, so I was kind of vulnerable to certain relationships. I was at a party given by a woman that I didn’t know that well, but she was very voluptuous. It was getting late. I was with another guy from Howard who knew the sister and he turned to me and said, “Man, I’m leaving, but it looks like you’re staying.” I wasn’t planning on staying—I lived right down the block—but right then, the relationship I had with this woman changed. It turned into one of these one-night stand situations. Because of my background, in terms of relationships, that was something that was just out of the ordinary. When I finally came out of the woman’s house, I saw an older woman and I swore she looked at me like ‘You know you’re wrong.’ I’m joking, but that’s really what that poem “Moses” is about.
So if I’m explaining “Moses” you begin to see that there was a religious image I grew up with that is very important to my family. In addition to that image in the back of my mind, you have my actions in my personal life. I was by myself, sort of vulnerable, but I’d been raised a certain way, so I knew that I’d done something wrong. No different than Moses coming down from the mountain and seeing the people had gone back to their old ways. I weaved all of that together.
The other poem, “Joseph,” was about a friend of mine who just couldn’t find housing in D.C. Sometimes, when you’re in a city by yourself looking for an apartment and you’re a woman, you have to be very careful about who the landlord is, who has access to your place and so on. Also, sometimes, when you’re a single mother and you don’t have money for childcare, you have to take your child with you when you’re looking for an apartment. In some buildings, there’s a discriminatory factor and they might not want children there. The same thing happens with race. If you go by yourself, you’re treated one way, but if you take a white friend with you, you’re treated differently. The poem addresses those things.
RLB: In an anthology you co-edited with Ahmos Zu-Bolton called Synergy, he said, “Many times …poets create their own bridge.” One bridge, in particular, you’ve helped create by writing books such as Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators is that between people who are oppressed in America and those in other places like Central America and the Middle East. Why do you think it’s important for writers to explore what is happening globally?
EEM: Today, more than ever, our world is so small that you are forced to know what’s happening in Nigeria or Iraq. You are forced to be concerned with what’s happening with other ethnic groups, because they have an impact on you. In this time, you see us really getting to know each other. Many people today are much more knowledgeable about Islam than before. The average American is eating tacos and burritos, when, before, we only ate hamburgers and fries. The average person’s daily life is filled with things from all over the world. These are no longer just places on a map that the teacher points to with a pointer. These places mean something, that’s how small the world has become.
We know culture is key in terms of the exchange of values and traditions. That’s how people learn. That’s the beauty of being a human being, interacting with people who speak a different language and have different beliefs. You should learn tolerance and respect.
RLB: First Light was a book of new and selected poems. How did you decide what work you wanted to include?
EEM: I knew there were certain poems that people liked. Those were definitely poems I wanted to make available to my readers. Toi Derricote mentioned a number of years ago when she was at my house that I was breaking up my poetry into these sections, personal and political. She said there was no need for that because my political poems were personal. I think, now, I wouldn’t divide First Light into those types of sections.
RLB: You’ve edited a number of anthologies Synergy, Women Surviving Massacres and Men, In Search of Color Everywhere and Beyond the Frontier. How do you decide which poems/authors will be put into an anthology?
EEM: With In Search of Color Everywhere, I began with the premise that many people don’t read collections of poetry from cover to cover. I also tried to create an anthology for the everyday person. The thematic idea comes from an anthology that I felt was one of the best, Giant Talk, which Quincy Troupe edited. Then I went a little further. I decided each poem would follow the next creating a narrative. So, if I took the first section of In Search of Color Everywhere, which deals with freedom, you see those poems go from the creation, to Africa, to the Middle Passage, up through slavery, all the way to the last poems in that section which deal with freedom in terms of incarceration. I could take this unit of poems and I could teach a history class using the work. The same thing goes for the section on love or the celebration of blackness. I was very much aware of how that was laid out. The same way I knew that Robert Hayden’s poem “American Journal” was going to end the book. It stands by itself. It’s written from the point of view of aliens checking us out. I always thought that was hip. In Search of Color Everywhere begins with a poem on the creation and ends with “American Journal,” so it’s come full circle.
In Search of Color Everywhere was a book I didn’t have when I was growing up. It is designed for the home not the classroom, although it’s used there as well. I wanted to do ‘the one’ book. This desire comes from my job in the African American Resource Center. If you ask a body of young African American students what poems they like, you’re going to hear some of the same poems over and over again. I said, “Okay, I’m doing this ‘one’ book. You name the writer and I want their signature poem.” That’s what I tried to do.
One person who denied me a poem I felt I needed was Essex Hemphill. It was a poem in which he was looking at a photograph and he talks about looking at the picture and thinking ‘I’m the one.’ The person is the one gay member in the family. That’s such an important poem because it shows that gay presence within all families. It’s such a fantastic poem. It’s also a poem that had been published a number of times in gay anthologies, so Essex was like, ‘Oh no, don’t use that again’ and I respected him for that. My argument with Essex was that, I knew the poem had been published a number of times, but look at where it had been published. Keep in mind I had to fight with my publisher to include some of the gay poems in the anthology. I had to also still think about who the audience was, because I wanted it to be a family-oriented anthology. Some of the first poems that went were the ones with a certain degree of profanity.
Another poem I felt should have been included was Amiri Baraka’s “In the Tradition,” but it’s a long poem. Looking back, I believe several hundred pages were cut from In Search of Color Everywhere. I had to eliminate and combine sections. The biggest compromise I had to make was that there would be no biographical notes.
The most moving response I got to the book happened when I was in Oklahoma. A black guy came up to me in a bookstore and said, “Oh man, I never thought I’d meet you. I read your book to my daughter every night.” I was at the bookstore for something else. I wasn’t promoting the anthology, but this man had come and brought his worn copy of In Search of Color Everywhere. I was so happy to have had that encounter because he was using the book the way I’d intended it to be used.
I had a discussion with Mari Evans, who read Beyond the Frontier. I love Mari, but the book troubled her. She felt that some of the older writers were not represented. Before she completed the blurb she called me up and said, “Well, I don’t feel that you meant to do this, but…” and I told her, “No, I meant to do it.” I was very interested, at that particular time, in producing, not a book for the home, not a book for the classroom, but a literary document. All Beyond the Frontier does is document who some of the major writers are going to be in the next few years.
RLB: We’ve had a number of discussions on literary politics. You mentioned how difficult it is for young writers to get their work in certain magazines. Without naming names, I know that there are quite few journals in which a young poet would absolutely have to know someone to have work published there.
EEM: That’s how it is. The poetry business is no different than any other field. I’m trying to mentor my daughter who is about to graduate from college and is going out into journalism. She wants to make it on her own, but I’m saying, ‘No this is how it works.’ One would be naïve to think otherwise.
RLB: How did you learn to maneuver throughout the literary field?
EEM: I’ve been studying the literary field since I was in college. When I started learning about the Harlem Renaissance, one of the first questions that popped into my head was, ‘You mean to tell me that there were only three or four people writing in the 1920’s?’ I saw that the reason we read those writers today was that they had access to two of the key journals, Crisis and Opportunity. Back then, just by studying and being a close reader—I didn’t have to wait for a biography to come out or anybody’s letters to be published—I could tell that Georgia Douglas Johnson was having an affair with Du Bois. I figured that out because here’s young Langston Hughes sending poems like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” to the Crisis. Georgia Douglas Johnson says “Oh that would be nice if you dedicated it to Du Bois.” That’s how he got in and that’s why I have it with the dedication in In Search of Color Everywhere. Dedications are very, very important. Everything is important when you study literary politics. Look at the “Heritage” poem. What’s the dedication on that one? It’s written to Harold Jackman. I looked at that dedication and did a close reading of the poem and I don’t think it’s about Africa at all. I think it’s about a black man’s body. Let’s look at it in terms of gay literary criticism. We haven’t produced a black gay literary critic yet, but any gay critic will tell you, gay literature is coded. You have to break the code. I’m looking at the letters that came out between Van Vechten and Langston. Looking at the way they ended their letters, I think that’s a gay code.
We have to begin to study poetry more. This is a something Kalamu ya Salaam mentioned at a literary conference a few years ago in Salt Lake City. He said that one thing that has really suffered over the years has been the lack of criticism in terms of African American poetry. Our criticism is still hung up on the novel, almost specifically the black woman novel. Except for Aldon Nielsen and Lorenzo Thomas, no one is consistently reviewing and writing about African American poetry.
RLB: You were the founder of the successful Ascension Poetry Reading Series and have always made an effort to give poets an opportunity to read their work in front of an audience. How do you feel about the spoken word movement that is so popular now? Do you believe that it helps or hinders poets who craft poetry primarily for the page?
EEM: You have all this energy that’s taking place and that’s good. If we examine it closely we’ll see that a number of people who were serious about writing who were doing slams and open-mikes are now enrolled in MFA programs. Those who were serious have gone to Cave Canem. Locally, we would see DJ Renegade, Gary Lilley, I think A.Van Jordan might have been running around at those open-mikes a while back. They are just some of the best and brightest to come out of that movement. They took their work seriously and took it to the next level. What you see taking place in the cafés and the clubs is really good, because it’s giving more support and appreciation to the field in general.
I remember getting on the Metro a few years ago, there was a young brother sitting close to me and he had a poem. A few stops later, his buddy got on. They were excited and started talking about their work. I’m listening and it’s some tired stuff. But here are two black guys who didn’t know each other that well—they’d met at a reading or something—talking about poetry. They couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old, but here they were, two young black men, not arguing or shooting at each other. They had a love for language that was bringing them together. That’s priceless.
No, most def. (LAUGHTER)
RLB: Speaking of which, or whom in this case, a poem of yours was featured on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam again a few nights ago.
EEM: Well, I don’t have cable, so I’ve never seen the program. However, I know who’s responsible for their interest in my work. It would be Suheir. Suheir Hammad was one of the original cast members of Def Poetry on Broadway, so I’m sure she’s the reason I’ve been featured. I love Suheir. I think if there is a young writer who’s in the tradition of June Jordan, it’s her. The title of one of her books is taken from June Jordan’s work, so it’s not like she’s reaching. She’s one person with whom, when I first met her years ago, I was really impressed.
Suheir, Toni Blackman and A. Van Jordan are some of the younger writers that I feel close to. I like them as people. I like their work and they make you want to interact with other people, because they’re kind and generous. They always say, “You know so-and-so helped me out” and you feel good about that. I can go through a list of other people who sort of take your wallet and leave. You don’t do things for rewards or anything like that, but when you see friendships develop that’s more satisfying than all the books and stuff. Their love and appreciation for what I’ve done encourages me to continue being a literary activist.
RLB: You moved into the world of creative non-fiction with your memoir Fathering Words, in which you discussed your journey into literal and figurative fatherhood. In it you wrote, “Every person who writes a poem is not a poet. A true poet is a person of the heart” (110). People come to you, almost on a daily basis, looking for feedback on their work. One good example is Toni Blackman, the author of a book of hip-hop poetry entitled Inner-course, who cites you as her writing mentor. Obviously, Blackman was dedicated to her craft, but how do you handle it when someone with ‘just a poem’ enters your office?
EEM: It’s easy. I place them into certain categories. I’m going to meet somebody who’s just born again. I respect that, but there’s nowhere to go with that. Then, there are the people who think writing is just a hustle. Certain types of literature are very popular right now. You see different profiles of authors in magazines and they are looking good and living good. People see that and they want to look good and live good, too. Many people can sit down with a certain discipline, type up some things, throw a little sex in it and they’re off to the races.
I know a number of people who’ve been incarcerated or are still incarcerated. I know that when I sit down with many of them, I’m not dealing with Etheridge Knight. I’m dealing with somebody to whom the writing is important because it primarily helps them get through the day.
I’m always on the lookout for someone who has talent and you know is going to go far. At any given time, I am promoting at least two or three writers. For example, somebody may contact me and ask me to give a talk. If it doesn’t fit into my schedule I tell them, “I can’t make it, but call so-and-so.” Two days ago I was invited to go to a conference in Mexico, but it didn’t fit into my schedule. So, I told them Naomi [Ayala] could go. She’s one of the people in the D.C. area that I’m always looking to promote. If you believe in someone’s talent, you find the doors and push them through until they reach that point of take off. That’s what literary politics is all about.
RLB: In your book Whispers, Secrets and Promises, there is a poem called “Post-Card from Geneva” in which you say: “I am always amazed/ how you say so much/ in such little space.” Those three lines can also be used to describe your own work. You’re known for compact, pointed poems, but scattered throughout your work are much longer poems with denser language, such as “The Last Days of Bo Willie,” “The Trade” and “The Equator,” which can be found in How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love. What brought about this type of variation in your work?
EEM: When I started writing, I was practicing what you’d call an economy of words. All of my poems were very short. I think poetry readings forced me to write longer poems. Someone would be giving my introduction at a reading and the introduction would be longer than the reading itself. I would also give credit to people like Ahmos Zu-Bolton and Sterling Brown. They both wrote long narrative poems. Ahmos is a storyteller. When we used to work in the African American Resource Center together, we used to write poems back and forth.
RLB: Sensuousness is a reoccurring theme in your poetry. Readers are used to seeing poems like this one found in Whispers, Secrets and Promises, “Bringing Back the Draft,” which reads: “I suck your breasts/ till your nipples/ stand erect like two/ small soldiers ready/ to go to war.” Since you’ve begun writing fiction, eroticism has taken precedence there as well in stories like “Korea,” which can be found in the book Brown Sugar 3, an anthology of black erotica. Why has this theme become a staple in your work?
EEM: I think looking back at my work, it’s what I write about the best. As opposed to avoiding it, I’m going at it head on. Now, I think it’s about writing to my strength and I’m happy to do that. I also challenge myself with these stories. The best story I’ve done so far is called “Giovanni” and I sent it to Robert Fleming to be published in Intimacy: Erotic Stories of Love, Lust, and Marriage by Black Men. I was working on a novel and I was stuck. When Robert asked me if I had anything for his book, I took a great sex scene from my novel and fleshed it out to create “Giovanni.” I think that story holds up really well. It surpasses Fathering Words or any of the other things that I’ve done.
RLB: In addition to a new book of poetry, How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love, you are writing a new piece of creative non-fiction, Fifth Inning, which is your second memoir. You also have a number of short stories that will be published next year. Why did you decide to venture into all three major literary genres?
EEM: In terms of Fathering Words, I think you encounter certain things in your life and, in order to express them, you need more words. Poetry is good, but it has its limitations. For me to deal with the loss of my father and brother, I had to write prose. Now, I know I can do it and it’s something I enjoy. I can see myself writing more stories or working on a novel. It is always important to have new challenges for yourself.
Also, I’m in my fifties and I realize that it’s a blessing to make it out of this decade. Becoming an elder, I have to start putting things in order and taking care of stuff. I’m trying to make sure I set the records straight. That’s also how I’m responding to Zoë [Anglesey’s] and Reetika [Vazirani’s] deaths. Here are two people I loved and I’m trying to keep their memory alive.
RLB: You received your Bachelor’s degree from Howard and have been working as the director of their African American Resource Center since 1974. In your memoir, you said “I knew my relationship with Howard would be one in which my service would never be recognized. I knew the history and the horror, the love affair between writers and schools that did not love them in return” (107). You obviously feel “underappreciated” at Howard, so why have you stayed so long?
EEM: Well, I don’t feel unappreciated, but I can give you an example of what I mean. This summer I got a call about Howard wanting to do a mural of authors for the campus bookstore. Of course, I was honored to be a part of the mural. I asked the person calling who else would be on it and they said, “Oh, that’s why we’re calling you.” At that point, I realized that I’m working in the same capacity that I have been for a number of years. I’m there to work for somebody, who’s probably making twice what I’m making, but doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Howard would not have any response to what I’m doing if things weren’t getting written up in the Washington Post or if I wasn’t getting invited to the White House. At Howard, I feel like I’m not paid anything. I have three old desks that I’ve always had. I just got a new computer because I knew somebody. I’m not in the inner-circle, so if some writer or artist is coming to the university, I’m never notified.
During the city’s recent celebration of Fathering Words, no one at Howard University said anything. You’d think there would at least be a display in the university bookstore, but there are no copies of the book available for purchase there. Even so, there are certain things that always bring me back to Howard. I feel it’s a rich tradition. I always wish the university well, because it’s part of my career. I wouldn’t have a career if I was not associated with the university. I also think about what I’ve learned and been a witness to. I’ve been a witness to how Howard treated Sterling A. Brown, Stephen Henderson and Julian Mayfield. I could go down the list of how these writers were treated and how nothing has changed. Some people there think I’m the guy that only goes to get the mail. It helps keep you humble, but it’s painful.
RLB: Now that you’re teaching in the Writing Seminars Program at Bennington, what do you like about the non-traditional, low-residency format? Do you think it’s beneficial to students?
EEM: I think so. I’ve learned a lot being at Bennington. I made some early major mistakes, but now I have a better understanding of teaching/mentoring. I’ve become a better writer by teaching. Keep in mind I didn’t come through an English department or a Creative Writing Program. I came to writing through issues of culture and politics. What this program has forced me to do is go back and study the basics.
I also like the people that I’ve been working with. I feel like they’re a good group. I’m in touch with Liam [Rector] a lot more and Ed [Ochester] and I are beginning to form a nice relationship. I really like my students. Now, I have a body of people who are my students. That’s very comforting. I try to keep the relationships ongoing, not just work with a student for one term and that’s it. It’s been a very rewarding experience and its helped me look at teaching more closely. Even though I’ve been at Howard for many years, I’ve been running a center. I only went into classrooms as a substitute. I don’t like being in Vermont in January, but other than that, it’s been great.
RLB: You take an intense and personal approach while working with students in the Bennington Writing Seminars. Each month you not only send them detailed comments on their work, but also put together what you call an “E-packet” for each student. These packets consist of any given number of things, such as newspaper articles, book releases, posters, you even sent me a Langston Hughes lapel pin and videotape of an A. Van Jordan reading after I told you how much I enjoyed their work. What prompted you to start sending these?
EEM: This started out from me making mistakes. I had to learn from that. Also, I started looking around and saw that my colleagues were teaching from their strengths. I wasn’t operating from my strength. My strength is African American culture. Now, I’m making sure that people get a good dose of African American literature. The key thing is I’m a resource person. I process information, that’s what I do, so I make sure that my students benefit from that.
RLB: You joined the Bennington faculty in the midst of Thomas Sayers Ellis leaving, who was also the only other African American faculty member at the time. It seems clearly evident that, in addition to your accomplishments, you were being pursued because they needed to fill this space with a certain type of person, how did this affect your decision to teach at Bennington?
EEM: Tom was very popular at Bennington and I think the fact that he wasn’t coming back was upsetting to people. This was also the same time I moved from the associate faculty to the permanent faculty, so it looked like one person goes out and one person comes in. One of the big issues at Bennington, due to the premise of the program itself, is production of work. At the time he left, Tom only had a chapbook. Core faculty members producing a steady stream of work is an essential part of the program, so I’m sure they were looking to maintain that.
In defense of the program, Bennington established a committee to deal with issues of diversity. It was not a committee driven by student protests or anything like that. This is a problem they saw and began discussing ways to resolve the issue. One way that we’ve attempted to do that is by hiring people of color to be associate faculty members.
The program can only do so much. It’s not going to change entirely, but when I look at the student make-up of Bennington, I look at it as being diverse. Even so, I think the important thing is diversity in terms of literary style. Race and gender doesn’t really matter if everybody’s writing the same stuff. This is why we all need to be up on our reading. If a student is into experimental writing or gay and lesbian issues, we need to know how to help them find what they’re looking for.
The Bennington program is a good program and I think what we undertook just a year ago is beginning to bear fruit. I went to the Hurston/Wright Foundation retreat and talked about the program. Ed Ochester went to Cave Canem. Our major task now is going to be raising a large body of money, so that we have funds for scholarships.
RLB: One project that I know you’re very passionate about is editing and, eventually, publishing the 200+ letters you exchanged with June Jordan over the years. Will the recent acquisition of her papers by Harvard’s Schlesinger Library make this process more difficult or do you think the renewed interest in her work could make it easier?
EEM: I think the interest in letters, in general, will make it easier. In fact, Catherine McKinley is doing this book called Writing Between the Lines: A History of African American Literature in Letters 1750-2000. It’s supposed to be out in the fall of 2005. So, I told her about June’s letters. She knew about Wanda Coleman’s letters because they were in Callaloo. She’s also going to use Michael Weaver’s letters. Weaver’s are very important because they chronicle the beginning of his career. I also sent her my Charles Johnson letters. After I got his permission and sent him copies to edit, he was like, “This is fantastic. This is history.” His letters show his increasing interest in Buddhism. Last week, I found two really important letters from Lance Jeffers. I was inviting him to a conference at Howard and he talks about all the Howard poets in one letter. So, that is fascinating and valuable information.
RLB: Who has the letters you wrote to June?
EEM: I have a letter from June in which she told me that she gave all my letters to the Schlesinger Library years ago. So, my letters are there, but her letters to me are in my house. My letters belong to the estate. This is where Catherine’s book might be helpful, because publishers have ways of putting pressure on estates. I wouldn’t release any letters that may be harmful to people living, but I would release the ones that could help people understand her career. There’s one letter in which June writes about only having a few dollars. I have another letter where she’s going to debate William Buckley and she lists everything she’s reading to prepare for the debate. Those things are important.
Before she died, June was honored in Philadelphia for lifetime achievement. In the beginning of her speech, she cites her mother, her father and me as the biggest influences on her life. If you’re a biographer, you’re going to take notice of a remark like that.
RLB: Aside from June’s letters, teaching and writing, what else do you have on your plate?
EEM: I’m interested in working more with the Institute for Policy Studies. I think speaking and writing about political issues is important. There has to be a way for one to challenge things in your society. You should write political poems that are an outgrowth of your daily work.
RLB: You have written and edited numerous books, published work in different genres, taken literature to the masses by way of radio and television, mentored countless writers, served on a number of literary boards and committees, have successfully raised two children, even had the mayor of D.C. declare an ‘E. Ethelbert Miller Day’ in your honor. You’ve accomplished so much and are still looking to do more. In your anthology In Search of Color Everywhere Cornelius Eady’s poem “Success” appears. It reads: “I will stop dreaming now/ now that I’ve finally made it./ outside I can hear the wind/ rustling through the leaves of trees./ I own those trees.” Do you feel this way?
EEM: No, but that’s a good question to end with. That is a poem that deals with material conditions in terms of success. That has nothing to do with the distance you’ve traveled inside yourself.
Remica L. Bingham, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing and Literature in the Bennington College Writing Seminars. She has attended the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops and is a Cave Canem fellow. Currently, she is working on a series of interviews with African American poets and her first book of poetry. She resides in Norfolk, Virginia.
Beyond the Frontier: African-American Poetry for the Twenty-first Century. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002.
In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African-American Poetry. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1994.
Women Surviving Massacres and Men: Nine Women Poets. Washington DC: Anemone Press, 1977.
Zu-Bolton II, Ahmos and E. Ethelbert Miller. Synergy: An Anthology of Washington D.C. Black Poetry. Houston: Energy Black South Press, 1975.
Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.
Buddha Weeping in Winter. Red Wing, Minnesota: Red Dragonfly Press, 2001.
First Light: New and Selected Poems. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1994.
How We Sleep On The Nights We Don’t Make Love. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2004.
Migrant Worker. Washington D.C.: The Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 1978.
Season of Hunger/Cry of Rain. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1982.
Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? Greensboro, North Carolina: Open Hand, 1986.
Whispers, Secrets and Promises. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998.