By Eugene Holley Jr. |
In the four decades he has been on the literary scene, 70-year-old New York City-born, Washington, DC-based poet, author and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller, has written eloquent and engaging poetry and prose about race, culture , politics and love. His new book, When your wife has Tommy John surgery and other baseball stories (City Point Press, September), is a fifty-five-page opus of forty-nine poems inspired by baseball, which also reveals the author’s thoughts on the game and many aspects of American civilization.
The book’s title refers to Tommy John, a former All-Star pitcher for the New York Yankees, LA Dodgers, Chicago White Sox and other teams, who underwent a groundbreaking surgical procedure in 1974 to replace an injured elbow in the throwing arm. In Miller’s poetic alchemy, the operation is used metaphorically to heal marital relationships.
“We’re talking about people overcoming injuries,” Miller said on the phone from his home in Washington, DC. “In this case, people are involved in a marriage. Tommy John surgery is a way of trying to correct something that has gone wrong. Many times, when an athlete operates Tommy John, they come back stronger. So in this case, a person moves from one relationship and the next will be much better and much more positive. [The book] is a metaphor for how you can correct your life. “
Miller writes in economic sonnets and haiku forms, and uses baseball, art and the humanities to expand the game to extra rounds and explore the great problems of our time. In “The Negro League”, Miller writes about his dream team of literary “heavy hitters” that include famous black writers Sterling Brown, Albert Murray, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], along with legendary Negro League slugger Josh Gibson. Miller adds another distinctive American creation – jazz – to the book’s selection. On “Ornette”, Miller pays tribute to the iconoclastic free jazz saxophonist / composer Ornette Coleman, where the reader / batter “felt something different when the bat hit the ball.” “Kind of Blue” refers to the 1959 historic Miles Davis album, in which the author’s father was “always somewhere in the back of the house with jazz on the radio and ball games on TV;” while the poem entitled “In a Sentimental Mood” is the Duke Ellington soundtrack for “teammates in the clubhouse who go crazy with champagne …”
Miller also sees baseball through the lens of the visual arts. In “Manager sinks down the slogan” Marcel Duchamp is characterized as “a leader who can get away with anything;” “The Scout” has Edward Hopper looking at statistics, and Pablo Picasso sees a baseball diamond as a dice in “Picasso.” But it is in race issues where Miller knocks it out of the park, as evidenced by poems such as “Lost in the Sun”, where “Black fathers are no longer in a dream field. The sunglasses of their black boys fail to hide their grief. ”
Miller’s new book is a worthy sequel to his work in 2018, If God invented baseball (City Point Press). “In that book, there are many poems about childhood,” Miller says. “And then I wanted to make the book go from childhood to the aging process: When I go to a ballpark, I see older people, older couples who still want to keep a goal card. The love of the game brings out some of these older couples. ”
Miller has published and edited over a dozen books, including, First Light: New and selected poems (Black Classic Press), a book of essays from 1994, Fathering Words: The Making of an African-American Writer (Thomas Dunne Books), a 2009 memoir, The fifth round (PM Press), and in 2016, The Collected Poems by E. Ethelbert Miller (Aquarius Press). Miller’s literary work gave him an OB Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from 1995 for excellence in poetry and teaching.
Miller’s love of baseball comes from growing up in the South Bronx, the son of West Indian immigrants in a neighborhood that included blacks and Hispanics. He attended the predominantly Jewish and Italian Christopher Columbus High School in his hometown. “I graduated in early January 1968,” says Miller. “I took a job at Bookazine, a wholesale distributor of book companies in Greenwich Village. They also distributed books to a few locations outside of New York, and one of those locations was the Drum & Spear Bookstore in DC. And that’s the connection I first had to Howard University, because two people who were affiliated with the bookstore, Charlie Cobb and Courtland Cox, both went to Howard and were members of [celebrated Civil Rights organization] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I came to Howard right after the big student protests with my Marshall McLuhan book and mine Black power book, by Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Toure) and Charles Hamilton. I was ready for the revolution! He says and laughs.
Miller came to Howard as Eugene E. Miller; a historical major. But when he decided to run for office, he could not find a slogan for the campaign. He was then asked if he had a middle name. When he confessed that his middle name was Ethelbert, the slogan for his campaign was, ” The Ethelbert Coming. ‘Eugene B. Redmond’s Anthology, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History. He graduated from Howard with a BA in African American Studies in 1972.
From 1974 to 2015, Miller served as director of the African American Resource Center at the Founders Library at Howard University, where he supervised several generations of Howard’s literary and artistic alumni, including cultural critic and poet Greg Tate, video artist Arthur Jafa. One from New York author Jelani Cobb and essayist Ta-Nehesi Coates. “I did not teach them, they hung out with me at the Resource Center,” Miller says. “I have the first poems that Greg read in public, and you can just go down the list. When I look back, I’m just amazed at all the lines of people who crossed me. ”
Miller’s service to the literary community extends beyond Howard. He created the Ascension Poetry Reading Series In DC in 1974 which featured readings by more than 700 poets – among them Amiri Baraka, Ntozaki Shange and Alice Walker – before the series ended in 2000. He has served on a number of boards, sometimes as the only one answered the voice at the table. He currently serves as chair of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive think tank in Washington and DC, and was editor of Poet lore, the oldest poetry magazine published in the United States, for 10 years.
He is also the board emeritus of the PEN / Faulkner Foundation, and was inducted into the Washington, DC Hall of Fame in 2015. “At one point in my career, I sat on the board of all major literary organizations,” says Miller. “I can not think of another author, or African-American author, who has been involved in all these paintings at once.”
Miller has taught at many universities, including American University, George Mason University, and Emory and Henry College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature in 1996. Miller can also be heard on National Public Radio. He is the host and producer of The scholars at the University of the District of Columbia’s UDC-TV, and he currently hosts the podcast / radio program On the margins on WPFW-FM. And he created George Washington University Washington Writers’ Archives, where his papers are stored.
Miller is working on another book of baseball poems. “It will be part of a trilogy,” Miller said. “I want to make sure the next book is really based on baseball history and certain key figures.”
No matter what dimensions the next book will take, Miller’s poetic commitment to language and history will serve the rich legacy of the game. “You have to connect the script to baseball,” Miller said. “Do you write for the love of the game? The joy of language, the sounds of language? You have to have that love of writing. ”