Washington City Paper May 23, 1997
|E Ethelbert Miller Gives D.C.'s Young Black
Poets a Little Tough Love.
By Ta-Nahisi Coates
The trek to E. Ethelbert Miller's office in Howard
University's Founders Library is a sacred ritual. It is perhaps the most grueling of the
tasks required for initiation into Washington's society of young black poets. The six
daunting flights of marble steps immediately eliminate all fakers, fronters, and those who
are simply out of shape (survivors of the ordeal are later informed of an elevator
conveniently hidden in the library's stacks).
At the summit lies the African American Resource Center, of which
Miller is the director. But Miller's isn't the first face you see. Instead you're greeted
by a sentry, usually a student on work-study, cleverly positioned to ward away the
squeamish. "I'm here to see Ethelbert Miller," the initiate announces. After a
thorough examination, the sentry motions to his right, where Miller sits behind a vintage
wooden desk and an IBM computer that carbon-dating would probably place in the Stone Age.
Miller smiles, putting his prey at ease. His dress is often
simple: glasses, bow tie, slacks, shirt, and vest. His talk is gentle-he jokes about the
Knicks, the weather, the university It is a clever mask: poetry's Freddy Krueger in Mr.
Magoo's clothing. The real Miller arises when the initiate opens his notebook or folder,
offers up a few morsels of virgin verse, and asks the fatal question: "What do you
think?" One of two things happens. Either those are the last words the initiate ever
utters as a self-professed poet, or he leaves Miller's office having taken a giant step
toward becoming a pro.
Among D.C.'s black poets, there are few who don't have an
Ethelbert horror story. Miller is merciless when it comes to critiquing. He's deadly with
a red pen. Rarely does a poet leave his office without a bag of bleeding metaphors,
fractured similes, and bludgeoned cliches. Miller represents a bad poem's worst
nightmare-honest criticism. Almost all of Washington's young black poets of note have at
some point brought Miller their work and had it thrown back at them. And the vast majority
of them love Miller for it.
But what makes Miller the patron saint of revision? Who died and
named him Langston Hughes? There are always cynics and sadists who draw a sort of
perverted pleasure out of ripping other peoples' work to shreds. What makes Miller any
different? And more importantly, why are so many writers inclined to sojourn in his office
and trust his criticism?
Maybe it's the way he smiles a-, he tells you a line in your poem
reminds him of something he heard in a bad commercial. But more likely it's the reputation
Miller has earned over 20 years on the local writing scene. In that time, Miller has
managed to publish five books of poetry and edit three anthologies. He has racked up a
bundle of honors, including the 1994 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award.
But the awards and kudos he has garnered seem to impress others
more than they do Miller himself. "The thing I find very humbling is this," he
says. "You take any writer-I don't care it' Toni Morrison or whoever--and if
you're ever in an airplane and you're flying over a city, you glance out the window and
most of the people below have never heard of you. I was in Utah - this is during the
height of' Waiting to Exhale-and I say, "Terry MacMillan," and people tell me 'I
don't know her. "
Miller traces his literary lineage to sources as diverse as the
political rantings of Amiri Baraka and the amorous croonings of Pablo Neruda. Miller's own
poetry is short, quiet, and sparse, usually stating something as subtly as possible It is
devoid of flashy imagery and flamboyant metaphors, displaying the same streamlined
aesthetic evident in his criticism. For Miller, the bottom line is that the poet get to
the point economically.
More than simply a critic, however, Miller is one of the father
figures for the District's young black writers, and he takes the task of developing talent
seriously. Case in point: A. Van Jordan. Jordan met Miller at an Ascension poetry reading,
a reading series that Miller has been running for over 20 years. Miller asked to see some
of Jordan's work and offered to give him some feedback. Miller put Jordan in one of his
Ascension readings, but when he got him into his office, he told Jordan what he thought of
"He gave me some blunt and honest criticism," says
Jordan with a bit of understatement. " He would say shit like,'This is in awful
line,' or he would cross shit out. He would put large X's through sections of the poem and
then circle another stanza and say, 'See this right here? This is your poem. All this
other shit-you don't need that.'And it'd be, like, the whole poem. it'd be, like, a
two-page poem and, like, the whole first page would be gone, and it'd be, like, the last
stanza and he'd be, like, 'This is the poem, right here.' You know, like, a line--my shit
be like a haiku." "
Though initially disappointing, Jordan's experience with Miller
would be his first time getting the criticism that most good writers thrive on. "He
was crushing my shit," says Jordan, who considers Miller a mentor. "But at the
same time he would look at a line and say, "I like this."
Miller's literary career and his subsequent role as a
mentor began with his arrival at Howard in the late'60s. At the time, Howard was swept
swept up in a whirlwind of political turmoil Students were plotting the takeover of Howard
( administration building, the Black Power movement was in full swing, and perhaps more
important for Miller, so was the Black Arts movement.
In those days, everybody was a poet, scrawling
anti-establishment, down-with-the-Man verse. Miller fit that mold well, as his early
influences were Black Arts poets like Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, and Baraka. "I
started out writing letters back home to friends," says Miller. "I would write
little poems on the back of envelopes, being avant-garde. And then I was fortunate that
some of the people I began to meet on Howard's campus were also writing."
One of those people was playwright Bob Stokes. Stokes was
extremely active in the black literary community, bringing in Black Arts poets such as
Sanchez, Lance Jeffers, and Ebon to read. Without fail, whenever Stokes brought in a poet
of national acclaim, he found a way to attach Miller to the reading. "What he taught
me was not just about being a writer," says Miller. "He gave me a spiritual
direction .... It's through him that I learned the whole thing of service .... Here was a
man who was taking his own time and money and investing it in my career. "
Stokes' compassionate treatment left a mark on Miller, and for
all Miller's biting critique, it's clear that the devil does have a heart. "I work
with good people," he says. "They're talented; they'll go places. And what they
need is a door, and they go through. And you're not asking to be thanked or anything of
that sort. You just open the door, and they go through. "
Brian Gilmore's introduction to Miller came after he told his
father he wanted to be a writer. His father then prepared him a list of writers to talk
to. One of them was Miller. Gilmore called Miller, sent him some work, and walked up
to his office to get an evaluation. The verdict was predictable. "He ain't like none
of it," says Gilmore.
What Miller did do was help get Gilmore connected to a community
of writers. He put Gilmore in his Ascension series, and it was at those readings that
Gilmore made a contact that would eventually lead to a book deal. "The main thing
about that is just the whole idea of building a literary community, "says Gilmore.
"People come to the Ascension because they know they can network and meet writers,
meet poets, and they can meet other people that can help them. "
Predictably, however, not everyone is a Miller fan. "I
remember maybe two years ago," Miller recalls, "there was a young woman who
wrote me from Long Island. She said, 'I was in the library, and I saw one of your books,
and by the way, I just want to let you know I stopped writing after I left your office.
But such experiences hardly stop Miller from giving criticism. "I don't think about
it," he says. "It's just like if Michael misses a free throw. You just can't
think about it. The game goes on.
Miller isn't the Michael Jordan of the District's poetry scene.
There are probably a few young poets in the area who have one up on him. But he is the
District's Rick Pitino. And there are scores of young writers who each week trek to
Miller's office eager for some coaching.
They come wide-eyed and all smiles, with poems typed neatly on
fancy stationery. Some have been encouraged by family members, who might mean well but
wouldn't know a good poem if it jumped off the page and slapped them. Some of them have
been closet writers for years. Others are open-mike specialists who've been deluded into
believing that if the crowd cheers it means they've written well. Yet all of these people
share one thing. They leave Miller's office wondering
where a man with such a pleasant smile learned to make red pen talk like that.
Washington City Paper May 23, 1997