Q&A with E. Ethelbert Miller of Poet Lore
By Leslie McGrath
Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest continually-published literary magazine, is celebrating its 120th year. Established in 1889 and affiliated with the renowned Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, Poet Lore has published poetry and poetry reviews throughout half of our nation’s history. Published semiannually, Poet Lore has continued the vision of founding editors Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, who introduced to the American reader poetry from across not only the U.S. but also from South America, the Middle East, and Asia.
Poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller, has served both on the board of directors of the Writers Center and as one of Poet Lore’s editors for the last eight years. He is board chairperson for the Institute for Policy Studies and the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. Miller is highly regarded for his knowledge of African American literature and his generosity to other writers. A frequent commentator on National Public Radio, Miller has published nine books of poetry. His second memoir, The Fifth Inning (Busboys and Poets Press) has garnered wide acclaim.
Managing editor Leslie McGrath spoke recently with Miller about his involvement with, and wishes for, Poet Lore.
Q. How did you get involved with Poet Lore?
I’d like to believe that Al Lefcowitz, the founder of The Writer’s Center, had a visionary moment. He’s responsible for me not only becoming one of the editors of Poet Lore, but also a board member of the Center. Al also selected Rick Cannon and Jody Bolz as editors. We quickly established a nice working chemistry. Rick left for personal reasons. I miss him. Caitlin Hill, now our managing editor, has done a remarkable job in that position. We’ve been fortunate to have undergone a variety of staff changes without any harm to the quality of the publication. A wonderful recent addition has been Jean Nordhaus as review editor.
Q. What did you know of Poet Lore before you became involved?
I never submitted poems to Poet Lore for publication. I wasn’t even a regular reader of the magazine. To some extent I viewed it as a “suburban” journal because of its association with The Writer’s Center outside the District of Columbia. It’s funny that many of my friends of color (even today) are not aware that I’m one of the editors of Poet Lore. Many people might be surprised to learn that Jody and I have our regular meetings at my house. It’s like that hidden location Cheney was fond of.
Q. How has its focus changed since you’ve been involved, if at all?
We no longer publish translations. The “Poets Introducing Poets” section is something we introduced and are very proud of. It’s a way of keep our contributing editors actively involved in the journal. Jody and I have discussed the desire to publish more long poems. Overall, I think the design and style of Poet Lore has improved. We’ve been using historical photographs for our covers. The names of contributors to an issue are now listed on the back cover. It’s important to produce a poetry magazine that people are proud to be included in. At the end of the day, I want someone to share Poet Lore with a friend or lover.
Q. Do you have any unrealized goals for Poet Lore?
I think Poet Lore has begun to benefit from Charles Jensen’s new leadership as director of the Writer’s Center. Our visibility is growing as we introduce ourselves to a new generation of readers. I like when I read a poet’s biographical note and they make reference to Poet Lore being a place where they’ve published. We take pride in discovering new voices. The future of Poet Lore will be shaped by its ability to capture the changing cultural voice of American poetry. We have to be able to embrace a multitude of writers who differ in voice and style.
Q. How has your work with Poet Lore affected your own writing and career?
I’ve been blessed having the opportunity to work with Jody Bolz as a co-editor.
She has to be considered one of the best poetry editors working with a magazine right now. I like her attention to detail, as well as her passion and love for poetry. Working with Poet Lore keeps my feet in the water.
This year I published a second memoir. I’ve been writing my E-Notes (a blog) every day. It’s good to have Poet Lore put her hand around my waist or find the center of my back. I need the hug and caress that only a good poem can give.
Leslie McGrath is managing editor of Drunken Boat online journal of the arts. Her first poetry collection, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage, (Main Street Rag) was published in fall, 2009. She edited, with Ravi Shankar, Reetika Vazirani’s posthumous poetry collection, Radha Says (Drunken Boat Press, 2010.)