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A Poet's Confession

By Jonetta Rose Barras
Examiner Columnist | 3/31/09 9:23 AM
 

I know this man, I assert, picking up E. Ethelbert Miller’s new memoir, The 5th Inning (PM Press/Busboys and Poets), released earlier this month. I have known him since I first arrived in the District wearing a wild Afro hairstyle and an attitude to match.

But after reading the book, I realize the fallacy about the breadth of my knowledge. Everyone has secrets, deep and personal, aggressively protected from others’ discovery. And then, there is the soul, a shy, intensely private creature.

“Traditionally, it’s viewed as a female occupation, to strip away the layers and examine the experience of relationships with a partner, with children, within one’s own interior emotional life,” author Joyce Maynard said about The 5th Inning.

“Here comes a strong, real male voice, exploring the terrifying territory of growing older,” Maynard added. “... Ethelbert Miller writes with naked honesty and courage about what it is to be a man no longer young. Youth may have left him. Passion has not.”

“It’s a blues book,” Miller explained, a day after a signing party at Busboys and Poets, owned by Andy Shallal and located on 14th Street Northwest.

It’s clear that baseball is Miller’s religion and the organizing metaphor for his life: “Balls and strikes can also stand for BS. How much is thrown at a person by the time they reach 50?”

This column isn’t a book review — although there is much to appreciate in Miller’s second memoir. It’s experimental: part jazz riff, part poetic meditation reminiscent of Pablo Neruda and filled with multiple voices. It’s haunting. Rather, this is a salute to a South Bronx transplant who has enriched the cultural and political life of the District for more than three decades.

Miller is “literary man”; he’s been that since the 1970s.

“Ethelbert’s name always comes up as the person to see and to get to help promote your career,” said Misty Brown, the literary editor for the Washington Informer newspaper who has known him for more than two decades. “He’s a poet’s poet.”

In the beginning, Miller’s outpost was principally Howard University. He’s the director of the school’s African American Resource Center — a trove of all things related to blacks in America and the Diaspora. From 1974 through 2000, he ran the off-campus Ascension Poetry Reading Series, showcasing emerging and established poets and fiction writers. For a time, he also published, with now-deceased author Ahmos Zu-Bolton, groundbreaking anthologies. He was the force behind the District establishing a poet laureate.

In the past decade, Miller has gone global. He has helped build an international community of political and literary activists. Maybe I should say politically active literary artists.

He is the chairman of the powerful Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank involved in anti-war efforts and immigration reform. This month, he was a guest at Abu Dhabi’s International Book Fair. A collection of his poetry was translated this year into Arabic.

“He put D.C. back on the map as a literary capital,” Brown said. “Citizens, artists, the entire city have benefited. We’re happy he’s here.“

Jonetta Rose Barras, an author and political analyst, can be reached at rosebook1@aol.com

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