E. Ethelbert Miller on Writerscastby David Wilk
June 21, 2012
E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer and literary activist. He is currently the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. Ethelbert is also the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He's published more than ten books, in both poetry and prose, has edited a number of anthologies, and his writing is widely anthologized. He's won all sorts of awards and recognition for his writing and for his longstanding work in support of writing as a community and cultural effort. In addition, for several years he hosted the popular weekly radio program Maiden Voyage on WDCU-FM, as well as Vertigo On The Air on WPFW.
Ethelbert has long been a favorite poet of mine, whom I got to know years ago when I lived in Washington, D.C., where Eth still resides. We're of a similar age and share various passions, not the least of which is baseball.
So it is no wonder that I jumped at the chance to read his memoir, The Fifth Inning, and then to talk to him about it on Writerscast. This is a terrific book, unusual in its shape and structure, which is both poetically charged and carefully built. Ethelbert allows himself to write honestly and purely about his own life, his insecurities, pain and suffering, but without ever becoming self indulgent or overwrought. There is always hope, and the sense that something good, or even great, will come from all this "stuff" we go through in life.
Thinking of a baseball game, the fifth inning out of nine is, of course, the turning point. After the fifth inning, a game can end early but still be considered an official game—a life lived, though abbreviated. So here he is, in the fifth inning of his imagination, looking back at the beginning of the game, and at the present where it's about to start the last stretch toward the end and the final score. It's a good time to take stock and get ready to see what you can do to get past the hitters coming up to bat. When you're pitching, you need to pace yourself, remember what worked and didn't work in the early innings, and use what you have learned to keep the hitters off stride and getting the outs you need to win the game.
Poets' memoirs are sometimes brittle and too carefully built to sustain a personal story. Ethelbert is not that kind of poet. He's active and alive in every moment, and brings his readers right into his head and heart. This is a beautifully constructed and written piece of personal writing that I hope will find a audience far beyond the literary community. What Ethelbert has to say about being human and growing older is important for all of us to hear.
Ethelbert's website is here, well worth a visit. And I wanted to mention that this is a Busboys & Poets book published by PM Press, a publisher I hope readers will learn about and support. Buy the book direct from the publisher to support independent publishing and alternative culture.