By Eugene Holley Jr.
Sep 01, 2021
Photo: Tom Wolff
In the four decades he’s been on the literary scene, 70 year-old, New York City-born, Washington, D.C.-based poet, writer 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, Sept.), is a fifty-five page opus of forty nine poems inspired by baseball, which also reveal 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, L.A. Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, and other teams, who underwent a pioneering surgical procedure in 1974 to replace a damaged elbow ligament in his throwing arm. In Miller’s poetic alchemy, the surgery is metaphorically applied to healing marital relationships.
“We’re talking about people overcoming injuries,” Miller says by phone from his Washington, D.C. home. “In this case, people involved in a marriage. Tommy John surgery is a way of trying to correct something that’s gone wrong. Many times, when an athlete has Tommy John surgery, they come back stronger. So in this case, a person is moving from one relationship, and the next will be much better, and much more positive. [The book] is a metaphor on how you can correct your life.”
Writing in economical sonnet and haiku forms, Miller uses baseball, the arts and humanities to extend the game into extra innings and explore the big issues of our times. In “The Negro League,” Miller writes about his dream team of literary “heavy hitters” that includes celebrated Black authors Sterling Brown, Albert Murray, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], along with the legendary Negro League slugger Josh Gibson. Miller adds another distinctively American creation—jazz—to the book’s lineup. 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,” references the historic 1959 Miles Davis album, where the author’s father was “always somewhere in the back of the house with jazz on the radio and the ball game on television;” while the poem entitled “In a Sentimental Mood,” is the Duke Ellington soundtrack for “teammates in the clubhouse going crazy with champagne …”
Miller also sees baseball through the lens of the visual arts. In “Manager Descending Down the Batting Order,” Marcel Duchamp is characterized as, “a manager who can get away with anything;” “The Scout” features Edward Hopper looking over statistics, and Pablo Picasso sees a baseball diamond as a cube in “Picasso.” But it is in matters of race where Miller hits it out of the park, as evidenced by poems like “Lost in the Sun,” where “Black fathers no longer standing in a field of dreams. Their Black boys’ sunglasses unable to hide their grief.”
Miller’s new book is a worthy sequel to his 2018 work, If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press). “In that book, there’s a lot of poems about childhood,” Miller says. “And so I wanted to have the book go from childhood through the aging process: When I go to a ballpark, I see older people, older couples who will still keep a scorecard. The love of the game brings some of these older couples out.”
Miller has published and co-edited over a dozen books including, First Light: New and Selected Poems (Black Classic Press), a 1994 book of essays, Fathering Words: The Making of an African-American Writer (Thomas Dunne Books), a 2009 memoir, The Fifth Inning (PM Press), and in 2016, The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller (Aquarius Press). Miller’s literary work garnered him a 1995 O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize 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 went to the predominantly Jewish and Italian Christopher Columbus High School in his home borough. “I graduated early in January, 1968,” Miller says. “I took a job down at Bookazine, a wholesale book company distributor in Greenwich Village. They also distributed books to a few places outside of New York, and one of those places was Drum & Spear Bookstore in DC. And that’s the connection that I first had to Howard University, because two individuals who were associated with that bookstore, Charlie Cobb and Courtland Cox, both went to Howard, and were members of the [celebrated Civil Rights organization] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I came to Howard right after the major student protests with my Marshall McLuhan book and my Black Power book, by Stokely Carmichael (aka, Kwame Toure) and Charles Hamilton. I was ready for the revolution!,” he says, laughing.
Photo: Rick Reinhard
E. Ethelbert Miller
Miller came to Howard as Eugene E. Miller; a history major. But when he decided to run for student government, he could not find a campaign slogan. He was then asked if he had a middle name. When he confessed that his middle name was Ethelbert, his campaign slogan became, ”The Ethelbert is Coming.” His interest in poetry was sparked in his sophomore year by several friends, a poetry reading he participated in on the school’s radio station, and Eugene B. Redmond’s anthology, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History. He graduated from Howard with a B.A. in African-American Studies in 1972.
From 1974 to 2015, Miller worked as the director of the African-American Resource Center in Founders Library at Howard University, where he mentored several generations of Howard’s literary and artistic alumni, including cultural critic and poet Greg Tate, video artist Arthur Jafa, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb and essayist Ta-Nehesi Coates. “I didn’t teach them, they hung out with me at the Resource Center,” Miller says. “I’ve got the first poems that Greg read in public, and you can just go down the list. Looking back, I’m just amazed at all the lines of people who intersected with me.”
Miller’s service to the literary community extended beyond Howard. He created the Ascension Poetry Reading Series In D.C. 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 multitude of boards, sometimes as the only Black voice at the table. He currently serves as board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a Washington, and D.C progressive think tank, and he was the editor of Poet Lore, the oldest poetry magazine published in the United States, for 10 years.
He is also board emeritus for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and was inducted into the Washington, D.C. Hall of Fame in 2015 “At one time in my career, I sat on the board of every major literary organization,” Miller says. “I can’t think of another writer, or African-American writer, who has been involved in all of those boards at the same time.”
Miller has taught at many universities, among them American University, George Mason University, and Emory and Henry College, where he was awarded an honorary degree for Doctor of Literature in 1996. Miller can also be heard on National Public Radio. He is the host and producer of The Scholars on the University of the District of Columbia’s UDC-TV, and he currently hosts the podcast/radio show On the Margins on WPFW-FM. And he created the George Washington University Washington Writers’ Archives, where his papers are stored.
Miller is at work on another book of baseball poems. “It will be part of a trilogy,” Miller says. “I want to make sure that the next book really draws on the history of baseball and certain key figures.”
Whatever 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 writing to baseball,” Miller says. “Do you write for the love of the game? The joy of the language, the sounds of the language? You have to have that love for writing.”