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 gentlehe 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 clichés. Miller represents a bad poem’s worst nightmarehonest 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 as 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 writerI don’t care if it’s Toni Morrison or whoeverand 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 Utahthis is during the height of Waiting to Exhaleand I say, “Terry McMillan,” 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 his work.
“He gave me some blunt and honest criticism,” says Jordan with a bit of understatement. “He would say shit like, ‘This is an 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 shityou 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 linemy 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 up in a whirlwind of political turmoil. Students were plotting the takeover of Howard’s administration building, the Black Power movement was in full swing, and perhaps more importantly 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.CP