In This Life: An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller
Volunteer Karolina interviews E. Ethelbert Miller about his memoir, The 5th Inning, and about his writing career.
Karolina: Throughout The 5th Inning, you use an extensive baseball metaphor—why did you choose to relate your experiences to baseball?
E. Ethelbert Miller: When I was a child, baseball came to play with me. I had a crush on the game, and then I fell in love. At night, a ball rested in my baseball glove waiting for the next day. I collected baseball cards. Today, I keep a Jackie Robinson card next to my desk. Baseball was where my first dreams came from. I wanted to win the World Series like Bill Mazoroski did in 1960. Baseball travels in my blood.
When I decided to write a second memoir, I knew I wanted to dig deeper into my life. Why not return to a first love? What could baseball tell me about myself?
When I started writing The 5th Inning, I was in my fifties. In baseball, five innings can go into the record books as a complete game. I looked around and saw a number of my friends not living beyond the age of 50. When might my game end?
I also wanted to explore the sadness in my life—the blues and darkness. How many baseball games end because of bad weather? Rain falling like tears.
Karolina: Also in The 5th Inning, you extensively discuss your relationships—what else influences your writing?
E. Ethelbert Miller: I think I’m still motivated by desire, love, the erotic. I want to explore issues of intimacy, and to create pleasure in my work if I can’t find it in my life. Loving another person is difficult. Why do we fail so often? What is divine love? What is the relationship between love and politics?
The news and current events also have a direct influence on my writing. My influences are in the surrounding air; I have to keep breathing.
Karolina: How has being a poet influenced your prose?
E. Ethelbert Miller: I take pride in trying to write prose that is memorable—line for line. The poet in me thinks about the line before the sentence. Being a poet makes me more aware of the importance of metaphor. I also read my prose and listen to how it sounds. I write for the ear and not just the eye.
Karolina: What made you decide to start writing memoirs after so many years of writing poetry?
E. Ethelbert Miller: My first memoir was Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer, which had its beginnings in grief. I wrote it after my father and brother died. I had to “father” more words in order to deal with my loss. There was too much I wanted to say.
I also saw a considerable amount of sadness in the lives of two men that I loved. To what extent had they been broken by failure? After looking at the other men in my family I knew I had to examine my own life. Why did I become a writer? What had I been a witness to? What might be my advice for the unborn?
Karolina: You refer to yourself as a “literary activist”—what do the two terms together mean to you?
E. Ethelbert Miller: I think the two terms bring together art and politics. I became an activist when I arrived on the campus of Howard University in 1968, a few months after the assassinations of King and Kennedy. The urban riots gave birth to a new consciousness among young black people. Many of the poets I started to read when I was in college were activists. I was influenced by the work of Langston Hughes, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, June Jordan and many of the voices of what we define as the Black Arts Movement.
When I made the decision to become a writer, I decided to be involved in every aspect of writing—editing, publishing, running a literary series, etc.
I started using the term literary activist only after I had once defined myself as a black writer and a cultural worker. As a literary activist I’m concerned about documenting and preserving literary history. I think all writers should commit a certain amount of time to “service to the field.” If we are successful writers we have to take time to sit on boards and help run magazines, centers, and conferences. We have to open doors and build “shelters” for new voices.
One of my strengths as a literary activist is the extensive network that I’ve created. My goal is to make sure it becomes more international. I’m also still in the process of building my literary archives at the Gelman Library at George Washington University. Hopefully, future scholars will have access to this material and will have a better grasp of not just my work but also the work of so many writers I was blessed to know.
Karolina: What are you working on now?
E. Ethelbert Miller: I just completed a major project—The E Channel. I interviewed the novelist Charles Johnson for an entire year. While in Israel, I started working on a collection of short stories. The title is The Hotel of Words. My goal is to win the PEN/Faulkner prize in my late innings.
On my desk are several books I have to read and blurb. There are several speeches I have to write. A couple of prisons to visit. I’m very excited about being invited to Canto Mundo this summer in Austin. In the fall, I will be going to England and the Czech Republic. I still would like to see a creative writing program started at Howard University. I have an unfinished agenda.
Why wait for the next life?
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. The author of several collections of poetry, he has also written two memoirs, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (2000) and The 5th Inning (2009). His poetry has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Norwegian, Tamil and Arabic. Mr. Miller has taught at UNLV, American University, George Mason University, and Emory and Henry College. For several years he was a core faculty member with the Bennington Writing Seminars. Mr. Miller is often heard on National Public Radio.