.. The Potomac Interview Series
     Lauren Harrison

An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

E. Ethelbert Miller is the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington DC. He is a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He has been the director of African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. He has authored ten books, including his most recent publishing in 2004, How We Sleep on Nights We Don’t Make Love; Edited four published anthologies; Won several awards including a Fulbright scholarship.

Lauren Harrison: How do you view yourself and your role in the liteary world of today?

E. Ethelbert Miller: I consider myself as a literary activist: I focus on a number of things, my own writing, promote other people’s work. I’ve been at Howard University since ‘69, so I’m affiliated with a university and I try to make sure that I get that information out. I spend time to give someone a book blurb. I try to help with the development of careers. I’m an arts commissioner and I was once on every major literary arts committee in the country. I focus on preservation – make sure you preserve your work!   

I started writing when I was a student at Howard University in ‘68 and my first poem appeared in the school newspaper. I was using my work as a part of raising the consciousness of Black issues. I was more [into] writing my work, reading other poets, and developing a word that was political. There were things that I wanted to do with my life and I wrote. My thing is that I enjoy writing, and as a writer in general, you were placed on a spiritual journey to give gifts to people and enlighten them. What I feel has happened now [is that] it’s a lot of fun to get up and do spoken word. This is tied in with economic revitalization – café’s are opening up, nightlife is opened, so now you have places for people to perform in. But at one time, there weren’t that many places for us to read in the city and that creates a performance. Then once you have Def Poetry Jam and American Idol people want to be seen. Now it’s easier to promote your work on the web and make CDs. You hear more poets than ever before because everyone can “do” it (write).

There has to be a criterion for excellence. You can have a very bad poem and a good delivery and be given a ten. We need to have standards to take place and what I find  is that nobody wants to be critical, everyone wants to be hip! That’s where I come in and I just say that is awful. People need coaching. People give me credit because I work behind the scenes. I don’t even have cable. I’d rather have some one see my work and want to share it with other people. When I started out as I writer, I wanted to be taught.  I want to be taught under the literary tradition. 

LH: You’ve touched on some of my questions, so we’ll have to come back to some of those opinions later. Let’s start off with this one: What is the integral difference between poetry and spoken word art (if you believe there is one) besides the obvious written and oral variances?

EM: Spoken word is really designed for performance. Artists put emphasis on their presence. I feel that many people who are spoken word artists have one foot in the entertainment realm, which is somewhat problematic for me, which [is why] I’m in education and approach genre a little different.

LH: Do you believe that the oral tradition is important in poetry? Why or why not?

EM: Oral tradition is very important, but it’s just one part of our tradition. How come we don’t hear of poets saying, “I want to do in my work like what Bearden does in his painting. I want to create literary art on the page.” What happens, we’ve placed heavy emphasis on the oral and the music. This whole thing has been biased because we think this is the only aspect of Black culture. Africans had texts! This needs to be challenged.   I could say the first text was in a quilt, somebody else sees the quilt, but can they read it.  What you have to look at is anyone talking about being griots. Write it down, punctuate that. It’s just part of your tradition. 

As soon as you are reciting your work and moving away from the podium and the text, [it’s oral]. Put a wireless mic or a headset on and you can do anything you want now. A new technology totally introduced something [different]. Now you have your body involved because now you can do things. You can be a completely different writer in 05’ than in 68’ because now your body is involved. 

LH: I took a poetry workshop in which the instructor asserted that Tupac Shakur was one of the late 20th century’s greatest poets. Do you consider rap/hip-hop as poetry? Is it spoken word art?

EM: One of the components of it is graffiti. I should see that on the page. Some of it comes in the spelling of words. Someone needs to study that: What are we trying to do with these changes? How does that change the sound? What does the spelling do (which is a visual thing; We’re not saying it different in some cases)? How do I visually put that on a page and am I consistent with it? Is there a national Black language? What’s the correct way of spelling a word? As I critic, I say, I don’t think so.

LH: Do you assert that spoken word art is “supposed” to have a political message? Why or why not?

EM: Our lives are political. I’ve never ran away from the label of someone calling me a Black poet. I embrace that. Work that ignores things [that] are political is a political decision. As soon as your Black and get up, that is a political statement. I know that for example, the whole act of writing is bizarre for a Black person. You realize that you’re in a political situation, you can’t be naïve. In my work, if I buy into that [that everyone has equal opportunity], no Black people get grants. There are also politics of culture: what we value [as] high and low culture. I don’t separate my life. I try to live it and it’s political.  As a writer you claim these words, so they’re not negative. I want people to know that people can read my work so I have to be political. I have to be concerned with education, literacy, and censorship. These things are all political. 

LH: In your opinion, are spoken word performances literary art or performance art? Both?

EM: Yes,it’s art. It is produced by people and does all the things that art does. [It’s a] form of folk art, because of grassroots activity in our community.  But there are different types of art. If not (for different types of art), you would see a lot of activity, not a chartering of the waters, everyone doing [the same] stuff.  It introduces many young people to a form of expression.

Terms may be reinterpreted. [The] definition of poetry is very elastic. But for me, it is the emphasis and use of metaphor. If I see an absence of this, something is missing. I’ve got to see that connection. If it’s (metaphor) a cliché, than I lower the quality of your work. The key thing is spoken word stuff like microwave popcorn. [You eat it and it’s gone] The enduring quality of poetry is every time I go back to it I see a deeper, richer quality.  If not, then it’s not functioning as poetry. Just how you appreciate a poem or read a poem, it has to be there. [It] has to be memorable, or I’ll have a problem defining it as poetry. 

LH: Do you think spoken word translates well to CD or to the page? Or is it a genre that is best heard live?

EM: I can’t say that. Some work sounds well with both. What happens is that many of the spoken word presenters pretty much have a long line and it’s not a prose poem. So you get this big block and it’s supposed to be someone’s poem.

LH: Do you think that spoken word artists are respected as poets? If not, should they be?

EM: Who’s doing the defining? If I was going to show that spoken word was subcategory of poetry, [I could use] a book and supplementary CD. If I didn’t have the CD, I would use references, but I may not find anything that looks good on the page. Most [are] concerned with how their work will be delivered and heard. Presentation of the word is as important as the content! [Some people are] content with just slapping words in the sections of Essence magazine and no attention is given to how it looks.

LH: The Beats, who many see as the “source” for America’s return to the oral tradition, were typically young, White males. Now, the current arena for spoken word seems to be widely represented by minorities (non-White and/or non-male). Why do you think minorities have surfaced as the new leaders of the spoken word movement? What are the cultural implications of this change?

EM: It’s something that comes naturally to us with rap and hip-hop. [It’s] the outgrowth of economic revitalization.

LH: Do you think this form of poetry will become more mainstream/commercial with shows like Def Poetry Jam and contest winners of National Poetry Slams making appearances in magazines, movies, cd’s, etc? Do you foresee radio support?

EM: The mainstream is the mainstream. There’s nothing outside the mainstream. 

LH: Lastly, what is your vision for the spoken word movement? What “path” do you recommend to young, aspiring performance poets? And should spoken word art emerge in classroom environments?

I think it has to be taught. It’s important for this to happen, taking it out of its performance venue. So what are we teaching? [As] soon as you have certain things move into the classroom, you are taking things apart. What did we say during the class to analyze whether we can decide what is good and bad material? [It’s about] criticism and evaluation. [There] has to be guidelines. You have to know what you are looking for, so you don’t just go to these events and say you liked something. Where does it fit in historically? Is this poetry? We would see whether these are changing definitions or if it is written in stone. What needs to be done? More work. People have to say this is an art form, is important, and is worthy of study in the academy. We still need critics to do work and know what we’re looking for.

LH: Okay, so what should the criteria be?

EM: Visual beauty on the page. I need to see the structure use of stanzas, line breaks, end words. How are they using enjambment? If not (if this isn’t seen), than that’s a mark against that person. If it’s ugly on the page, I don’t care how sweet it is. Also, punctuation: You can’t say you can’t see my periods or commas when I talk! We need guidelines; You can’t drive down the street without them or you’ll have an accident!

LH: I heard that! Well, it’s been an honor to speak with you. Thank you for being willing to talk with me.

EM: No problem.

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