Today I am celebrating poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller, the “godfather of poetry” in D.C. I met Ethelbert in the early 90s at Howard University’s Afro-American Studies Resource Center. Ethelbert has been the Director of the Center since its inception in 1974. During our first meeting, Ethelbert became my literary mentor and brothalove friend. Since then, Ethelbert has played a major role in my literary work. That’s why I had to write a poem about him for my new book That Which Awakens Me (available on Amazon.com – http://tiny.cc/7uFsg). See the poem below. By the way, I call Ethelbert “E-bert.”
FYI – Yesterday, Ethelbert sent me a Twitter message about his February 11th interview on NPR’s Speaking of Faith. The show’s theme is “Black and Universal.” It is rich and juicy! I think the interview will give you an opportunity to really learn about Ethelbert is as a person and how he thinks. Click here to listen to the interview: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/black-and-universal.
Peace, Creativity, Compassion, and Gratitude for E-bert’s Passion for Poetry and Black folks,
Excerpt from That Which Awakens Me
Copyright 2009 by Madelyn C. Leeke
Inspired by E. Ethelbert Miller’s City as Memory: Lyrical City
Writing Workshop held at Busboys and Poets on May 3, 2009.
Toni told me I had to go and meet Ethelbert if I wanted to
take my poetry to the next level.
Every couple of weeks, she reiterated her recommendation.
Before I made the call, I walked to Vertigo Books on Dupont
Circle and read some of Ethelbert’s poetry.
His words felt like jazz improvisation that could easily be
featured on one of WPFW’s radio shows.
It teased me to the point of curiosity.
So I took the plunge and called Ethelbert.
The first thing I noticed when he answered the phone was a
genuine kindness in his voice.
My ears heard the welcoming tone of a long lost friend.
Hints of New York City appeared in the middle of his soft
The rhythm of his conversation opened my heart and invited
My first visit with Ethelbert happened on a sunny day.
I think it was springtime in 1994.
I had just published my second chap book of poetry and was
We met in his office located in Founders Library on the campus
of Howard University.
His desk was filled with paper and books.
I think we might have even had some tea.
Our conversation was just that … a conversation.
It included shared interests, questions, stories, laughter, pauses,
and comfortable silences.
It traveled down Georgia Avenue, waved at the Wonder Bread
Factory, found itself on 4th Street, got dizzy going around
Anna J. Cooper Circle, and came all the way back up to
Georgia Avenue before parking itself in front of the School of
Before I left, I mustered the courage to ask him to review my
His smile offered a generous grin as he extended his hand to
receive a copy of my lavender chap book of poetry.
We hugged and agreed to meet again.
That afternoon as I walked across Howard’s campus to Soul
Vegetarian Café, I realized I had just received my first taste of
Ethelbert’s mind and humor.
And it was delicious.
Ethelbert left me a message on my answering machine.
It was the kind you wanted to keep forever.
It started with one of his trademark phrases, at least the ones
he used with me.
“Hey Love. This is Ethelbert. I read your work and would like to
talk with you about it.”
I quickly called him back and scheduled an appointment.
This meeting was different from the last one.
I can’t remember what the weather was like, how his office
looked, or whether we had tea.
All I can remember is he talked and I barely listened.
When he opened my chapbook and attempted to review each
poem, I could only focus on the red pen marks that decorated
most of the pages.
Although Ethelbert was kind in his delivery, I was naïve and
unprepared to receive his comments and suggestions as the
D.C. godfather of poetry.
They stung me and left an open wound.
If I had been by myself I probably would have started singing
the blues like Billie Holiday about how my creative heart lost
its virginity before it is was ready.
It took me a minute to digest and accept Ethelbert’s comments
I purposely stayed away from his delicious mind and humor
They were a dangerous combination.
At one point, I felt comfortable calling him to say hello, but
when he asked me what I was working on, I gave him a vague
response because I didn’t want him to know about or review
my work ever again.
One day I found the courage to read Ethelbert’s feedback.
It forced me to unpeel layers of myself and dig a little deeper
to find my own voice.
I was at work early one morning.
From my office window, I could see autumn leaves falling
from trees in Dupont Circle Park.
D.C. traffic was moving at its normal pace.
It kept me company as I logged onto my computer.
My AOL account announced loudly, ”You’ve got mail!”
It was a message from firstname.lastname@example.org.
By this time, Ethelbert had become E-bert in my world.
My eyebrows raised themselves up and past my forehead as I
read his request for a poem that would be included in a poetry
anthology he was editing for Black Classic Press.
As I sipped green tea from my Starbucks cup, I wondered,
“Why did he write me?”
Maybe he made a mistake.
Turns out it was no mistake.
E-bert wanted an original poem by moi.
My creative heart was no longer naïve.
So I sent one I had just written about my grandfather dying
with no expectation of publication.
When E-bert wrote back and said my poem was fine, I couldn’t
believe my eyes.
I called him to make sure he was really serious.
Something happened inside me when I heard him say, “Hey
love, your work is beautiful. Keep writing.”
It took me a few years to figure it out.
It was an act of someone noticing my maturation as a writer
who travels inside herself daily to fi nd her voice in each
It was a gift my creative heart needed to receive.
And one only E-bert could give.