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E. Ethelbert Miller: Jazz in Poetry

Scott Krane’s interview with noted poet about the influence of jazz in his work

E. Ethelbert Miller is the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and a leading literary activist. He is a board member of The Writer’s Center and the editor of Poet Lore magazine. He has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. He is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and an erstwhile core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College.

In 1979, the Mayor of Washington, D.C. proclaimed September 28, 1979 as “E. Ethelbert Miller Day.”

In 1982 he was awarded the Mayor’s Art Award for literature. In 1988 he received the Public Humanities Award from the D.C. Humanities Council. In 1993 he was the recipient of the Columbia Merit Award and in 1994 the Mayor of Baltimore made him an honorary citizen. His work In Search of Color Everywhere was given the 1994 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was made a Book of the Month Club selection. In 1995 he received the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize; was awarded an honorary literature doctorate from Emory and Henry College in 1996; and in 1997 was given the Stephen Henderson Poetry Award by the African American Literature and Culture Society.

On May 21, 2001, the Mayor of Jackson, Tennessee declared it “E. Ethelbert Miller Day.” And in 2004, Mr. Miller was given the prestigious academic Fulbright Scholarship to visit Israel.

Oftentimes his unique verse deals with jazz on a macrocosmic level, placing Mr. Miller in the pantheon of American poets who have connected these aesthetic charges, such as Michael S. Harper and Langston Hughes, for example.

Scott Krane: Currently, I am writing about the poet John Ashbery, an old art critic, whose poetry came into vogue during the era of abstract-expressionism in painting and of course Dada. For instance, one of his first volumes, The Tennis Court Oath, is really out there and it occurred to me how ‘out of the box’ and surreal his poetry is…

Several years ago Ashbery came to the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, D.C. to read and lecture. During the question and answer I asked Ashbery how much of an influence jazz is on his poetry. During this time, I was reading [the literary critic] David Lehman, [who writes about both jazz and poetry.] and Ashbery said, “I don’t listen to jazz…” [Laughing] I couldn’t believe it!

Recently, it dawned on me that in the early 20th century when jazz was becoming something serious, the painting in Europe and America became very surreal, for instance, Kandinsky and Picasso. I was admiring the artwork on the cover of your latest poetry book, The Ear Is an Organ Made for Love. It looks to me like Kandinsky meets Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The artist is Alexandra Dominguez. I met her a couple of years ago in Norway. She is from Spain. Maybe she listens to a lot of jazz. I don’t know.

Tell me about your poem, “In a Silent Way.”

“In a Silent Way” is in the collection How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love. The album was given to me by my first wife. My father listened to jazz and loved Miles Davis. So I use this story to shape or to frame the discussion in my poem.

How do you use jazz in your poetry?

My use of jazz in poetry is part of my use of popular culture. [I use] everything from sports and music to movies. You see, someone might use Greek myths, some people might use folklore from any given culture. For me, I use popular culture.

Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He writes, “Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest.” And Whitman also writes, “The American bards shall be marked for generosity and affection and for encouraging competitors… They shall be kosmos… without monopoly or secrecy…” What is jazz to the American?

Okay. Whitman is writing at the time of the Civil War. Whitman sees America as…there’s that break from Europe, that is why Whitman is America’s first…writer. He was a nurse to the [Union’s] wounded during the Civil War. So Whitman is a poetry nurse, because to go for commonality between people, there is a celebration of the body.

You have that poem called “Before Hip Hop.”

Jazz is American music the same way that country is American music. Today, jazz and blues will take us back to the days of slavery. Jazz and blues come out of the black American experience.

In the poem you talk about “cool.”

Sugar Ray Robinson and Miles Davis have a certain sense of style. Hipness. What is cool…cool is part of the tradition. It is nothing new. It has always been there.

Read E. Ethelbert Miller’s poetry by visiting his website. Originally Published