Skip to content

The City and the Writer: In Washington, D.C. with E. Ethelbert Miller

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of the Washington D.C. as you feel/see it?

It’s difficult to determine the mood of Washington, D.C. since the city consists of so many different neighborhoods. Washington however is still a place shaped by race and class. At times one can see and feel the tension when moving around on public transportation. Bump into the wrong person and you might be assaulted. Walk into a new restaurant and you might wonder where all the black people disappeared to. Meanwhile, Washington is a city that is becoming a haven for young professionals. I’m amazed at the number of people who now ride bikes when commuting from home to work. In my own neighborhood (Brightwood) the elderly appear to be walking slower, many people who once lived on my block (Underwood Street, NW) have died. This introduces a degree of grayness to the city. How ironic that this is also the last name of our new mayor. But let me end my comment to your question by saying I saw the beautiful possibilities of Washington, D.C. during the World Cup. So wonderful to see a city filled with such a tremendous amount of diversity coming together to cheer, not just for the love of a game, but for perhaps each other.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Washington will always be the city where I learned about the death of my brother (and recently my mother). While Washington D.C. is the city I call home, to some degree I’ve lived in exile from my immediate family (in NY) since 1968. When I learned (by a phone call) about my brother’s death, I was sitting at my desk at Howard University. I can still hear my mother’s voice filled with panic, and grief as her world collapsed and I tried the impossible task of comforting her. I remember just leaving the Howard campus, walking across town to my apartment on Fuller Street, NW, unlocking the door, going straight to the bedroom, climbing into bed and pulling the covers over my head.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most,  of the city?

I think what is often overlooked are all the small parks and gardens around the city. Do you know the bust of Pablo Neruda is outside the OAS building here in Washington?

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Here is a list of some of the writers connected to DC that one should read: Sterling A. Brown, Owen Dodson, Jean Toomer, Dolores Kendrick, Myra Sklarew, Gregory Orfalea, Reuben Jackson, May Miller, Sandra Beasley, Kenneth Carroll, Juan Williams, Edward P. Jones, Dan Moldea, Marcus Raskin, Marita Golden, and Wil Haygood.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I guess I often find myself in DuPont Circle where one of my poems is engraved in concrete near the Metro Station (Q Street, NW, Exit). Another poem can be found in front of the Petworth Metro stop.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

For the last five years, Busboys and Poets (located at 14th and V Streets, NW) has been the key literary place in town. It features the Teaching for Change Bookstore; it’s a place for readings, lectures and discussions.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I wish there were more places to “hide” in Washington, D.C. I have to start thinking about retirement. Do I want to stay here?  Will a city that once seduced me, now turn her back?  I need to find the answers soon.

Where does passion live here?

I think passion resides in downtown Washington and around the National Mall. The monuments (especially at night), and the museums are a constant reminder of what it means to live and dream in America. I can’t wait to see the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on August 28.

What is the title of one of your poems about Washington D.C. and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote my poem “The Ear Is An Organ Made For Love” last summer when my friend Me-K was visiting me from South Korea. Riding around the city together we listened to the voices of people passing us. Many of their conversations were filled with profanity and what I defined as ugliness. So sad to “hear” our young people losing their tongues. Where is the new music that will save our ears?  Where are the conversations of hope? So, after a few days, I sat down and wrote my poem.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Washington D.C. does an outside exist?”

I think we will soon enter an era when borders no longer exist. There will be no outside or inside. At the end of the day there is no you or I.  Maybe what we will finally be witnesses to is the Beloved Community. This is why I continue to write.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He was born in 1950 and grew up in the South Bronx. A graduate of Howard University, he was one of the first students to major in African-American Studies. Today he is the board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C. Miller is also the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, a position he has held since 1974. In 1996, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Emory and Henry College. Miller is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.  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). Fathering Words was selected by the D.C. Public Library for its DC WE READ, one book, one city program in 2003. His poetry has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, Norwegian, Tamil, and Arabic. 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. He is often heard on National Public Radio. Poem Bench-Dupont Circle, Washington D.C. (

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Some of my favorite readings took place in D.C. – The Folger’s Shakespeare Library (one of the first places I read when the anthology I edited, The Poetry of Arab Womenwas published); the National Museum of Women in the Arts (I think everyone should support this museum—it’s an important space for the arts); The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (it was a dream performing there last year—they are exceptional); and Busboys & Poets (one place I really want to read in one day—it’s extraordinary—plus, the owner is Middle Eastern). I think anything the Lannan Center at Georgetown University organizes is important. And I love working with the Literature Division/U.S. State Department. It’s been a great journey so far. Mostly, when I think of Washington D.C. one name comes to mind—E. Ethelbert Miller. As well as poets Miller introduced me to, especially Sandra Beasley and the Indian-American poet Reetika Vazirani. Vazirani and I met when we read together along with Azar Nafisi and Sonia Sanchez at the Life Lines reading series organized by the Women’s Learning Partnership D.C. It was a shock when, a few months later, the rising star tragically ended her life and the life of her young son, Jehan. Read World Hotel and the posthumous mamuscript, Radha Says—“a manuscript of poems sealed in an envelope, with which Leslie McGrath and Ravi Shankar worked to edit and to bring out her last poems.”

Published Feb 2, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.