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This Week’s Poetry Moment: A Party in Verse by E. Ethelbert Miller

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Here’s how I began my recent interview with E. Ethelbert Miller for this summer’s issue of Little Patuxent Review: “Interviewing E. Ethelbert Miller is like trying to keep track of everyone’s names at a crowded cocktail party after downing a couple of glasses of something potent. Miller’s fifty-year immersion in the poetry world means that he befriended and interviewed people like Sterling Brown and Amiri Baraka (and does spot-on imitations of them) and gave a boost to writers such as Elizabeth Alexander, Ta Nehisi Coates, Charles Johnson, Dwayne Betts, and Cornelius Eady. Faster than one can jot them on a soggy napkin, Miller throws out names and titles and conferences and institutions and acronyms, punctuated with his trademark giggles.”

Watching Miller read his poem, “Is Eric Dolphy Coming or Going?” in this week’s episode of HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment is a similar experience, a poetic party that he guides his audience through, throwing out names and ideas thick and heavy. Miller is such a polymath that it helps to have a glossary to his poetry, since there are so many references to his fifty-two year history in the poetry world, as well as his lifelong devotion to jazz, Black culture, and baseball.

Though I’m sure I’ve missed many references he’s made, below is an attempt at a glossary of his poem, in order of appearance. Listen to the poem, read some of these notes, listen to the poem again, drown in Eric Dolphy’s music, marvel at some photos of Roberto Clemente sliding home, then listen to the poem again.

  • Frank O’Hara, leader of the New York School of Poets, wrote personal, conversational, and abstract poems about New York Life, though he was born in Baltimore. A curator at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara was immersed in the worlds of poetry, music, and art. He died young and gorgeous.
  • Billy Strayhorn spent nearly thirty years composing, arranging, and playing with Duke Ellington. With compositions that included “Take the A Train,” “Lush Life” (as a teenager), and “Chelsea Bridge,” Strayhorn was a classically trained pianist who died at age 51, also gorgeous.
  • August Wilson was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony for his plays. He wrote a series of ten plays — The Pittsburgh Cycle – set one in each of ten decades, which included works such as “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “The Piano Lesson.”
  • Roberto Clemente was born in Puerto Rico and died in a plane crash delivering supplies to Nicaragua. In between he collected 3,000 career hits and played for years for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won twelve consecutive Golden Glove awards, and after his death, he became the first Latin American ballplayer to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
  • John Ashbery is generally regarded as one of the greatest 20th-century American poets, winning prizes such as the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Yale Younger Poets Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
  • Eric Dolphy played the bass clarinet, flute, piccolo, and the alto saxophone, for which he is best known. Before he died at age 36, he put out his album “Out to Lunch,” about which the Penguin Guide to Jazz wrote, “If it is a masterpiece, then it is not so much a flawed as a slightly tentative masterpiece.”
  • In a Sentimental Mood” by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, needs no other explanation besides listening to it.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life


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