The E Project: The First Challenge—Tackling Self-Doubt before You Can Play the Game

A chat with Kirsten Porter, editor of the upcoming The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller

I’m on the phone with Ethelbert Miller. It’s back in early November, a few weeks after he asked me to edit his book of collected poems. The first day he asked me I was elated. You know that scene in the movie Singing in the Rain when Gene Kelly is so over-the-moon in love that he shrugs off his umbrella and dances through the street in the middle of a downpour? No matter that his smart-looking suit is getting soaked, that he risks catching a cold only a miserable week of tissues and chicken soup would remedy. He is bursting with good news; the consequences of rain are of no concern. Yes, that was me. Downright giddy, (I don’t think I’ve ever used that word to describe me and probably will never use it again). Really, there was still rain all around me…a stack of never-ending essays to grade, a vet bill for a doggie dental that made my own dental bill look cheap, oh…and an upcoming appointment for a root canal on that left molar I could no longer pretend was just a little toothache. But in that first moment I had just been asked to edit a book of poetry, I was Gene Kelly-Singing-in-the-Rain exuberant. Editing, poetry, my dear friend Ethelbert—this was cause for joy. And then it rained a different kind of storm. Several weeks of rain. Not real rain. Not even the rain of life’s expected bills and unexpected flat tires. This was the kind of rain that falls when you let your self-doubt get the best of you.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? So many of my artist friends—writers, dancers, singers—are so full of self-doubt. We are the first ones to rain on our own parades. As much as I wanted this editing job and appreciated being asked, I let myself only have one moment of song before I sat down in the rain and asked myself, but why would a writer want me for their editor? Surely there were others in Ethelbert’s circle with an eye for what looks good on the page and an ear for what sounds aesthetically pleasing. Certainly he had a colleague who could run circles around me when asked to speak on issues of race, jazz and spiritual music, loneliness and discontent—all of which can be found in Ethelbert’s poetry. But he chose me. What could he have possibly seen in me?

“Because you have something no one else has, a voice and discernment that he is looking for to ensure his work is well-represented,” a Marymount colleague and mentor told me when I finally confessed to her what was bothering me. I was restless, skeptical, downright irritable. My self-doubt had taken up a membership at Gold’s Gym and was building some major biceps. And then she added this, “You just don’t see what Ethelbert sees in you. Maybe that’s the problem. Start seeing yourself the way he sees you. He’s a pretty sharp guy. Trust that he made the right choice by choosing you.”

Which brings me back to that phone call. It had been a few weeks since Ethelbert asked me to edit his book of collected poetry. I had some time to process it all. After weeks of sitting in the rain without an umbrella, telling myself I was the wrong choice, I had stopped for a moment to let the words of my mentor soak in. And then a break in the rain. I stood up, soaked and grinning, maybe I was the right choice. And then I started devising a game plan for the book.

Hello, Ethelbert? I was hoping you had a minute to talk about the book.

I had a vision for his collection, but I wanted to run my ideas past him. No point in developing a game plan for the book if he wanted something completely different. So as the Queen of Multi-Tasking, I held my cell phone in one hand and four dog leashes in the other and walked the stretch of road that extended for a block of quiet houses and well-manicured lawns. While my dogs took their afternoon walk, I told Ethelbert some of my plan.

Poet & Editor, a good match

“Well, what do you think? You’re the editor.”

Ready to hear about my game plan? Join me next month and we’ll start talking about developing the vision for a book of collected poems and breaking down a game plan into manageable tasks.

*Coming Spring 2016: The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller

The E Project: Where did it start?

A “pregame” chat with Kirsten Porter, editor of the upcoming The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller

When Ethelbert Miller asks you to help him with a project, you don’t need to stop and think about it before you respond. You don’t pull out your calendar to see if you can pencil him in. You don’t demand details and time frames. You just say without hesitation, emphatically—sign me up!

So when I received an email from Ethelbert last October asking if I would be interested in editing a book of his collected poetry, my answer was an immediate yes. It was after I hit “send” that I sat back and let sink in what I had just agreed to.

Editing Ethelbert’s Collected Poems (or what I like to call the E Project) would not be a small undertaking. Ethelbert’s writing career began in the early 70’s; 1974 marked the publication of his first book of poems Andromeda. Today Ethelbert is known for his work as a DC based poet and literary activist and as the author of eleven books of poetry and two memoirs. A book of his collected poems would need to represent over forty years of writing and service to the community. Such a book would need to tell the story of a man in love with language, with words, with community. The story would need to include the sadness, the loneliness, the quiet moments of the writer listening to the music inside his head. So much story in one book to signify a lifetime of work. And I had just said yes without thinking this through.

For me, the story starts about eight years ago in 2007 when I first met Ethelbert. I was finishing my undergrad degree in English at Marymount University. Ethelbert came to the MU campus to give a reading. I fell in love with his poems—the music of his voice and words. Even then I understood the value of developing a relationship with someone who could be respected for the work he does and the issues he stands for. After the reading we began communicating with each other via email and phone conversations. Over the years Ethelbert has been my mentor, teacher, and friend.

We began a working relationship in 2008 when he asked me to help edit his second memoir The Fifth Inning, a book that centers on a baseball metaphor to illustrate transition and aging. I was just about to start grad school to earn an MFA in poetry and welcomed the opportunity to read through the manuscript, marking up the pages with my corrections and very honest feedback, (I may have actually written “I think you can do better” in the margins of his final chapter).

So, why do I want to take on the responsibility of editing Ethelbert’s book of collected poems? Because it’s a project I can stand behind; I believe in the poetry and the heart of Ethelbert. To borrow his metaphor–when I walk to the ballpark with my bat and glove and they’re choosing up teams, I want to play for Ethelbert.

Join me each month over the next year to read about the process of editing a book of collected poems. We’ll discuss a wide range of topics including all things Ethelbert, piece selection, archive diving, what’s in a comma, to capitalize or lowercase (that is the/The question!), collection cohesion…we may even talk some baseball and dogs on occasion.

*The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller is Coming Spring 2016