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