The E Project: Game Plan Notes—Research + Insight

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

Ethelbert. Who is this man really? As a son, brother, husband, father, friend? As poet, writer, literary activist?

Thanks to years of raiding the poetry sections of used bookstores, much of the preliminary research I needed was pulled from my own bookshelves.

Thanks to years of raiding the poetry sections of used bookstores, much of the preliminary research I needed was pulled from my own bookshelves.

I am standing in front of yet another first year college composition class. Most of my twenty students just graduated from high school and are learning lessons that are crucial to their survival in college and life beyond: Yes, ramen noodles can explode in the microwave. No, it is not a good idea to wash a red t-shirt with a load of whites. This is a time of information overload. How can I explain all the details of their first essay assignment and still convey to them that writing can be enjoyable.

I go over the essay requirements. I talk about thesis statements and supports, tense-switching, using parenthetical citations. I repeat the sentence “your essay must be at least 5 pages” in case they missed it the first time because they were texting under their desk. And then I throw in a warning:

“Plagiarizing is punishable by death in my classroom.”

“Any questions?”

Silence. Even the girl texting heart emoticons to her boyfriend has stopped to look up. I am instantly aware that I have failed to be encouraging and inspiring. I change tactics.

“I know it seems overwhelming, but I promise the writing process can be fun. If you follow a few basic steps, your paper won’t feel like something you have to do, but rather something you enjoy doing. Start by doing some research so that you get to know the topic you have chosen. Next, join the conversation—what can you say about your topic that hasn’t been said before? Finally, write your paper by blending the research you found with your own unique insight.”

I decided to take my own advice when I signed on as editor of The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller.

  1. Do some preliminary research. This was two-fold for me. I began by researching other books of collected poems. I was especially interested in looking at the arrangement of the collections. Just a few of my considerations: What parts of the book (preface, intro, bib, etc.) did the editor include? Regarding ordering, should I put acknowledgements at the beginning or end? Should the poems come in the order they were written; should I include the dates? On structure, should I create chapters or sections, or should the poems have no containment? I quickly realized there really was no prescribed method for editing a poetry collection. So many choices to make, most of which were simply left to the editor’s discretion. I heard Ethelbert’s voice echo in my ear: “What do you think? You’re the editor.”

Then there was the research on my specific topic—Ethelbert. Who is this man really? As a son, brother, husband, father, friend? As poet, writer, literary activist? I needed to read his eleven books of poetry, his two memoirs, his essays, articles, speeches, and daily blog posts. It was important that I listen to his talks, readings, and interviews. I became familiar with the articles, essays, and literary criticism surrounding his work. At times it was overwhelming; after over 40 years on the literary scene, Ethelbert’s name is everywhere! (Note to self: write a future post on an editor’s challenge to cope with stress and maintain balance.)

  1. Join the conversation. What can I say? Part of my research is based on my experience with Ethelbert as his editor, as his friend. I bring to the job my memories, my stories, my knowledge of the craft, my own perceptions. I knew Ethelbert years before this current project, and we have been in daily email communication for the year-long editing process of the collection. I have talked with him at length about each of the sections of our book, probing the origins of his poems, his beliefs, his language. I have interviewed many of his friends, family, and colleagues. I have a lot to say.
  1. Blend research with your own insight. Ah, this can be tricky, but so much fun. And this is the step I’m currently working on in the project as I write the introduction to the book. Balancing what is known with what I know.

As the editor, I am collector, organizer, proofreader, and reviser. I am researcher and writer. I am storyteller.

Thanks for reading. Next month I’ll tell you the specific choices I made on the structure of the book. How many sections of the book did I create? Hint: more than the number of innings in a standard baseball game!

*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