February saw the release of If God Invented Baseball, the latest collection of poetry from DC legend and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller. A devoted fan of the Washington Nationals, Ethelbert celebrates in the book the magic of baseball and its lessons for life. In advance of the poet’s upcoming event at Busboys and Poets Takoma, bookstore supervisor Fran McCrae interviewed Ethelbert about his new collection and his literary perspectives on DC and beyond.
As a beloved leader of the DC arts scene, what have you found is distinct about the literary community here?
I don’t view myself as being a “leader” of the DC arts scene. It might be better to begin defining me as an elder. With that comes a considerable degree of responsibility. One must be a pillar in one’s community, upholding tradition and preserving memory. As a literary activist I place emphasis on documenting cultural events. I’m always taking out my cell phone and using the camera to record what I define as the making of history.
What I find distinct about the literary community is that many of us are friends as well as writers. We speak to one another without wearing the cloak of jealousy. There are many writers in the area who are fabulous as well as talented. Lately I’ve been interacting with more visual artists. Maybe this is why there is more color in my work these days.
In these turbulent socio-political times, what is the role of poetry?
Poetry doesn’t change because of politics. Readers and listeners change. People turn to poetry in troubled times seeking a balm to help them survive or resist. It’s important however that politics not become a distraction from the heart. Poetry helps make love become more visible in our lives and gives us the strength to love. This is not an easy task. There is no “role” for poetry – words are only a reminder that each day we experience the importance of breath. Our “role” as human beings is to be more human.
Why was now the time to publish a collection about baseball?
Baseball has been called “America’s pastime.” I find it to be a game that is very human in how it is played. Where else can we find a mistake called “an error”? The title of my book is If God Invented Baseball. Baseball was invented by man and so we are reminded by how much beauty the game creates – the awesome catch or a player stealing home. Baseball teaches us how difficult perfection is. How often do we get to see a perfect game? Why does it take so long for a team and city to win a World Series?
I wrote this book of baseball poems because I’ll soon be 70 years old. It’s what I call my seventh inning. In baseball this is when fans rise in the ballpark and stretch. This is when we sing and cheer – it doesn’t matter what the score is. I wrote my new book looking back and looking ahead. The poems at the beginning of the book are about childhood and the learning of the game. The poems at the end of the book deal with aging and the celebration of life.
Tell us about your experience writing these poems. What were the challenges? The joys?
I wouldn’t have written this book if it hadn’t been for David Wilk. He liked some of the poems I posted on Facebook and asked if I had enough poems for a book. Our correspondence encouraged the writing of what we both now hold in our hands. I’m also grateful to the Blue Mountain Center for providing me with a residency where I wrote many of the poems.
The poems were fun to write. I enjoy how they interact in the book and how many of the collection’s themes build on baseball as a metaphor. The collection explores race, spirituality, history and friendship. It was also nice to return to some of my previous books and select poems about baseball that were written many years ago.
The challenge was finding enough good poems to compile into a book. A few of my baseball poems got cut while my manuscript was in spring training.
What do you hope readers will take away from If God Invented Baseball?
I want this book to be read first by baseball fans. I want some readers to discover the game because of a poem. I would like to have major league players passing this book around in bullpens and dugouts. I want the families of players I mention in this book to know I tried to honor their loved ones.
You can pick up your copy of If God Invented Baseball at all Busboys locations. To learn more and get your book signed, you can also join Busboys & Poets Books for an evening with E. Ethelbert Miller