Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite authors to share the work of their favorite poets. This month, Matthew Johnson joins us to discuss the work of E Ethelbert Miller, place-based writing, and baseball in poetry and how surprising topics and discuss much broader themes. As always, we hope you enjoy as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read E. Ethelbert Miller’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?
Matthew Johnson: I first came across E. Ethelbert Miller’s work while I was a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, so around 2018-2019. I don’t remember how exactly I first saw his name, but I was immediately drawn to his poetry collection by the title itself, If God Invented Baseball; I found it to be creative, as well as his choice for a cover photo, which featured a picture of the legendary Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige, who is one of my favorite all-time athletes and individuals to have studied and read about. Years later I bought the book, but I initially read it through an inter-library loan; I remember the librarian kinda having this puzzled look when I told them the title of the book, as well as the title of the movie I was checking out at the same time, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I was really struck by the fact that here was a poet using the sport of baseball to talk about childhood, home, race, politics, and place. Since the ancient Olympics, sports have not just been purely about sports, and at the time, I had seen and read countless articles, documentaries, and non-fiction books about sports mixing with other topics, but not in a poetry book, so to go this collection for the first time was a vastly different experience from the literature I was reading and studying at the time.
RW: How has his writing inspired your own?
MJ: I was fairly new to the publishing world when I came across Miller’s work. Prior to reading If God Invented Baseball, while I had written poems with a focus on different topics around sports, I had yet to come across an author who dedicated a whole collection of poems based on these similar topics. After reading Miller’s work, it instilled in me a spirit that, ‘yeah, people would be interested in reading about these types of topics if you write about it.’ But, while he talks about these athletes who a lot of people know about, Miller personalizes it to his upbringing and background, which I think is important and allows a writer’s voice to come out. I don’t think it can just be about the athlete or sport; the writer needs to be in there somehow, and Miller does a great job at that. It also stirred in me to go out and research and find like-minded readers and writers. There are a bunch of great magazines out there where athletics and literature blend together (e.g, The Sport Literate, The Under Review, Clinch, The Twin Bill, Words & Sports Quarterly, Aethlon).
RW: Where would you recommend new readers of E. Ethelbert Miller’s work start out? What other similar poets do you recommend?
MJ: Several poems by E. Ethelbert Miller can be found on Poetry Foundation and Poets.org, so I think that would be a good place for readers to get started with his work and style. I greatly enjoyed, If God Invented Baseball, and even if you’re not a baseball fan, readers could still take pleasure within it. Two poetry collections I read within the past several years that are a little similar would be, Joe DiMaggio Moves Like Liquid Lightning by Loren Broaddus and Aisle 228 by Sandra Marchetti. These poetry collections, like the work of Miller, use baseball to discuss broader themes that don’t just pertain to sports. I especially enjoyed the aspect of place in their works as they are both writers from the Midwest. I thought each presents that part of the country in an intriguing light to someone who is very unfamiliar with it, as I have only lived on the East Coast.
RW: You’re the author of the recent publication, Far From New York State (New York Quarterly Press, 2023). What was the process of creating this collection like? How did you reflect on place, history, and your own experience while writing these poems?
MJ: Having moved around a bit, I have always been fascinated by the idea of regionalism. In the final semester of my graduate career, I was in an early American Literature class and for the final presentation, my topic focused on the works of Washington Irving. I had heard of his famed characters, Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, and the Headless Horseman, but I never really read his work until then, and I greatly enjoyed reading his Sketch Book. And it was through research, I kinda went down a wormhole and was inspired by artists and writers of New York, and not from the city, but from the rest of the state. Even though New York City is wonderful, there’s a whole bunch of state and experience and beauty north of it, including the parts where I am originally from (New Rochelle in Westchester County). I wanted to write about these experiences, and I looked inward as well as outward, specifically to my parents, who spent the majority of their lives in Westchester County (New Rochelle and Mount Vernon) and have told me countless stories of their childhood and early adulthood. And though my experience wasn’t as vast as theirs, I did have some, including when I returned to New York in adulthood to work in journalism in Oneonta (between Albany and Binghamton). So I wanted to talk about these histories, as well as the histories of the people who inspired me, including in the form of literature, music, and sports.
E. Ethelbert Miller was born in the Bronx, New York. A self-described “literary activist,” Miller is on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank, and has served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. His collections of poetry include Andromeda (1974) and How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love (2004), among others. The mayor of Baltimore made Miller an honorary citizen of the city in 1994. He received a Columbia Merit Award in 1993 and was honored by First Lady Laura Bush at the White House in 2003. Miller has held positions as scholar-in-residence at George Mason University and as the Jessie Ball DuPont Scholar at Emory & Henry College. He has conducted writing workshops for soldiers and the families of soldiers through Operation Homecoming and is the founder and director of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, one of the oldest literary series in the Washington area.
Purchase If God Invented Baseball here.
Matthew Johnson is the author of Shadow Folks and Soul Songs (Kelsay Books) and Far from New York State (New York Quarterly Press). His forthcoming chapbook, Too Short to Box with God, is scheduled for a November 2024 release through Finishing Line Press. His work has appeared in Front Porch Review, Roanoke Review, Northern New England Review, South Florida Poetry Journal Up the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere. A former sports journalist and editor (The USA Today College, The Daily Star in Oneonta, NY), he has also been a Sundress Publications Residency recipient and a multi-time Best of the Net nominee. An M.A. graduate of UNC-Greensboro, Matthew is currently the managing editor of The Portrait of New England and the poetry editor of The Twin Bill. You can view more of his work and his social media platforms at his website: www.matthewjohnsonpoetry.com
Purchase Far from New York State here.
Ryleigh Wann (she/her) hails from Michigan and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She earned an MFA from UNC Wilmington where she taught poetry and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in The McNeese Review, Longleaf Review, The Shore, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at ryleighwann.com