Lyric Essentials: Matthew Johnson Reads E. Ethelbert Miller

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, 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.

Matthew Johnson reads “Before Ball Four” by E. Ethelbert Miller

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.

Read more from this interview at our Patreon

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:

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 ReviewLongleaf ReviewThe Shore, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at

Project Bookshelf: Saoirse

Three wooden bookshelves side by side against a white wall. They are completely filled with book and have built 3D puzzled on top of them.
The bookshelf I shared with my parents

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of building collections recently. As much as I love to see a cupboard (or an apartment or a house or a life) full of books, an empty bookshelf holds such wonderful possibilities. I’ve never had to build (read: populate) a bookshelf from scratch until this last year. As a child, I first began reading by dipping into my parents’ books—with or without their permission—and adding my own to their collection. I wasn’t allowed to read any books my parents wouldn’t read themselves. Our books were shared and thus, so were our tastes in reading material.

So many people talk of finding their voice at college but I found my ears. Finally, the chance to have a bookshelf of my own helped me develop a reading sensibility informed by my own identity, experiences, and preferences. Between readings at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, visits to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and research trips to New York, East Anglia, and Havana, I picked up an extensive collection of books that could serve as an introduction to me on its own.

Multiple large stacks of books on a desk.
Some of the books I left in storage

Until May 2020, when I received a call from the Indian Embassy. They said they would be airlifting me from the States back to India. My flight was to take off in five days. My first thought: what am I going to do with my extensive book collection? So, I painstakingly chose a handful of books to bring with me that have since created the foundations of my current bookshelf. (The rest are safe in storage, don’t worry).

A book (A Brief History of Fruit by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews) on a desk with an apple and a small bottle of orange juice next to it.
A quarantine breakfast

The first three books I chose because of my admiration of both the contents and its creators: A Brief History of Fruit by the inimitable Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin and translated by the inspirational Anton Hur, and finally, Bla_k by no other than M. Nourbese Philip. A book of poetry, a translated novel, and a collection of nonfiction. I was clearly working hard to curate as varied a list of texts as possible written/translated/created by folks of extraordinary character.

If there is one thing I can confidently say about my current book collection (other than its diminutive size), is that it continues to speak to my identity and current lived reality. I read books almost immediately after acquiring them, and thus, my book purchases reflect my priorities. Given the socio-political realities of the pandemic in India and the world writ large, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents have become Afrofuturist necessities. So has Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, trans. Stephen Snyder. I have also taken to engaging with my books on a more involved level by writing them out longhand so you will find a stack of notebooks containing (part of) Toni Morrison’s Beloved written in my hand on the bottom shelf. A benefit of repatriation: my shelves now also hold classic books from my homeland that are hard to find in the US, like फ़ैज़ अहमद “फ़ैज़” जी की मेरे दिल मेरे मुसाफ़िर (My Heart, My Traveller by Faiz Ahmed Faiz).

I must admit, I am cautiously enjoying this short liminal period of having a half-empty bookshelf. It’s so full of possibilities and wonder. Every so often, I feel a jab of resentment or irritation, finding myself wishing I’d packed a specific book or wishing I hadn’t had to leave my life behind. The thrill of curating a new collection tempers the loss of the old but it never truly resolves it. Someday, I will open those boxes again and perhaps rediscover a younger version of myself in those pages. Perhaps even combine these collections despite the Pacific Ocean in the way. Until then, on to the next one!

a brown femme person sits at a table. They have a drink in their hand and a tattoo on their wrist. They are wearing spectacles. They have shoulder length black hair.

Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee, and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at or on Twitter @saoirseedits.