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Poet E. Ethelbert Miller on Fatherhood

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Poet E. Ethelbert Miller on Fatherhood

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Poet E. Ethelbert Miller on Fatherhood

Poet E. Ethelbert Miller on Fatherhood

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In celebration of Father's Day, Host Liane Hansen speaks with poet E. Ethelbert Miller. He reads his own poetry, which has been inspired by fatherhood. Miller chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University.

(Soundbite of song, "La-La (Means I Love You)")

Mr. WILLIAM HART (Lead Singer, The Delfonics): (Singing) All I know is la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la means I love you. Oh, baby please now.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Okay. Why are we playing the Delfonics to help celebrate Father's Day? Well, because this song figures directly in a poem by E. Ethelbert Miller. It's called "La-La-La" and fatherhood figured heavily in its inspiration. Miller has appeared several times in our program, so we welcome him back. Happy Father's Day.

Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Poet): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: I love this poem, "La-La-La." Would you read it just so we could have a basis of the conversation?

Mr. MILLER: La-La-La - I stack my old albums against the wall. The music of my youth falling out of covers and sleeves. So many things are scratched and filled with memories. I once danced all night to the Delfonics. I held a woman close and whispered la, la, la into her ears. Today my daughter has those eyes that sing.

On the day she was born, I entered the hospital room and heard her mother humming, somebody loves you, girl, or maybe it was something just as beautiful.

HANSEN: When was your daughter born?

Mr. MILLER: My daughter was born on April 21, 1982 here in Washington, D.C.

HANSEN: How soon after that occasion did you write the poem?

Mr. MILLER: Oh, I think I wrote this poem many years later, you know.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. MILLER: And I probably wrote it while I was moving albums around.

HANSEN: Did you ever sing la, la, la into your daughter's ear?

Mr. MILLER: No. You know, what happens now, you know, you got to get close to the ears first of all...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: ...and then they listen to something else. But, you know, when I think about my college years at Howard University there were certain groups that just captured the times, and one was the Delfonics, you know, that whole Philadelphia Groove sound.

HANSEN: You liked fatherhood so much you did it again. A later poem you write about your son, looks at me like a picture shaking off a sign and wanting to throw the hard fast one as he refuses to clean his room or take the garbage out. When was he born? Your daughter in 1982.

Mr. MILLER: And then my son was in '86 - April 13, 1986.

HANSEN: So, we're dealing with young adults now.

Mr. MILLER: Right. They sure are.

HANSEN: And your daughter is long gone.

Mr. MILLER: No. My daughter is still in the house because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: ...she's a law student at George Washington University. You know, fatherhood - and motherhood - is very difficult, you know. And when you are blessed with having good kids you realize you're blessed. I mean, adolescence is rough. I still tell people I think I enjoy the scratch-and-sniff stage, you know, where you just deal with that, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: But the adolescence level is a little more complicated because you want to make sure that your child is able to mature and enter out into the world. And they're in between - they have one foot at home, one foot outside.

HANSEN: Um-hum. When you hear your own voice or sometimes when you look at your hands, do you see your father's?

Mr. MILLER: No. I never worked a day in my life as far as my father did. You know, I've been blessed in terms of his sacrifice going off to college, being first in my family. And so I'm like a person of the book. You know, my father is the person carries the boxes with the books. And so there's a difference there in terms of a man who really used his hands to make a living and me being free to use my mind.

You know, you have a father sacrificing so that their son or daughter, you know, becomes, you know, a professional person. And so when you look at their hands there is a difference. I have the paper cuts.

HANSEN: But in the poem you write all that could go wrong, which I want you to read in just a moment. In the very first lines you say the face of my father is now my own.

Mr. MILLER: Right. And, you know, what happens is that thing in terms of also recognizing, you know, that your blood - his blood is in your blood - and that continuity. I don't want to lose that.

All that could go wrong now fills my life. The face of my father is now my own. My hands now show their age, and not what they have built. I cannot sit at the kitchen table without thinking of him - head bent over his meal and feeling the heat of it against his brow. How hungry I was to know how he felt and how afraid of my father's hunger I became.

A man in my own house with my wife's back to me in bed where I might have slept alone if it was not for some sense of duty to death or marriage or whatever comes next in this life, which kills so slowly and every breath is his breath.

HANSEN: That was written in December of 2001. Is your father still alive?

Mr. MILLER: No. My father and my brother are deceased.

HANSEN: Do you mark Father's Day in your family?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I mean, Father's Day is something that for me is always still wonder. You know, because Father's Day I always think of my father, you know. And all of the sudden, you know, my kids are giving me cards and saying what do you want to do? And I'm pretty much, like, well, okay. I'll stay here and this is nice.

And it's always still a surprise that I am a father, and I think that one to that ore is something I don't want to lose. And perhaps when I look at these poems, these poems capture that period in time.

HANSEN: What was your father's name?

Mr. MILLER: Egberto Miller.

HANSEN: Egberto Miller's son, poet E. Ethelbert Miller. He chairs the board of the Institute for Policy and Studies and is director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Thanks for the poetry; thanks for coming in. Happy Father's Day.

Mr. MILLER: Oh, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "La-La (Means I Love You)")

Mr. HART: (Singing) ...means I love you.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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