In Praise of Poetry
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
April is National Poetry Month, so we've invited poet E. Ethelbert Miller to return to our studio and emcee this celebration. He chairs the Board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Welcome back.
Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Poet): Pleasure to be here.
HANSEN: You brought four poems with you. Set up the first one.
Mr. MILLER: Well, this first poem celebrates poetry. Many times we talk about the pleasure that poetry brings to us.
I take her in my hands, I open her gently, I part her pages, I stare at her words. I want her letters in my mouth. I run my hand down her spine. I love reading her. I love making love to her. I let her fall asleep in my lap.
HANSEN: Does this particular lover book have a name?
Mr. MILLER: Actually when I wrote this poem it was a particular person's book I was reading.
HANSEN: Okay. We'll be discreet.
Mr. MILLER: We'll be discreet.
HANSEN: We'll be discreet. There is one that's a little bit more active but in the spirit and in the joy of the month that is April, because for me April always means opening day. I'm a baseball fan.
Mr. MILLER: You know, I wrote this poem about Roy Campanella and it's Roy Campanella January 1958. And, you know, that's when he had his accident that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Night as dark as the inside of a catcher's mitt. There are blows I can take head-on and never step back from. When Jackie made the news, I knew I would have a chance to play ball in the majors. Ten years ago I put the number 39 on my back, and tonight God tried to steal home.
Now, I never saw Roy Campanella play.
HANSEN: You're too young.
Mr. MILLER: Right. I'm too young, you know. I like that I could say that.
Mr. MILLER: But I did pictures of the catcher blocking the plate. You know, that foot out to force that slider to spin off away from the base. So what I had was this image: here was God reaching down to snatch Roy Campanella and he blocked him. You know…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: …he blocked him. Not right now. I'm not ready to go, you know?
Mr. MILLER: You know, I'm not out of here, you're out of here.
HANSEN: It's a terrific image. I'm curious to know about boxing with your mom.
Mr. MILLER: Boxing with my mom, right.
HANSEN: Mother's Day is coming.
Mr. MILLER: Mother's Day is coming and my mother's in her 80s. A couple of years ago I almost lost my mother and my sister called me from New York and said get up here quickly. And so I rushed to the hospital. And my mother is looking good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: You know, my mother is looking good, and in about three or four minutes we're in an argument. So I don't need the doctor to come in and say how's my mother doing. We're arguing and stuff, and I came away with this poem. "Boxing With Your Mom" has an epigraph from the poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
Whoever said men hit harder when women are around is right. You push the door open not knowing what to expect. She sits in a chair next to her hospital bed just sitting. How long. Before you can even enter the room a big smile of recognition kisses her lips before she kisses you. Her seamstress eyes survey your clothes. You're a rhinestone of a son slipping between her shaking hands.
As the sparkle leaves her eyes she withdraws under her old robe. So small she looks, so small she is. You want to leave but you just came. It's you and her. You're overmatched. He moods change so quick you can't avoid her jabs. There's bitterness in each blow, she has you against the wall, you're fighting with her again. This is sick, you tell yourself.
You want to leave but the bell never rings. You try to love her too much. You're losing another round.
I guess this what people call that tough love, you know, that you have with your parents. And, you know, one of the beautiful things about poetry is you're able to reduce things. My mother was a seamstress and the whole thing of her seamstress eyes survey your clothes, you know.
My mother knows how to fold sheets and linen like they came out of the store.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: You know, and I never - and I hear people talk about that they lost the language. I have lost the linen fold.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: You know, I can't do that. When I look at my linen closets I will always be in college.
HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. But, you know, there's almost a bow to her because when she surveys you with her seamstress eyes, you call yourself her rhinestone son, which implies that no matter what she's going to find something.
Mr. MILLER: See, now I'm glad you interpreted it that way. You know how I interpreted that when I wrote this?
Mr. MILLER: My mother reminded me of how I was able to attend Howard University. She did peace work, so my tuition was paid by each one of the little rhinestones.
HANSEN: Don't you love to find (unintelligible) poetry? Isn't that what it's about? Your last poem is untitled. There's no title.
Mr. MILLER: There's no title but actually the title is Where are the Love Poems for Dictators? There's a question mark, you know, because dictators always seem to be in love with themselves. Their pictures are everywhere. You may not love me but I love myself. You know, that's why I'm leader. Just follow me, baby, you know.
But then Jacob Timmerman, who is in prison…
Mr. MILLER: ...in Argentina, he went back to his prison cell, and I remember reading about it. And just by coincidence a few weeks ago, Hector Timmerman, his son, is the ambassador from Argentina.
Mr. MILLER: Right. He was over at the IPS office. And all of the sudden, you know, I get to meet the son.
Mr. MILLER: Where are the love poems for dictators? I sit on a stool in a small room, no windows. I can touch walls without moving my arms. The smell of myself eats the last slice of air. In this prison the food is terrible. It is a tasteless horror. In the next cell Antonio weeps, his body already crushed by a thousand birds.
At night, I whisper poetry through the cracks in the wall. My words, like women, kiss his eyes.
So I think that for me as a writer the line that resonates - at night I whisper poetry through the cracks in the wall. So many people are behind bars being tortured and you looked at what poetry sometimes does. Moves to the heart, reaffirms that we're human beings. It's like a bread or water, something comes through these prison walls and reminds you that you're human.
HANSEN: We've been talking with poet E. Ethelbert Miller. He chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Nice to spend part of poetry month with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. MILLER: Oh, thank you for the invitation.
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