Post-Postscript for E. Ethelbert Miller
New Orleans, January 7, 2016
Thirty-seven years after telling you "We need to review less and teach more," I repeat the assertion. I kiss tomorrow goodbye as I write notes on the first seven issue of Callaloo and find ghostly happiness in rebroadcasting my 1976 open letter to you with 1979 postscript. Is this post-postscript necessary? Is it being written by the ghost of remembering how you and I laughed as we ate pancakes on a Sunday morning in Washington, DC in the mid-1970s? Let cultural memory and forgetting make the decision. After all, history is a wonderful trick bag, a philosophical opportunity for pulling a digital rabbit out of a bespoke hat made in China.
At any rate, Ethelbert, I do want to read what reviewers will say about The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller. Ed. Kirsten Porter. Detroit: Willow Books, 2016. They will not know the pleasure of possessing first editions of Andromeda (1974), the long poem The Land of Smiles and The Land of No Smiles (1974), Migrant Worker (1978). Nor will they know what was meaningful (for me if for no one else) in your writing the lines
on ollie street
in deridder louisiana
13 spirits live in the house of zu
and amplifying them with references to russell chew and the poet ahmos.
The reviewers may think they know what is the pre-future of yesterday in the poem you wrote on the Hanafi Muslim Terrorist Takeover of three buildings in D.C. March 9-11, 1977 as they surf the Internet to find out what The Washington Post did not say then. Bereft of pleasure, the reviewers may teach something to somebody. Or perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will send love poems to oblivion.
On January 3, 2016, you wrote in E-NOTES WHEN THE NEWS IS NOT ENOUGH. The Blog of E. Ethelbert Miller, with reference to your collected poems
"I plan to ignore all reviews. I doubt if the book will be nominated for any awards. Hopefully my work will find an audience with hearts that care about the path human are on. So much African American culture is being destroyed within."
Hopefully your collected poems will find their way to China sometime in 2016 and be taught there in Wuhan, Nanjing, Beijing, and other cities. In 2016, we need to review less and teach more.
The above can't be contextualized without the below.
1976 Open Letter to E. Ethelbert Miller with 1979 Postscript
20 July 76
Who reviews what, where a review does or does not appear, for whom and to whom a review thinks he is speaking --- we had discussed these matters within the past month. Yet, when I read the June-July issue of Small Press Review this afternoon, I was surprised to find your non-review of Adesanya Alakoye's Tell Me How Willing Slaves Be. Since Ellen Ferber's black and blue paper "Reviewing Reviewing" appears in this issue, your jeremiad had good company. Ms. Ferber deals with some much-need-to-be-raised issues about what the hell is going on in the reviewing colony. Less directly you raise the same issues about Black reviewers. I hope your non-review moves some people to buy Adesanya's book. Because I have obligatory and personal connections with Energy BlackSouth Press, I feel compelled to respond to your dropping a broadside on Black critics.
Ethelbert, you tell readers things are so bad that you have to write about a book published by a company for which you work. Adesanya's book came off the press in April. You must be patient, brother. Black reviewers are slow. Surely someone would have reviewed the book by Christmas. CPT still holds the Black mind in its grip. Things are not that bad.
Now you say Adesanya is one of Washington, D. C.'s better poets. I agree. You also claim "the publishing outlets for Black poetry in D.C." are underdeveloped. I agree. But you overlook two important facts: 1) the publishing outlets for poetry are underdeveloped nation-wide, and 2) the market for poetry is flooded. Only a small number of people who can read in this country read "literature" and a very elite group (other poets and writers) reads poetry with any degree of regularity. Moreover, Washington is a bourgeois town, and folks be interested in foxtraps not in how willing slaves be.
You contend your action would not have been necessary if folks would review books as well as add them to their collections. Folks do review books. I review between 12 and 16 books each year. You probably review as many or more. What you mean, I guess, is that people don't review books by small presses or by authors who have not made a spectacle of themselves. We published reviews of 13 books in four issues of Hoo-Doo. Obsidian has published reviews of 7 books in four issues. Black Books Bulletin is a review of books, is it not? I suppose what we need is a magazine devoted exclusively to the reviewing of Black books. But who would support it? Who would read it?
You claim Energy BlackSouth has not received a single review of the books it published. That is not true. Synergy just got a favorable review from Marlene Mosher in SPR (June-July 1976). Your book The Land of Smiles and the Land of No Smiles got a rave review from Marlene Mosher in the September 1975 issue of CLA Journal. It is true that not one word about Hoo-Doo has been printed. But we must admit the idea of reviewing a magazine would strike the Black critic as an avant-garde undertaking. Do I have to remind you that Black people are conservative?
Yes, Ethelbert, "all those Black critics out there are just..." (just as adjective not adverb) and Energy BlackSouth's day will come.
I can offer you a number of reason why Black reviewers don't review as much as you think they should: 1) the outlets for reviews of Black books are underdeveloped --- please recall that some Black reviewers have hang-ups about publishing in non-Black journals; 2) they don't review books they can't have a love affair with; 3) they can't review many books because they know practically all the Black writers in America; 4) they are too busy writing their own books to review anyone else's books; 5) they don't get paid for doing reviews, so they feel prolific reviewing is a waste. The list of reasons could go no for several pages.
You cut your non-review before you began "cussing in public." That was wise. It would be bad business to completely alienate all the Black critics. But I would have enjoyed seeing some good, old-fashioned, down-home, gut-bucket cussin in print.
Now you have me thinking that well-conceived reviews might be more important than some of the second- and third-rate poetry people feel obliged to submit somewhere. Should the remaining issues of the Hoo-Doo Blackseries and the new magazine Synergy publish fewer poems and more reviews? Should we show the people who don't review how it should be done?
29 June 79
I have argued for several years that contemporary Black literature, especially poetry, is read within an incestuous circle: poets read poets, critics read poets and other critics, poets read their critics and react in words read by other poets. Black readers not in the circle could give less of a damn. Unless it is forced upon them, they seem to maintain a careful distance between themselves and black writing. Yes, they do read Ebony, Jet, Sepia, Essence, The Crisis and Black Enterprise. They do peruse the major news magazines, local newspapers, and professional journals and TV Guide. After all that heavy reading and the attention they must give to twenty-four hours of non-stop radioed soul and the television, they are too exhausted to read the "literature" in First World , Y'Bird, Obsidian, Nkombo, Grio, Callaloo, Hoo-Doo, and other magazines devoted to nommo-magic. As Haki Madhubuti said in "Black Writers and Critics: Developing A Critical Process Without Readers" (The Black Scholar, Nov/Dec 1978), "reading (or research and study) as a necessary life enrichment experience is not foremost on the must do list of most black people ." We need to review less and teach more.**
**"Congo Square III: Reading and Review." Callaloo No. 7 (Volume 2, No.3, October 1979), 106-108.