In conversation with poet E. Ethelbert Miller: Democracy doesn't evolve us, but it requires evolution (and stop laughing at Trump)


vol. 2 issue 46


This issue, podcast, and video features what is more a word concert than an interview. It’s a conversation between myself and the poet, author, policy analyst, Fulbright scholar, and celebrated Washington, DC resident, E. Ethelbert Miller.

Among Ethel’s most recent works is an essay entitled, If You Don’t Know Me by Now.

It explores how in our riven nation we might find the strength to love. It begins:

We uproot the past looking for historical clarity. Unfortunately, the future often wears a mask. We are no longer protesting like this is the Sixties. The motion of history has taken us somewhere else. “Where are we?” is as difficult to utter as “Once upon a time.”

It is from this “neither one nor the other” place that Miller and I begin an examination of democracy in this moment in time. The result is a string of riffs that hang together as a novel way of seeing America with our ears, a synesthetic approach to policymaking and to working with the future that Miller describes in practical ways. And if that sounds bonkers, consider how censorship from authorities and corporate news media alike are already forcing us to find reliable ways of learning and knowing so we can act in our own best interests.

Our conversation starts with a look at what literary activism is, before ranging over how poetry provides an effective way of looking at policy and policymaking, to considering how the existence of Trump – a man who fused with his technology (Twitter) – is a message from the future, to the ways in which language is no longer apt enough to contain our experiences of now and what is to come. A discussion about the relevance – or lack thereof – of works by George Orwell, James Baldwin, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nahisi Coates is probably one unlike you’ve ever heard, as is the indictment of the news media and the impulse we have for storytelling. All of it within the context of whether it is possible to heal ourselves and our nation enough to carry on as a democracy.

Miller has a facility for forthrightly articulating where he stands on an issue, while also being able to objectively weigh and value all other sides as well, making the act of analysis an exercise in applied wisdom, not cunning rhetoric. That is why this discussion about the current state of our nation is balanced, funny, and provocative: there is no bashing, no lamenting, and no pandering.

In the end, we conclude there is no conclusion to be had. We stand amid the fog not of war so much as the fog of now. It calls to mind Rilke’s poem, Moving Forward which ends with the poet progressing not from terra firma, but from a place where he is “standing on fishes”.

What worked to help us navigate democracy before is not so much broken as simply the wrong set of tools, and now we need to trust in ourselves to develop new ones. Whatever the process, the key is to step up, and to take responsibility for ourselves alone and together, and above all, to have faith that peace and progress will come.

There is so much texture and depth to what is said here – plus loads of humor – that even though I conducted the interview and had been the one to choose the topic, when I re-listened to it as I edited it, more than once I realized that the truth of what Miller was saying had sailed right past me the first time around.

That is why, despite wanting to edit it down, in the end, I did not. It felt like I was pulling the seams out of an in-the-pocket jazz performance where every chord progression must have the one before and after it if the line is to make sense. Perhaps you will listen to only portions, perhaps to the whole thing, and perhaps only once. I believe you will still be richly rewarded; better to hear four bars of trumpeter Miles Davis’ So What than never hear it at all. But it’s the entire 10 minutes of the work that helped us hear American music in a whole new way, or at least it did for me.

That is what I hope this issue helps achieve for you: a new way of considering yourself in between worlds, standing firmly on fishes, considering a new way to love America.

Thanks for reading. Highlights and time stamps are below.

Peace to us all.


Some highlights of the interview:

13:00 The importance of “future thinking” and how seeing through the eyes of what is to come explains the inevitability of a President Trump.

(This discussion had me wondering whether Trump as a master of Twitter and galvanizing talk is moving us away from the written word, or if he is a marker for how we are all moving away from the literal qualities of reality. Given that Trump has shown us the power of talking/listening over reading/writing, will we come to trust the oral/aural tradition more than the written stories that now encompass “fake news”? Is the written language becoming irrelevant? How will this impact policy?

22:00 Graffiti and Hip Hop already presaged the breakdown, condensation, and repurposing of the symbols of language, and language itself. “If you’re laughing at the president’s misspellings, you don’t get how this works.”

32:00 Trump the phenomenon vs. Trump the leader? The trap is to miss his true cultural significance, to lose it in between laughing at his stupidity or raging at this authoritarianism.

38:00 What is the difference between being “well” and being “healed” and who is responsible for making it so? Us? The government?

47:00 When storytelling becomes synonymous with lying.

54:00 Learning to “see” with new ears.

58:00 Who is truly capable of living in a democracy and perpetuating it?

1:00:15 “The election doesn’t matter” because too much is broken and can’t be fixed. It makes healing less important than taking responsibility. “Healing isn’t possible without forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t possible without saying I am sorry and taking responsibility.” How well we understand this will determine if democracy lives or dies or changes form.

1:24:00 Democracy and economic systems aren’t the same thing. “It makes no sense to have a president who embraces Russia but condemns Socialism.”

1:27:00 Better understanding of our founding documents will help us know when the “news” media is not telling the whole truth, as they are all guilty of doing with their preferred versions of storytelling.

1:31:00 Back to poetry and literary activism: will we be the children of Whitman and Dickinson who tried to write from the future where they imagined there to be hope and peace, even if they couldn’t know for sure living as they were during the Civil War. How can we do the same?

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