MAY MILLER runs her book party at the Yenching Palace restaurant with the gracious discipline of the high school teacher she was for 22 years. "A little louder, Arthur," the small woman in pearls admonishes Arthur Davis, professor of English at Howard University. "We want to hear you, too."
She surveys the table to make sure everyone is participating, presses an egg roll on her publisher, Naomi Long Madgett, shushes the general chatter as each new guest arrives. "Betty would like to say a few words," she tells the group, and smiles encouragingly at one friend like a teacher "bringing out" a shy student. Betty, unaware that she had anything to say, is surprised, but performs well under Miller's approving eye.
"We're here to celebrate you and your new book, May!" one friend says after the 82-year-old poet introduces her with rich words of praise. "Well, I'm here to celebrate my friends," Miller says.
Miller grew up on the campus of Howard University, where her father, Kelly Miller, was dean of the college of arts and sciences. As a child she met Booker T. Washington. W.E.B. Dubois and poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar were frequent guests at her parents' house, and she called Langston Hughes "Langston."
"I've heard poetry all my life," Miller says. Over the years her work has appeared in magazines with Countee Cullen and Zora Neal Hurston. She was only 14 when her first poem was published, and she has been writing and encouraging other writers ever since. She served on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and is currently on the Folger Poetry Advisory Committee.
Now, fellow poet John Pauker and 15 other friends are holding a tea to honor the publication of her eighth book of poetry, "The Ransomed Wait," published by Lotus Press of Detroit. But Miller seems more determined to bring attention to the press than to her new book, and she calls on Lotus publisher Madgett to "say a few words."
Madgett explains that she started the all-poetry press because no other publishing houses were committed to getting a wide range of black poets into print.
"In the '60s, people who had never written poetry, who would have run 20 feet in the other direction it if was even suggested, were writing," Madgett says. "They said they did not want to be writing for the white critic but for the brothers and sisters on the street. It served a political purpose, but many of them knew nothing about what poetry is. And now good black poets are not published unless they are considered highly political."
Miller has deliberately kept her distance from the political upheavals of the last 20 years. "You know we had that black revolution in the '60s," she says later. "I wasn't a part of that, but that didn't mean I couldn't partake of my old background--of course I did."
During the party, her friends plead with her to tell favorite stories, to read favorite poems. After a brief protest, she agrees and selects a poem that reflects her own approach to politics.
"I am going to read a poem called "Blazing Accusation," she says. "I think I was inspired, well, not inspired, I don't like to use that word, but I wrote it because so many people who were violent in the black movement didn't understand how I couldn't jump in head first. They didn't understand that I couldn't be violent. I always said, 'I don't believe in fists.' And the one thing that moved me most was the bombing of a church and the death of four young girls. They were burning the hope of the whole race."Beyond allotted time and self
the four of them will go
down red gullies of guilt
and alleys of dark memories
through snagging fields of scarecrows
and up an unforgetting hill
to blazon accusation of an age.
"You see," she says when she finishes the poem, "the world is so small, there's no room for division . . . There must be no lines in this world of art and literature, I have always felt this." She pauses and looks down the table where her friends sit silent, waiting for her to read more.
"And so poets go on," she laughs, and her friends laugh with her and ask for another poem.
Copies of "The Ransomed Wait" by May Miller can be ordered for $4.50 plus $1 postage from Lotus Press, P.O. Box 21607, Detroit, Mich. 48221.