If you accept his definition -- "A poem is anything you want it to be, anything you can get away with" -- then he is a thin, six-foot, ginger-colored poem. A poem wearing brown, round-rimmed glasses, blue jeans and walking shoes ('cause this poem doesn't drive). A 34-year-old poem saying all kinds of serious things to you in a cotton- candy voice.
He is also a central figure in Washington's literary circles and a touchstone for rising young black writers here and elsewhere. His list of friends reads like a "Who's Who in Afro-American Literature": Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Alexis DeVeaux, Ntozake Shange, June Jordan.
Most of Miller's writer- friends are women. "The best black writers right now just happen to be women," he says firmly.
Miller's reputation goes beyond Washington, even beyond the United States. He is be one of four black poets representing this country at a poetry festival in England, organized by a group of London-based artists that begins tomorrow. Accompanying him will be Baraka, Shange and poet Jayne Cortez.
Locally, Miller is the great network builder. "Walking down the street with Ethelbert is like walking with a politician. I've never seen anyone shaking so many hands," said his friend Susan Baumel, a reporter at the Washington Afro-American newspaper.
Miller walks down the streets often, because he has no desire to learn to drive. He left his Adams-Morgan apartment one warm day a few weeks ago to walk to George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, where he lectured on black writers in Washington.
"My wife teased that it would take me two years because I always like to stop and talk to people along the way," Miller said. Actually, it took him an hour and 45 minutes, including a half- hour stop to talk to Dave Marcuse, owner of what Miller calls "my hangout," Common Concerns Bookstore near Dupont Circle.
When he's not hanging out, he's behind the scenes, organizing. Miller sits on the Literature Panel of the D.C. Arts Commission and on the board of the D.C. Community Humanities Council. In one month recently, his activities included taking film producer and poet Michelle Parkerson into a shelter for the homeless for a reading, talking to a Sidwell Friends School class about poetry, reading his own work at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center in Maryland, lecturing at American University, attending a meeting of the literature program planning committee at the Institute for Policy Studies and reading his work again on a WPFW- FM radio program.
"I made a conscious decision in my junior year (at Howard) that I was going to be a writer, but not just write," said Miller, who is also director of Howard University's Afro-American Resource Center. "I was going to be actively involved in publishing, in editing, in as many phases of writing as possible. I needed an institutional base, so I never left Howard."
ON HIS WORKDAYS Miller sits behind two adjoining wooden desks at the Afro-American Resource Center, in a corner surrounded by shelves filled with books. From his third- story window he looks down on the campus' main courtyard as he acquires, catalogues and disseminates books, magazines, records, films and other materials relating to the black experience. Miller is a director without a full-time staff. (Some students work for him part time.)
"Some people in the literary area don't consider they've really visited Howard if they haven't stopped to see Ethelbert," said Russell Adams, chairman of Howard's Department of Afro-American Studies.
"He is concerned that a lot of work by black writers is out of print," said Priscilla Ramsey, an instructor in black literature at Howard. "Ethelbert is a cultural entrepreneur . . . a promoter of writers while they are living."
"Not all writers are as generous as Ethelbert," said New York poet Kimiko Hahn. "He gave my name to people in New York and New Jersey . . . and I started getting calls to do readings and be on panels. Magazines have taken my poetry because he has mentioned my name."
"A (literary) producer, particularly one who works well with writers, is unusual," said Thulani Davis, a poet and senior editor at the Village Voice in New York. "And, too, a producer like Ethelbert, who says, 'If you need money in advance or someone to pick you up for the gig, I'll provide it,' is very unusual . . . There are not a lot of black people doing this."
"I meet two to three new writers a week," Miller said. "Most of them give me poems that tell me more about how they love than about how they write. I put comments on each one, though. If you're going to be out here, you gotta be accessible."
He has had probably his greatest public impact with his 10-year-old Ascension Poetry Series, which has preings by more than 500 poets rang talent to such writers as Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, Ishmael Reed and Amiri and Amina Baraka.
"Being at Howard coincides with my being a writer," Miller said. "Howard is a place where you are constantly meeting people. It . . . enriches me intellectually . . . The bad thing is . . . Howard is a little more conservative than it was when I was a student. It's not just the administration, but the students, too. But that is challenging. It tests your commitment. This is where real changes are fought for."
Still, a hint of displeasure shows on his face when he is questioned about the budget of his center, though he refuses, very nicely, to talk about what he doesn't want to talk about: "I have no say-so about that. They cut what they want; it's their conscience."
Neither Miller nor Howard officials will tell what the school pays the poet. "It's too embarrassing to mention," Miller said, laughing. "Just say I'm underpaid, or say I earn a 'modest' income."
HE MAJORED IN Afro-American studies with a minor in economics. His mother wanted him to return to his native South Bronx as a lawyer. Instead, Miller vowed "to be a successful writer by 36.
"A lot of black writers have mentioned their mothers read them James Weldon Johnson or Paul Lawrence Dunbar before they went to sleep each night," said the poet. "My parents weren't like that, but we went to good schools and read a lot on our own. My writing came out of listening to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon."
Miller, who attended a predominantly Jewish and Italian American high school, is the youngest child of immigrants: a West Indian mother who was a seamstress in the garment district and a Panamanian father who was a postal worker. His brother, who is studying theology, and his sister, who is a nurse, live in New York.
Ethelbert "was more a ball player than a poet," recalled his mother, Enid Miller, who still lives in New York. "Once, we thought he would be a Jackie Robinson. A baseball game couldn't start without him being there." in the middle of writing this i have a strong desire to be a relief pitcher in a baseball game it doesn't matter for whom or what the score i want to see how my curve breaks i want to know if i can still bring it without having my arm bend like a broken wing the poem lifeless as it sails over a fence
Miller's first published poems appeared in the Hilltop, the Howard University student newspaper. Most of those poems were anti-Howard. But while many black poets of the time were screaming angry lines against racism, Miller was reciting melodic love poems.
In the years that have followed, Miller has always been prolific, never suffering from writer's block. He usually writes at home, first working in longhand, then typing out his verses.
"He gets real upset when he considers himself not productive," said Denise Miller. "He gets up almost every morning around 2 a.m. and works until 6 a.m. Usually he's researching and working on lectures . . . reading a lot of proposals . . .or writing. He'll lie down an hour or so and then get back up to start his day."
The couple met seven years ago when Denise came by his office at Howard to show him a poem. He liked the woman much more than the poem. They lived together for five years and had a daughter, Jasmine-Simone, before deciding to marry two years ago. (It is his second marriage.) The wedding ceremony was a literary event, with writers flying in from across the country to attend.
Now 2-year-old Jasmine- Simone is nearly as popular as her daddy. She rides his hip at readings or tugs at his pant legs. Her godmother is poet June Jordan.
Once Miller wrote mostly what he calls "tree poems," verses about love and nature. Now he writes of terror in foreign lands.
He read poetry at Centro De Arte, during the opening reception for a photography exhibit depicting life in war- torn El Salvador. Dressed in blue jeans and a brown tweed jacket, he stood in the middle of the small exhibit room, surrounded by photos of babies with old faces, glossies of rotten bodies that looked so real they seemed to stink. They say when Hector was killed when the soldiers decided to cut his stomach open (for fun) two things happened more stranger than the war first a hundred doves flew from the opening each one taking a drop of Hector's blood and then (yes they say this is true) Hector opened his eyes after his stomach had been opened and from his eyes grew flowers and the soldiers reloaded their guns took aim and did not miss
"I am a political writer," Miller explained later. "A political writer is a label synonymous with what used (in the '60s) to be the black writer. I look at writing as a catalyst for social change."
Miller believes one way to preserve a work is to have it taught in classrooms. Joyce Joyce, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland, does just this with Miller. "His poems work on several levels," she said. "On the surface they look simple, but most are complicated, some even folkloric and mystical . . . Students are immediately attracted to him."
Nothing delights Miller more. "Some of my friends are more into performing. But that's momentary. You get applause and maybe a review. I'm interested in the future. We read some writers today not because they are excellent but because they found the proper outlets for their work."
Meanwhile, he stays away from the familiar question: What is a poem? "Some questions will be debated for the rest of our lives," he said. let all poems speak and address themselves let each phrase like hair on a head comb itself back madame walker style let the love poems wear gardenias let the political poems wear suits the way muslims did during the days of elijah let the poems be fruitful and multiple