E. Ethelbert Miller


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Ascension: An Ending
 Kim Roberts
 Guest  Editor

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When a reading series lasts over 26 years, stories are bound to accumulate.  I'm told that one poet met his future spouse at an Ascension reading.  Many poets have told me that being included in the series at the beginning of their writing careers helped shape their poetic voices.  Friendships were formed.  New poems were inspired.  And throughout it all, audiences were treated to a range of poetry unlike anything else being presented in the region.

      The Ascension Series began in 1974 at Howard University.  Influenced by the Black Arts Movement, E. Ethelbert Miller determined to bring some of the poetic energy exploding in other cities to our own.  From the start, he envisioned a series that would showcase both well-known authors and those who had never read in public before.  Although DC has always been home to notable African-American poets, so many were here such a short time.  Jean Toomer and Dudley Randall were born here but did their writing elsewhere.  Others came for just a year or two--Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Clarence Major.   Ethelbert wanted to start institutions that would nurture writers and ensure the survival of African-American poetry in the nation's capitol.   As Ethelbert writes in Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer, published last year by St. Martinıs Press:

      Just the opportunity to stand in front of an audience and recite oneıs work is important for the person trying to become a writer.  I felt I was providing the same outlet and opportunity that Bob Stokes had provided for me.  So many of us wanted to publish books and there were few publishers.  Letters from places like Broadside Press in Detroit came back with the back of the stamps still wet from our tongues.  So public reading was the key venue for getting work out.  One could develop an audience and a demand for oneıs work by taking poetry to the people.  What began on Howardıs campus moved out into the Washington community and found welcome at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library.  The poets who read on the Ascension series were not included in those Harold Bloomıs catalogs.  The work I was interested in promoting was aimed at restoring beauty to the world.

   In the 1980s, the focus of the series broadened to include Asian-American, Latino, and women poets of all backgrounds, but the political emphasis remained.  As Ethelbert wrote in his introductory speech to the 100th Ascension reading, "We are community and family.  Supporting each other.  Shouting Amens and giving other words of encouragement.  We are writers, many without books or publications.  Writing in the dark but giving light to the world."
      The list of writers included in Ascension reads like a veritable Who's Who of top names in contemporary American letters: Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Ntozake Shange, Ai, Jayne Cortez, Wanda Coleman, Jessica Hagedorn, Thulani Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Kimiko Hahn, Marilyn Nelson, Greg Tate, Cornelius Eady, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka.  Essex Hemphill got his start with the Ascension series.  Stephanie Stokes, who read in the very first Ascension reading, went on to become an editor of Essence magazine.  June Jordan returned to read in the series again and again--leading one critic to accuse Ethelbert of running the series simply so he could see Jordan at least once a year.  

      All in all, over 700 poets participated.  As a participant in the series myself, I know what a boost it was to be included.  The series was always lively, full of surprises, and drew enthusiastic audiences.  What I liked best was the chances the series took with unknowns, and the pairings that often occurred between more established poets and those just beginning.  Sometimes, sitting in the audience, I swore I saw real sparks fly from the readers' mouths.

      This special issue, commemorating and celebrating the Ascension series, includes that same range.  All the poets in this issue were part of that remarkable chemistry.  I thank all the writers who so generously answered my questions and provided permission to print their work.

      One obvious question remains: after 26 years, why end it now?  The series was always dependent on its creator, Ethelbert, for its vitality and range, and itıs no coincidence that his decision to end Ascension came in Ethelbertıs 50th year.  Surely, after all these years of service to the literary community, we can hardly begrudge the man for wanting more time to devote to his own work.  And, as Ethelbert said to me, "I also felt that writers beginning today have more outlets for readings in the Washington area."

      DC has indeed matured as a literary city over the last 26 years.  There are MFA programs in creative writing and an award-winning DC Poetry Slam team that has toured the US.  Spoken word, hip hop, and performance art poetry all have found enthusiastic audiences in the Capitol City.  And DC hosts a range of small presses and literary journals that would be deemed impressive by anyoneıs standards.  Yet we are still lacking that core identity as a city of writers.  As Ethelbert concedes, "If we continue to measure ourselves against other cities (like New York) then we will continue to see writers moving to improve their careers."  He adds, defensively, "I see Washington as being the center of American culture and not a frontier or backwoods community."

      Some of the credit for our literary growth must surely go to the Ascension Reading Series.  Ascension helped to build the literary community and the institutions (such as presses, journals, and workshops) that support it.  Ethelbert was right in thinking that a reading series could create demand by building audiences.  I would argue, however, that at this time we need more Ascensions, not fewer.  I mourn its loss, and I can only hope that more writers will step forward to organize their peers, to give of their time as generously as Ethelbert has done.  As Calvin Forbes said so plaintively, "Who's going to pick up the weight?"



³The thing I remember that struck me as genuinely great about the Ascension Reading Series was that I felt entirely at home reading for that series.  Ethelbert made me feel as if I were family.²

³I met E. Ethelbert Miller at Columbia Station, on Columbia Road; that was when Columbia Station was a funky place with personality and poetic integrity.  He introduced me to the Districtıs literary world, extended a helping hand, and offered a warm heart.  It wasnıt just reading on Ascension that helped me blossom into a writer, it was having the good fortune to know Ethelbert and to own his friendship.  That is the blessing I still cherish.²
      jonetta rose barras

      ³I donıt even remember the poems I read.  All I know is that it was my first featured reading and in attendance was my mother, sisters, and my new poetry friends.  Poets like Jacquie Jones, Reuben Jackson, Darrell Stover, and Jennifer Smitt.  Having met them for the first time a few months earlier at an Ascension Reading that marked my coming out as a poet, I was a little unnerved by their presence.
      What struck me was that I was being given an opportunity to showcase what quite frankly were some minimal poetry skills coupled to some backward Black National politics I had at the time.  What I was grateful for then, as now, was Ethelbert Millerıs decision to give me an opportunity and a forum, despite my shortcomings as a poet.  What he did in giving my that opportunity was to ensure that in the future I would so as he did--provide opportunities for other new voices.
      It was at this first reading at the Institute of Policy Studies that a young, and quite sincere white student from Georgetown University, approached me rather sheepishly after the reading to inform me that poems that talked about change, that used such words as revolution and oppressed, were not in fact poems!
 I politely thanked him for his arrogant concern and asserted that maybe my poems were just bad poems, but poems just the same.  To which he promptly replied no, my poetry was propaganda because his professor had told him so.  To wit I replied, ŒSo What.ı  Which became the title to my first book: So What: For the White Dude Who Said This Ainıt Poetry
      Kenneth Carroll

³In the beginning...It was Genesis.  Everything was new.  Everyone would have a chance.  Life in Washington was just born.  We named things.  The world was waiting to be made.  Ascension rose like a rainbow under which everyone was warm and dry and beautiful.  Voices were heard.  Iım glad I was there.  Things will never be the same.²
      Grace Cavalieri

³Receiving the invitation from E. Ethelbert Miller to read in Washington, DC at Howard University was a thrill--and had to be nearly enough.  It was sometime in the mid-to-late 80s, on one of those rare occasions when my husband, artist Austin Straus, was able to accompany me.  The cab rides were memorable, for the drivers who couldnıt navigate the avenues without our help reading street signs.  Unfortunately, Farrakhan was speaking on campus that night at the exact same time.  Undaunted, I presented my poems to the teensy but appreciative audience of less than fifteen.  Afterwards, E.E. generously invited us home for a terrific dinner graciously prepared by wife Denise.  Iım from the southwest, but it was my first time in the Old South--that south demarcated by the Mason-Dixon line--and during casual walks the glacial vibes defining the racial divide were remarkably and unforgettably chilling beyond anything I had ever experienced outside my childhood of the late 40s through 60s.² 
      Wanda Coleman

      ³Ethelbert invited me to participate in the Ascension Reading Series at key points in my writing career, each time pushing me to another level.  The first, in 1992, was a reading debut for me.  My poetry had not been published and I had never read in public.  Ethelbert has an amazing talent for pairing writers.  I was placed on the program with Jennifer Lisa Vest.  Though Jennifer and I were very different, our poetry complimented each other.  Ethelbert described us as both writing poems that Œmake you sweat.ı  I donıt think he realized the impact that first Ascension and Jennifer would have on me.  We not only formed a close friendship, but Jennifer and I went on to do other readings together, putting on a multi-media show at the D.C. Arts Center, a private reading, and showing up at Mangoesı open mic night.  Jennifer was a role model for me.  I admired her for her outspoken poetry, for being a strong black woman.  I felt like a little sister, full of adoration and wanting to follow in her footsteps.  Although she moved to Berkeley where she studied with June Jordan, she and I have stayed in contact and remain supportive of each otherıs work.
      My next Ascension came after I achieved publication, read in New York, lived internationally, and my poetry began to shift in depth and style.  This time, I read with Rebecca Villarreal, Marcia Davis, and Annalee Babb.  Again, Ethelbert succeeded in creating strong connections between the writers.  It wasnıt the last time Rebecca and I would read together.  Her humor and lightheartedness was, I think for audiences, a refreshing contrast to my more serious and chilling poems.
      In retrospect, I never could have imagined how being part of Ascension would change me as a writer and as a person.  Ascension was, for me, a garden.  It gave me opportunity to bloom--each time, a different flower, more confident, bold.²
      Eva Day

³Whoıs going to pick up the weight?²
      Calvin Forbes

³The Ascension Series was always a special place for me not only because of the great literature you heard, but the great people (other writers, supporters of literature, politicos, etc.) you met on those seemingly meaningless nights which we all now know were extraordinarily important moments in time.²
      Brian Gilmore

³ıYou look lost,ı a slim man with elegant wire rim glasses found me wandering.  ŒWould you like to read a book?ı  It was 1985, and I had returned to Howardıs campus where my father was the Dean of Students of the Dental School in the early sixties, late seventies.  This slender man could not have known that Howard was the one place that I, an immigrant from India, a green card holder, felt safe, felt I could not be singled out and deported, a panic I felt most of my childhood after my father passed away.  And yet, it seemed that this man sensed my panic, the homesickness, the displacement.  On top of it, he looked like a relative of Mahatma Gandhi, only much better dressed, very chic.  He guided me up to the Afro-American Resource Library and introduced me to books by Audre Lorde.  He signed me up to read poems with Ketu Katrak and Hilary Tham in March 1986.  ŒPoetry from the East.ı  Ascension #80.  Ten years later, my book, White Elephants, came out.  In November 1997, he invited me to read at the Folger with Zoe Anglesey.  The Series and the man represent for me generosity and activism.  I wish the series were not ending, but I know Ethelbertıs bounty continues.  And I know that his intuitive empathy for other writers makes him remarkable.  He was a friend to me before I had published a single poem.  I count him among the finest presences in the poetry world, full of affection, encouragement, and cheer.²
      Reetika Vazirani

³I had been attending the Ascension Reading Series for a few years when Ethelbert first asked me to read with a group of young writers.  It made me feel as if I had finally Œarrivedı in the DC literary community.  Years later, I was honored to participate with one of the same poets near the end of the series--only this time, I stood before the audience with more experience and confidence, thanks to the constant mentoring and generous friendship of Ethelbert.²
      Rebecca Villarreal

³Ascension #73: The Big Reading (100 Poets) at DC Space on July 26, 1985 was a special moment in Ethelbert Millerıs series.  He had paired me with Alvin Aubert for Ascension #50 in 1980, and I was anxious to know how different it would be to read with 99 other poets.  I was anxious too because I was on the road, doing site evaluations for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and had to drive from Mississippi to Washington--virtually non-stop--to participate.  Would I have the energy to read?  When I got to DC Space, Ethelbert informed me with his inimitable gentleness that my friend Lance Jeffers had died.  Died?  I had just talked with Lance the previous week in Atlanta.  Died?  My body registered what my mind refused.  When I stood to read, my eyes watered and my throat constricted.  I asked for a moment of silence in Lanceıs memory and dedicated my reading of ŒJazz to Jackson to Johnı to him.  Afterwards, one reader said my poems was a cool Œwalking blues.ı  He was right.  I now know what I could not know when I did Ascension #79 with Gregory Orfalea late in 1985: the Ascension Reading Series had enabled a perfection of grief as my spirit walked Lance Jeffers to heavenıs gate in those hot wee hours of a July mourning.²
      Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

³My youth is coterminous with the Ascension Reading Series.  When the series was born I was a very young poet at twenty-three, working in the factory in Baltimore and living my literary life in Washington, DC.  At Ascensionıs retirement, I am a young poet of forty-nine, as poets do not mature until they are forty.  But whoıs rule is that?  I do remember that on this last reading for Ascension I remembered those days when DC seemed like an eternal spring to me.  It was when I met Kathy Anderson, Patrice Wilson, Essex Hemphill, Michelle Parkerson, Greg Tate, and the always inspiring and playful Ethelbert.  Ahmos Zu-Bolton and I tried to remember the right turns to get to the Folger Shakespeare that last night, where a Thanksgiving theme dinner waited for us, and it was like undriving into the past, touching memories at their corners, pausing at those corners to name the spirits rising from the shadows.  What a wonderful thing, this life we have, and what a wonderful thing for Ethelbert to give life to the Ascension series.  It will always live, like all out favorite joys.  On the morning after the reading, Ahmos and I did a favorite poet kind of thing; we browsed in the gift shop of the Library of Congress, and we looked at collections of postcards, noting which ones included folk of African descent.  We nearly tussled over one collection with the African diaspora as its theme, asking as we always do as poets and writers: What is this life and who will remember that we loved it enough to try to understand how to live it as human beings?²
      Afaa M. Weaver

      ³I worked with Ascension during the early stages of the series.  It was during this time that I watched and heard Ethelbert develop the laidback conversational voice that is his poetry...
      In the mid-1970s, Ascension staged a reading at DC Teachers College.  The late great Lance Jeffers was featured.  It was my introduction to Lance Jeffers as an oral poet.  I had been reading his work for years in magazines, but to hear Lance read, with that deep, rich voice, was living literature.  I remember the reading clearly because we taped it for Black Box (a magazine on tape edited by Alan Austin), and because that was the evening I finally realized that Ascension was more than merely a series of poetry readings, it was, and is, the documentation of a very special cultural expression--the oral interpretation of poetry.  The chant as bridge between theater and storytelling.
      And Ethelbert, by his continuing labor with Ascension, had added an important layer of skin to the body of African-American literature.  The poet peels away layers, but good poetry grows new skin.²
      Ahmos Zu-Bolton II .








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