E. Ethelbert Miller, 2016 George Garrett Award Recipient

E. Ethelbert Miller

On Thursday, March 31, at this year’s Annual Conference & Bookfair, AWP awarded its George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature to E. Ethelbert Miller. The award recognizes individuals who have made notable donations of care, time, labor, and money to support writers and their literary accomplishments. The award is named for George Garrett (1929–2008), who made exceptional contributions to his writers as a teacher, mentor, editor, friend, board member, and good spirit. Garrett served for many years as the editor of Intro, an annual anthology of work by emerging writers; he served as one of the founding members of the AWP Board of Directors; he taught creative writing and literature for more than forty years; and he was the author of more than thirty books. As a writer, teacher, mentor, editor, or inspiration, Garrett helped many young writers who are now major contributors to contemporary letters. The award includes a $2,000 honorarium in addition to travel, accommodations, and registration to attend AWP’s annual conference, where the award is publicly announced and conferred.

AWP Board Chair Bonnie Culver served as MC for the ceremony, and in her introductory remarks, said of Miller, “As writer, editor, educator, public speaker, arts administrator, board member, and mentor, Ethelbert’s commitment to cultivate Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’ is decades long and all-encompassing, blurring the lines of artist and activist, intellectual and administrator.”

Culver detailed Miller’s many accomplishments. “Ethelbert brought scores of gifted writers to the university not only as readers, but as seekers and as students. And he’s mentored many younger writers beyond Howard’s campus—as a core faculty member, Writer- or scholar-in-residence, visiting professor, among other appointments worldwide. Yet Ethelbert’s influence has never been limited to the academic world; he has also worked to shape the literary field at large by influencing cultural policy and institutional infrastructures from positions of governance. He is the long-serving board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. He founded and chaired the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, served on the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, was a board member of PEN American Center, Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, Provisions Learning Library, Capitol Letters Writing Center, Split This Rock, the Edmund Burke School, and AWP.

"E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer who was empowered by the Black Arts Movement to examine—and interrogate—the values and beliefs of his own life. His literary achievement includes eleven books of poetry and memoir as well as groundbreaking anthologies such as Beyond the Frontier African American Poetry for the 21st Century (2002), In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African American Poetry (1994), Through the chorus of voices he has gathered in these books, his passionate editorial spirit reckons with our complex cultural moment.

"The same could be said for his coeditorship of Poet Lore magazine, a position he has held since 2002. As an editor, he reads thousands of yearly submissions and curates the biannual journal with an eye for presenting the most powerful work of emerging writers alongside that of established poets who count Poet Lore as a literary home—for some, their first home—as an advisory or contributing editor, past and present, he has also helped guide African American Review, The Black Scholar, Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture, Callaloo, and Black Issues Book Review.

"In these many ways, he has become the face and voice of poetry and literary inquiry for writers and readers in Washington, across America, and beyond those borders.

"AWP’s George Garrett Award recognizes Ethelbert Miller’s extraordinary contribution as a literary activist—the identity he holds dearest—and as an artist whose creativity, decade after decade, continues to find clear and compelling expression through service.”

After receiving the award, Miller addressed the crowd at the reception. The following remarks have been adapted from his acceptance speech.

E. Ethelbert Miller: I’m deeply honored to be awarded the 2016 George Garrett Award. …

I never saw myself as simply being a writer. I define myself as a literary activist, a person concerned not only with the creation of literature but also its promotion and preservation. To be a literary activist is to embrace the marathon and not the sprint. It is important to be a long distance runner.

Our literary community consists not only of writers, but everyone who loves language, books and the art of storytelling. Our community embraces librarians, independent bookstore owners, as well as people struggling to write behind bars.

Writers must continue to create things that are useful—even if it’s only beauty. There is too much ugliness in the world. We must see our words as vessels for the imagination.
When we speak of community—let us speak loudly.

It is not enough to simply build—we must sustain institutions, we must cherish and protect them. Today there is still much heavy lifting we need to undertake. There is still the ongoing task to fight against the erasing of culture in different parts of the world as well as the censorship of ideas. If we write poems in private let us always protect our privacy.

There is always a need to uphold our sacred traditions while we continue experimenting with the new.

I believe writers reside in deep space, the space of depth where words matter. A place where we hold them close. Our space is wide and full of gratitude and love.

The greatest service an individual can make is to undertake the journey to reach another person’s heart. Too often this path is filled with obstacles and there is a tendency to stop, turn away and turn back.…

My dear AWP, You are my community, my Beloved Community. This award gives me the strength to rise early tomorrow and work long into the night.

A night filled with many stars and the glitter of promise and possibility.

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Each year, AWP welcomes nominations for the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Consult our award guidelines for more information. Award recipients are selected by AWP's Board of Trustees.