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A Home for DC Poetry

Called “the 411 of African American literature” by The Washington Post, E. Ethelbert Miller has been a pillar of Washington, D.C. poetry since he first moved to the city in 1968 to attend Howard University. He decided early on that “the key to being a successful writer was working with as many people as possible, networking, and staying in touch.” And so as he became the accomplished poet, teacher and literary activist he is today, he amassed a treasure trove of correspondence, fliers, posters, journals, photographs, and articles relating to his career and the D.C. poetry community.

In 1984, recognizing the value in his own meticulously collected papers, Miller and performance artist Chasen Gaver conceived a project to encourage local writers to save manuscript drafts, correspondences, and memorabilia to deposit at a local repository. That project eventually developed into the GW Libraries’ Washington Writers Archive, part of the GW Libraries’ ongoing efforts to document the history, people, and cultural development of Washington, D.C. Through this work and the materials housed there, GW is known as the place for local poets to keep their enduring records.

Today, the papers of E. Ethelbert Miller can be found in GW’s Special Collections Research Center, located on the seventh floor of the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. Scholars and students can explore the creative process of Miller and other local poets and uncover the intertwining influence of the D.C. poetry community. Miller also currently serves as a member of the GW Libraries Development Advisory Council.

“I’ve always viewed the library as being a sacred place. It’s a space central to the maintaining of community.” Miller says, “I hope the material I’ve given to the Gelman Library will serve as a passport to the past. Every life helps to explain the motion of history. Hopefully my personal narrative will provide insight into the greater story of Washington, D.C. This city has been a home for many writers. How we lived and loved will hopefully be explained by the items preserved at the George Washington University. Future scholars might be amazed by the ‘glitter’ that we left. I can imagine their eyes shining bright with knowledge.”

In addition to holding materials for future research, Special Collections is helping local poets to actively document their community history. Concerned by the loss of history that was occurring with the passing of local poets, community members worked with the GW Libraries to develop the D.C. Poetry Wiki, a website that contains biographical articles for over 500 poets, as well as information on reading series, conferences, and publishing houses in D.C. This living document allows the community to direct the collection of its history by inviting members to share their memories.

As an active partner with the D.C. poetry community, the GW Libraries celebrate this vibrant and enduring community through an ongoing series of events like “A Splendid Wake.” This annual symposium honors poets of the past and helps to preserve the remarkable literary history of Washington poets from 1900 through the present. These discussions by well-known local poets and academics are recorded and then become available for future scholars through the Washington Writers Archive.

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