Just Like Old Times: An Interview
with Ed Cox
E. Ethelbert Miller
E. Ethelbert Miller published
the following interview with Ed Cox
in 1982 in the Washington Review. Had Ed not died so young,
so unexpectedly, he would have been 60 this year. The original interview
came with this short introduction:
ED COX is a poet who lives across the street from me. His name,
however, is known to many people living in the city of Washington. From
the Mass Transit readings to his workshop at the Roosevelt for the Elderly,
Ed Cox has given much of himself. At the same time he has been involved
in a constant search for self-discovery and spiritual fulfillment. This
is reflected in his work and in what he believes.
The Roosevelt building has since been converted to condos. It is located
at the base of Meridian Hill and Malcolm X Park on 16th Street NW. Mass
Transit was an open reading series that took place every Monday night
from 1971 to 1974 at the now-defunct Community Bookstore on P Street
NW in DC. A literary journal of the same name published 5 issues in
1973 and 1974, edited by Beth Joselow
and Peter Inman. Authors associated with the series
included Jim Everhard, Terence
Winch, Bernard Welt, Liam Rector,
and Michael Lally. Some of Us Press, also mentioned
in the interview, published such DC authors as Tim Dlugos,
Gabrielle Edgecomb, and Bruce Andrews. –Ed.
EM: Ed, you were born in Washington, DC. Could you describe growing
up here in the District and what things influenced you to become a writer?
EC: I remember the family moved about every other year. My first grade
was at St. Joseph’s on the Hill; a Catholic school the Church
built in the late 1880s. The first neighborhood I remember was around
Union Station at 5th and C—Stanton Park. The neighborhood was
about half Black and half Appalachian. That tended to be the type of
neighborhood I grew up in Washington during the early years.
....... During the early Civil Rights movement,
1960, I was living in Washington in areas like Brentwood Village on
Rhode Island Avenue which was a white enclave with Black neighborhoods
around it. There was a different atmosphere then in term of racial tensions,
at least with the kids, there was a hell of a lot more integration.
But with the adults and parents it was ‘keep your distance’
and ‘don’t get involved.’
My family was, essentially, what you’d call upper working class.
My father was a printer (linotype operator) and he’d probably
have been much more successful except his alcoholism constantly interfered.
He’d get to a certain point and then he’d fall back. I forgot
to mention that my father wrote Country & Western songs. He also
wrote some poetry—some of it was good. I remember, as a small
boy, his working on a few poems and then typesetting them at work. Once,
looking for some change when he was drunk, I came across some of the
typeset poems in his dresser drawer.
EM: I read two poems in which you mention your father. One is called
“Anticipation” and it would appear from that poem that there
was a lack of dialogue between you and your father. But at the same
timie you have “After the Rent,” a very warm poem, but it’s
about your father when he’s about 34 and I was wondering whether
your image of your father changed as he got older and as you got older?
EC: It did change. My father was a very inward man. He was raised in
a Baptist orphanage in Southern Virginia. He was one of those ‘my
home is my castle’ people and very strong, masculine—‘you
gotta be your own person.’ And I think there were so many pressures
on him and the difficulties of dealing with my mother that there just
wasn’t much communication with my sister and me. But there were
isolated incidents. For example, when my mother, who had a long history
of mental illness, would be in the hospital, my father and I would draw
really close. I remember how I once was out in the backyard looking
at the stars and I didn’t hear him calling me. And then he finally
came out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I told him I was
trying to count all of the stars I could see and he told me I would
go crazy, that there was a certain point in life where you had to stop
seeking and seeking and seeking.
EM: You mentioned attending a Catholic school as a child. Was this
perhaps a source of your spiritual search and your work in life?
EC: Well, I was raised as a Catholic. My mother was a Catholic and my
father was a Southern Baptist. We ‘practiced’ Catholicism.
In those days when a Catholic marries a Protestant you couldn’t
get married ‘in the church.’ As a young boy I was drawn
to religion. I was an altar boy. I can remember when I was 7, dressing
up in my first communion suit and picking flowers and going one Saturday
morning and putting them at the feet of the Blessed Virgin Mary because
I wanted things to get better. By the time I was a senior in high school
I guess I had seen enough and been through enough that I rejected God.
EM: That’s what I think, if you look at, specifically, the
poem “Innocence” which you wrote. To me there is a certain
wrestling with guilt.
EC: Absolutely. Part of the guilt was being brought up knowing, or being
told, there was a God and you grow up thinking you should believe there
is a God. When I was younger I was aware that I was a homosexual. There
was no one I could talk to about it and it was condemned by the church.
And it’s only now—and I’ll soon be 36—that in
the last two or three years that I’ve finally discovered what
God is for me. Not what a nun or priest or my mother or the Vatican
says what God is but what God is for me. But my roots are as a Catholic
and my symbolism is as a Catholic. A lot of my poems have been about
older people and homeless people. I give them voices. There’s
one poem called “Mary in November” which is about a women
who was in St .Elizabeth’s and who is now out on the streets.
She talks about Christ, how the doctors at St .Elizabeth’s Hospital
thought she was sick from Jesus. And I think I use those people as a
way of, without directly saying God is great or God is good or God is
hard to find or there is no God. I let those people sometimes speak
EM: One doesn’t find Biblical connotations or references either
in titles or in imagery.
EC: Absolutely. I’ve always been real cautious about that. It’s
the same as when I was younger and started writing confessional poetry.
When I first started writing poetry I wanted to be able to talk about
my own experience. But there’s a real thin line between my experience
and how accessible that is going to be to you. The same holds true for
me and my feelings about God and a spiritual life.
EM: In his book The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry,
Robert Martin, in writing about Hart Crane, mentions
that ‘Crane’s homosexuality gave added force to the search
in his life and in his poetry for a love that could transform the physical
into the spiritual…Love was for Crane a spiritual experience,
one which, although rooted in the physical act, found its supreme value
in its ability to transport the lover into a visionary and timeless
world.’ Could you comment on that since Hart is one of the influences
EC: My biggest struggle has been the conflict between what does it mean
to be a homosexual in terms of a lifestyle and what does it mean in
terms of the spiritual life for me. I know for Hart Crane’s time—he
was writing in the 20s, early 30s—homosexuality, in certain circles,
was fashionable or at least tolerable but it didn’t let out who
you were. Crane eventually, for whatever reasons( one of them being
the pressures of homosexuality and this tremendous creative force that
he had) took his own life. “The Bridge” is one of the most
wonderful spiritual poems in American literature. For a long time I
thought I couldn’t have a spiritual life because I was a homosexual—it
was such an ingrained guilt.
EM: In such poems as “Dupont Circle,” “Light,”
“Three in the Morning,” “Sunrise,” there’s
always this movement from sleep to waking. Is there any connection between
this and the Octavio Paz quote which introduces the collection: ‘We
are made of words. They are our only reality or at least the only testimony
of our reality.’
EC: A lot of time I operate on two levels. There’s a very rigid,
rational, logical part of me. And the other side is this very strong
spiritual and dream part of me. I see my own freedom in letting go the
rational part or the voices that say you shouldn’t be this, you
shouldn’t be that. Often what will break me out of spiritual or
creative darkness is a dream. Last night I dreamt about a man who is
a paraplegic, who was an artist, and who had little wheels on his hands
and he was gay. I found myself attracted to him spiritually because
of this intensity and his will to use the gift that God gave him. I
was also attracted to him even though he had this immobility. When I
woke up this morning after a few days of intensive darkness in myself
(only four hours of sleep) I felt somehow there was a real communication
between me and that part of me that really wanted to survive.
EM: The poems in Waking could be classified as being erotic.
EC: Waking was published in 1977; at the time I’d had
one small book of poems before that: Blocks. Waking was published
by the Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco. The editor specifically
requested poems that met what he called a ‘gay sensibility.’
At that time in my coming out I believed I understood what a gay sensibility
was. And it was real important for me at that point in my life to say
I’m a poet and I’m gay. In the last four years the issue
of gayness in my poetry has become less and less of a focus.
EM: In the late 60s,we had a number of Black writers who began writing
poems which dealt very strongly with Black themes and Black liberation
and, in the process of their maturing and moving into the 70s, their
later work sometimes did not have the same racial reference it had earlier.
And some of them felt that there was just no need to use the word ‘Black’
when talking about a women or a man because the word ‘man’
or ‘woman’ sufficed.
EC: That’s the struggle I have about gay sensibility. I think
Walt Whitman would be amused
today if people were talking about a gay sensibility. He probably would
say that’s not an issue to get caught up in. Muriel Rukeyser,
a fantastic poet, openly acknowledged in her work an open view of relationships
with men and women. She didn’t have to make a big construct on
it. The biggest issue is the one of people labeling you. By saying I
am a gay poet I think that immediately puts a limit on the audience
and the people I can relate to.
EM: In Black literature there are certain words which have been
used as part of oppression, in labeling, and the oppressed group takes
the words, inverts them and uses them back. For example, one might take
a word like ‘faggot’ and make it a positive, the same way
we had. Black people used the word ‘nigger’ and were not
afraid of its initial meaning.
EC: I went through a period where definitely I couldn’t refer
to myself as a homosexual. I wouldn’t refer to myself as gay.
I could refer to myself as a faggot. And in a symbolic sense too, faggot
is wood—used in burning people and also ‘faggot’ is
connected to that whole period of gay liberation.
EM: In your poems the people who you love are often not identified.
Instead an emphasis is placed on the moment or the feeling.
EC: In the almost fifteen years that I’ve been out as a homosexual,
I’ve had three significant relationships— two years, three
years. In between those relationships there have been long gaps of not
having a connection with someone. The way I have met my needs in those
periods of singleness was by chance sexual encounters which in either
the gay world or the straight world are available if one wants to look
for them. But I have seen the trap—it’s very easy to fall
into being able to have one’s sexual needs met and yet never really
begin to develop any kind of meaningful connection. A lot of poems like
“Light” and some of the shorter poems in Waking that attempt
to deal with what was going on in my life reflect those passing encounters.
EM: What type of things are you writing about today?
EC: The newer work, in the last few years, deals with older people because
of my teaching and involvement in arts projects for older people. It
often deals with just observing people in the city—on the streets,
in elevators and subways, corners. Sometimes one of the poems will start
out with a little snippet of conversation I’ve overheard and then
built into a longer piece. Many of the poems deal with loneliness, a
sense of loss—a number of poems where older people talk about
friends no longer being there. Many of the poems are about some attempt
at discovery and a searching for God.
EM: Could you talk about teaching workshops for the elderly?
EC: Well, I was influenced by one book, The Life of Poetry
by Muriel Rukeyser. She talked about people’s
fears with poetry and at the time I was living in Adams Morgan where
I saw lots of older people. I’d been reading about people teaching
workshops with older people. So I approached the Roosevelt for Senior
Citizens and asked the resident manager if I could start teaching. I
ended up with twenty people in my class. I was there for three years
and since then have taught in two or three other places. But teaching
older people, starting to do that, was one of the most significant turning
points in my life.
EM: You moved from dealing with the gay movement towards dealing
with the elderly—two groups that, if you look at our society,
are excluded or forgotten or pushed aside.
EC: Absolutely. Well, I remember a few years ago I read something by
Philip Levine where someone asked him what he wanted
to do as a poet and he said he wanted to be ‘a voice for the voiceless.’
And I thought that phrase had a lot of meaning for me. Yet, at the same
time, I would not want to go around with a button saying I’m the
voice for the voiceless.
EM: Do you find that the teaching of these workshops has helped
you in your own poetry?
EC: Yes. Because they’ve made me read other poets, explore things
like structure and various traditions in the development of poetry.
I would walk into a classroom and have people who were retired librarians
or English teachers and I just couldn’t sit there and say look
I’m a poet and here’s what it’s about. I got to the
point, when specific questions were asked, I’d say I don’t
know but I’d go and look up what a sonnet was or what was the
difference between free verse and this and that. It has had a tremendous
influence on me: not only because of reading poetry but it made me delve
into areas like aging, death and loss and grieving and the spiritual
side of life.
EM: You were an editor for a small press, and I wonder what you
look for in a writer’s work in teaching but also in taking and
selecting different types for actual publishing.
EC: Well, if I were in this situation of being editor for a small poetry
press I would tend to choose poets I use in teaching: for example, William
Carlos Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston
Hughes. The main reason, however, there’d be a connection
would be that the poet I’d consider publishing would be one who
was contributing to a common stream of writing for or working toward
a common good. I definitely have a block against a lot of the poetry
I see, the so-called New York School of poets and the poetry that I
see coming out of Iowa and places like that. I find when the page is
open to me that a lot of times it’s inaccessible. I don’t
know why someone is telling me about what happened in Rome in the summer
in 1974 when I’m concerned with what’s happening in Washington,
EM: Let’s go back and talk about what happened a few years
ago. I first came across your work through Some of Us Press and Mass
Transit readings. Looking back on that period what do you still remember?
EC: I remember it as being the time when I first said that I was a poet.
For years, when someone would introduce me at a party or something,
I’d say I was a secretary until this one poet elbowed me really
sharply and said, ‘He’s also a poet.’ I saw that poetry
movement as a really dynamic period in Washington.
EM: Exactly what time was this—date?
EC: ’72, ’73, ’74, I think. And there’s a whole
list of people that were involved in that period. Michael Lally,
Terry Winch, Deirdra
Baldwin, Lee Lally, yourself. The biggest
thing going on was an exchange of ideas, an exchange of people’s
work. We found a means through Mass Transit magazine or Some of Us Press
to publish cheaply, and in an attractive way, good works of poetry that
might not be on many bookshelves beyond Washington, DC but at least
they would be available here.
EM: I remember when, in the first issue of the Washington Review,
Lally wrote a piece asking is there a Washington School of literature
or poetry? Was something that held it together outside perhaps a certain
degree of energy and vitality?
EC: I think the thing holding us together was we were all products of
an intense period of history in this country, and of conflict and tension
and trying to find out what was on the other side of the coin about
being human—outside of being a worker, student or father. And
there were so many things coming into question—race, sexuality,
women’s rights, militarism—that people, I think, felt an
acute sense of isolation and did not know where to go with their anger
and frustration. Suddenly you could get together in a room every two
weeks and have people reading and talking about their work. You could
have some guy flip out and sit there and yell for half an hour. Yet
he could sit there and yell and no one was going to tell him that he
was any less valuable than the person who could read three wonderfully-written
sonnets who had studied in England for two years. There was something
really good about that.
EM: It seems that perhaps as we get older we go through these periods
of nostalgia, that one looks back at how things used to be and one can
point to a certain amount of literary activity in the city and one of
the complaints that you sometimes overhear at a reading is that people
don’t have those ties in terms of getting together on a regular
basis and sharing poetry.
EC: I know for myself that the last couple of years in my journey have
been a real time of inwardness.
EM: As a writer and as a person concerned with life relationships
how do you see or how do you interpret conditions today?
EC: I feel that there has to be some kind of balance between the individual
getting into his or her own self and understanding—their own graces,,
limitations, and their own violence against themselves, their own violence
(verbal or in thought) against others. And in balance with that is the
reality of what you see in the newspaper, all the tragedy of Central
America and also an 83-year-old woman in New York being homeless for
five days and her son who lives with her not even knowing about it.
And the arms race. Rather than withdrawing from all of that, the only
solution I see is for me to own that inner world and at the same time
connect it with the frustration and angers I feel toward an outer world.
I see so many people increasingly just pulling back into a shell and
building a material world to isolate themselves. As long as they can
go out and have a really good dinner now and then or maybe take a vacation
(and not that we don’t have or shouldn’t have all those
things)—but ultimately I feel each one of us has to examine what
is going on inside of ourselves and honestly look at what is going on
outside because at no other time in history has there been the opportunity
for us to completely annihilate ourselves.
EM: Do we as poets have a certain responsibility or task?
EC: Absolutely. I feel my task as a poet is to somehow make connections
between what is real and what is my own particular struggle to become
and be a person. It is not an easy struggle and it never will be, to
make the connections between that and the horror I see every day which
is kind of a limited war. Horror, if you want to use that kind of language,
and the insanity that Haig and Reagan and these types of people are
talking about in terms of nuclear wars that can be fought and won. I
feel that as a poet there is a way, somehow, for me in the poem and
in language to talk about human dignity, about people’s righteous
anger against basic human needs being taken away from them and ultimately
the basic right of life being taken out of their hands. And the only
sense of hope that I can feel is if I use my creative life in some way
to try and say no to that type of insanity.
Miller is the Chair of the Board of the Institute for Policy
Studies (IPS) and the Director of the African American Resource Center
at Howard University. He is the author of ten books of poems, most recently
How We Sleep on the Nights We Don't Make Love (Curbstone Press,
2004). His honors include an O.B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize from the
Folger Shakespeare Library, a Mayor's Arts Award for Literature, an
honorary doctorate from Emory & Henry College, a PEN Oakland Josephine
Miles Award (for his poetry anthology In Search of Color Everywhere),
and a 2003 "DC We Read" selection by the DC Public Libraries
(for his memoir, Fathering Words).
Published in Volume
7, Number 4, Fall 2006.
To read more by this author:
E. Ethelbert Miller
Miller's Tribute to Sterling Brown: The Memorial
E. Ethelbert Miller: The Wartime Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: DC Places Issue
Ethelbert Miller: Evolving City Issue
Ethelbert Miller: Split This Rock Issue
Ethelbert Miller: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
To read more by and about Ed Cox:
See Cox's Collected Poems (Paycock Press, 2001), http://www.gargoylemagazine.com
Read this essay by Richard
McCann from the Memorial Issue