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 it.

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 you cite?

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, DC.

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.



E. Ethelbert 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 Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: The Wartime Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: DC Places Issue

E. Ethelbert Miller: Evolving City Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: Split This Rock Issue
E. 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