Raised in Dunbar, WV, and beginning his 30-year journalism career as a columnist for the Charleston Gazette in Charleston WV, D. Scot Miller is Managing Editor of The East Bay Express; former Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine and Alameda Magazine; Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space; Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts; and regular contributor to several newspapers, websites and magazines. Miller is founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009. I interviewed him via e-mail about the arc of his writing career and our shared sojourn at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia’s capital city in the 1990s. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: The last we were in each other’s physical presence, you were writing a column on Hip-Hop, after some of us re-invented the arts & entertainment section of the Charleston Gazette in the 1990s and decided to kick out the jams in the pages of West Virginia’s premiere newspaper. Recall for me that period in your life. You were a kid from Dunbar WV whose future was so bright you had to wear shades. What did you want to be when you grew up?
D. SCOT MILLER: Wow. You’re asking me to reach back to what’s “ancient history” in 2022. I believe it was 1992, and I was a sophomore at WV State College (Now, West Virginia State University). I was an English major, and “for some reason” certain members of the faculty were already giving me a difficult time. Looking back, it wasn’t only my race that was a factor. (I believe I was one of maybe three Black students in the program), but that I advocated for an expansion of the canon we were studying to include more transgressive writers like Ishmael Reed, Wanda Coleman, and even William S. Burroughs. I also ran afoul with white feminists in the program as a supporter of Alice Walker’s “Black Womanism”; Camillie Paglia’s rewriting of the canon in “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson” (1990), and the early writings of bell hooks. These influences eventually became integral to the understanding of contemporary feminism, but were considered transgressive at the time.
I was considered transgressive at the time, as well, particularly in the position that Hip-Hop music was more than a fad, but a growing culture infused with poetry that had the potential to change the world. My professors argued mightily against this assertion, especially my poetry teachers. It was in a Semiotics class where I intended to prove my assertion about the potentials of Hip-Hop, using linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure and cultural theorists like Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall, that Paul Gartner, then a copy editor at The Charleston Gazette, got at me after class and told me that he would like to arrange a meeting with the Gazette About a week later, I was writing for The Gazette, with a fantastic mentor, the paper’s feature editor, Douglas Imbrogno.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect in the future. At the time, I seemed to always take an unpopular position on so many subjects. I wanted weed to be legal. I wanted people to marry whomever they wanted to marry. I wanted my LGBTQ friends to feel recognized, appreciated and safe. I wanted an entirely desegregated Popular Culture. And most of all, I wanted out of West Virginia.
I wasn’t as uncomfortable or hopeless as many of my peers, but judging from the local rap scene, it just seemed that you couldn’t get “there from “here.” You had to go where the “action” was in order to prove yourself, and join a like-minded community. Which is why I’ll be eternally grateful to WVSU Professor Sandra Marshburn for nominating me to be one of the pilot teachers in President Clinton’s WritersCorp Program. Though the pay was ridiculously low, it enabled me to relocate to San Francisco, and start building the life I’m now living in Oakland. I never allowed my own expectations to rob me of unplanned opportunities, but I can honestly say I didn’t see any of this coming, ever.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: So, except for a few social media shout-outs through the years, I lost touch with the arc of your career. You’ve done some serious creative work and writing. Catch me up on your life after you left West Virginia. You are Managing Editor of the East Bay Express, a Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space and a bunch of other things. How did you get from Kanawha County WV, to a career rooted in the San Francisco Bay?
D. SCOT MILLER: Well, WritersCorp did allow me to move to San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country, with next to no money. I had experience working in bookstores through Trans-Allegheny books in Charleston, WV. My mentor there was Gordon Simmons, who was also my philosophy professor at State. I snagged a job at Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, and another at Phoenix Books in Noe Valley, and Modern Times Books, all the while teaching Creative Writing/Poetry with WritersCorp, and California Poets In The Schools.
After my tenure there, I was hired as Lead Tutor at The Center for African American Art and Culture in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, which I did for nearly a decade. Until very recently, there was never a time when I wasn’t working two or three jobs to “feed my writing habit.” In 1999, I partnered with fellow WritersCorp poet, giovanni singleton, to found Nocturnes Literary Review, a journal of experimental poetry and prose from marginalized communities. We published our first issue in 2000, and by 2003, the journal was a respected publication with both academics and writers.
Over that same period of time, I’d gotten married to my first wife, and had a son, Douglas Miller III. Seeking a way to support my family, I took corporate jobs in advertising, eventually becoming Advertising Director for Dance Magazine, and a Retail Advertising Director for The East Bay Express. The money was good enough for me to publish in small journals and magazines without a mind toward payment.
I began collecting “clips,” eventually gathering enough to land a few paying writing gigs. At first, at The San Francisco Weekly as a “stringer” (No byline, just blurbs for events and noteworthy news pieces), then as Book Reviewer for The East Bay Express, where I got my first feature. And then as a full-time Contributing Writer for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, where I began as freelancer, while working a full-time job at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach district.
In 2009, I wrote The Afrosurreal Manifesto for the San Francisco Bay Guardian at the request of my editor, Johnny Ray Huston, who devoted an entire issue to the concept. From there, things snowballed quickly. I was contacted by colleges and universities to give lectures. Most notably, Columbia College in Chicago and School of the Arts in Chicago in 2012, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) invited me to be a Columnist-In-Resident, which is a lifetime appointment.
I’d been writing for The Express since the early 2000s, but was hired as an Associate Editor in late 2018, and Arts Editor in 2019. When the pandemic hit, the paper was sold to Metro San Jose, and I was promoted to Managing Editor. This has been one of those rare experiences, at least for me, where all of my hard work and diligence actually paid off, and I was prepared to meet the moment.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You are described as the founder of the Afrosurreal Arts Movement through publication of “The Afrosurreal Manifesto.” Does that arts movement remain a thing and what sort of work does it encompass? Plus, your work has been cited in several books, including: “How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity”. Please elaborate.
D. SCOT MILLER: Around 2003 or so, I came across the term “Afrosurreal Expressionism ” in an introduction to Henry Dumas’ work, written by Amiri Baraka. I’d never heard of the term up to that point, but immediately identified with it, and understood that was the style of both my poetry and fiction. After discussing the term with Baraka — who I already knew from presenting events at bookstores, and interviewing for newspapers — I asked if it would be okay for me to not only use the term, but modify it for contemporary issues. He liked the idea, and The Afrosurreal Manifesto, and Afrosurrealism was born.
After publishing The Manifesto in 2009, I didn’t expect it to be much. At the time, I was only glad to have the opportunity to publish some of my creative writing in the largest and alternative weekly in California at the time. It sat somewhat dormant until the scholar Ruth Ellen Kocher asked to present it at the Artists’ and Writers’ Program annual conference in 2011, as a part of her study on literary movements. The following year, I was contacted by two colleges in Chicago to give lectures for an Afrosurreal arts exhibit, which opened in 2013. The first of its kind.
From that conference in Chicago, writer Ytasha Womack contacted me to do a chapter on Afrosurrealism in her book, “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture” (2013), and where Erin Christovale and Amir George would learn of Professor Robin DG Kelley’s “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” from me at an afterparty for the exhibit. They went on to create the Black Radical Imagination Film Festival, and dedicated the first of their globe-trotting tour to me and Afrosurrrealism. They had to fool me to come to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the premiere, saying that Terance Nance may not be able to moderate and I should come to help if need be. If I’d known they’d dedicated the entire tour to me and wanted to acknowledge me, I wouldn’t have had the nerve.
Incidentally, Professor Kelley’s book was reprinted by Beacon Press just this month, and he has written a new introduction that mentions me and my involvement with The Black Radical Imagination Film Festival. I met Kelley soon after publishing the manifesto in 2009, the same year he published his Surrealist anthology, “Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora,” still the most thorough examination of non-European Surrealist practitioners in the world. Kelley and I were on the same wavelength, and there is a great interview with him at the SFMoMA websit that has been cited by academic journals. I’d suggest taking a deep dive on those posts to learn more of the actual history of the movement.
My pieces at SFMoMA also got the recognition of the website e-flux, a very influential space for working artists, and that’s the primary reason scholars and artists cite me today. To be one of those writers who inspire others the way I was inspired is an honor.
TV shows like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” and Terrance Nance’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” to movies like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You,” are considered a part of the Afrosurreal Arts Movement by publications like The New York Times, Slate, Wired, and countless others. There’s also too much controversy to cover here, but Afrosurrealism has been tied to movies, music, theater, literature, dance, politics, and even theology. Some get it right, some get it terribly wrong, and some seem to just want to claim it for themselves, which still hits differently.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: We both have had a shared interest in the BEAT era and its luminary writers. You had a close encounter with one of the main godfathers of that movement, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco. Talk about that and your own writerly influences, icons, inspirations, and north stars — both BEAT and beyond.
D. SCOT MILLER: When I met Lawrence, he was in his mid-90s, at a City Lights Christmas party. I was invited because I was dating someone who worked there. At the party, I sat next to an elderly gentleman that I somewhat recognized and we hit it off. He told me who he was and arranged for me to work for the store as extra help for the Christmas season. I ended up working there for seven years, or so. Though Lawrence was the owner, you would have never known it by his actions. There was no fanfare when he walked through the store to his offices on the second floor, and the only people who recognized him were those looking for him, and even they were timid.
I must admit, I was familiar with City Lights, but as far as bookstores went, they only sold new titles, and I thought that was kinda wack. I lived off the used books pipeline, and could rake in considerable sums in that trade. I understood the store and Ferlinghetti’s place in history, but felt completely divorced from it until I worked for him. City Lights was founded on making books financially accessible, but then evolved to be the antithesis of the very system that kept them alive. I never discussed this with him. We mostly talked about poetry, and even then, sparsely, but over nearly a decade. May he rest well.
RELATED: PARADIGM SHIFTING: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Life in the Trenches of Poetry: WestVirgniaVille.com
Lawrence was a listener, one of the greatest I’ve ever witnessed. I sat at countless tables with him, and his every comment was sparse and incisive. He understood an economy of words in a way that I’m far too behind to master. He only spoke when necessary, and it was always so thought out, like he’d been mulling it over for quite awhile. I suppose that after enough times on a particular roller coaster, you learn the curves and loops. I sure have.
As far as Beats, I met a few. David Meltzer was good friend, and would always ask me, “When is your book coming out?” And I would always answer, “When they let me have one.” Jack Hirschman was also a great mentor. Every Wednesday, he held these conversations at Spec’s Bar, right across the street from City Lights, that he called ‘the amoeba’, and anyone and everyone would stop by, from Amiri Baraka, and Diane DiPrima, to Michael McClure. The discussions could range from sonnets, to Marxism, to Hegal, to Kerouac, and he always kept the discussions lively and informative. Though they have all passed now, I feel fortunate to have been able to connect with so many historic figures and call them my friends and mentors.
A Poetry Sampler from D. Scot Miller: September 1, 2022: The poems “The New Body,” “Afro-surreal Generation,” Woodshed,” and “AfterGraph” by D. Scott Miller
As for my personal influences, I met Ishmael Reed in the first months of my arrival to San Francisco in the early 90s, and we’ve remained connected ever since. I’ve contributed to his online magazine, Konch, several times over the years, and just last year, interviewed him for a feature story for The East Bay Express. Along with Baraka, Al Young was very influential on me, and became someone who was both a sounding board and ballast over these last few decades before his passing.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You were a fledgling, brainiac, up-and-coming writer from Dunbar WV when we knew worked together back in the day. Do your origins in West Virginia and somewhat-urban Appalachia inform your life and self and writing in any fashion to this day? And, so, that is the past — what are your aims for your creative self looking ahead?
D. SCOT MILLER: Being from West Virginia was both a blessing and a curse. An example: About 15 years ago, I was at a bar with a couple of friends, both Black men, and scholars. One from Oakland, the other from Canton, Ohio. Somehow, the conversation turned to what it was like growing up, and I asked, “Remember the first time you got into a fistfight?” and was shocked to learn that neither of them ever had. It felt strange to have to explain that “knuckle-dusting” was just a way of life where I was from, and it also made me aware that that kind of violence was something I’d been having to unlearn since I left home.
The upside is that I can still be plain-spoken, as is the West Virginia way, and have found that my candor can either be off-putting or attractive, depending on whom I’m speaking to, and what I’m speaking about. There have been many occasions where my no-nonsense approach to things has surprised employers because I “get ‘er done” in a more effective and efficient way because that’s how I learned to work from the start. West Virginia taught me that.
As for the future, I tend to live by the credo of Black Surrealist Suzanne Cesaire, by “Staying in permanent readiness for the marvelous.” As I said, I couldn’t have anticipated any of the things that are in my life now, from my 19-year old son, to my 2-year-old daughter, or my loving, beautiful, and brilliant wife, who has blessed me with her presence for over a decade now.
I just do the work, and let the world unfold around it.
SEE MORE OF D. SCOTT MILLER’S WORK:
SFMoMA SITE: openspace.sfmoma.org/author/dscotmiller/
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