Sunday, October 21, 2007

Thomas Sayers Ellis at the University of Maryland

Thomas Sayers Ellis, the poet behind the most excellent book The Maverick Room, came to read at the University of Maryland this year and I had the high honor and privilege of introducing him. Here’s what I said:

We are in for a treat this evening. Thomas Sayers Ellis is a poet with language that sparkles as much as it cuts. His words “are parts of speech/with beats and breaths of their own.” Ellis uses “interjections like flams. Wham! Bam!” The vibrant world of the English language in its daily use is captured and transmogrified by Ellis in his poems. He combines language with structural elements that bow to the formalism of the poetic past but also bust out with the rhythms of funk, hip-hop, and jazz.

Ellis is a poet of place, this place, Washington, DC, and the African-American people of the District as well as the broader African Diaspora. In his poem, “View of the Library of Congress from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School,” he synthesizes many of these disparate strands of his knowledge and identity, and on the occasion of Robert Hayden’s death, tells us,

I was beginning to think
Like a poet, so in my mind
Hayden’s dying and my loafers
Were connected, but years apart.

I first heard Ellis read at Karibu Books in the Prince George’s Plaza a few years back. Having only read a few disparate poems of his prior to attending the reading, I didn’t know what to expect and was mesmerized by his performance, and indeed that is what it was. Ellis proved his linguistic mastery, both on the page and with his electric presentation. Ellis’ images are vivid and his language is both familiar and unusual. Consider these lines from A psycho-alpha-disco-beta-bio-aqua-do-loop,”

The strings attached
To our thangs were
Reeled into The Deep
And rhythmic as fins,
Schools of P signs
Flapped and waved
Like flags.
One nation
Under a groove.

Ellis co-founded the Dark Room Collective, a community of established and emerging writers, in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1988. Of the Collective, co-founder Sharan Strange wrote, "It was the sustaining practice of writing in community just as much as the activism of building a community-based reading series for writers of color that kept us engaged in collectivity."

Ellis attended and was graduated from Brown University with a Master’s of Fine Arts in 1995. He has been published in numerous journals and anthologies including Poetry, Tin House, and Ploughshares. He has received fellowships and grants from The Fine Arts Work Center, the Ohio Arts Council, Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony.

His first full collection, The Maverick Room, was awarded The 2006 John C. Zacharis First Book Award. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence University and a faculty member of the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His book, Breakfast and Blackfist: Notes for Black Poets is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press, Poets on Poetry Series.

I leave you with a few lines from Ellis’ poem “All Their Stanzas Look Alike,” an anaphoric litany which includes this,

All their metaphors
All their bookstores
All their plantations
All their assassinations
All their stanzas look alike

He reads it much better than I, which is why, I’ll stop, and ask you all to give a warm welcome to the electrifying, mesmerizing maverick, Thomas Sayers Ellis.

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