Ellis, Thomas Sayers
Ellis, Thomas Sayers
CAREER: Writer, poet, and educator. Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, assistant professor, 2001–03, associate professor of English, 2003–. Lesley University, Cambridge, MA, faculty member in low-residency M.F.A. program; Bennington College, faculty member in M.F.A. program. The Dark Room Collective (reading series for African-American writers), Cambridge, co-founder.
AWARDS, HONORS: Carl F. Wittke Award, 2005; fellowships from Fine Arts Work Center (Provincetown, MA), Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and Ohio Arts Council.
The Genuine Negro Hero (poetry chapbook), Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 2001.
The Maverick Room (poems), Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2005.
Also author of The Good Junk, published in Take Three: 1, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1996. Contributor to Best American Poetry, 1997, 2001, 2002.Contributor to journals and periodicals such as Tin House, Ploughshares, Beatrice, and Grand Street. Contributing editor, Callaloo; coeditor of On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists, 1993.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Editing Quotes Community: Notes for Black Poets ("Poets on Poetry" series), for University of Michigan Press.
SIDELIGHTS: Poet and educator Thomas Sayers Ellis was born and raised in Washington, DC, and his poems reflect the vibrant energy, raw sounds, and intense concentration of living found in the nation's capital city. "I have stayed connected to the music, the people, the folk of DC," Ellis remarked to Sara Gebhardt in the Washington Post. "My movements have been for universities—these things that one feels are a job. My roots always are and still are in DC." Ellis's poetry collection The Maverick Room is named for a music club Ellis frequented as a teenager and where he first heard go-go—"a party music born in Washington, DC, in the 1980s that mixes nonstop dance beats with bursts of soul, funk, jazz, and hiphop," noted Erick Trickey on ArborWeb.com. "The tight progression and flow of go-go let me know the kinship in what I was hearing, in what I thought and wrote, had to be poetry," Ellis remarked to Gebhardt.
In School Library Journal, reviewer Emily Lloyd observed that "this first book of poems snaps with attitude, pops with energy, and crackles with anger and sadness." The book's five sections correspond to various geographical sections of the District of Columbia. Poems that provide lyric descriptions of Ellis's life in the capital city coexist with works that deeply contemplate racial heritage, history, and philosophy. The collection's poems "have a fully realized line and neologistic voice, one that, along with the city that frames them, makes it all cohere beautifully," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. Gregory Pardlo, writing in Black Issues Book Review, called the collection "a compendium of lyric gestures compressed into taut chords of meaning." Cate Marvin, writing in Ploughshares, called The Maverick Room a "marvelous and accomplished volume of poems."
In an interview with Kelsea Habecker Smith on the AGNI Web site, Ellis describes poetry writing as a risk, but one he is happy to take. "I have never ever written a poem that wasn't the most important thing in the world to me at that moment, that I would not have gone hungry for, or screwed over the phone company for, or worse," he told Smith. Ellis has "certainly risked peace and comfort" with his writing, he revealed to Smith, but concluded that "all risks live between truth and trouble, my favorite matrimony, aesthetically."
The Genuine Negro Hero contains poems that tell stories "not in predictable narrative forms, but in unique, ecliptic configurations imbued with fresh creative properties and realizable perceptual insights," wrote Melba Joyce Boyd in African American Review. In the poems, Ellis contemplates ways in which history and meaning, thought and culture have been changed by cinema and the aesthetics of film, and how readers should not blindly and uncritically accept the images that they are offered by American culture and society. Significance hides behind contrived cinematic images, while confusion and deception are just as likely to be found there as illumination and clarity. "Ellis's poetry imprints a literary territory that contains stories and sensibilities that linger beyond the reader's initial contact with the page," Boyd commented. He is "a gifted poet who has honed his craft without losing his ear or sight as a result of staid, academic exposure," Boyd reflected.
In the poem "Balloon Dog," from The Genuine Negro Hero, "I meant to suggest that the poem/poet and all artists, lose something by over ego-ing their work," Ellis told Smith. "Certainly they gain things too, non permanent things. It's a matter of how you want to live and how you want to die." In the end, Ellis remarked to Smith, "What's good for me is whatever is good for the poem."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
African American Review, summer, 2002, Melba Joyce Boyd, review of The Genuine Negro Hero, p. 352.
Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2005, Gregory Pardlo, review of The Maverick Room, p. 32.
Publishers Weekly, January 24, 2005, review of The Maverick Room, p. 237.
School Library Journal, July, 2005, Emily Lloyd, review of The Maverick Room, p. 133.
Washington Post, January 20, 2005, Sara Gebhardt, "Verse Inspired by Hometown Sounds," review of The Maverick Room, p. PG24.
Wisconsin Bookwatch, March, 2005, review of The Maverick Room.
AGNI Web site, http://www.bu.edu/agni/ (November 16, 2005), Kelsea Habecker Smith, "Notes toward a New Duty Now and for the Future: An Interview with Thomas Sayers Ellis."
ArborWeb.com, http://www.arborweb.com/ (November 16, 2005), Erick Trickey, "Thomas Sayers Ellis: The Love of Sound," review of The Maverick Room.
Case Western Reserve University Web site, http://www.cwru.edu/ (June 15, 2000), "Ellis Tries to Instill Togetherness in Poetry Classes."
Ploughshares Online, http://www.pshares.org/ (November 16, 2005), Cate Marvin, review of The Maverick Room.
Poetry Daily Web site, http://www.poems.com/ (November 16, 2005), biography of Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Thomas Sayers Ellis Home Page, http://www.tsellis.com (November 15, 2005).