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Thomas Sayers Ellis sits in the front corner of the conference room that UMass Boston has cleared out for this reading. He checks his face-down wristwatch repeatedly; he’s on in about two minutes. He reaches up absent-mindedly and twirls a stray coil of his short Afro. Sayers Ellis wears a benevolent half-sneer and a nose-ring similar to rocker Lenny Kravitz. He’s dressed in a jacket that’s pure James Brown and glasses that are post-millennium Malcolm X. He saunters to the microphone, savors the moment a bit before promising his audience of “this will be a percussive, racial reading.”
Sayers Ellis is here to read from his new collection of poetry, The Maverick Room, and to announce the winners of this year’s Academy of American Poets university prize. (It’s the first time he’s ever been asked to judge one, he notes.)
Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington, DC in the era of Watergate, Vietnam, and “Home Rule.” He notes that “if poets are made up of the voices they hear, [his] would be Richard Nixon’s.” He then reads the first two lines of T.S. Eliot’s (whose monogram he shares) famous “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a near-perfect Tricky-Dick voice.
Sayers Ellis studied here in the Northeast: “Boston is where I learned to be a writer…where I learned to be hungry.” One of his noted accomplishments was to found the Dark Room Collective, a group of African-American writers living communally in a house on Inman Street in Cambridge. The Collective was born during the funeral of acclaimed writer and Harlem native, James Baldwin. Upon Baldwin’s death, Sayers Ellis and others such as Sharan Strange and Kevin Young felt keenly a lack of “black literary voices” and sought to fill the void.
Sayers Ellis is a poet who turns musical scores into words and phrases with his pen. His work lives on rhythm. “All it takes is two beats to dance. Da-Da. That’s what I’m doing with my writing, making it get up. Get up, poem.”
Growing up, his house was stuffed with books and filled with sound from Mozart to James Brown and Duke Ellington. Sayers Ellis focused on his poetic education, but “attempted to disrupt formal training by apprenticing [him]self to funk.” He relates a story of being on the road with Grandmaster of Funk George Clinton. Clinton confided that he’d “arrived at funk by ‘speeding up the blues.’” Sayers Ellis decided to do the same with his “Atomic Bride”—a modern riff on a classic form, the villanelle.
Much of The Maverick Room contains what Sayers Ellis calls “identity repair” poems such as “No Easy Task” and “The Dollar Signs of Autumn.” He’s spent decades figuring out how to be “black” in a poem: “First, you’ll need a talk, then a kind of walk.” He tells the story of returning to Washington DC after years in the Northeast and running into an old friend, who asked him “Whe’you stay at?” It had been years since he’d heard DC slang—so long that Sayers Ellis could only answer “I don’t know.”
In poems like “Marcus Garvey Vitamins,” he replaces technical, formal devices with “trick moves” such as italics. As he reads the italics, he tilts his head to the right so the audience picks up on his trick.
Sayers Ellis’ poetry contains “the language of signs and silence,” he says, sharing a chuckle with the sign language interpreter beside him. Her signing conveys the same urgency as his writing, the sadness, irony, sarcasm, and excitement in his voice reflected in the sway and snap of her arms.
Although his work is racially conscious, to suggest that Sayers Ellis limits the political content of his poems to the issue of race is to fall into the trap of skin-deep analysis—something his writing works hard to defy. “All Their Stanzas Look Alike” digs at all the formal institutions of literature: from poet laureates to rejection letters, writing contests to tenure tracks, the Caucasian queen of literary criticism, Helen Vendler, to the self-made African-American Empress of the book club, Oprah Winfrey.
Sayers Ellis isn’t exactly a stranger to such institutions; he’s widely anthologized, published, and the recipient of several fellowships. He acknowledges this and speaks about the dangers of courting the establishment by telling the story of when Spike Lee guest lectured at Harvard. At the time, Sayers Ellis wrote a poem called “Spike Lee at Harvard” which doesn’t mention Lee, but explores both the importance of integration and his own fears of “selling out.”
For Sayers Ellis, selling out is less about “acting white” or not “walking and talking black” than about losing his rhythm and freshness. He worries that “the poetry in [his] walk will become prose.”
In the line, Sayers Ellis is engaging and warm. An audience member asks him how he sees himself as a performer. He replies that “all poems perform…but I don’t see myself as anything finished. It’s important to have a sense of how things evolve.”