Ellis delivers words in poetry
An unusual poetry reading happened last Thursday — unusual, in that a large number of people actually came to it.
“This is the first reading where I’ve seen people from this many disciplines come together. Which is wonderful, because usually it’s the same ten or 15 creative writing majors,” said Beth Rogers after the Sept. 29 poetry reading by Thomas Sayers Ellis.
The reason, she guessed, was that the reading was co-sponsored by the creative writing and African American studies departments and the Multicultural Resource Center. In fact, the audience filled King 106, and afterward, the books disappeared before the line to buy them diminished.
Ellis grew up in Washington, D.C., earned a B.A. at Harvard, an M.F.A. at Brown and now teaches at Case Western Reserve. While at Harvard, he co-founded the Dark Room Collective, a community of writers of color that grew into an influential literary force. Thursday’s reading marked the recent publication of his book The Maverick Room, from which most of the reading came.
“Thomas takes the language as his instrument and plays it for all it’s worth,” said Creative Writing Professor Martha Collins in her introduction of Ellis.
Collins raved about his work, describing the numerous honors that have been accorded to Ellis as a poet, including the Pushcart Prize and publication in the Best American Poetry series.
When Ellis took the podium, he calmly brought the room back to the ground floor when he said, “I just want to share the book with you.”
That intimate and self-effacing tone carried the afternoon even as his intensity and poetry shoved audience members out of their seats.
The first piece, “Baptist Beat,” recreated and employed the energy of a black urban Baptist church populated by “hustlers” and “survivors.” Ellis’s delivery of the poem brought to life the preacher, the congregation and especially the “silk-robed choir.”
Ellis made each syllable a distinct note in a song that included clipped-off consonants, sonorous vowels, sound effects, rhythm and rests. Before beginning the second poem, he warned the audience that he would be tilting his head to indicate italics.
“After you buy the book,” he said, “you can do it at home.”
Ellis refused to regard the poems as sacrosanct or tiptoe around them, often interrupting his flow to make an offhand jab at himself or tell a story about the piece’s composition. Before one poem, he related his eight-show road trip with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. Clinton “took the blues and sped it up,” inspiring Ellis to deal with his own artistic heritage.
“I’d been trying really hard to write my own villanelle,” he said.
The villanelle is a challenging poetic form composed of tercets containing one rhyme, repeating the first and last line of the first tercet in alternation in each successive stanza.
But his “villanelle was sucking so bad,” he said, that he took a cue from Clinton and “sped up the villanelle,” resulting in the poem “Atomic Bride.” A few lines into that poem, Ellis stopped reading, looked up at the audience, and said, “isn’t the villanelle one of the most performative things you’ve ever seen in your life?”
While the mood of the afternoon relaxed, Ellis’ text itself was infused with passion. His poem, “All Their Stanzas Look Alike,” calls into the spotlight the whiteness of the American literary tradition and wrestles with the idea of where a black man educated in that tradition stands in relation to American poetry and popular culture.
Two new poems, “How to be Black in a Poem,” and, “No Easy Task,” attacked the problem from the other side, questioning the obligation of poets of color to communities of color. Throughout, he held tightly onto the audience with his expansive energy and alluring rhythms.
After the reading, there was a short question and answer period, which played out like a conversation about poetry with an enthusiastic friend. One question concerned how he developed his reading style.
“I hope it’s not a reading style, ’cause even that would get boring, right? I try never to read the same way twice,” he said. “I read like there is a dead body on the table and I’m trying to wake it up. I don’t even like poetry readings.”
Ellis laughed at the idea that he had any real answers, closing the afternoon
by saying “I don’t know. I know I was a lonely child that stole a
lot of books. Thank you.”