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Thomas Sayers Ellis

Visiting Poet

Thomas Sayers Ellis

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., and educated at Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, Thomas Sayers Ellis attended Harvard for a while, studying with Seamus Heaney and serving as a teaching assistant for Spike Lee, and working at the Harvard Film Archive and the Grolier Poetry Bookshop. While living in Cambridge, Ellis cofounded the Dark Room Collective, a network of African American poets that included Kevin Young, Natasha Trethaway, Tracy K. Smith, and Major Jackson. He went on to take his MFA at Brown University in 1995.

Ellis’ powerhouse debut collection The Maverick Room (Graywolf Press) earned him both a Mrs Giles Whiting Writers’ Award and the 2006 John C. Zacharis First Book Award. Exploding with inner-city youth culture energy, noted for its “percussive prosody,” as he calls it, The Maverick Room takes its name from a now-defunct go-go club Ellis frequented as a teen, and it brims with rhythm, sass and self-deprecating wit. He works the page the way his musical subjects work a room.

Ellis has said that “funk meets formalism” in his work which blends poetic devices with creative riffing. These gregarious, socially conscious, and ever-surprising poems dissect, embrace and reject traditional tropes of African American literature, and then take a linguistic swerve toward Gertrude Stein.

Recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Ellis has also published two chapbooks, The Good Junk and The Genuine Negro Hero, and co-edited the anthology On the Verge: Emerging Poets & Artists, and edited the forthcoming Quotes Community: Notes for Black Poets. Individual poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Grand Street, Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Best American Poetry, 1997 and 2001.

Ellis serves as contributing editor to Callaloo and Poets & Writers magazine, and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA program at Lesley University.

Select Poems

In our community everything was kept quiet,
behind closed doors. When dogs got stuck
it was because one was hurt and the other
was a friend, helping it home—just like a friend.
Once Reverend Gibson ran from the church
with a bucket of hot water, and when it separated them,
they sang. That’s why it was such an event,
a mistake equivalent to sin, when my parents
left their bedroom light on, door open.

Mistakes are what gave light to that tiny apartment
darkness tried to conquer. And imagination,
how there had to be more to it than
the quick & crude. He put it in and he took it out.

A naked bulb on the dresser next to where
they made me made them celebrities, giants, myth.
I watched their black shadows on the wall,
half expecting fade-out and something romantic
as the final scene of Love Crazy, my father
a suave William Powell, my mother’s slender body
a backwards C in the tight focus of his arms—
close shot, oneiric dissolve and jump cut to years
before their separation and the arrival of hot water.

From THE MAVERICK ROOM (Graywolf Press, 2005)


All their fences
All their prisons
All their exercises
All their agendas
All their stanzas look alike
All their metaphors
All their bookstores
All their plantations
All their assassinations
All their stanzas look alike
All their rejection letters
All their letters to the editor
All their arts and letters
All their letters of recommendation
All their stanzas look alike
All their sexy coverage
All their literary journals
All their car commercials
All their bribe-spiked blurbs
All their stanzas look alike
All their favorite writers
All their writing programs
All their visiting writers
All their writers-in-residence
All their stanzas look alike
All their third worlds
All their world series
All their serial killers
All their killing fields
All their stanzas look alike
All their state grants
All their tenure tracks
All their artist colonies
All their core faculties
All their stanzas look alike
All their Selected Collecteds
All their Oxford Nortons
All their Academy Societies
All their Oprah Vendlers
All their stanzas look alike
All their haloed holocausts
All their coy hetero couplets
All their hollow haloed causes
All their tone-deaf tercets
All their stanzas look alike
All their tables of contents
All their Poet Laureates
All their Ku Klux classics
All their Supreme Court justices
Except one, except one
Exceptional one. Exceptional or not,
One is not enough.
All their stanzas look alike.
Even this, after publication,
Might look alike. Disproves
My stereo types.

From THE MAVERICK ROOM (Graywolf Press, 2005)


for my mother

I guess
I got it
from you,

this habit
of clenching
my face
into a fist,

this brutal
looking into,

her way
of seeing things,


one eye
clearly unable
to reach
as far as
the other.

A childhood
by headaches

from straining
and watching
far too
much TV,

up close,
so nothing
would escape.

Then at ten
I got an
inexpensive gift,

one that held
images up

closer to
my face
like a kiss.

the kids
who were
supposed to be

I blinked
and blinked,

my sight with it—
perfect visio
in my right eye,

but the left one
was weaker.

It backed away,

then blurred.


her doctor

adding windows

to our already
veiled corner
of the world.

We left linked,
two good eyes
between us,

joined by
our shared flaw.

She passing
her gift,

me making myth
with it.

From THE MAVERICK ROOM (Graywolf Press, 2005)


About Thomas Sayers

Poetry Center Reading Dates: October 2009