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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