Of Folk and Form: An interview with Thomas Sayers Ellis

By jewel bush

When friend and fellow MelaNated Writers Collective member Kelly Harris suggested we bring poet, photographer, and word provocateur Thomas Sayers Ellis—cofounder of the Dark Room Collective—to New Orleans, I said: “Fuck yeah!”

I jumped at the chance to hear TSE, the co-founder of the Dark Room Collective, read his work live:

…  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 tercetss
All their stanzas look alike
All their tables of contents
All their Poet Laureates
All their Ku Klux classics …”

Excerpt from “All Their Stanzas Look Alike”

MelaNated Writers will host Thomas Sayers Ellis for a Literary Jook Joint reading from 3 -5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, at Cafe Treme (1501 S. Philip St.), along with MelaNated poets Gian Smith, Kristina Robinson, Vanessa DeGuia, David Baker, Geryll “Gee Love” Robinson, Ayanna Molina and Kelly Harris. Ellis will be raffling off his original photograph “Real Heads Love Real Buckets.” The framed work is 9 x 12 with a one-inch border. Raffle tickets cost $10 each. “Real Heads Love Real Buckets” is from Ellis’ exhibition (Un)Lock It: The Percussive People in the GoGo Pocket.

You see, MelaNated Writers Collective is a little cousin of sorts to the Dark Room Collective, a community of poets that emerged from the Boston/Cambridge literary scene in the late 80’s. Heavyweights like Pulitzer-prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Major Jackson (a former Xavier University professor), and of course Ellis, came out of this coterie.

They shared creative energy, space, put on readings, critiqued each other’s work, and helped one another grow into the lit phenomenons they are currently.  This too, is what fuels MelaNated, a scribe-of-color community based in New Orleans. No one can do the work for you, but it sure is nice to have a support system, for when you do come out of your writing cave or step away from your writing desk—a support system to pat you on your back when needed and provide that tough love, too.

Thomas Sayers Ellis is the author of The Maverick Room (2005) and Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (2010), and a recipient of a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award. His poems and photographs have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Callaloo, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010), Grand Street, The Baffler, Jubilat, Tin House, Poetry, and The Nation. He is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, a faculty member of the Lesley University low-residency M.F.A Program, and a Caven Canem faculty member.

Room 220: Do you have any poetic rituals and/or superstitions?

Thomas Sayers Ellis: I don’t have any poetic rituals or superstitions, but I guess not having any is also a sort of ritual, too. I do believe in finding ways, non-writing ways, of wrestling one’s self away from the last poem or collection, so perhaps that is where other forms of art can help—or love, or random acts of body-prosody, etc. I can tell you this, though: My new manuscript will have “A Profanity Handbook” in it, so I have started to cuss and curse myself out before I write. It really helps me to get really pissed at me. I don’t drink coffee—not in the morning, not ever—and I don’t drink alcohol—not at night, not ever either—so my new habit is, “Look here, Muthafucka, you better write that poem!” Sometimes the camera-me and the poem-me go at it: “I don’t want to hear that shit!” and “I don’t want to hear that shit either!” A lot of people like to talk about “tension” in poetry. Well, I think we can do ten times better than tension—with or without the aid of artifice or abolitionists.

Rm220: Gordon Parks the photographer, the writer, or filmmaker?

TSE: I saw and read The Learning Tree before I saw Shaft, but I had always seen photographs by Gordon Parks before I was old enough to associate the content within a photograph with a particular vision or person responsible for helping to make a photograph. I can’t imagine carving Gordon Parks into fragments because it seems to me that his life was one led in the pursuit of a certain type of wholeness. He was clearly odd and eccentric and wise and tough. Word on the street is that he loved the ladies, familiars and forbiddens. In many way, yes, he is a cultural hero—the hair, the ascots, the smoking pipes. I read an article when I was a kid and in the article he said (referring to Shaft and his choice to cast unknown actor Richard Roundtree) that he wanted to give Black youth a hero comparable to James Cagney. He also said that Richard Roundtree was the first black male actor in a leading role allowed to wear a moustache by Hollywood. They still don’t let Black male poets with moustaches win Pulitzers. Parks, his poems were quiet.

Rm220: Why did you form the Dark Room Collective? What is the DRC’s legacy?

TSE: We lived in the Boston/Cambridge area and there were White readings and White Used Bookstores and White ideas and White theaters and White cinemas everywhere, so why should White have all of the fun? I wanted some, so instead of joining their fun, I started my own—which, in the end, what a trick anyway, because it was really their fun (on loan) to us, but while we had it. It was fun and funky and it was ours—partially. I am trying to express the dilemma of “forming” and of “forming” anything in English and in America. I don’t think the Dark Room Collective was radical at all. In fact, I think that it failed but, at least, it isn’t hanging around trying to sell itself or trying to be the golden rule of what all Colored Inkslingers should do. People like to say, “Look, so and so won this…” or “Look, so and so teaches here or there.” Well, that’s the stuff on loan from them, or on “earn” from them. They give it and they can take it away because the container is still mostly theirs and because we keep reaching for equality. I feel different now—about wanting what they have, and I am getting really good at returning (to them) their equality.

Rm220: Why is collective important to writers/artists?

TSE: I can’t say that Collective is important but I can say that it’s gang-related, as in if there’s a gang of us onstage someone must notice or hear the loud noise we are making. Collectives use their elbows. Elbow Room. (Ever read that amazing book of short stories by James Alan McPherson?) Collectives nudge the door open. They make room and the good ones don’t close the door behind them. The jury is still out on The Dark Room Collective, and it’s so-called door into the dark. In other words, the Spook will either sit or the spook will stand.

Rm220: What role does the black writer/photographer/artist have in preserving black culture? Should he/she shy away from taboo subjects, the unflattering aspects of culture or is all of life fair game?

TSE: I can only speak for “Me real Cool,” but I like to invent truth and to perform the forms of courage. If it’s here, it’s here (and you can use it) and if it ain’t here and you can imagine it (then use it). I think it was the poet Bob Kaufman who said, “I write writing, or nothing at all.” Black Taboo (ty), history teaches us, is for everyone.

Rm220:  What’s the last great thing you read?

TSE: The last great thing that I read is always whatever I am reading now. Sorry, but I can’t think around it, before it or after it—the current reading. One must give ones self to a book or work of art, fully, good or bad. As a matter of fact, whether or not the book is good or bad should not matter. As of today I got my hands on a copy of Monsieur Teste by Paul Valéry and that is all of the confessing I will do regarding that because as you know, in the tradition, “snitches get stitches.”

Rm220: What’s your poetry-world pet peeve?

TSE: I don’t believe in sending poems to journals or anthologies or contests where my friends are the judges or guest editors, so if you see a poem by me in such a place, you must remind yourself that I had nothing to do with it, no say so at all.

Rm220: What are you working on?

TSE: I am working on unlearning everything, especially the fake, linear breathing walk of social time. I am spending most of my time Folk Reporting and, as always, de-decorating intelligence.

Rm220: Artistically, what does New Orleans represent for you?

TSE: The always-in-motion, up and down, other-worldly scales of music and meaning. The original body orchestras that were replaced by brass inventions. The first amp and amphibian of modern crawl fish, dem dat free style when dey leans.

Rm220: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about the publishing industry?

TSE:  “There’s no way around that first embarrassing book.” —Clarence Major

Rm220: Any advice you’d like to offer up-and-coming poet/writers?

TSE: “All Looks are not alike. All holes are not a crack.” —Funkadelic


jewel bush is a writer whose work has appeared in the Courier, Washington Post and the Times-Picayune. she has participated in the Voices summer workshop for writers of color at the University of San Francisco as well as Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Texas A&M University. In July 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers, a multi-genre collective for writers of color in New Orleans. She enjoys blaxploitation movies — ones starring Fred Williamson in particular — A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, homophones, and long walks on the beach.