Thomas Sayers Ellis is one of the premier African American poets in the United States today as well as a distinguished college professor who teaches at both Sarah Lawrence College and Lesley University. A founder of the Dark Room Collective,a writer's collective that produced many of today's notable Afro-American writers, Ellis has won numerous honors and awards and is a contributing editor for the prestigious journal, Callaloo. Ellis won the Whiting Writer's Award in 2005 and the John C. Zacharis First Book Award in 2006. Mr. Ellis is also a photographer. Three of his pieces are included in this interview. Recently, I contacted him and asked him if he would like to conduct an interview with JuliusSpeaks, an idea which he enthusiastically endorsed. The following is what transpired.
1. Tell us something of your background. Where are you from? Are you married? Family?
I am from Washington, D.C. and many of the facts of my life are in my poems, real and imagined. I am not married in the same way that I am not metaphor. I am not single because poet means plural, a collective process and many collective utterances. I do think that it’s too bad that the places we are ‘’from” have to stay in one place forever. Yes, I wish land, the notion of local, were more mobile. Prosody, prose and song, must move.
2. What inspired you to become a poet?
I don’t think I was ever inspired to be one, but I am sure there were a great many other things that I could not be, so many so that poet was there waiting. It was always there––in the widest way. I was never without the possibility of it. I was full of it before I was anything else. At a very early age I was chased in my dreams and in my play by images and sound. A new definition of inspiration: the day images and sound caught me.
3. What does it mean to you to be a person of color and an artist in the United States at this time?
It means too many things to write but I am a Black writer in America and that means that I am Black and American, a double strengthened force, not an America who has been weakened or burdened by Blackness. Blackness adds range and elasticity to my American-ness. The task, however, is to write poems that continue language and poems that do not need the wave of time to become pertinent to readers. The struggle is to “live now” and to be relevant now, to look forward-back, and not backward-forward. We non white poets must also do a better job at defending our organic aesthetic handbooks. Too often those of us who don’t walk the way (in our lines) of academic logic get left out. Now is the time to make room for a vaster range of intelligences, triflin’ and proper.
4. You seem to be very aware of your audience. Do you have a target audience that you approach through your poetry? What is the audience that reads you?
I really am only aware of ears and there are too many of them to target. I approach each poem trying only to satisfy it, the poem. I hear it with my ears. We know poets read poets, mostly, and anyone else is extra. I try not to think about anything but the language and I am often also working against the poem being “about” a thing or one thing, but I always fail at that. There is something about English that traps you in the land of about which leads you to target by use of subject. Traditionally, a poem about Race has an audience and a poem about avocados has another audience. All I want is wholeness, for both audiences to come together and come apart in my odd body-toolbox, but only when I want wholeness.
5. You seem to play a lot with language in your poetry. Do you have a background in linguistics or philology?
No, but I am sensitive to the edges and insides and connotations and denotations of words. I believe in the syllabic integrity of every body part of every word. The front of a word is just as important as the end of a word, and the middle where the vowels often hide is both sonic and creamy. It may be fair to say that I have a front-ground in listening and that I am constantly trying to unlearn feeling.
6. Do you consider the technique and construction of a poem more important than the essence or the delivery?
I believe in Equality.
The Creative Process is the original Religion.
Poetry (not the poem) is
the echo of prayer.
7. Explain your approach to poetry- both in its written form and in regards to performance.
I sit down, in surrender, when I write.
I stand up, in triumph, when I read.
First I crawl
then I perform-a-form.
Must be the dog in me.
8. What would you say is the state of poetry in America today? Is there a vibrant poetry scene to be found? Is there innovation?
There is not a state of…
Poetry can’t be mapped
or polled or even populated.
The moment it vibrates
or nears “vibrant”
it becomes a disaster and people call FEMA.
It invents loss
but no one wants
to know that,
what, that earthquakes
9. How would you define yourself as a social and political being?
I signify one step ahead of those who gentrify aka my Party has not begun. It ain't late enough yet and the music ain't loud enough yet. Quietly poetry pumps up the volume!
10. The poem "Sticks" seems to be your most personal poem. Your poetry, unlike some others, does not reflect a lot of you in it. Why is that?
“All art is autobiographical.” I think Vincent van Gogh said that.
I am there, in the work and all over it. Americans are just lousy at reading nonlinear behavior in writing. I am there but not in the easy costumed way of “Confession.” A poem has to be visual and lyric but not necessarily a secretary to reality, or solely a service to experience. I would like to give the reader a reading experience that has its own breathing walk. Reader, surrender.
11. What is next for you?
It would be nice to turn my back on me or to meet me before “next.” I am going to try to be before me. I feel like my “next” has already happened and now I am going to spend some time running in the other direction ––away from intelligence, toward…
Thanks for this interview. It was a pleasure.