Home > Conversations > Notes Toward a New Duty Now for the Future: An Interview with Thomas Sayers Ellis
Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Eva LundsagerFirst Attempt (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Notes Toward a New Duty Now for the Future: An Interview with Thomas Sayers Ellis

Thomas Sayers Ellis has said that the goal of a poet should be “range; to be whole; neither branch nor -ism.” This philosophy directly motivates his poetics and is evident in each of his collections of poetry. His poems resist limitations and rigorously embrace wholeness. They want it all. They want the human tongue to be “sloppy and slap-happy” as well as razor sharp; they want lyric’s gravity as well as lightness; they want what is real as well as an “imagined nation.” Ellis asks this of each of his poems. Of his students he asks no less, and this push toward range and wholeness is the greatest bequest he makes to them.

Ellis’s background affords as much range as his poems. His creative efforts have extended into film and music, and he has recently been involved in collaborations with visual artists. He grew up in Washington, DC. He received his BA from Harvard, and then took his MFA from Brown University. His most recent book, The Maverick Room, was published in January 2005 by Graywolf. He previously published two collections of poetry: The Good Junk, 1996, from Agni’s Take Three Series; and The Genuine Negro Hero, 2001, a chapbook from Kent State University Press. He co-edited On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists. He was co-founder of the Dark Room Collective, and is the editor of “Quotes Community: Notes for Black Poets.” He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Yaddo. His poems have appeared in such journals as Tin House, Grand Street, and Ploughshares, and he has twice been featured in The Best American Poetry (1997, 2001). He is Associate Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, as well as a faculty member at Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program. He was also faculty member at Bennington College’s Writing Seminars MFA program.

Kelsea Habecker Smith: I’ve heard you say, “All I have in me are risks.” As you survey your own writing, what risks have primarily shaped or defined it?

Thomas Sayers Ellis: Certainly there are many, too many to remember without betraying the circumstances out of which they were allowed to win, but I will say that I have never ever written a poem that wasn’t the most important thing in the world to me at that moment, that I would not have gone hungry for, or screwed over the phone company for, or worse. I don’t play that creative-writing career stuff. Whatever it is it’s a path, well paved and well lit. I’m far-sighted so I can see the cats ahead of me and the cats ahead of them but only because of the cats who came before all of us. Being risk-sensitive allows me to frisk every word space sneaking up-in-here. I’ve certainly risked peace and comfort. That’s me shaking the parents who shake their children, that’s trouble, somebody else’s business, home-training, respect and disrespect. I make the noise so others look and help. All risks live between truth and trouble, my favorite matrimony, aesthetically.

KHS: You once told me: “Wherever you go, like a good drummer, take your stick-bag of rudiments with you.” Now I ask you: What are the primary rudiments in your poetic stick-bag?

TSE: I’m older now than when I said that so the bag has emptied or I guess you could say I pawn those rudiments but I’ve still got the bag, and it’s always emptying and re-filling. I think I’ve bargained a few things away too. I’m sure I’ve traded simile in for signifying (find Gates, Jr. and his monkey—see what I mean), because everybody can simile and there are some easy and bad ones floating around out there—it’s gotten so easy to simile. You can’t escape metaphor but I multiply them now which is better than mixing them. I try to work the nerves-edges of two or three at once in one poem. See “A Pack of Cigarettes.” I’ve also replaced punning and referencing with (black) trick moves, okey dokes and trope-a-dopes. Shout-out to the people of Zaire ‘74, not Mobutu.

KHS: In your first published collection of poems, The Good Junk, drumming and percussion were recurrent themes, motifs. How did that persistent recognition of rhythm help to form those first poems?

TSE: I would argue that rhythm, the way I walk, and breath and the experience of having been percussive, emotionally and culturally, worked to balance and to punch and push the formal training and formalism I encountered in workshop and in the contemporary works I read. One’s own movement is bound to create movement if it encounters another movement. Either toward or away. The problem is that so many people are getting away with publishing writing minus movement, the motionless lyricism which they think is all about meaning, but it ain’t because meaning has to move, even the Rolling Stones knew to steal that. You gotta move, see Black & Blue. But standing still is an aesthetic school too as long as you’re smart. If I see you standing still within 5 yards of the line (break) of scrimmage, I got’s to hit you.

KHS: Some poets believe that the ear is the most important arrow in a poet’s quiver. One of the dominant structural elements in your poems, scaffolding as it were, seems to me to be its rhythm. When it comes to your own poems, is your ear your primary poetic organ, or do you place more weight on the eye?

TSE: In response to this question which requires that I admit a certain kind of aesthetic defeat in order to answer it, I offer the following. Like Robert Hayden, all I want to make, each outing, is “Something Wild, Patterned and Free.” To this end I offer you a new poem, “Marcus Garvey Vitamins” the first poem in The Maverick Room. I can’t express it any better.

Marcus Garvey Vitamins


All us we folk

person community first.

Invent truth,


no he didn’t,

yes he did. Ain’t English.

You lyin’ to me.


Africa dis_agrees_

with subject-verb agreement.

Aspect ratio,


widescreen whiteache.

Don’t like it, don’t Pulitzer me.

I stress less than land_less_ness.


I break beat, I rhetorical strategy,

I escape route

I, I, I, sike.

KHS: Your second collection, The Genuine Negro Hero, shifts its focus, in terms of subject at least, from the auditory to the visual, and you devote a great deal of attention to the idea of vision and visual perception, even the anatomy of the human eye. How did this shift in focus play itself out stylistically in your poems?

TSE: Well it was always there, and those poems were written side-by-side with the work in The Good Junk; I’m just stingy—and it takes years to look inside of anything properly. Stylistically, early, I felt trapped by narrative and the film poems in The Genuine Negro Hero prove this as does a great deal of American Cinema—the art poems in the book were able to remove themselves from a total grasp of narrative—the lines are shorter, quicker, and the mind’s-eye in each line, those angles, my iris, opens and closes faster. I prefer that shutter speed today but I realize that “a change is gonna come” there as well. I’m quicker when I visual—

KHS: Much of your writing dialogues with or responds to visual art, for instance the series of poems in The Genuine Negro Hero that respond to Bruce Nauman’s exhibition at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. What kind of relationship exists for you between poetry and visual arts? How do visual arts influence your writing specifically?

TSE: For better or worse (up until now), I’ve led in my writing, eyes first. Others do it with their brains or hearts (both are too big), their knowledge of literary history—the brain again, memory & elitist opinion; and so on. I am an eyes person, the shapes, forms and furniture there. It’s really quite rudimentary—to return to the basics, before thought, before the history of an object, before the material, That’s what I tried with Nauman and I failed. I, too, was seduced by the art world—the riffs and games and rules and schools and glamour. Maybe that is what the work is after the work leaves us. I know this: I need to see to write and I wish it weren’t so, Writing should be writing, that’s all. An act, an experience, all the invisible things buried in the body responding to each other. Who can teach that—somehow we learn it and somehow we perform it, daily, and no one gets famous but we do get to keep the circles and squares and rectangles and triangles and colors and lines and paper.

KHS: Along those same lines, I once read that you take your students to art museums and ask them to compose poems that “put the pen in the eye, bypassing the mind.” What do you mean by putting “the pen in the eye?” How does a writer accomplish that?

TSE: Somehow that scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” when the characters run through the museum stuck with me. I saw it in 1986 and thought “Now that’s the way to see art,” sometimes, divorced of the mind and the history and the responses and definitely the theme music of all museums: silence. Feet, feet, feet. I just wanted them to free their minds first, to let the eye drive, not some curator or funeral home.

KHS: In a workshop, you once said “In stanza poems, lines turn corners.” How does this philosophy of the poetic line conceptualize your philosophy of poetry itself?

TSE: I think my comment is about purpose and vision; I think lines, like water, know before we do where they will empty or enter because their qualities are already a part of that composition, that struggle, before they get there. The getting there is up to us—how we write the lines we write. But for the line itself, the decision to break and turn is predetermined; so much so it’s vertebrae. Poems know they contain this, these qualities that go both up (toward abstraction) and down (toward literalness). The turning and breaking is where the line, the march, is negotiating its terms, how much in each direction and exactly when to do a little of each. My phi lo so phy of poetry is broken and breaks itself into breathing.

KHS: In “Balloon Dog,” from The Genuine Negro Hero, you write: “the way poetry escapes/poems that/contain more/ego than/feeling,” which suggests that the poet’s responsibility is to limit self within a poem. How would you describe your main responsibility to your poems?

TSE: In “Balloon Dog” I meant to suggest that the poem/poet and all artists, lose something by over ego-ing their work. Certainly they gain things too, non permanent things. It’s a matter of how you want to live and how you want to die. My main responsibility to my poems is to get them here, to listen to their trying to arrive and to meet them somewhere in there; in their air arrival. It differs, as you know, every time. I wish I could say more about this. I wish I could [speak] more openly about the servant side of me, in art-making, but the page is always listening, ready to plantationalize a brother and I don’t want to give that flat, white thang anymore of an upper hand than it already has. What’s good for me is whatever is good for the poem, “whatever it takes, whatever the party calls for.…” My main responsibility is responsibility, thinking and feeling and covering the page, while back-peddling, brand name blessed blackness.

KHS: I’ve heard you say that “Art wants to go back to the beginning,” an intriguing idea. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

TSE: Art, I think, wants to be before everything or at least to remind you of the before, the past, the how you got complex, while being now, the complete now. Of course, the back peddling is the process, the journey, which is forward looking and therefore offensive and defensive. Back-peddling (art) in a zone covering the field, everything that comes within its subject area and sight. Art knows what’s in you, all the little nasty bits and pieces of the equation. It might not tell you because you have to be prepared to receive such information, the fragments and makings of you, your birth hour—then & now. All those creative processes just so we can re-experience our own creation. We’re addicted.

KHS: You’ve spoken about your non-literary up-bringing in Washington, DC, and many of the poems in The Good Junk continue that topic. The opening poem has a very direct line that says simply “I discovered writing.” How? What drew you to writing?

TSE: Running drew me to writing. I wanted to be Gale Sayers (#40) and I wanted to run like him and then to write like he ran. I also loved to draw, mostly things moving, mostly runners from magazines and people in the neighborhood, running. That’s all we did as children was run, then came reading, running’s sold-off cousin, but running came first. Drawing and running. By the time I got to drumming, I had already started to write. I’m still running.

KHS: How is your poetry related to your identity as an African-American male, not merely in terms of subject but in terms of style and intention as well?

TSE: The answer to your first question is both easy and difficult. My work is American, African-American, American-African, Black, genuine Negro, Afro Colored and Not for Sale, Sold or Souled Out. It ain’t Post anything, Post Black, Post Blues, or Post any ism. I be pre and I be process, something joyful, something made simply for the making, the purest p, per curse word, per ounce. The male in the work is perhaps percussive, bang, bang and penetrating—my eyes poke, they harden and soften. Folk talk about flow and a liquid visuality, a pouring of seeing eye sounds is where I’m at.

Now what have I seen (and felt) to bring to where I’m at. I’ve first felt the tragic/comic tradition and condition of being, this being, in America. My style is derived from a gathering of aesthetics, a purely democratic approach to form, to what can be contained, let a brother loose, Free TSE, and to creating my own containers. Intention, then, is tricky so I prefer surrender—there’s a weightlessness there that gives the body over to water, absolute form and formlessness, stress less, what both Bruce Lee and Fela Kuti spoke of. Ask somebody.

KHS: You were a co-founder of the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for African-American writers at Cambridge. Poetry, and literature in general, is seemingly more and more compartmentalized and fragmented by various identity groups yet obviously these divergent identities are essential and must be recognized. How did the Dark Room Collective respond to that tension between seclusion and inclusion?

TSE: The Dark Room Collective was able to negotiate the tension between seclusion and inclusion in that its members never lost sight of the fact that we were all writers first, ego, but no show-offs, which meant that the real alone, soul-searching and language-looking and book-reading work was done no matter what during the week and that the inclusion/giving back/public work that would eventually get us included was also done collectively on odd weekends. The Dark Room Reading Series was an instant success: we appeared in Emerge, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, on NPR, and in numerous newsletters and anthologies but the writing work took longer and is just over the last 5 years blowing up, so to speak with books by Sharan Strange, Kevin Young, Carl Phillips, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Major Jackson, John Keene, Danielle Legros-Georges, those seeds are old, secluded—if you will—ones. Well, there is something in the tradition of Black writing that tells you to be careful and to be alone, and to slant quote Sly, like Everyday Alone People on a Doug E Fresh mission like Robert Hayden’s “American Journal” alien, old four eyes which is why I chose Ellen Gallagher as our Arts curator, all those damn eyes.

KHS: You devote a tremendous amount of energy to teaching, which for many would be a distraction from writing. How does your teaching co-mingle with your writing? Are they two separate energies, two separate arts, or have you found a way to create synergy between them?

TSE: I can’t measure how much teaching has hurt or not; certainly it has borrowed time from my poetry but it has also taught me to act with more discretion and a quicker vision (for better or worse) with the writing time I do get. I suspect that, ideally, I’d order more balance to feel the pressure less. I can hear the clock because I have to grade or lecture—but that thinking and prep has also added to my strengths. Some poems don’t survive the hurt and other poems do. The same is true of young poets and students.

KHS: You advise your students to keep moving, changing, and not to stay in one place. Your evolving style typifies this advice. The poems in your second book were stylistically much more inventive and abstract than in your first book, and far less concerned with a straight-forward narrative. Now, your 3rd book, The Maverick Room, is forth-coming from Graywolf Press in 2004. What evolutions of style or subject can we expect to see in this latest book?

TSE: The Maverick Room has, in addition to poems that have never appeared in book form, poems from both previous smaller collections, which are not considered book. The Maverick Room will be considered my first book, fine by me. All of the poems have appeared somewhere with the exception of “The Dollar Signs of Autumn” which no one would take., until Longshot asked for it for its Beat Bush issue. The newer work is less, on-point, narrative and less, on-point, autobiographical. I’m happy about that—best to live in the larger word a bit, best to be less all about me and less about the automatic contemporary style of making one’s life and choices into myth. “No more masks, no more mythologies” (–Muriel Rukeyser). That’s where I’m at now, if such is possible, given my strengthening weakness for folklore and folk-behavior and folk-language. From The Maverick Room, you can expect chaos and order and the return of emphasis, italics, and insistence not to mention the re-invention of the political lyric, a remix of sorts. What follows, as an example, is the last poem in the manuscript.

The Dollar Signs of Autumn

Dip a finger
in a dark viscous substance
and write on the window
of our world. OIL.
— Nadine Gordimer

G-R-E-E-D did this.
Greed and fall, nature’s seasonal debris

of brilliant symbolism.
I, too, have prayed for more places to hide

in the shade
between stanzas.

Metaphorically warning students
Workshops are war,
I now wish life would stop imitating life,

and that I was talented enough to resist the images
of the S inside the eleven as a hero behind bars.

O but I am not.
The media’s cash register of bodies,

and the twin terrors at the center of the word dollar
have made me and my craft liar-cowards.

S for September, s for suffering, s for save us.
Damn you autumn,
flags are not flowers.

Kelsea Habecker Smith, a poet and nonfiction writer, was a finalist for the 2002 Ruth Lily Fellowship and the recipient of the 2003 John Haines Award for poetry. She holds an MFA from Bennington and resides in New York. (2/2005)

Back to top