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Thomas Sayers Ellis

Thomas Sayers Ellis

The love of sound

by Erick Trickey

From the February, 2005 issue

This past fall, poet and teacher Thomas Sayers Ellis offered "Literary Arts and the New Black Aesthetic," a class he designed "for black writers interested in destroying the false boundaries between prose and poetic dictions to achieve total life and freedom in their work." It's a bold promise, but Ellis delivers. His first book of poems, The Maverick Room, dazzles with its dance-beat-quick wordplay, its refusal to follow form, and the risks it takes for the love of sound. Like many other first collections, The Maverick Room (released last month by Graywolf Press) covers several years of the writer's career: youthful breakthroughs, early experiments, the emergence of a signature voice. So sprinkled among Ellis's exciting, newer pieces are quiet narrative poems: slow, autobiographical, polite, academic. They aren't bad — he's learning what he can from convention, making some nice moves within the confines — but they remind me why I got bored with a lot of poetry. Ellis got bored too. He writes in the book's climactic poem:

All their literary journals
All their car commercials
All their bribe-spiked blurbs
All their stanzas look alike

He's matured by playing more games. Watch how fast his double meanings move, how quickly they weave reality with music and myth. "A Pack of Cigarettes" is a poem about Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton's early street-corner singing group, who find their "Airplay limited / to the whole notes / of smoke. . . . / All three lungs negro / as vinyl," who have "nowhere to run, / after graduation, / except / the needle-patrolled, / bald highways / between / pretty silky black / songs."

Ellis often writes about music, from doo-wop to funk to go-go — a party music born in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s that mixes nonstop dance beats with bursts of soul, funk, jazz, and hip-hop. He's not imitating music but writing in solidarity with it, learning
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from its rhythms but also evoking its feeling, its style, what it means to us. Consider his prose poem "Bright Moments," his ultimate revel in words for words' sake, beats for beats' sake. It's dedicated to the Globe Poster Printing Corporation, whose posters for go-go shows light up Washington, D.C., with the music's promise:

All night long all night long the Day-Glo day all night long. Orange Blaze makes the poster glow makes the poster glow just like the globe. . . . A Day-Glo poster postering dawn. The light from the posters lasts longer than the shows. A bridge to cross a percussive map home.

Ellis writes with such abandon that some of his wildest riffs may be beautiful nonsense. That's okay. A mystery out of reach is more thrilling than another plain, tame stanza — so he's reconvinced me. His poems sound so good in your head, they demand to be read out loud. So hear Ellis read from The Maverick Room at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, February 3.     (end of article)

[Originally published in February, 2005.]


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