Color coded 

Politics and race collide with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis

In “The Obama Hour,” Thomas Sayers Ellis writes: “Finally one of us is properly/positioned to run. By ‘us’ I mean, Black/by ‘positioned’ I mean White/and by ‘run’ I mean Race and its varied speeds of darkness.” In “Skin, Inc.” Ellis employs writing terms—“punctuation,” “margins,” “conjugate”—to comment on color.

Ellis, an African-American poet who grew up in Washington, D.C., and earned his master’s degree from Brown University, writes primarily about politics of race. But his work is not just about the politics, he says. He prefers playing with the sound of certain language and making poetry something more than just words on a page. Poetry, he says, should be learned through the body.

The University of Montana hosts Ellis this week as its Richard Hugo Visiting Poet. As part of his stay, Ellis, who currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in upstate New York, will read from his forthcoming book of poems, Breakfast and Blackfist: Notes for Black Poets, and teach a public craft class entitled “The Widescreen Matrimony of Prose and Poetic Dictions.” The Indy spoke with Ellis about his upcoming visit, football, literary ghosts and being black in America.

Indy: How has your writing changed thematically or stylistically over the years?

Ellis: I had wanted to be a football player and for one reason or another equated writing with running. Prosody itself and prose always need movement, always need motion, always need something other than meaning. And meaning can be made by a lovely progression, a progression that provides pleasure to the mind and pleasure to the body. I was watching TV today and someone was quoting Roosevelt who said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and I was thinking about how that line has repeating sounds in it, how it resurrects itself to create something that’s memorable. It’s what we call schema or pattern or the nucleus of the form. It’s no different than, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It’s no different from “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”

Indy: Some people assume poetry is superfluous to the world around us. How do you respond to that?

Ellis: By the time we’re five or six, the world starts to take the pieces away from us and push us into certain boxes and say, “What do you want to be?” and, “You’re a straight male this or you’re a gay this.” After the world does all of that to you, poetry is one of the things that can help you fix and repair all of that, though it can’t do it by itself. What I find to be the most transformative is in the actual writing. That’s when the nation of the imagination is at it’s most governmental.

Indy: You have a reputation for conducting lively classes.

Ellis: People are always saying “Rock ’n’ roll is a lifestyle,” or “Hip hop is a lifestyle.” Well, I think that’s perhaps true of the poetic temperament too. I try to teach [my students] courageousness in language…I want them to be the thumb of their generation, to have the advantage of what’s come before them. I just don’t think students tend to learn poetry with their body enough…They write a thing, they lay the thing on the table and it’s like we’re in an operating room. Poetry doesn’t belong to the poem. Poetry belongs to all of the beautiful nuances in the world. It’s in all things passionate and all things passionately practiced. I give my kids “The Wasteland” [to read] and they look at me like I’m crazy because it’s been removed [emotionally] through translation and transparency it’s undergone. But they have to find a way to see that it once existed in many nuances, so that they can come back to this flat thing that’s attempting not to be flat.

Indy: Missoula typically hosts readings from “writers of the West,” mostly white men and women. You will definitely bring a different perspective. What’s it like teaching at Sarah Lawrence or coming to a place like Montana?

Ellis: I’m going to read a lot of poems about race when I’m [in Missoula]. But I have never been bothered by the facts of America. That has never prevented me from an onward struggle of the mind so I always welcome myself in those places. And I’m never uncomfortable…I know what America is. And this is a really interesting time in American history. But what is the true identity of the era in which we live and how can that be worked into art? My poems attempt to worry things out of their hiding places…but I try to have a good time even when I’m saying some difficult things. Writing should be a syntactical pleasure. What I’m trying to say is, there is [race], yes, and then there’s the exchange of stories, yes, and then there’s a thing that poetics itself can also do.

Indy: What have you learned from your students over the years?

Ellis: Language is always changing. Language is not finished. Language is the thing that if you stay connected to it like I do, eat it enough, carry it with you enough, it will rejuvenate you. I don’t mean “save you” in a religious sense, but it will save you from a certain kind of dogma or mundane boring existence. Everyone says you are what you eat. The alphabets, they fill you because they don’t stay the same. And young people, as you watch them grow and you watch them change language and language change them, that’s an amazing thing to see. But if you don’t stay open to it, if you close the door behind your students and stop breathing, if you only teach outward and you don’t teach inward, you’re gonna miss that. And I’m so trying not to miss that.

Thomas Sayers Ellis gives a public craft talk at UM’s Gallagher Building 123 Friday, March 6, at 1 PM and a reading in the Dell Brown Room at 7 PM. Free.
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