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Thomas Sayers Ellis

Award-winning Poet & Photographer

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Heroes are Gang Leaders: Spoken Word and Jazz Concert
  • An Evening with Thomas Sayers Ellis

“Ellis has something to say about the moment we’re in, and he is that rare breed of Poet, the kind whose words will be studied for generations to come, whose name will be uttered alongside that other great T. S.” —Robin D. G. Kelly

“Thomas Sayers Ellis is that rare being: a gifted artist, a master of his craft, who does not sacrifice meaning for virtuosity. He deftly manages both, with artistic and political courage….[H]e gives us language that sings AND dances….” —Farah Jasmine Griffin

“An activist and a poet who resists the imposition of labels and upholds the wholeness of humanity.” —NY Journal of Books

Thomas Sayers Ellis was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His first, full collection, The Maverick Room, for which he received a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award and the 2006 John C. Zacharis First Book Award, was published by Graywolf Press in 2005, . The collection is “marked by inner-city youth culture energy that is part lyrical narrative, part “Parliament Funkadelic,” a blend of chaos and control through the sheer and simple power of words” (Midwest Review). His most recent collection is Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf, 2010), including his own photographs. He is also the author of The Good Junk (Take Three #1, Graywolf 1996); a chapbook The Genuine Negro Hero (Kent State University Press, 2001); and the chaplet Song On (WinteRed Press 2005). His Breakfast and Blackfist: Notes for Black Poets is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry Series. He is a contributing editor to Callaloo and Poets and Writers magazine.

Mr. Ellis co-founded The Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1988 and earned an MFA from Brown University in 1995. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry; Grand Street; Tin House; Ploughshares; and Best American Poetry, 1997, 2001 and 2010. He has received fellowships and grants from The Fine Arts Work Center, the Ohio Arts Council, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. In 2015 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry. As photographer, Ellis has collaborated with Elizabeth Alexander and The Poetry Foundation to create the virtual Washington DC poetry tour. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and a faculty member of The Lesley University low-residency MFA Program in Cambridge, Mass.

Thomas Sayers Ellis’s website

Thomas Sayers Ellis is the author of two full-length poetry collections, The Maverick Room, for which he received a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award and the 2006 John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, which includes his own photographs. His book Breakfast and Blackfist: Notes for Black Poets is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. In 1988 Ellis co-founded The Dark Room Collective, one of the most influential poetry communities of the 20th century. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Grand Street, Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Best American Poetry, and he is a contributing editor to Callaloo and Poets and Writers Magazine.

Skin, Inc. is Ellis’s big, ambitious argument in sound and image for an America whose identity is in need of repair. In lyric sequences and his own photographs, Ellis traverses the African-American and American literary landscapes—along the way adding race fearlessness to past and present literary styles and themes, and perform-a-forming tributes to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the election of President Barack Obama. Part handbook noir, part identity repair-kit, part plea for poetic wholeness, this collection worries and self-defends; eulogizes and casts a vote; raises a fist and; often, an intimidating song. One sequence is written as a sonic/visual diagram of pronouns and vowels; another contains quotes from editors’ rejections of his own poetry included in the book; another poem, “Race Change Operation,” begins: “When I awake I will be white, the color of law.” Skin, Inc. is the latest work by one of the most audacious and provocative poets now writing.

THE MAVERICK ROOM (Poetry, 2005)

“The wondrous The Maverick Room, Ellis’s opus of sonic site-specific artistry, reminds us of Ralph Ellison’s sampling of Emerson’s observation that geography is fate.” —Michael Eric Dyson

In this powerhouse debut, Thomas Sayers Ellis in one poem prognosticates, “Pretty soon, the Age of the Talk Show / Will slip on a peel left in the avant-gutter.” The result is The Maverick Room, the testing ground of determination and serendipity, where call and response becomes Steinian echo becomes hip-hop becomes a bootlegged recording hustled out a DC go-go club. With its defiance for any one tradition or voice, Ellis’s debut collection becomes a powerful argument against monotony—just when “All their stanzas look alike,” just when language fails in the face of catastrophe, just when, as Ellis confesses, “the twin terrors at the center of the word dollar / have made me and my craft liar-cowards.” The Maverick Room introduces a brave, intelligent, and original new voice to American poetry.


Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category


or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”


or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora


or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or Senghor


or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort


or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry


or fear of…
of terror or border.
Or all organized

—from Skin, Inc.