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Thomas Sayers Ellis


Thomas Sayers Ellis was born October 5, 1963, in Washington, D.C. He earned an MFA from Brown University in 1995, and in 2005, Graywolf Press published his first complete poetry collection, The Maverick Room, for which he received the 2006 John C. Zacharis First Book Award. His most recent collection is Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf Press, 2010).

Ellis is also cofounder, with Sharan Strange, of the Dark Room Collective, whose mission was to form a community of emerging and established African American writers. Ellis and Strange founded the Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1988, and the group included such celebrated poets as Major Jackson, Carl Phillips, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young.

Ellis is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the Fine Arts Work Center, the MacDowell Colony, the Ohio Arts Council, and Yaddo, as well as a Whiting Writers’ Award. In 2015, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry. He has also served as a contributing editor to Callaloo.



Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf Press, 2010)
The Maverick Room (Graywolf Press, 2005)

Thomas Sayers Ellis
Photo credit: Jennifer Flescher

By This Poet



My father was an enormous man
Who believed kindness and lack of size
Were nothing more than sissified
Signs of weakness. Narrow-minded,

His eyes were the worst kind
Of jury — deliberate, distant, hard.
No one could out-shout him
Or make bigger fists. The few

Who tried got taken for bad,
Beat down, their bodies slammed.
I wanted to be just like him:
Big man, man of the house, king.

A plagiarist, hitting the things he hit,
I learned to use my hands watching him
Use his, pretending to slap mother
When he slapped mother.	 

He was sick. A diabetic slept 
Like a silent vowel inside his well-built,
Muscular, dark body. Hard as all that
With similar weaknesses

— I discovered writing,
How words are parts of speech
With beats and breaths of their own.
Interjections like flams. Wham! Bam!

An heir to the rhythm
And tension beneath the beatings,
My first attempts were filled with noise, 
Wild solos, violent uncontrollable blows.

The page tightened like a drum
Resisting the clockwise twisting
Of a handheld chrome key,
The noisy banging and tuning of growth.

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