Books, Chapbooks & Other Print Publications

“The fine and noble tradition of protest poetry is in safe, strong hands with this latest collection from Thomas Sayers Ellis. As the title states, this is indeed an identity repair kit. ” —New York Journal of Books

Skin, inc.: Identity repair poems
(graywolf press, 2010)
About Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems
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 for 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.

Praise for Skin, Inc.

“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. On these pages he gives us language that sings AND dances; irresistible language that guides us through history and complex questions of aesthetics and politics. And he does so with humor, insight and brilliance. His thoughtful meditations on meaning, on language, on possibility audaciously embody our anger and our love. As with the titles he enshrines within, Skin, Inc. is sure to be yet another star in our galaxy of poetry.” —Farah Jasmine Griffin

“ Ellis’s bold second collection (after The Maverick Room) constitutes an impassioned argument for revitalizing America’s calcified literary culture (“Flat, fixed and finished”), whose conventional assumptions about the expression of racial identity severely limit the aesthetic choices available to both writers and readers of color (“These genres these borders these false distinctions/ are where we stay at/ in freedom’s way”). Sayers regards postracial America as a myth (“we did not arrive after us”) and finds that individual creativity, subsumed by the elite, monolithic power of technologically driven mass media (“all/ the camera-phones,/ raised like Rockefellers,/ above the rest of us”), is compromised by the rigid criteria necessary for mainstream cultural validation (“Equality will skin you/ if you don’t exceed ISBN”). With honesty, eloquence, and precision, Ellis calls for resistance to the outward imposition of social and personal identity while acknowledging the difficulty of the task (“I no longer write white writing/ yet white writing/ won’t stop writing me”). VERDICT Certain to ignite debate on campuses and blogs, this work is the perfectly realized embodiment of its author’s intent, likely to inspire poets of all ethnic backgrounds for some time to come.—Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY

“Ellis positions himself between the two primary schools of contemporary poetry (not only African American poetry, although the divide is especially noticeable there), which he defines as “Academic” and “Spoken Word” in his poem “No Easy Task.” The “trick” is to bridge those apparent opposites, which he does superlatively in his second full collection. The cadence of speech is audible on the page, in his “uneven ribs of verse” that worry “text to talk and talk to text.” In the searing tradition of Ai, Ellis takes on the thorny questions of race and culture, and never mincing words about the damage racism has done: “If punctuation / were a punch, / I’d publish line breaks of fists.” But he sees poets as “identity repair-people, / faders of trick moves, trope-a-dopes / and okee dokes, / laying our dice down like ( ) like we love us.” A photographer as well as a poet, Ellis includes a sequence that combines the two art forms in homage to James Brown; another sequence explores the complex image and tragic reality of Michael Jackson’s life. Ellis’s distinctive voice offers a new model for written orature, and his audience steadily widens.—Booklist, Patricia Monaghan

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The Maverick room
(graywolf press, 2005)
from Publishers Weekly
Readers have been waiting for this volume's appearance at least since Ellis's cofounding of the Dark Room Collective in the mid-'90s; if one counts Ellis's 1996 appearance in Graywolf's Take Three series, or the short 2001 book produced by Kent State, then this is not quite his debut. The book's five sections are directionally named for areas of Washington, D.C. ("NW"; "SE"; etc.), plus a dividing middle section named, like the book, for a major D.C. go-go music club of the mid '80s. The poems have a first book's trying-everything-out range, including updates of '60s taunts ("Africa disagrees/ with subject-verb agreement") and confessionals ("My father was an enormous man.../ His eyes were the worst kind/ Of jury - deliberate, distant, hard") as well as encomia to favorite musicians (Bootsy Collins, Sugar Bear) and family members. But unlike most debuts, they have a fully realized line and neologistic voice, one that, along with the city that frames them, makes it all cohere beautifully. Staccato rhythms slyly combine with delayed repetitions in ways that are hard to quote, but a good many stanzas are arresting on their own: "The whole bumpnoxious,/ Dark thang stanks/ Of jivation// And Electric Spank/ Glory, glory, glory/ hallastoopid." Other poems shift effortlessly into formal registers that give further resonances to Ellis's knowing switches of code and to this marvelous maverick book as a whole.

Praise for The Maverick Room

"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

“This linguistic tome maps the segments of the district, from ground level ‘beneath the veil of social hierarchy,’ the nation’s capitol. These quadrants also condition the self, an inward geography: riffs, nicknames, the cunning fragments constructed from the language of pop art, hip hop, the threshold of family, the death of the father, the sustenance and strength of the mother, the testimony of the son. Thomas Sayers Ellis is tour guide: his poetry is about the neighborhood, native speech, a probing intellect, innovative prosody, experimental wit, a parlance of the street, gardens and maps, the upper and lower frequencies as registry of song." —Michael S. Harper

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