Thomas Sayers Ellis, poet and assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, read at Ithaca College on Wednesday as part of the Department of Writing’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series.
Ellis, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is the author of two full-length poetry collections, “ The Maverick Room” and “Skin, INC.: Identity Repair Poems,” as well as other poetry chaplets such as “The Genuine Negro Hero” and “Song On: A Chaplet of 6 Poems.”
During his visit to the college, Ellis taught a writing master class to interested students in the writing department and performed selected pieces in Clark Lounge. Ellis was selected as one of three visiting writers to speak to students through performances and writing master classes.
Catherine Taylor, associate professor of writing and director of the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series, chooses speakers for the series by collaborating with other faculty members in the Department of Writing.
“We have conversations about who we’d like to see and try to get a broad range of speakers,” Taylor said. “We have six speakers each year, so we always have a poet, a fiction writer and a nonfiction writer each semester to get a range of voices.”
During the master class, Ellis exposed students to new perspectives on spoken word poetry.
“I was talking about failure and passion within failure,” Ellis said. “I think about poems on the page as exhaustive. We keep moving through the breathing and interrupting the breathing with the technical stuff they teach you and you unteach yourself.”
Ellis began his poetry reading from his collections “The Maverick Room” and “Skin INC: Identity Repair Poems.”
During the reading, Ellis performed sections from the 15-part “Gone Pop,” a critical homage to Michael Jackson, and “The Obama Hour,” which examines America’s relation with race and color.
Ellis encouraged audience interaction and gave conversational-style transitions and background information before each poem. He also incorporated musical beats into his poetry when he recreated Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in “Gone Pop.”
“Michael used to refer to that [beat] as the ‘jelly,’” said Ellis. “So whenever he wanted to work on that song, he’d speak into the mic: ‘Give me the jelly.’”
After his performance, Ellis was met with a crowd for his book signing.
Sophomore Dorothea Hinman, a student in an Introduction to Poetry class, said she found the spoken word performance entertaining.
“Not only was he eloquent, he was funny,” Hinman said. “He tackled deep issues like race, but threw in witty wordplay.”
After Ellis’s performance, Hinman said she was eager to learn more about spoken word poetry.
Junior Garen Whitmore, a member of the college’s slam poetry club Spit That, found Ellis to be an inspiration.
“He really opened things up,” said Whitmore. “He gave me ideas for things that I could do with spoken word.”
Ellis also lived up to Taylor’s expectations in choosing a diverse speaker.
“His performance was so dynamic and exciting,” said Taylor. “I have a great job because every now and then I get to choose someone who I really love.”