I first heard Thomas Sayers Ellis (Race Change Operation) read his work at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He is an animated reader who engages with his audiences in a way that few writers do when reading their work. In an attempt to help his listeners “see” the text, he unselfconsciously employed hand gestures to indicate the various forms of punctuation as he read. I was hooked then and have been a fan ever since.
Ellis’s poetry often plays with words and their sounds and rhythms in inventive ways. I hear his poetry as much as read it and there’s an underlying beat to many of his poems that makes its home in my head long after I’ve reached the final line. I’m sure I’m not expressing this in the approved language of poetry-critique-speak–I missed that class–but here’s one of my favorite poems of his that is an excellent example of what I’m clumsily attempting to express.
His most recent book is the very fine collection Skin, Inc: Identity Repair Poems, which I highly recommend.
And in a purely personal and odd aside, I was reading the novel Her Fearful Symmetry today, which is set in Highgate Cemetery in London, and the author referenced Thomas Sayers, last of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, which seemed fitting, somehow. I think I will from this day forth think of the work of Thomas Sayers Ellis as bare-knuckle poems.
If you’d like to see the man in action, here are Youtube links to him reading two of his excellent poems: