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Skin, Inc. Identity Repair Poems

by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Graywolf Press | 2011


Reviewed by James Petcoff

It has taken me several weeks reading and rereading the poems of Thomas Sayer Ellis and I am now beginning to see the light.  Poetry, like music, must be heard to have its fullest impact. Words on a piece of paper, just like musical notation, are nothing without a delivery system.  It is the immediate connection between the poet reading aloud to an audience that gives poetry life, and it is in the response of the audience from the delivery system that creates the poetic experience.


The old style of representing “likeness” is over
and perform-a-formers, though appreciative of
metaphor and simile, no longer need either to
express nuance in poetry. The matrimony of page
and stage insists on eliminating the false functions
between the line and the limb. All rhyme schemes
reborn as gesture, all gestures as sculptural

The New Perform-A-Form
(A Page Verses Stage Alliance)

In our western culture there is a tendency to compartmentalize fields of learning as opposed to seeing and experiencing their interaction. This can also be said of the arts.  In Afro-American art things are not so boxed in. Dance, words and music all come together in a kaleidoscope of meaning and interpretation. Listen to the call and response of a Muddy Waters or Ray Charles tune and you might get the picture – a picture of sound wrapped up in rhythm causing the listener to dance, and by so doing take part in the experience.

I got to experience this “thang” first hand seeing James Brown perform in Battery Park (NYC) on a summer’s day back in 2003. This was a tribal gathering of black, white, yellow, mocha and all the colors of the rainbow. Every time you made eye contact with a stranger it brought out a smile. We were all part of an artistic endeavor and we knew it! We were JB and he was us for a moment in time.

With the advent of poetry slams and rap, the spoken word art form can take from and integrate itself with all forms of artistic endeavor and this I believe is where Thomas Sayers Ellis is going – creating a cross cultural and cross artistic gumbo engendered by the spoken word of poetry. He is outside the box but at the same time he has the ability to look into the cubicle and take what he needs. He is not denying tradition but rather furthering its boundaries.  He invites us all to be Perform-A-Formers in our chosen fields. I look forward to hearing and seeing him do his thing, live, in the near future.

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