CLEVELAND -- Thomas Sayers Ellis contemplates what is the most memorable moment in his career as a poetry teacher. After a pause, he says it is the moment when students cry.
Says Ellis, who is receiving one of this year's Carl F. Wittke Awards for undergraduate teaching, "We're not talking about the 'I've been hurt' cry, but we are talking about the wide open and 'thank you all for sharing' cry." This happens at least once each semester in the poetry workshop class, but each time it happens, it still catches Ellis by surprise.
"It's at that moment when I know the class is moving towards one. What I mean by one is a certain deep togetherness to share, critique, and trust each other in a way that brings out the best in each of them," he adds.
At that point, he says it takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep the class "lassoed" together. He uses creative exercises, such as having student take odd-angle Polaroid pictures of a classmate and interview them, followed by a narrative piece turned into poetry. Another assignment is a sprint through the Cleveland Museum of Art, where the class rotates to various points and "puts the pen in the eye, bypassing the mind, " says Ellis, recording images like a frame of film.
"Students tend to be fueled by stories," he explains. He wants them to see the connections between word associations, half sounds, slant rhymes, and full rhymes, and so has his students read their works without vowels or consonants to find a recurring theme or connection in what they have written.
The Wittke honor came as a surprise for Ellis. He received the award May 21 at the undergraduate diploma-awarding ceremony. This year's graduates include students who were freshmen when Ellis came to campus four years ago as a visiting professor to teach the introduction to creative writing, poetry workshops, and African American literature courses. Two years ago, he joined the tenure track as an assistant professor.
Ellis is the author of The Good Junk (1996) and On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists (1993), and two other volumes of his poetry will go to press in the next year.
A native of Washington, D.C., he studied with Seamus Heaney while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and earned his M.F.A. in creative writing from Brown University under the tutelage of Michael Harper.
Between college degrees, he co-founded the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for African-American writers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he also was filmmaker Spike Lee's teaching assistant for two years at Harvard University, where Henry Louis Gates Jr. had invited the celebrity to help build the African American Studies Program.
While at Harvard, the young poet crashed Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott's class at Boston University, but felt slightly short-changed when English Professor Robert Pinsky took over for three weeks at the beginning of the semester. Pinsky later became the nation's Poet Laureate. "So you didn't lose, but at the time you didn't know," Ellis says. "It turned out to be a double whammy."
In addition to writing poetry, Ellis has worked on the set for the movie Glory in the wardrobe and extra departments.
After taking a 16-page test which Lee administered to Ellis and 200 other hopefuls, Ellis was selected to work in the same department for Lee's production of Crooklyn. He turned down the offer, and instead spent the summer and several others at Yaddo, the famous artists' colony in New York, where he had poet Elizabeth Bishop's bedroom and worked in Sylvia Plath's study. He also received writing fellowships to the Fine Arts Works Center on Cape Cod.