In his second collection, Skin Inc: Identity Repair Poems, Ellis takes a complex, searing look at the state of black identity in America.
Can you talk a bit about your notion of an "identity repair poem"?
The "publishable" American poem seems to have skipped over a certain amount of honesty, boldness, and activism in the name of "craft." An identity repair poem is one that acknowledges that many of the tools in the "taught toolbox" need cultural improving.
How did the section of photos and poems of the James Brown memorial come about?
My father was a James Brown fanatic. He could do every JB move. When asked by an editor at the Nation to write a tribute to JB, I did it with men like my father in mind. At the memorial I didn't want to see the body, but I was curious about how seeing the body would affect people and how people were preparing themselves to let go.
In several poems you discuss your frustration with stereotypes of black poetry—spoken word or academic. Your work certainly straddles that line. When you were coming up as a poet, did you feel a distinct pressure to work in one camp or the other?
I didn't feel the pressure, but I was aware of the climate, the aesthetic amputations, the segregated limits. I could hear the workshop music, see the lack of page-dance, and recognize the isms and their various communities and cliques. I've never felt in between or outside—just wildly in search of a way to make every line do both.
"Gone Pop" is among the most ambitious attempts so far at dealing with Michael Jackson's life. Is his very broken identity one you hope to help repair?
I was at Cave Canem in a poetry reading when I heard the news of his death, and I immediately left the reading, went outside, and wrote the title. The first section was written that night and the rest of the poem, very quickly, over nine months in the order that it appears. It's purposefully excessive. The Jackson 5 made me want brothers to dress hip with. There's no way to repair such a kaleidoscopic mirror—because MJ might just be the desired future of black people according to white people, the multiple racial shard, the remixed reinvention.
Do you imagine an ideal reader?
The book is for you, a collective you. If there's an ideal reader, I guess it would be someone—black, yellow, white or red—interested in literary time travel, so that we don't end up here again in a place where there hasn't been an Asian or Latino or Native American poet laureate.