JP poet Brian Ellis is more basement show than MFA.
The 28-year-old, whose second book—“Yesterday Won’t Goodbye”—was recently published by California-based Write Bloody Books. He has been honing his craft in Boston’s “slam” poetry scene and in Jamaica Plain’s do-it-yourself underground music scene since 2006, he told the Gazette in a recent interview.
“I have stood in the middle of a lot of living rooms in JP and read to crowds,” he said.
Ellis’s style of “reading” is often full on shouting. Spectators at upcoming performances could potentially be treated to a robust, exuberant re-telling of the poem “Gracious Unemployment,” from his recent book: “Last night between re-reading / the Wikipedia entry on Amelia Earhart / and drinking that warm 40oz./ my roommate’s friend left behind two days ago, / I made a Facebook profile for my cat!…”
That unnamed roommate is presumably one of Ellis’s compatriots at the Whitehaus, a loose collective of musicians and artists based at a house on Seaverns Avenue that hosts shows, and runs a small record label—“The Whitehaus Family Record.” That group coalesced in 2006 around weekly open mic events—styled “hoots”—hosted at the house.
“The hoots were something really special, since they started happening…there are definitely more house shows here [in JP] than ever,” Ellis said. The Whitehaus hoots still happen, but less regularly than in 2006.
Ellis’s performances are somewhat of a novelty in a scene largely devoted to music. While the folk-rock and low-key experimental fare normally produced at Whitehaus shows is far from the loudest, fastest style of popular music performed today, when Ellis performs there he is still inviting comparison between his own spoken efforts and art constructed with drums and guitars.
“I can’t play music,” Ellis said. “When I say ‘I am going to read some poetry, some people have preconceived notions about what is going to happen. Like, for the next 20 minutes, this guy is going to stare at a piece of paper and mumble under his breath.”
That’s not the case, Ellis said. “I don’t describe it very well, I guess. I say I am going to read poems, or that I am about to yell at people.” But he has mastered the skill of filling a room with his voice. “I feel pretty confident that when they see me do it, they are going to get interested,” he said.
He learned those skills on the slam poetry circuit, he said, which, in the Greater Boston-area, primarily consists of the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. Ellis started in that scene in 2006—“Some weeks, I was reading up to twenty poems” between the hoots and the Cantab appearances, he said—and was on the Cantab’s slam team from 2006 to 2009.
He was the Cantab’s slam champion in 2007, and represented the team at the Individual World Poetry Slam in Seattle that year.
He learned, he said, the many “tricks of slamming, “Opening with a declarative statement, projecting your voice more than you need to, the abrupt pause followed by a slow, serious statement…It works if it they are used in a sly way, so looks like you are not using them, so it appears natural…I practiced a lot,” he said.
One sign Ellis’s practice paid off was his book deal with Write Bloody—a California-based publishing company founded by performance poet, Derrick Brown, who was frustrated by how few slam poets were getting published. “It is hard to get published for people who cannot afford masters degrees or PhDs,” Ellis said.
Ellis’s first book, ”Uncontrolled Experiments in Freedom,” came out in 2008. Brown “heard me read, and asked around about me. He sent me an e-mail asking if I had 30 to 40 poems. I said yes, even though I didn’t. My first book was all of my poems,” Ellis said.
He said his poetry has always been largely autobiographical, and while that is true of his latest book, he has branched out some, with poems that describe experiences he has had from other peoples’ and inanimate objects’ perspectives. One poem in “Yesterday Won’t Goodbye” is from the perspective of a highway truck stop.
Ellis, who said he has spent more and more time on the road every year since 2006, is heading out on tour next month with four other performance poets, Anis Mojgani, Mindy Nettifee, John Sands and Mike McGee, who make up the bicoastal Whirlwind Company Performance Poetry Troupe. They will be performing at the Whitehaus, on Seaverns Avenue in late February or early March. For more information, see www.whitehausfamilyrecord.com. “Yesterday Won’t Goodbye” and “Uncontrolled Experiments in Freedom” are both available for sale from www.writebloody.com, and, Ellis told the Gazette, “Yesterday Won’t Goodbye" is available for amazon.com’s Kindle e-reader.