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Groundbreaking Poetry Troupe Reconvenes in Washington

The Dark Room Collective, founded by Washingtonian Thomas Sayers Ellis, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a reading hosted by the Folger.

Photograph by Marlene Lillian Hawthrone.

Founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1980s, the Dark Room Collective helped foster a generation of African-American poets, from Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange to Major Jackson and Kevin Young. More than two decades and two Pulitzer Prizes later, the group reunited at the Lutheran Church of Reformation on Capitol Hill Monday for a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Poetry series.

The evening felt more like a church service or a rock concert than a poetry reading. Pews were filled to capacity as each poet made his or her way to the microphone, reciting words in syncopated breaths with dramatic pauses between lines.

Present was Washington’s own Thomas Sayers Ellis, a poet and photographer who cofounded the Dark Room Collective with poet Sharan Strange at Harvard University* and Janice Lowe, who was a student at Berklee College of Music, in 1987. Over time the collective, based in a rent-controlled Victorian near Harvard Square, grew to include scores of literary and visual artists. Also in attendance Monday were members Tisa Bryant, Major Jackson, John Keene, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young. The reading marked the collective’s 25th anniversary and paid tribute to its influence and popularity among scholars and academics over the decades.

“To us young aspiring artists, the Dark Room Collective represented the tradition of making a way out of no way,” said Strange. “[It was] a literary matrix where we could work out creative ideas, share, and have some sense that someone had our back.”

Although the group was originally based in Boston, Ellis’s Washington heritage played its own part. The city has a rich poetic history dating back to the 1920s, when Langston Hughes roamed the streets of U Street with Zora Neale Hurston, before scholars claimed both writers as leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.

“The way is there—you just need enough like minds under the same roof to kick down doors,” said Ellis. “[The Dark Room Collective] gave me backup—[as a result] there were more voices; someone would be heard. It didn’t matter which one, because it would trickle down to the rest of us.”

And trickle it did. The eight members of Dark Room Collective represent an accomplished group of writers, all of whom now teach at elite colleges around the country. Among the collective are two Pulitzer Prize winners: Natasha Trethewey won the prize in 2007 for her collection of poems, Native Guard*; and two weeks ago, Tracy K. Smith’s collection of poems, Life on Mars, was selected as the 2012 winner. The pride among the collective was palpable Monday­, a testament to the collective’s significance as an artistic movement that broke barriers for African-American poets. Ellis, Major Jackson, and John Keene all won the coveted Whiting award for their first books: The Maverick Room, Leaving Saturn, and Seismosis, respectively. Sharan Strange won the prestigious Barnard Women’s Prize in Poetry for her collection of poems, Ash. Kevin Young is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. And Tisa Bryant’s work is an example of the ways in which the collective fostered innovation and genre bending: Her book, Unexplained Presence, is a collection of hybrid essays that remix narratives from film, literature, and visual arts.

More impressive than their résumés was the camaraderie on stage. Invoking a tradition started at their Harvard home, members randomly selected one another’s names out of a hat, giving the reading a spontaneity rarely found at poetry readings. Natasha Trethewey told the audience she didn’t feel nostalgic at all, as the word implied a longing for a past that never was. Instead, she said being at the Folger with the collective felt exactly as it had many years before.

For more information on the Dark Room Collective, visit

*This article has been updated from a previous version.

  • Emailahc1

    Add US Poet Laureate here!

  • Rbing002

    It's Zora Neale Hurston and Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer for her third book, "Native Guard."

  • TanyaPai

    You're right, Rbing—we've updated. Thanks for reading!

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