Safe Haven, TSE 2013

Text and photographs by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Poems and Commentary by Jennifer Fitzgerald

I am not fond of flying. In fact I hate it. As a child, I dreamt crashes but I do believe in the example of flight as a way of discussing the possibilities and intentions of nuance.  Once, in a graduate workshop, I made a paper airplane out of a student’s poem and flew it across the room. I asked the class how long they thought the airplane stayed in the air before hitting the floor. I asked them to try and identity the moments and devices in the poem that kept it in the air as well as the ones that caused it to crash. I told them, “Poems, as they all are set in prose, must eventually crash but that the trick was to stay in the air as long as possible.” I quoted Gertrude Stein’s who said, “The air was perfectly solid” when she was asked by a reporter how her flight from France to America was.  The student, who admitted not knowing the word “nuance” or ever having considered it as a factor in her or his work seemed to understand the creative point I was trying to make. However, the next week, Week 2 of the semester, the student was absent and when I asked the other students if they had heard from him or her, one of them said, “Haven’t you heard? She quit the Program because of your airplane.” Of course I was a bit saddened by this, but workshops have long since gone the route of promising poets a so-called “safe haven” often, in my opinon, at the expense of rigor and necessary honesty.  When I was a graduate student at Brown University, I traveled to sit in on Derek Walcott’s workshop at Boston University. I had recently seen Walcott, who I knew from my Dark Room Collective days, at a production of his play Dream on Monkey Mountain, and had stood next to him outdoors after the performance fishing for words to congratulate him. A few months later I showed up at his class on the first day and lied, saying, “You said I could sit when I saw you at the Huntington Theater.” He looked at me like he knew I was lying and didn’t want to embarrass me and said “Sit down.” He even allowed me to attend the one-on-one office hours with him. One week, I bought him a new poem. He looked at it for, maybe, thirty seconds, and looked up at me and said, “This is fiction!” and then with his two hands, he ripped it into several pieces. This is not a metaphor. He tore it up. I laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I have another one just like it on my computer.” Thank you, Derek.

The “camera body,” as they call it, is more like a sightless, speaking face that needs me, specifically my legs. What does it say, well, mostly it challenges me to get up, to get up from writing, from looking, while sitting down, from not moving. Both of my parents worked all of their lives, moving, neither got to sit, not at work, so I was used to thinking about work as containing motion, the entire body being physically and mentally engaged.

Cameras look quiet but they are not—even black, invisible ones like my Leica M 7. It challenged me during office hours, between students at Sarah Lawrence College. It challenged me while waiting for the commuter train at Grand Central Terminal—the rush hour dance and struggle of the shadows of shoes, boots, heels, pant legs, umbrellas and brief cases. Once, in a faculty meeting, I could not take my eyes off the way the light, very selectively, slanted across Vijay Seshadri’s face making it look like he only had one eye, one eye with two eyes in it. You don’t need the old myths when you are becoming a camera and I was becoming one, and everywhere I went new myths accosted me.

I feel like I am thinking when I am writing but not like I am working even though I know that I am working, and I feel like I am working when I am taking (and being given) photographs but not like I am thinking even though I know that I am thinking. The combination of the two creates an intense feeling of artistic wholeness in me. I prefer, by far, the performance of taking photographs more so than the performance of public readings. I find it easier to be invisible when I am taking photographs even though I am probably what you would call a loud photographer—one who likes to talk to and physically bother the people I photograph. This is not possible at a poetry reading, especially when the reader is expected to stand still, but I have also been known to stop mid-poem and bother individuals in the audience. In defense of poetry readings, I will say that there is ample opportunity for poets to allow the work to come pass their entire bodies, however many poets choose to stop the work at the mind’s door. A living thing will not leave you standing still. Poems do not statue us and we should not statue them.

I want the act of writing a book of poems to change me and, if not, I would like to do something, something other than writing, between books of poetry than changes my poetry. My favorite book is always the one that I am working on. I remember asking Susan Sontag if she liked her new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, and she turned to me and said, “Where did you get such a stupid question? Any writer who does not like his or her book, does not deserve a book.” But I stood my ground as I have known many writers who have not liked  one or two of their books. Another book wants to be written but I am not a different me yet. The new book in me doesn’t like the old me but while I was being disliked by the new book in me, photography changed the old me and slightly redefined what I think of work. The last thing Thomas Sayers Ellis wants is another Thomas Sayers Ellis book like the last Thomas Sayers Ellis book or the one before that. Sometimes, via the view-finder, the camera and I include the subject in the conversation we are having when I raise it to my face. The screen, on the other eye (not hand), is for looking and listening. For me the digital experience of using a screen, does not allow the subject into the conversation. When I am looking through the view-finder, I actually feel like I am working with the workers and when I left the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, I decided to accept the camera’s outrageous challenge of trying to support myself with it. Enter Lesley University MFA student Jennifer Fitzgerald whose husband is Dave Young, Director of Organizing for UFCW Local 342. Jennifer, who has seen many of my black & white photographs, recommended me to Dave as a possible contributor of photographs to 342’s newsletter, calendar and archival material. It had been years since I had worked outside of the classroom. I began teaching at Case Western Reserve University in 1995, so let’s just say that I was a bit out of psychological, if not physical, shape when it came to non-University work but I was excited, extremely. One of my favorites photographs is “American Gothic” by Gordon Parks and I had long since hope to stumble upon my own version of Ella Watson, the woman featured in the Parks’s photo. Francois Truffaut was once asked “What Do Filmmakers Dream Of?” Well, this poet-photographer has been dreaming of Ella Watson for years. I was told to wear boots and that I should expect to get sick at the end of the day from all of the raw meat and blood because Local 342, the Union of meat packers and butchers, would cry me far from all of my own Safe Havens.


dirty fingertips pushing

tiny button through


your suit jacket- faint

odor of oil

that wore the hands of creation


and bore back

generations, landlocked,

                   ‘Roll the Union On’

I won’t mention the names of workers or the location of worksites. Some days we drove from Brooklyn to Manhattan and did all of our work there. Other times we drove to Long Island or upstate. Jennifer accompanied us on many of the outings. It was cold that first day of work, and we were somewhere in a large slaughterhouse near heavy traffic and a river. I used the drive to catch up on sleep as most of the outings were scheduled for early in the morning.


I knew he would make art of their work as he did of fleeting moments on the street; photos finding the innate beauty of worry lines.  But that’s when I thought we understood Labor.

When I was a kid we moved into an apartment in Northeast, D.C. and my dad would come home extremely dirty but with clean sheets of blank paper, paper that I never asked for. I never used the paper to write. I used it to draw on. I was in love with drawing and my favorite things to sketch were his construction hat and our sleeping cat. To this day if I get close enough to a white, hard plastic construction hat, I can smell my dad. This, too, comes to mind, I loved the color yellow when I was a kid because it was the color of the full plate of fluffy eggs that my mom fed my dad. He often ate a dozen eggs for breakfast and when he didn’t have time to eat a full breakfast or before he went to the gym to spar, he would swallow them raw. With a touch of hot sauce to hide the slime, my dad taught me to swallow raw eggs and to tie a knot, very quickly, in a tie.

Wash your hands

after changing.

Industrial strength soap

can’t lift the grit

can’t fill the cracks


fissuring their way

around your palms.

Blisters sting

like wasps of slaughter.


Union First, TSE 2013

Originally Published: April 11th, 2014

Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington, DC, and earned his MFA from Brown University. He is the author of Skin, Inc. (2013) and The Maverick Room (2005). He cofounded the Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received a Whiting Award in 2005. Ellis has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Case Western...