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Poet’s Q&A: Brian S. Ellis talks slam poetry, storytelling, and branching toward prose

The Portland poet sees his classroom role as more coach than teacher: “I am very good at pumping people up, listening, and helping them execute their vision.... I’m not hitting people with maxims to live by.”

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On a rainy morning during the week leading up to Christmas, I met with Brian S. Ellis at Coffee Beer in Southeast Portland to chat about poetry, storytelling, and his upcoming works. The café was empty and as we entered, Ellis exchanged warm greetings with the barista. After ordering two Americanos, Ellis and I had the luxury of a large window table to ourselves, and his bright, laid-back energy became apparent from the warm expression behind his mask.

A poet, storyteller, teacher, and prose writer based in Portland since 2010, Ellis is a story producer for Back Fence PDX, a live storytelling series, and teaches writing at Portland Community College. He is no stranger to the fluctuating ebbs and flows of Oregon’s poetry world. We dove right in and discussed his move from Boston, his four published poetry collections, the changes brought on by periods of COVID-19 isolation, and his expansion from poetry into prose. 

“Prose is newer for me in terms of my planned time commitment to it,” he said. “I love short stories and have always dabbled in them, but I’ve been focusing on prose much more over the last couple of years.”

Portland poet Brian S. Ellis says he is interested in looking at the edges of things, rather than focusing on cores. “Why is the meaning of a thing required to be attached to its core?" he says. "Why can’t the meaning or identity behind an individual or object be, instead, connected to its edge?”
Portland poet Brian S. Ellis says he is interested in looking at the edges of things, rather than focusing on cores. “Why is the meaning of a thing required to be attached to its core?” he says. “Why can’t the meaning or identity behind an individual or object be, instead, connected to its edge?” Photo courtesy: The Poetry Question

In addition to writing prose and essays, Ellis has a collection of poetry forthcoming from University of Hell Press tentatively titled Against Common Sense, set to arrive sometime in 2022 or 2023. After taking a few classes at Portland State University and reading a lot of Enlightenment-era writing, Ellis said, he wanted to develop a poetry collection with themes surrounding the rejection of simplicity as a singular, standalone virtue.

“The world is a complicated place, and instead of focusing on the ephemeral core essences of things, I’m interested in looking at edges,” he said. “I often think to myself, why is the meaning of a thing required to be attached to its core? Why can’t the meaning or identity behind an individual or object be, instead, connected to its edge?”

When writing prose, Ellis learned from novelist and former writing instructor Tom Spanbauer, it’s important to cast off assumptions and rather explain something in deeper and more personal detail. Poetry, in contrast, is about packing many ideas into a single word or phrase, Ellis said, likening its condensed format to the packing of an espresso shot.

Citing J.R.R. Tolkien and viewing poetry as deeply mystical, Ellis considers the artform to signify the fabric of existence. “First, poetry creates the universe. It’s the big thing,” he said, adding he cannot relate to the idea that poetry and storytelling are singular or separate from the rest of life. “Storytelling is just part of me and what I do: The more I think about anything, the wider it grows.”

When it comes to the difference between poems and stories, Ellis believes that the audience wants poets to appear in control. With stories, on the other hand, the audience expects the performer to walk a line of unruliness and spontaneity — to sound genuine rather than extemporaneous.

“No matter how it’s performed or presented, the five-part story-structure points exist in all stories, and if they don’t exist, it’s not a story,” Ellis said. “Even if there’s no plot, those points will exist emotionally. There will always be a raising of emotional stakes, interruptions, and complications. The storyteller will always present a status quo and then interrupt that status quo, whether or not there’s a traditional plot.”

To prepare for reading performances, Ellis says he must take the time to settle into his voice by telling himself the story out loud. “It takes practice to listen to yourself, and the more you talk to yourself, the more you learn to hear yourself,” he said. “Being yourself is a lifetime practice … storytelling is a great way to approach that.”

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How long have you been based in Portland and what brought you here?

I moved to Portland in 2011 as part of a romantic relationship to be with my partner, Mindy Nettifee. My family is mainly from New Hampshire, and I was born in Manchester, the capital, but I grew up in Massachusetts. We moved around in Massachusetts quite a bit when I was a kid, but I moved to Boston in my 20s and stayed there until I came to Portland. So even though I am not from there and Bostonians are fiercely specific when it comes to these things, I consider Boston my hometown.  

When did you begin writing?

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When I was little, before I could write letters, I used to make these wavy scribbles from left to right on the page. I would fill entire notebooks with these lines and I considered this my first writing. I had learning difficulties in school and when I told teachers I wanted to be a writer they encouraged me to set my sights lower; I was considered a not very intelligent child. The writing I did do I kept mostly to myself, and sometimes I would include my family. 

I was 22 or 23 when I was dating someone who began going to poetry slams. They were in college and I was hanging around (I didn’t attend college for another decade) and I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. This is when writing stopped being a compartmentalized part of my life… when I decided to be myself all of the time. And because I had this outlet, I was writing a lot more. I had been writing my whole life, but it had been an infrequent, personal thing. Now it has become a daily and public practice.   

When did you know you wanted writing to become a major aspect of your profession?

Always. It changed forms throughout my life, and I think when I was very young I wanted to be a poet. When I was a kid reading comic books, I wanted to be a reporter like Superman, and then when I was a teenager I thought maybe I would write comic books.… Other times I dreamed of writing plays or screenplays for movies, TV shows, or existentialist novels, but eventually, it came back around to poetry. 

What inspired you to begin teaching? How does teaching impact the way you write?

I kind of fell into teaching, and for a long time didn’t want to do it. I had a lot of baggage around education. I started with coaching and I liked the idea of myself as a coach. I liked being a writing-coach, poetry-coach, story-coach. I’m not here to be a part of this hierarchical paradigm — to tell people how things are going to be or train them how to write poems or tell stories the way I do. But I am very good at pumping people up, listening, and helping them execute their vision, which is what I try to do. I’m not hitting people with maxims to live by. I have classes from PCC’s continuing education program every semester, including Personal Storytelling Introduction in the winter and summer, and 1-on-1 Storytelling Coaching year around. I think, at its best, my teaching can be like directing a writer/actor in a one-person show. I’m just pushing you to be a more-you version of yourself. 

Teaching impacts my poetry because it puts this pressure on my writing to be better. When you get into a teacher-student relationship, and your student thinks highly of you, there’s this “oh shit, I better be good” moment. Teaching forces you to say all those unspoken writing rules in your head out loud, and once they are out in the world, they can be a mirror for you to practice in. 

Can you tell me a little bit about the catalyst behind producing for Back Fence PDX and whether this has impacted your writing?

Back Fence produces a couple of different shows and one of those shows is called Russian Roulette. At these shows, we bring on veteran storytellers who are given a prompt and five minutes to come up with a story. Those storytellers would go backstage and I’d be waiting there to help them come up with the story. Together we’d choose a direction from what they were thinking, go over the story, and check to make sure they had a beginning, middle, and end. This led me to become a story producer for Back Fence, and everything I learned producing those stories became my Portland Community College storytelling class.

What would you consider the heyday of Portland’s poetry scene? When was it and what was the feeling of that atmosphere?

As far as I can tell, Portland has always had a strong poetry scene. I consider it a piece of why I live here. Walt Curtis started his poetry radio show Talking Earth on KBOO in 1971. The documentary SlamNation was filmed in Portland in 1998. When I first moved here, there were a lot of different reading series happening: If Not For Kidnap, Poor Claudia, the Octopus Books readings. They were really well attended and very exciting. This was 2011-2012. I think there are fewer readings here now, but there’s always one or two stalwarts. The Wildwood tavern is the new location of the old Talking Tony’s open mic, which I think is the longest-running open mic in town.   

What do you think the state of poetry in Portland is today, and how can we encourage a brighter and more flourishing scene?

Live poetry shows have been hit hard by the pandemic and there’s just nothing to do about that. Portland also lost a lot of its small venues in 2014-2015 and so it’s harder to book venues than it used to be. I know the folks that organize the Portland Poetry Slam and Slamlandia, and they’ve continued to put on shows while having a hard time finding all-ages spaces to host; they’ve been dedicated to making it an all-ages event, and there has been less and less room for that sort of thing in Portland. 

I’m also interested in seeing a broader poetry community, one that doesn’t necessarily depend on institutional support. I’d like to see a wider array of support … I want to see workshops and education and healing, and also want poetry to function as entertainment,  fun, and high art. There are a lot of writers in Portland, and whether it’s shyness, anxiety, the rain, or sometimes genuine pretentiousness, we tend to be so siloed in our little genres and styles. I think the next couple of years will call us all to attend each other’s events more.

You have previously participated in the Boston Poetry Slam and slams around Portland. What do you consider the main differences between slam poetry and “traditional” poetry? Where do they intersect?

I was on the Boston Poetry Slam team for several years in a row and went to the National Poetry Slam, which was put on by an organization called Poetry Slam Inc. (which I believe is now defunct, or at least dormant). These were incredible events at which I learned so much about writing and myself. Hundreds of people attended and it was amazing to be awash in that number of people who all care about poetry, even if we disagree on the definition of what poetry is. 

Slam isn’t a genre of poetry, exactly. It’s a format for a poetry reading where the audience gets involved and does live judging, choosing which poets they want to hear more from. Of course, in the culture and community these events incubated, certain stylistic choices emerged. I think of the reality-singing-competition TV show The Voice as an example. It is not a genre of music, but there are styles of singing that do better on the show because of the format. You can conceivably perform any kind of poem at a slam, but not every poem will do well. 

Can you talk a little bit about one of the poems featured on your website: Since We Moved to the Moon, from Yesterday Won’t Goodbye?

I tend to get embarrassed a bit about some of my older work. I think that’s natural, I’m proud of all the books I’ve published, but I’m just not the person I was when I published them. I still love that poem. Since We Moved to the Moon is about getting everything you want and then what happens next. At the time I wrote it, I was touring with my poetry a lot, traveling by train or bus to poetry open mics to feature and sell my books by hand. I was traveling for six months out of the year in 2008, 2009, and 2010, and it was an incredible privilege but also very isolating and lonely — so that’s what the poem is about. Plus, I love the image of the cat with an eyepatch smoking cigarettes and peer pressuring other cats to smoke. It just makes me laugh. Sometimes those parts of poems are OK, just an image that delights us.  

What advice do you have for younger poets and those poets seeking to publish their work?

For younger poets: Get a good group going — there’s nothing like it. You’ll start writing like each other after a while but that’s OK, and in the end, it will be worth it, because we never write more than when we write for other people. We can always return to ourselves if we need to.

Publishing is just a numbers game. I just try to de-personalize it. I read an amazing thing about composer Alvin Lucier recently. He passed away at the beginning of this month, and his friend and collaborator Charles Curtis said that Lucier was “impervious to success or failure.” I think that’s how you have to be with publishing. Send your work out a lot and let the rejections roll off your back, but let the acceptances roll off your back as well. 

In general, we need to show up. We need to attend events we’re not necessarily interested in and elevate poetry and poets by supporting them.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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