Founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1980s, the Dark Room Collective helped foster a generation of African-American poets, from Thomas Sayers Ellis andSharan 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, andKevin 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.”
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