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Write club: The Dark Room Collective puts poetry in focus

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Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013 5:00 am | Updated: 11:36 pm, Thu Dec 12, 2013.

To get a feel for what it might have been like at a presentation of the Dark Room Collective, the group of poets that began gathering in 1988 in a Victorian house in Massachusetts, go to a collection of poetry from another African-American poetry collective, known as Cave Canem. In the introduction to the 2006 Cave Canem anthology Gathering Ground, poet Cornelius Eady paints the picture: “[Thomas Sayers] Ellis and Sharan Strange and others from the Dark Room Collective invited me to come and read for them at their space in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was like being part of a Sunday revival meeting. A crowd showed up … some furniture got moved, some chairs unfolded, and Pow! Their living room turned into a salon.”

The image of a Sunday revival meeting is particularly apt. When Strange and Ellis first began discussing the formation of a group in 1987 after attending the funeral of James Baldwin in France, they agreed that lineage, reviving the spirit of the great poets who went before them, was key. “In the beginning our purpose was to support a reading series which provided a forum for our ‘living literary ancestors and mentors,’ and to nurture and support each other,” Strange said in a 1997 interview with the Painted Bride Quarterly literary magazine. Those goals were soon expanded and are what has held the group together over the years, even as they’ve scattered around the country. “But it was the sustaining practice of writing in community just as much as the activism of building a community-based reading series for writers of color that kept us engaged in collectivity,” Strange said in the interview. The achievements of that community, with one of the members — Natasha Trethewey — winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and later being named Poet Laureate of the United States, are still being realized. Even back in 1996, Eady wrote in The New Yorker that the group “could turn well out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”

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