Members of the Dark Room Collective, photographed by Elsa Dorfman in 2013; from left to right: Sharan Strange, Janice Lowe, Danielle Legros Georges, John Keene, Tisa Bryant, Major Jackson, Artress Bethany White, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Patrick Sylvain, and Tracy K. Smith (Photograph © 2016 Elsa Dorfman)
article by Sophia Nguyen via harvardmagazine.com
NO OUTWARD SIGN sets the pale yellow house at 31 Inman Street apart from its neighbors. Someone going on a literary pilgrimage in Cambridge might start a mile away, at 104 Irving Street, where e.e. cummings ’15 grew up; then head west, to 16 Ash Street, where T.S. Eliot ’10, A.M. ’11, Litt.D. ’47, studied Sanskrit in the attic; then westward still, to the final residence of Robert Frost ’01, Litt.D. ’37, at 35 Brewster Street—guided the whole way by blue historical markers, never thinking to glance in the opposite direction.
But back in Central Square, that anonymous Victorian was the cradle of the Dark Room Collective. There, in the late 1980s, a trio of young African-American writers—Sharan Strange ’81, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Janice Lowe—formed their own literary center of gravity. During its decade of existence, their reading series and writers’ group gathered a nebula of creative energy, a starry critical mass whose impact on American letters continues to expand.
The Dark Room Collective (DRC) was a haven for early members like writer and translator John Keene ’87, experimental prose writer Tisa Bryant, and poet Patrick Sylvain, Ed.M. ’98—a place to get together and get serious about their craft. It was “a whole ‘nother kind of education,” says Keene. “It was an immersion in a world that I only kind of glimpsed when I was in college.” By e-mail, co-founder Sharan Strange comments, “I often say that working within the DRC and curating the reading series was in many ways my true M.F.A. experience.”
The reading series was also an early performance venue for then-emerging talent—from current Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges to Natasha Trethewey, RI ’01, U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014. Many others passed through over the years, including Aya de Leon ’08, now director of Poetry for the People at the University of California, Berkeley; poet and critic Carl Phillips ’81; visual artist Ellen Gallagher; sound artist Tracie Morris; and actress Nehassaiu deGannes. In all, the participants’ published books number in the dozens, and they have earned fellowships and nominations and wins for honors like the National Book Awards, Whiting Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes.
“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” declares poet Kevin Young ’92 in his nonfiction inquiry The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Young joined while still an undergraduate, as did Tracy K. Smith ’94, who remembers thinking, “Oh, wow—these young people want to be writers, and I want to be a writer, but they’re actually doing it.”
She began to help with lighting at events, just to “be in that space and see what the model for this life that I wanted looked like. For me,” Smith adds, “the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”“For me, the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”The audience for literary writing is small, and slimmer still for poetry; by that measure, it’s unsurprising that the Dark Room remains obscure. But even dedicated readers of contemporary verse might know the Collective only as a common footnote to its alumni’s impressive biographies.
Over coffee at Lamont Library, Harvard Review poetry editor Major Jackson, RI ’07, muses, “I almost tweeted this, but am glad that I didn’t—,” then just barely hesitates before continuing, “And maybe this is no better—but I think if there were a group of poets who were white and male, or white and male and female, or white and female, there would have been a documentary made about them by now. There would be a movie about them.” Individual members have been celebrated, and the Dark Room has been loosely associated with those summed accomplishments. But, he says, the Collective has not been recognized as a whole: “Maybe we need to all grow gray hairs before that happens and America catches up.”
To read full article: How the Dark Room Collective sparked “total life” in literature | Harvard Magazine