PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Chicago-based United States Artists announced this week that composer, musician, and poet Jerome Ellis from Virginia Beach made the distinguished list of its 2022 Fellows.
The distinction includes a $50,000 reward from the nonprofit which, according to a news release, is committed to lifting up artists and celebrating their essential role in communities.
In a recent interview, 10 On Your Side learned why this artist from Hampton Roads — the only Virginian on the 2022 list — is being recognized for his unique form of art.
His poem, “Bend Back the Bow and Let the Hymn Fly,” is featured in his book “The Clearing.”
“One silk thread through a slanted room — a second thread — division– multiplication– the voice opens where’s the clearing why have I forgotten how to get there.”
How did a product of Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach and Columbia University in New York get there? “Bend Back the Bow and Let the Hymn Fly” is but one of Ellis’ beautiful poems that display his stuttering disability as his — no genre needed — form of art.
He interprets stuttering as a beautiful way of speaking and moving through the world.
“Stuttering for me becomes more and more a way … to to connect with other people,” said Ellis.
“Muscles open with indigo — how will I remember the way next time?…cellos held in a channel…crossing.”
Each ellipsis represents what Ellis calls “the clearing.”
During a clearing, one can hear a breath, feel the silence and see a gentle quiver of his lips. An eruption of measured intellect will follow in poetry, conversation, or on stage with a musical instrument.
With a disability that could have left him emotionally crippled, this 32-year-old has wowed audiences by sharing what he considers a communication gift. He is proud of the nation’s president, who also suffers from disfluent speech.
“I am very grateful to see… President Biden stutters openly and without shame. For me, it really helps me to see someone else — especially someone on that level of the world platform — honoring this way of being and speaking and communicating and this way of … being vulnerable,” Ellis said.
It’s a gift that he uses with caution. That was the case a few years ago in the nation’s midwest when a police officer pulled him over because the headlights were off in his rental car.
With fluency, Ellis described the encounter, with a white male officer, that continues to haunt.
“Many people stutter when they are nervous or when they are lying or scared. When I’m nervous or scared sometimes I stutter more. I’ve long been aware that when I am dealing with authority figures — especially police — that I am really, really, real aware of my stutter and I fear that if I stutter, the officer will interpret my stutter as that I’m lying or a sign of like fear because I am hiding something or I am doing something wrong,” said Ellis.
Ellis added he is grateful for the Critical Race Theory work of Kimberle Crenshaw and others who have offered guidance in processing and responding to difficulties.
“The intersection of, as you said, my Blackness and maleness and my vocal disability put me in a very specific position where I’m afraid that I seem like, one, where I seem like I am lying. Two, I’m afraid of my maleness being framed as like the savage or ultra-aggressive Black male and then my Blackness, of course, then being perceived as a danger or a threat,” said Ellis.
“So all of this is happening in my mind as I am talking to this officer trying to — as opposed to with you [Regina Mobley] right here — I am stuttering very openly. With the officer, I was trying too hard not to stutter and I was hiding it, evading it, and doing everything I could not to reveal that I stutter. I looked back at him and searched his eyes to see if I … could detect any suspicion,” said Ellis.
Eventually, the officer ended the traffic stop and offered advice.
“He left and just said ‘Keep your tail lights on and have a good night.’ And as I drove on I was just reflecting on how, like, how I saw so clearly how it could have ended. I saw so clearly how the power imbalance is so extreme, is that it felt like even in hiding my stuttering and doing all the vocal acrobats I have to do to hide. It felt like anything I do, it’s so futile. It’s like if he wants to kill me, he’s going to end up killing me,” Ellis said.
The musician, composer, and poet hopes his art will wrap a wall of protection around the broken-hearted, the teased, the ignored, the depressed, and the displaced.
“Dulcimers heard through a garden window. We too are awaiting a verb. A verb whose wings split open in the open door of the eyelid moment. Watch the gap watch the rupture…arise.”
The artist spells his name JJJJJerome Ellis as he proudly takes ownership of the gift of stuttering.
At times, with his eyes gently closed, Ellis felt a clearing and then offered encouragement for those who stutter.
“Your body and your mind and your spirit have so many gifts and so much to offer the world and that I affirm and support, I affirm and support just you living in the way that you want to. And that I recognize all, all the forms of pain and suffering and exclusion, marginalization that can arise from when our bodies don’t conform to really deep-seated norms in our societies. But that suffering and that marginalization is not your fault and there’s nothing wrong with you. I celebrate your bodies and your minds and your spirits as a being,” Ellis said.
You can visit www.proudstutter.com to learn more.