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An Interview with Stony Brook Poet Cornelius Eady

Cornelius Eady

As a complement to our feature on Cornelius Eady, we present the complete interview below.

Q: What does the current crop of African-American literary writers have in common with their forebears, such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison?

A: You could say that one unfortunate thing that ties us all together (and the rest of American society as well) is that we are still living in a society that sees race as a problem. You can read essays by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates or Langston Hughes and Trey Ellis and find lots of similarities. I will often teach those texts in my literature classes, and ask the question, what’s the same and what’s different between those essays, written so many years apart?  If you can read the poetry and prose of Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes about the dangers of having a black body in a white world, and then you read the essays of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates about those same dangers, if the reply to eight years of a black president is two years (and counting) of the worst that white American culture has to offer, wrapped up in a ribbon, it may sound paradoxical. But things haven’t changed that much. That’s one thread.

Cornelius Eady
Cornelius Eady holds a book of his poetry.

Q:  Did you have mentors who encouraged you to write?

A:  I had a fantastic homeroom teacher in high school—I think if you scratch the surface of many writers, you’ll find a great high school English teacher there. She edited the literary magazine, and published my first four poems, one of which was about the murder of Martin Luther King. The reaction to that in school showed me the ways that poetry can touch a reader.  She made me aware of a private free school, based on the Summerhill method, that was just starting up in town—it wound up, after I transferred out, that she and her husband realized they couldn’t live on the low salary. It was designed as a 24-hour space, so I moved in and started to write. After she and her husband moved to Nova Scotia, I would send her packets of my drafts, and she’d return them with edits and suggestions — pretty much what happens now in the Low-Res MFA programs. Around nine years later, I saw an ad for a local poetry workshop. And that, I feel, enabled my first baby steps into the writers’ world. I became aware of readings, literary magazines, and most importantly, the Poets in the School program — most of the participants in the workshop worked in the program, and they trained me.

Q: When did you know you wanted to teach?

A: I was lucky. I drifted into teaching. I walked into a poetry workshop in Rochester, from there to being trained in the Poets in the Schools Program, from there to a Writer-in-Residency at Sweet Briar College, and from there, to the College of William and Mary, Sarah Lawrence College, and then Stony Brook. But it was at that poetry workshop in Rochester where I started to think I might have a shot at having a life that revolved around writing. Not a life with a lot of money, but given where I was starting from, a working-class kid from the inner city, I wasn’t expecting that anyway. I thought I was looking at a life of low-paying jobs, and thought if that was going to be my lot, it might as well be for doing something I really loved doing. I had done a lot of part-time work—dishwasher, sweeping up in a magazine store, fast food, working on a loading dock at a sporting goods store. So teaching was the detour around that. I left Stony Brook with tenure to focus full-time on theater—I had just begun working with Deidre Murray, had just finished working on an adaptation of my book You Don’t Miss Your Water, and was starting on what would become the opera Running Man. During that time, I guest-taught a lot—The New School, The 92nd St Y, NYU, City College. After a series of other teaching assignments I then accepted an invite to return to Stony Brook to teach in the MFA Program at Southampton. Teaching wasn’t a deliberate path, but once I was on it, I knew it was where I wanted to stay.

Q: Assess the impact of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) at Stony Brook and upon you.

A: Here’s a story; I’m a baby poet in Manhattan, around 1980-81, gazing longingly at the display window at Shakespeare & Co. on Lower Broadway, maybe daydreaming of seeing one of my books there someday (never happened), when I notice I’m being watched by an older black man, who comes up to me after a while, and asks if I’m the poet Cornelius Eady. At this moment, all I have is one dinky book to my name, which, as far as I could tell had dropped and sunk in that deep, dark pond, and now even the ripples were gone. I told him yeah — and he said he knew my book thanks to Amiri Baraka — that he was tracking me! Back in my hometown library in Rochester, finding Baraka’s book The Dead Lecturer when I was 14 or 15 was a touchstone text in many ways, so hearing that on the street at that moment was a drop of water on a parched tongue.

But the poet with the strongest Stony Brook connection in my life has to be June Jordan, who created and ran the Poetry Center, and had a hand in helping me win the Lamont Prize for my second book — she had been on the panel the year before, and though it didn’t win, she wrote me directly to say how much that she and the panel enjoyed the manuscript. The press my manuscript was attached to went out of business before it was published, so I got an opportunity to try again with a different publisher — and a totally new manuscript — the following year. June had rotated off the panel by then, but her encouragement made me feel I still had a chance. And in the early 1990s she suggested to David Sheehan, who was then Director of the English Department, to invite me to apply for her line when she left Stony Brook for Berkley. That was the start of what I now call my “first life” at Stony Brook. The impact of both these Stony Brook poets is still being felt — the recent New York Times article on the uptick of political poetry is a road both these poets and activists spent their lives and careers paving — and it’s a legacy I certainly feel a part of, and hope to honor in some way now that I’m back.

Q: Talk about the impact Stony Brook has had on you and vice versa.

A: Sweet Briar College was where my professional teaching life began; Stony Brook was where it blossomed. It’s where I learned the trade of being a full-time professor, and had my first taste of arts administration when I took over the directorship of the Poetry Center. What I learned there, I carried it with me to the other teaching jobs I had after leaving the campus. It certainly informed my part of the building and running of Cave Canem, especially in its early years. And now that I’m back, perhaps I’m now part of that legacy that starts with Amira and June, and now includes Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Michelle Whittaker.

Q: The New York Times asked whether the attention being paid to this group of black male artists is a fleeting moment. Is it a revolution, a wave or a fleeting moment?

A: Who knows? I was more impressed and fascinated by the span of voices and histories in that room. I sometimes use music as a metaphor here; instead of thinking of this as one generation vs. another that you have to play against, try to think of it like the jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, who are now dying out, but were very competitive. They didn’t all get along, but were actually all pulling together in the same direction, jumping off from the musicians who came before them. Thinking of it as a continuum is a better way of looking at it than is this a flash in the pan, or a this or a that. I am interested in how these voices talk to one another, these voices moving through these different eras. How they recognize, denounce or claim one another. And what residue they leave for the next group.

Q: How do you mentor young writers, and how does the Stony Brook Southampton program and bring Stony Brook’s aspiring poets along? Have any of the Stony Brook Southampton students gone on to achieve literary recognition?

A: In some ways I think you can take the anecdote about Amiri and June as a form of mentorship, though I never studied with either of them. In Amiri’s case it was an indirect message to a young black poet trying to figure out how to be a young black poet, that someone was paying attention to their work. In June’s case it was that, plus opening a door to help get their work out into the world, and to keep the writer writing. Mentoring is, to some extent, assisting the young poet as they construct themselves. I think the better writing programs have a sense of generosity, camaraderie, and adventure woven into its nervous system, and I certainly believe that’s the case here at Southampton.  I’m the new old guy here, so I don’t know how many of our alum have gone on to a large literary career. I’m sure there’s a decent gaggle of them, but for me, one of the most appealing aspects of the Southampton MFA program is its lack of pretense and competition. If they get rich and famous after they graduate, we applaud long and loud, but while they’re in the program, I think it’s more about the cake, less about the icing.

Q: When did you first know you wanted to write poetry?

A: I started writing poetry when I was 13 or 14 years old but didn’t really start becoming a poet until I was 15 or 16. I don’t know the poem or the book that inspired me to write. Somewhere, I read some poet that said to me “I think I can do that.” It may have been more than one, and what I wrote luckily didn’t scare me enough to stop.

Q: How did your childhood influence you as a writer?

A: Memory and diction, I think. Or maybe mythology –the stories we’re told, and the stories we learn, on the block and away from the block, with our family, and away from our family, and the way it shapes the way we speak and write. Also unsupervised playtime. I was reading sections of my unpublished memoir, set pretty much in the 1960s, and started to marvel at how much wandering we did —  I almost wanted to write “get away with,” except that it was conventional wisdom among the parents then to let your kid walk a half mile twice a day to school, to wander the railroad tracks we had at the end of our block, to play in the boxcars before and after they were loaded at the lumber yard. I’m pretty sure most parents these days would get arrested for child neglect, but I’m also certain it fed the imagination.

Q: Why did poetry appeal to you more than the other disciplines?

A: For some reason, it feels the freest. At this point, it’s hard to know if I always had a brain that works poetically, or if I’m simply in the habit, but everything else I write—plays, songs, intros to books—seems to start there.

Q: Who were your early heroes and inspirations and why?

Cornelius Eady
Poet Cornelius Eady on the Stony Brook Southampton campus

A: That’s like asking a songwriter who inspired them, when all you need to do is listen—you’ll hear their influences, their CD and vinyl collections by the way they sing, their chord choices and lyrics. Maybe the question is the undertones—the music that isn’t apparent on the surface. For me, Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin as a very small example. These are poets who sing and claim a space in the poetic landscape that hadn’t been reported from before, at least not in the way they do it.

Q: How would you describe your poetry, stylistically and thematically?

A: Basically, the front piece from my New and Selected:

“make it new”
-Ezra Pound

“make it funky”
James Brown

Q: Were you influenced by the slam poetry movement?

A: When my second book came out I had no idea what slam poetry was all about. I was invited to be a featured reader (I didn’t know what that was) at the Green Mill (Chicago jazz club). It was just an open reading with a feature. I come from the open mic world. The biggest difference in Chicago was there was a panel (of which I was one), and the poets reading would be judged by points. It hadn’t reached New York in any large way yet. There it was simply open readings — you signed up, waited your turn, and read for as long as you could get away with at the mic. Some poets would read until your ears bled. In Chicago I saw one person, a woman, read a wonderful, very beautiful poem, something constructed very well. But it was too quiet, and this was a bar. Then this kid came up, a total hipster act, sunglasses, the whole works. The poem stank, but he killed. And everyone loved him. I think he won. Oh yes. I was thinking this thing is cute, but it probably won’t go anywhere, would just stay regional. Shows you what I know.  That was my memory of it but now of course it’s taken over the world. And I know poets that have had their start in the slam world: Tyehimba Jess, Patricia Smith, Mahogany Brown, Tracie Morris, just to name four who can stop time in its tracks at the mic.

Q: What did it feel like to be published for the very first time? How did that come about?

A: My first book was published in 1980 by Patricia Fillingham, who was publisher of a small press, Warthog, in New Jersey. It was at an open reading in a bar/restaurant on the Upper East side, when I met her and her husband Peter. I was freshly married and living in New Jersey at the time, and had gotten there late, and bullied my way onto the sign-up sheet. By now, everyone’s ears were starting to bleed and people were just about to go home. Patricia stopped at the door as I was reading, and pulled her husband back, sat back down, and listened to my set. Afterwards, she told me who she was, and that she was about to launch a new press, and she wanted me to be her first book. She was a very energetic middle-aged white woman, and this was a bar in Manhattan, so I probably came across as a little wary and a bit standoffish at the time but we did exchange phone numbers. She called me up a few weeks later and told me to send her my work and that she was serious about it. There is nothing like the first book, it doesn’t even matter if it gets any attention. It’s the point and the moment where you cross the line between being unpublished and officially published. The book was called Kartunes, not the best I did, but really fun for its time. It was a true DIY project. All done at Patricia and Peter’s house in West Orange NJ. In their kitchen, I think. My wife did the design, and my sister-in-law, Susan Micklem, did the graphics for it. I can’t remember if my wife or Pat built a light table for the transparencies. I still think a handful of the poems were not bad. And it launched her press, which had a good rep and a long run.

Q:  When did you feel that you had made it?

A: I guess there’s two ways of answering that, depending on what one thinks “making it” means; I’ve been teaching at the College and University level (and therefore “making a living”) ever since I got the Banister Writer in Residency at Sweet Briar College in the early 80’s. But there are other ways to figure it. Your question implies I’ve been around, and have accumulated some things along the way, which is true, but in a lot of ways marriage in my early career meant more to me than publication in the sense of peace of mind.

Q: What classes do you teach and what kinds of exercises and assignments do you most enjoy assigning to the students?

A: I’ll teach Graduate Poetry workshop this Spring, and I’m thinking of making the focus first books, as the first book of most poets will tell you a lot about where the poet took their voice in later books. It’ll help as the students work towards their final portfolios. I’m hoping to have established poets visit or SKYPE in to talk about what they remember about their first book (the workshop is always required to ask at least one question to the author), or have poets who just published their first book, since they’ll be just on the other side of that line the workshop is walking toward. As for assignments, I’m noted for my prompts, some oldies but goodies I’ve gathered over the years, some I make up as I’m walking to class from the parking lot. One easy old prompt I’ve gathered along the way is one called “wreck a poem”, where the student takes a famous poem—say “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Whose woods these are I think I know 

And is invited to take the lyric air out of the tire:

I think I know the dude who owns this subdivision. 

To wreck it, you have to READ it, and figure out how it was put together in the first place.

Q: Talk a little bit about the MFA creative writing program and why you enjoy being a part of it.

A: I’ll simply add to what I’ve already said about the program by saying how much I enjoy the relaxed, welcoming vibe and tone to the program. It colors everything that happens there—the workshops, the readings, the faculty meetings. I’d hate to jinx things by saying it aloud, but there’s a lot a serious fun in that program, and I feel very lucky to have landed there.

Q: What have been some of your most fulfilling moments during your career and why?

A: At The New York Times photoshoot, as we were being organized into the shot, I overheard someone say to the person next to them, “What if this is it? The highpoint of your career?” And I thought about that. That was certainly one, but getting an honorary PhD from the University of Rochester, a townie poet, from a University that ignored local poets when I was growing up, was sweet. So was being invited to teach a workshop and read in Kenya, so was being a writing fellow at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. So was recording last month with my Trio at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., in that room, using a lot of the same equipment you hear on those fantastic 45’s that shook up the world.

Q: What would you most love to leave as your literary and professorial legacy?

A: Honestly, it’s something one has very little—I’d say no—control over. I could make a very interesting list of poets who were very much on the scene while alive that no talks about or studies now. All you can do is get your work done, and hope there’s a use for it after you’ve gone. But I think I may have already written about that in one of my poems — a brick in a house that was being built around the house that shut everyone deemed unworthy out. That was pretty much what I think I’ve been up to, with my writing and career, and it was written before the start of Cave Canem, the true corrective to that problem, or at least, the best way I could respond. I’d certainly like to think that had an impact that will have a long shelf-life, but once, to use the Elvis quote, I’ve “left the building,” who knows?

Q: Talk a bit about your music, how you got involved and how it folds into your life as a poet and teacher. Also list your EPs (and years) and talk a little about the evolution of your music and involvement with Rough Magic, Sarah Azzara and your gigging life and how you are able to juggle that with the other roles you play.

A: This probably would make a decent article, all by itself, but briefly as possible, around 2012, as I was collecting my papers to sell to Yale, I realized I had a lot of unfinished songs on various cassettes spread out about 15-20 years. I’ve always written songs, and even performed in a few bands, but at a certain point, poetry took the upper hand. Now I was revisiting them, and since music programs like Garageband were around, I decided to finish them up, first by myself, then with friends from Rochester. My plan was to simply post them to Facebook, or Reverbnation, but that summer I taught a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center, and one of my students, Sammy Greenspan, was the publisher of Kattywompus Press, which had a chapbook series. When Sammy invited me to send her some work for a chapbook, I hit upon the idea of trying a music chapbook—I would put the music on a CD, Sammy would print the lyrics as a chapbook, and I’d write an essay about the process. We did, but it grew into a double CD called Book of Hooks (Vol. 1 & 2). (Kattywompus Press, 2013) While that was going on, I started adding more people—the guitarist Marvin Sewell, and my friend Robin Messing, a fine novelist and singer, who connected me with her daughter, Emma Albaster, a bass player, Charlie Rauh, a guitarist, and Concetta Abbate, a violinist. Somewhere in all of this, I got an invite to read at a downtown church, opening for the musician and poet Oliver Lake. I asked if I could bring “my band” (I didn’t actually have one at the moment) to play a few tunes. They said yes, and luckily everyone’s schedule worked, so we started to rehearse in a basement in Brooklyn, where I met the final component to the group, Leo Ferguson, on drums. It was at our second gig, at a book store in Brooklyn, that we decided to keep going as a unit. It was in that configuration that we recorded, as the band Rough Magic, the EP 7 Songs, (Bandcamp, 2014) the music chapbook, Singing While Black, (Kattywompus, 2016) and He Was a Man: The Sterling A. Brown Project (forthcoming, 2019). During the recording of that project, Concetta left, and we welcomed Lisa Liu, a rock and gypsy jazz guitarist to the group.

Q: You mentioned that there was a long dry spell between poets receiving Pulitzers, spanning from the 1970s to the first decade of the new century. But there have been more since then. What do you make of that?

A: The dry spell was 30 years, between Gwendolyn Brooks, in 1950, and Rita Dove, in 1980. I never thought I would live long enough to see so many African American poets get Pulitzers so close together. It’s not just about the awards, of course, but I’m stunned by this. So many. And I’d like to think Cave Canem has had some influence, but how many Latino/Latina and Asian-American poetry Pulitzers are there? I like to think that correction is on the way.

Q: Where do we as a culture go from here?

A: The culture is changing, and will change, like it or not, and I like it. I like the world that is coming, and I don’t think that’s being naive. Holding onto the past is a fool’s errand. We go forward. We run back. But it’s not the 1850s. The other question is: Do we really believe in democratic principles or has this just been a lot of noise? I’m afraid we’re about to find out. I think often of the great Gandhi quote, that none of the dictators survive. It might be unrealistic to think all of these messes can be alleviated quickly. But people are not going to keep quiet and remain complacent. That’s just not the way history bends.

—  Glenn Jochum

 

 

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