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Poet Cornelius Eady Riffs on Poetry, Race and Pedagogy

Eady

When The New York Times recently created a stunning pantheon featuring 32 of the most important “Black Male Writers for Our Time,” the poet Cornelius Eady was among them.

Eady, whose work has been called “joyous, incantatory, and experiential,” is also a musician, playwright and professor at Stony Brook Southampton, where he teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literature. He is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including the acclaimed Hardheaded Weather, nominated for an NAACP Image Award, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, winner of the 1985 Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Gathering of My Name, which was nominated for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.

Cornelius Eady
Poet Cornelius Eady on the Stony Brook Southampton campus

Although Eady is best known for his riveting expressions of the African-American experience, his work is far broader in scope.

“I write what I write,” Eady said. “The great thing about the African-American voice is that is always has depth and colors to it. It’s a wonderful mix.”

“You will always have poets with ears that are closer to the streets, and poets with ears closer to the campus,” he said. “And it’s all the black experience.”

Also featured in the Times pantheon was Eady’s colleague Rowan Ricardo Phillips, an award-winning poet and Stony Brook professor of English. The appearance of two SBU luminaries among 32 greats reflects the heritage of the University’s longtime commitment to African-American literature, dating back at least as far as the late Amiri Baraka and June Jordan.

“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,” Eady said. “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.”

Formerly an associate professor of English and director of the Poetry Center at Stony Brook, Eady left SBU in 1998 and returned recently to focus on pedagogy.

“Sweet Briar College was where my professional teaching life began; Stony Brook was where it blossomed,” Eady he said. “Perhaps I’m now part of that legacy that starts with Amira and June, and now includes Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Michelle Whittaker.”

Eady’s creative energy has often led him beyond the printed page. He wrote the libretto to Deidra Murray’s jazz-opera Running Man, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and his own dramatic adaptation of his poetry cycle Brutal Imagination (which was a finalist in poetry for the 2001 National Book Awards) won Newsday’s 2001 Oppenheimer Prize for the best new American play.

Eady is also cofounder of Cave Canem, a national organization dedicated to nurturing African American poetry and poets.  Born in Rochester, New York, Eady and his musical ensemble The Cornelius Eady Trio perform throughout the United States. He also collaborates with Stony Brook writer and faculty member Sarah Azzara, the daughter of former Stony Brook University President Shirley Strum Kenny, in a folk-rock duo called The Strummers, and released an EP last year.

We spent an afternoon talking to Professor Eady in his office at the Stony Brook Southampton campus:

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.

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.

Cornelius Eady
Cornelius Eady holds a book of his poetry.

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 at Stony Brook and on 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: 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.

 

— Glenn Jochum

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