AN INTERVIEW WITH CORNELIUS EADY
The students and faculty of the BFA Program at Goddard College were honored to host poet, playwright, and musician Cornelius Eady as our visiting writer during our Fall 2013 residency. Eady, born in 1954 in Rochester, New York, is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Hardheaded Weather (Penguin, 2008) and Brutal Imagination (Putnam, 2001). His book Victims of the Latest Dance Craze (Ommation Press, 1986) won the 1985 Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has collaborated with jazz composer Diedre Murray in the production of several works of musical theater, including You Don’t Miss Your Water and Running Man, a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. With Toi Derricotte, he is co-founder of the celebrated and groundbreaking organization of African American poets, Cave Canem. He has taught at SUNY-Stony Brook, and Notre Dame University. He is currently Professor of English and the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Cornelius Eady’s newest collection of poetry and lyrics, Singing While Black (Kattywompus Press, 2015), launches at the April 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis. (Duende will be there to celebrate at the release party!) Eady has generously allowed Duende to publish four poems from this collection. We are stoked by this honor! While Eady was at Goddard in Plainfield, Vermont, he gave a beautiful reading at the Haybarn Theatre, thrilling the crowd with a poem titled “White Socks” (from Hardheaded Weather). His deep caring and generosity for students, his passion for creating spaces where writers of all backgrounds can grow and thrive, came through every moment he was on campus.
The interview was conducted at Goddard College during our Fall 2013 residency, by BFA students Kate Weiss, Erric Emerson, and Fawn McManigal. It was transcribed and edited by Kate Weiss, Duende’s Managing Co-Editor.
Kate Weiss: Your work crosses many different genres: music, poetry, and plays. Can you explain what appeals to you about working in each genre? Do you find yourself inspired equally with each?
C.E.: Theater has to be collaborative. Working on a theater piece, which is all-consuming, can also be very exciting because you are working with a number of talented people. In theater the script is the engine driving everything else. I love that process.
Poetry is a contemplative process. It’s you and the page. You get to listen to yourself. If you’re really good, the work that comes out of silence can connect with someone you’ve never met. The poems can have an impact on an editor and a publisher and if you’re really lucky, taken in by a reader. One of the great things about poetry is that it goes out in the world in ways that you can’t anticipate.
Music is fun. It’s close to theater but a different process. I am the center of the band, which is something I’ve never tried before. When I’m writing for theater, usually it’s for someone else; the actors, the director, etc. I’m not the center. The group [Rough Magic] is about bringing a demo to them and seeing what we’re going to do with the song. It’s a different kind of performance than poetry. I like the challenge of trying to translate or pair a lyric with beat and melody.
Like a script, the song will transform. The demo I bring to the band will be totally different by the time we’re done with it. The [Rough Magic] musicians are all very sharp. They come from different musical backgrounds; that’s part of the appeal. When you get five people in a room and say, “Let’s play and see what happens,” there’s a sound that comes from those five people that you can’t get from any other five people. The most obvious example of that is The Beatles. There are these four guys from the working-class city of Liverpool. After they broke up they made good records, with good musicians, but you could tell the difference.
Fawn McManigal: You talk very passionately about these collaborative efforts. When you go back to write poetry, does it feel empty?
C.E.: Oh, no. Not at all. They balance each other. I need the quiet to generate the work; it’s a necessary aspect of the process for me. It took a moment to do Brutal Imagination as theater as opposed to a cycle of poems. For a long time I resisted it becoming a theater piece because on some level I didn’t want to share it. At a certain point I realized I had no choice; it was silly to have that position because it’s a dramatic monologue.
Writing is writing is writing [laughs]. From my perspective it’s all the same thing. Sometimes I write and it’s a song, sometimes it’s a song that turns into a poem, or a poem that turns into a song.
The quiet time that I make generates the product. You do have to make time for that. You have to insist upon time to write. It’s a busy life. I teach; I commute back and forth between Missouri and New York; I have other concerns. I’m a full-time faculty member. I have classes, students, committees, meetings. It becomes really important to carve out time. Part of the reason I took the job in Missouri is because it allowed me to carve out the time for writing every year. I have a short semester and then the rest of the fall off. Concentration is the most important thing to me.
Right now I’m working with Diedre Murray on a music theater piece. We’re trying figure out who the characters are. At some point we’ll have a character start walking or moving or speaking and that action will trigger the rest of the piece.
Erric Emerson: In working with Diedre Murray on the musical Running Man, what was your process for writing a libretto? Was her music a major influence in your lyrical decisions, or did you write primarily without sound?
C.E: Deidre came to me and wanted help to write a show about her brother. Running Man is about her brother. The plot really is that she loved him, but didn’t know him as well as she thought she did. She wanted me to write the text to the story. We put Running Man together by talking. She would tell me stories about her brother. Whenever I got something that felt juicy, I would make a mental note and then go off and write the scene. We would go back and forth and the shape of the narrative arc came about that way. But it was Deidre’s story.
Her music is absolutely amazing; she’s an incredible composer. She could flesh the scenes out really well with the music. Writing librettos is different from writing poetry. You have to have enough of a narrative to push the story along, but you also need enough space to accommodate the music. The music is another kind of narrative; it’s another voice, almost another character. It’s equal if not stronger than the words in an opera or theater piece. You have to have enough there for the actors to play with or the directors to work with. You need enough space to accommodate melody and arrangement. It made me write a very sparse line. It can’t be five syllables; maybe it’s three syllables. It can’t be that many consonants. It has to hit a certain way so the actors can be clear about the word. You have to be able to hear it above the music.
Erric Emerson: Having worked on several musical theatre pieces in your career, how did you find working with Deidre on You Don’t Miss Your Water, Running Man, and Fangs? Do you have plans to work with her again in the future?
C.E.: I’m working on a piece with her right now called Patient Zero. It’s about the end of the world, the Book of Revelations. Again, it’s Deidre’s story. She wanted to write something big. And so we are writing a story about the end of the world, a Cassandra story. It’s about a patient in a mental hospital who is having visions that mirror the end of the world. The question: is it real or is it in the patient’s head?
Fawn McManigal: As a recipient of several prestigious awards, such as the NEA Fellowship in Literature, can you tell us what chances winning those awards allowed you to take as an artist?
C.E.: You always take chances. Ideally, an award should have no influence in what chances you take as a writer. It’s a reward for work. Somebody sees your manuscript and says, “There’s some potential there, and let’s award them to keep doing that.” Or you’ve written some books and a panel or jury of your peers thinks it’s worth giving you some money for the body of work.
I think the only thing money is really good for, for a writer, is time. It allows you to say “no” to some stuff that you wouldn’t say “no” to otherwise, because you have bills to pay and you want to keep a roof over your head. But it shouldn’t impact what you’re going to do; it shouldn’t stop you from doing what you need to do.
It’s always good to be noticed, but you can’t get into a situation where the only reason you’re writing is for the acclaim. That sets you up for horrible disappointment. If you’re not getting an award every two or three years and you make the mistake of thinking that you’ve slipped, or you’re not doing it as well, you’ll concentrate on that and probably stop writing.
It’s healthier to say, “I do what I do. I’m glad when people pay attention to it, but it doesn’t impact what I’m going to do.” That path might lead to some strange places, or more work, or it might end up that people give you rewards for it. But afterwards, you still have to write. It’s easier to think of it that way. A lot of writers out there are thinking about posterity: “What happens to my work after I die?” and “What’s my reputation going to be?” I know writers who do that. The problem is, death is death. I’m not religious; I believe when you’re done, you’re done.
Also, tastes change. Nobody talks about Howard Nemerov anymore. He was an important poet, and he hasn’t been dead that long. Emily Dickinson went to her grave thinking she was a flop, and her family would respect her wishes and burn everything she wrote. Walt Whitman? We can only imagine. He was gambling in 1892, with the “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass, that there was going to be a future where people would figure him out. He was right about that, but he didn’t know that when he died. It’s a waste of time worrying about it. The only thing you can do is write the best you can.
Whether writers know it or not, they have a list of things they want to write about. You really do have an agenda. Your job, as writer, is to get as much of it done as you can. You’ve got to get it done, and you’ll do it even if nobody seems to be paying attention. So why worry about that? It’s a matter of focusing on the work.
Fawn McManigal: What can we expect to see next, in regard to your work and current projects?
C.E. I’m working on a music project. Alice Quinn who was the poetry editor for the New Yorker for a long time and also the director of the Poetry Society of America (PSA), teaches at Columbia University. She has been teaching a class called Iconic Black Poets of the 20th Century. She’s been studying Black poets and she’s been inviting contemporary Black poets to visit her class and talk about one of the poets. I talked about Langston Hughes. Then the PSA did a celebration at Cooper Union. For it, Alice asked me to set three Sterling Brown poems to music and perform them with Rough Magic. In the process of studying his poetry I realized that Sterling Brown’s poetry is fabulous for setting to music, because he deals with the oral ballad tradition. He was Harvard-trained, but he wed the narrative ballad tradition to Black vernacular. He tells these great stories.
I’ve written an album full of Sterling Brown material that’s going to be a CD. Whether it’s going to see the light of day is another story, but it’s been a lot of fun to figure out melodies to these poems. I can’t believe that nobody’s done this before; it’s just so easy to turn his stuff into song. I would search the internet because I thought surely Taj Mahal or the Carolina Chocolate Drops had done one. It’s so easy to turn his stuff into song. His writing seems so simple, but it’s really clear and precise. Because it’s songwriting sometimes I have to take liberties with the lines. A lot of the poems use dialect and so I had to decide about singing in dialect. I realized when Sterling Brown read the poems, that was the performance mode for him, that was his own music. I felt the melody doesn’t need to have dialect on top of the music, so I don’t sing it in dialect. I chose to sing in plain standard English.
His sense of music in the line is so precise, if I switch from “could” to “would” or “should,” or if I get the word wrong, the sort-of-like-word, it feels like I’m swearing. It feels really wrong if I add a syllable. He is so precise about his lines, about the measure and the breath. My adoration for him has just grown in leaps and bounds over the last couple of months. He’s an incredible poet. Langston Hughes was absolutely a master, but Sterling Brown is another thing altogether. It’s the stuff that sounds like my parents’ lives. It’s the Jim Crow South that my parents came out of; he knew that deep down in his bones. Even though he was educated at Harvard, he lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, for a time—as did I, when I taught at Sweet Briar College—and he claimed living there really opened up his ear.
He knew Anne Spencer, another African American poet while he lived in Lynchburg. She was also known for her garden and he has an incredible poem about her garden and her gardening. There’s another poem about the interior life of a truck driver. It’s just beautifully written. In the poem, this guy has this one outlet, which is singing in front of a quartet in the summer. Sterling Brown builds an incredible portrait in just five or six stanzas—absolutely gorgeous. It’s been a real adventure and pleasure to rediscover Sterling Brown.
Erric Emerson: Having taught at a number of prestigious institutions over the course of your career, can you give us your thoughts on alternative education in regards to creative writing? How do you think attending a traditional university as opposed to a low-residency program affects a person’s writing?
C.E.: I’m a product of the alternative educational world. My high school was an alternative high school, an artsy kind of place in Rochester, New York. It was really an interesting adventure for me. The school was based on the Summerhill model and only lasted two years. As with most of these kinds of situations, we got to where people had different factions. Our school only survived for two years, but it was an incredible two years. I also went to Warren Wilson for a year.
The traditional educational model is becoming less and less welcoming to artistic people. I teach in a PhD program right now, a really good program. Before, I taught at, and for a few years directed, a really good MFA Program at Notre Dame. I have great respect for the Notre Dame program and I have great respect for the program I’m in right now. But it’s a given now that you have to have professional credentials in order to be a “serious” writer, especially if you intend to teach. It not only causes a sameness in the writing that comes out of those programs, it also goes against history. Ernest Hemingway, Williams Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson did pretty well without going to an MFA program. They were able to eke out their careers without that sort of mentorship.
But again, we live in a world where the best place to find patron-ship and mentorship is at the College and University, and the perception of the arts on campus has cooled. We have formalized the idea of mentorship, which is a good thing on many levels, the sense of instant community is important, but the traditional academy and the political atmosphere on a lot of board of directors of these colleges and universities seem to be losing patience or tolerance for the arts. They don’t like grassroots anything. You get a board of directors that are from the business world, and they want to see it big and splashy: stadiums, hi-tech science and business centers.They want to pick and choose what the “arts” mean to them. Art isn’t a commodity but they believe that it should be. They start looking at MFA programs and the lousy job market and start thinking: “What are we doing this for? What’s the benefit? Our grads can’t make any money off of it.” The business boards start making changes to the programs. They start squeezing people out.
MFA programs are there so you can get in line for teaching. I was very, very lucky. I got tenure when it wasn’t necessary to have a terminal degree to get hired for a tenure-track job. This was back when Universities were eager to hire writers and understood that many of us came from non-traditional backgrounds. I got grandfathered in, so did poets like Lucille Clifton. The beauty of tenure is that, once you get it, it travels with you. Almost all the full time jobs I’ve had since then, I’ve been hired with tenure. But you can’t get there the way I got there anymore.
We used to calculate how many potential students would be denied the ability to go college at SUNY [State University of New York] every time the state legislature raised the tuition by five hundred dollars. For a lot of people, five hundred dollars is a lot of money. It might as well be five thousand. That’s the way I feel that way about some of these programs now; they are so expensive. That weeds out a lot of people.
So if that’s the way the writing world rolls, there has to be a space for non-traditional writers somewhere. Low-residency programs are perfect for that. I’ve been hearing that this program [Goddard’s BFA in Writing] in particular gets older writers. Not everybody fits the traditional program profile; places like Goddard and Cave Canem allow that person to have space. The programs that work the best accommodate the different ways that people write and live. Both models have problems, but the alternative model is still the most flexible and realistic for me. I wouldn’t be who I am without the alternative model.
I meet different people all the time who are quirky, but they make beautiful work. Shouldn’t they be allowed to write what they need to write with as much support as they can get? They deserve the same kind of attention as a “traditional” student in a program. They need to know that no one is going to make them feel weird or odd. We insist upon that at Cave Canem. For me, the programs that work the best have that kind of consciousness.
Fawn McManigal: Would you say Cave Canem is a manifestation of your ideal educational space?
C.E.: Absolutely. That’s the activist part of Cave Canem. In my and Toi Derricotte’s experience, sometimes people’s narrow definition of what is “good” excludes a lot of people. A lot of times they were writers of color. I like to believe Cave Canem has nudged things a little. Even within the African American community there’s been an ongoing debate about what “good” is. What does it mean? For example, the Black Arts movement was trying to define its own aesthetic; but it was necessary at the time. People forget the context of the time. It was very dangerous and deadly; people were dying. There was a struggle going on. People wanted a writing aesthetic that reflected that moment.
People started to think that writers who didn’t write within certain criteria weren’t authentic. I’m thinking of Camille Dungy’s amazing Black Nature anthology for example. Black poets who were really interested in writing about nature couldn’t hang with the Black Arts movement; they weren’t writing for the proletariat and they weren’t writing about the time. Yet they were filling in a space that wasn’t seen as reserved for the black body or intellect. That kind of turning on one another happens in movements; it’s a necessary evil, I suppose, but I’ve always hated waste.
I didn’t want to have that at Cave Canem. I didn’t want there to be a litmus test about what Black was. There are so many different ways of looking at your experience. At Cave Canem, nobody was going to attack anyone over that. It’s all legitimate.
The person that had the most impact on me in that regard was June Jordan. She was an early supporter of my work. June Jordan was the reason I got the job at SUNY-Stony Brook; she was the director of their poetry center, and suggested me when she left to teach at Berkeley. She gave me a broader idea than most people had at that time about what’s “good.” Expanding that idea of what’s “good” meant Maurice Kenny can come. Martín Espada, Cyrus Cassells and Kimiko Hahn can come. I keep looking for that and insisting upon that wherever I teach. Cave Canem was an opportunity for Toi and me to write that out large.