“It felt like a door had opened:” An Interview with Cornelius Eady
Photo:The Poetry Foundation
Cornelius Eady has published eight books of poetry — his offering in 2001, Brutal Imagination, was a finalist for the National Book Award — guest-taught at numerous universities, collaborated with jazz composer Deidre Murray in the production of several works of musical theater, and written the libretto for the opera “Running Man,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1999. At present he is professor of English and the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
In 1996 Eady partnered with fellow poet Toi Derricotte to start Cave Canem, a community of African-American poets. Now into its 15th year, the organization has grown from a series of summer workshops into a national institution with over 300 fellow members, offering regional readings and workshops, two book prizes, and the publication of two anthologies.
Tomorrow Cave Canem, in partnership with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, will be presenting a free reading on Pittsburgh’s Monterey Street. Cornelius Eady, along with Toi Derricotte, Natasha Trethewey, and special guest Amiri Baraka are scheduled to read.
In this interview, via email, Eady discusses the motivation behind founding Cave Canem, the contempt of institutionalized racism, and the political hi-jacking of our collective narratives.
Is there a personal story that moved you to believe that Cave Canem is indispensable for US society?
There’s more than one story, but the poem “Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?” from my third book, The Gathering of My Name, is as good a reply as any. Read the poem here.
This is a story from my time teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1990s. I had two African-American students in my poetry workshop, and I became aware that the discussion towards one of those student’s drafts wasn’t entirely about her draft. She had put African-American elements in her poem, and the question wasn’t about how successful it was or not–it was that the poem wasn’t a poem at all, due to her bringing in those references. It was as if she had broken some unspoken rule of verse.
A few years before this, when I was writer-in-residence at Sweet Briar College, I mentioned the complications poets of color have in workshops to Charles Rowell, the editor of Callaloo, in an unpublished interview, and wondered aloud when we were going to take the step and set up a summer workshop for people of color.
The incident at Sarah Lawrence probably deepened that belief. It’d been on my mind for a while. When, in the summer that I was on vacation in Capri, Toi Derricotte mentioned that she had tried, and failed to get something going, it felt like I had found the partner I’d been waiting for. It felt like a door had opened.
This year is Cave Canem’s 15th anniversary. What are the biggest achievements of the organization?
First, that we’ve made to 15. Then, it’s the fellows, and tracking the ways their work has gone into the world. The number of publications–books, articles, essays, degrees, awards–staggers and amazes me, especially when you factor in that we’ve only been around for 15 years.
Cave Canem co-founders Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte.
Photo: © Rachel Eliza Griffiths
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt after 15 years?
Trying something–even if it doesn’t work–is better than not trying at all.
What are your plans to expand the organization even more?
Every summer we begin Cave Canem with an opening circle, which I believe to be our organizing principle. How we can expand that concept, widen the circle, and still be true to our mission and budget is where Cave Canem seems to be headed. How can other audiences and students share in the Cave Canem experience?
The upcoming readings in Pittsburgh, the regional workshops we’ve just launched here, the month-long residency for eight Cave Canem alums at The University of Missouri’s Summer Writing Seminars in Greece, where the students get to study poetry, non-fiction, and most importantly, translation, are just some of the examples of our idea of expansion.
At our office space in Brooklyn, we have launched a series like Cross-Culture dialogues between African American, Latino, and Asian American poets. I think that’s the idea of the circle as well. While the summer workshop is private, the poets and the work that emerges from the workshop live and walk in the world.
Do you think that African American poets still face additional pressures in terms of how they’re expected to write and what they’re expected to write about?
The fact that Cave Canem is around has certainly helped, but it’s too much to expect, I think, that one small organization will turn everything around. The problem is systemic and generations old. Cave Canem is a response to an on-going problem in American Poetry, not a solution. It emboldens some of us to challenge the assumptions some hold of the African American poetic. Challenge involves resistance, and no one gives up privilege without a fight. I’d like to think Cave Canem shows what’s possible, what’s worth working towards, even if at times it can seem a long way off.
Which are the biggest challenges and obstacles that an African American Poet faces?
The difference between “race” and “racial” in African American poetry is still pretty stubbornly ignored. Natasha Trethewey is on faculty this year at Cave Canem, and she told us a story about how a white reader refused to try Domestic Work, her first book of poems, partly based on reading the blurb Toi Derricotte had written, which mentioned that the poems were in praise of the lives of black working women. This reader came to the conclusion that this meant the book was going to be about “race,” which I suppose meant that the poems would be some sort of accusation, intended to make her feel guilty. Which is a shame; the poems reveal a corner of the lives of black women that is rarely explored in verse. The fear that person had, that all you’re going to hear from black verse is a megaphone gripe, even when the poet is up to anything but, is still pretty common.
Since the election of President Barak Obama some people believe we are in a “post-racial age.” What do you think about that?
Anybody who thinks that we live in a post-racial age in America should probably have a talk with Obama’s security detail at the White House. I still don’t know what “post-racial” means. The amount of energy and denial it takes to try to make that idea true is simply mind-blowing. Don’t we wish…
Yusef Komunyakaa told Sampsonia Way that racism is a mental illness. Would you define racism in the same way?
I agreed with Yusef, then thought: Why insult the mentally ill? But it is a sick logic which too often quickly boils down to the word BECAUSE.
I remember when I guest taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in the 1980s and noticed that the city services–sidewalk, sewers, etc–ended just before their gate. The term I’ve used to describe moments like that ever since is “the contempt.” It’s somebody else deciding what you’re not supposed to have, usually peace.
At Sampsonia Way, we focus on issues of freedom of expression all over the world. What obstacles do you see for freedom of expression here in the United States?
I think certain cultural narratives have been, or are in the process of being high-jacked. This is what I think when I hear and read things like “not everybody needs to go to college” or “Clean Coal.” I think we need to be wary of the stories we hear and fail to examine. The far right would like everyone to believe that the biggest threat to life as we know it is same-sex marriages. They are geniuses at turning your next door neighbor into a threat, and the people who change your tire or rake your lawn into thieves. Sometimes it feels it’s all we can do to find the energy to speak up, to talk back. But without that resistance, we become the spark of somebody else’s pen.
The June 23th Cave Canem reading will start at 7:30. Contact Laura Mustio to reserve seats under the tent, or bring your own chair and watch the reading from the street. Visit Pittsburgh’s Literary Calendar for more details.
Read Sampsonia Way‘s interviews with 2010 Cave Canem poets:
Toi Derricotte: “We are not post-racial”
Colleen J McElroy: “Make the Ordinary Extraordinary”
Carl Phillips: “Flexible Morality”
Claudia Rankine: “Wounds we shouldn’t forget”
Sapphire: Precious’ Emancipation
About the Author
Joshua Barnes is Sampsonia Way's Associate Editor. In 2010 he earned a bachelor’s degree in Fiction Writing and Literature at the University of Pittsburgh. During his undergraduate career, he was awarded 2009′s Ossip Award in Critical Writing for Anna Kavan: A Critical Study. Josh is involved with several musical projects and working on a variety of multi-media narratives.
View all articles by Joshua Barnes
Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination consists of five sections; the first four are numbered, and the last section bears the title “The Running Man Poems.” Section 1 dealts with Susan Smith and Charles Stuart, two murderers who blamed their crimes on nonexistent black assailants. Eady suggests that the police and the public, who believed their stories, are the ones with “brutal imaginations.” Susan Smith drowned her two boys by keeping them in the backseat of a car that she pushed into John D. Long Lake, near Union, South Carolina. In Boston, Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife for insurance money.
The speaker of “How I Got Born” is the fictional young African American man whom Susan Smith invented and accused of her crime. He says, “Susan Smith willed me alive/ At the moment/ Her babies sank into the lake.” Together, the young man and the children “roll sleepless through the dark streets, but inside/ the cab is lit with brutal imagination.” Other poems imagine this fictional young African American assumes a life in the popular awareness that goes beyond Smith’s fiction. In “Sightings,” a man sees the speaker pumping gas with the children in the backseat. Someone from North Carolina sees him “move like an angel/ In my dusky skin/ And knit hat.” Another witness sees the car on a highway, with the well-behaved children in the back. A motel’s night clerk hears the car’s tires as it pulls up to the motel. All of these sightings are part of a brutal imagination.
In “Where Am I?” Eady describes attempts to find an African American driver with two white children in his backseat. In “The Law,” the speaker describes driving as an African American:
I’m black, which meansI mustn’t slow down.I float in forcesI can’t always control.
The poems emphasize the racial dimension of the imagination’s brutality:
How long do you think the cops would listenHad Susan not swornI was black, I was a bad dream.
Even when the car is found in the lake, the invented culprit continues in the sheriff’s mind and in the public’s mind, fed by the posters that a police artist has drawn. Scenes, images, existential dilemmas, and matter-of-fact prejudice are all crisply and clearly drawn in this first set of brutal imaginations.
Section 2 consists of five poems that deal more broadly with the brutal imagination of American culture. “Uncle Tom in Heaven” laments:
I with another black man pour from aWhite woman’s head. I fearHe’ll live the way I did, a brute,A flimsy ghost of an idea. BothOf us groomed to go only so far.
Uncle Ben “was pulled together/ To give, to cook/ But never to eat.” “Aunt Jemima’s Do-Rag” refers to the original Aunt Jemima, a round-faced woman with a headscarf, based on the image of a real African American woman named Nancy Green of whom almost nothing is known. The poem highlights the cognitive dissonance between corporate icons and fully dimensioned human beings.
While the first is a literary character and the other two are marketing devices, Uncle Tom, Uncle Ben, and Aunt Jemima are all icons of the white culture’s brutal imagination. They serve a purely and unrealistically servile role. Eady similarly addresses such cultural caricatures as Buckwheat—a member of the Little Rascals who, as an adult, becomes an alienated outsider—and Stepin Fetchit, a character played by Lincoln Perry. Eady highlights the complexity of Perry’s own life, which exists in tension with the caricature he helped...
(The entire section is 1643 words.)