Getting to Know — Cornelius Eady

The Peabody Institute Library will be hosting a six week lecture series called “Get to know the Festival Poets!” which will run March 25th to April 29 and will be presented by poet Jennifer Jean. The following essay is a part of the series introducing Festival-goers to some of 2014’s featured readers:  Phil Levine, Rhina Espaillat, Carol Ann Duffy, Li-Young Lee, and Cornelius Eady.

Cornelius EadyMany of my, absolutely, favorite contemporary writers (such as: Yona Harvey, Ross Gay, Tyehimba Jess , Tara Betts, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, and John Murillo—to name just a few) happen to be former fellows of Cave Canem—a writers “affinity group” for African Americans, co-founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. Every year, several Cave Canem fellows trek in for a Mass Poetry Festival group reading—and their reading always rocks! This year’s offering, at 2:45pm on May 3rd, has another stellar line-up: Jamaal May, Nicole Terez Dutton, January O’Neil — and Eady, who’s considered an “elder” in the community.

 

I’m most familiar with Eady’s book Brutal Imagination, which I discovered at a Super Used Bookstore and coveted for all the jottings penciled in by the previous owner. When reading this copy, I’m in conversation with that jotting-reader who passionately furrowed into Eady’s raw and revelatory kinesis and wisdom. (That’s one more notch in favor of the-print-book-as-precious-product!) This collection contains two central poem-sequences: the first is from the point of view of the imagined black man that Susan Smith accused of killing the children that she murdered; the second is a cycle that became the libretto to Diedre Murray’s score for “Running Man,” a jazz opera.

Here’s one of the many harrowing poems from the first sequence:

 

COMPOSITE

I am not the hero of this piece.
I am only a stray thought, a solution.
But now my face is stuck to lampposts, glued
To plate glass, my forehead gets stapled
To my hat.

I am here, and here I am not.
I am a door that opens, and out walks
No-one-can-help-you.
Now I gaze, straight into your eye,
From bulletin boards, tree trunks.

I am papered everywhere,
A blizzard called
You see what happens?
I turn up when least expected.
If you decide to buy some milk,

If you decide to wash your car,
If you decide to mail a letter,

I might tumbleweed onto a pant leg.
You can stare, and stare, but I can’t be found.
Susan has loosed me on the neighbors,
A cold representative,
The scariest face you could think of.

For his headline reading, at 7:30pm on May 3rd, Eady has promised to showcase his recent foray into music, which is the culmination of a boyhood dream. To see an “elder” make such a turn in his career is incredibly inspiring! Especially after publishing eight books of poetry; and, winning: an NEA, a Guggenheim, an Oppenheimer, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and a Lamont Prize. He’s recently added to his accomplishments by releasing two audio-chapbooks: Asking for the Moon (Red Glass Books)  and Book of Hooks (Kattywompus Press). In “Roll Over Ezra,” his Harriet Blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Eady explains these chapbook departures:

 

“Both books have CD’s with songs; Book of Hooks is a double CD. There’s around 36 songs between the three disks … I’ve been giving performances of songs from the books, with some of the NYC area musicians I used for the project. Sometime after our second live gig we started to develop a bit of a group-think, and we are now working as a band called Rough Magic. Rough Magic is what I call a “literary band,” by which I probably mean the songs (mainly mine at the moment) if not poems, are pretty word drunk.”

I appreciate Eady saying “if” and inviting the listener to navigate the tension between lyric-song and lyric-poem. But, I wonder why Eady won’t just let these works be songs. He isn’t speaking his poems like the jazz backed Beats—a style which Robert Pinsky, also fulfilling a boyhood dream, practiced in his CD PoemJazz. Neither does Eady call his works “art songs,” which are defined as a musical setting of an independent poem or text. When I collaborated with composer Sarah Eide) on our CD Fishwife Tales, I called my readings with her music: “accompanied recitations.” When I wove my poem into Sarah’s music during the recitations the texture of the content deepened—but the poem was intact as a poem. When a professional singer performed a selection of the poems, I called those works “art songs” because the poetry was written prior to, and independent of, the musical scoring. Therefore, here are the questions I faced with Eady’s work:

  • What happens when you know the word will be sung—do you initially write differently—for instance: increase phrase repetition—and does that difference cause the work to lean away from “poetry?”
  • Singing is adding pitch to rhythm—do you then revise the work differently, and does that difference cause the work to lean away from “poetry?”

I can only guess at answers and each person will have to determine for themselves whether Eady’s new foray is engaging. Here’s a way to start—check out this text/lyric, first published in Four Way Review, then watch the performance clip and decide for yourself:

 

A POET FORGETS HIS LIBRARY

~for Jack Agueros

Look at all those lovely books.
What are all those books to me?
Words are wriggle-fish in an endless sea.
I over-hear them talking,
Sometimes I think
They’re talking about me.

All this time, all this time
All this time at sea.
They say it has no memory.
A poet forgets his library.

Something was written long ago.
A voice I should know says it was written by me.
Something like a hymn, almost holy song,
Some face on the cover, but they’ve
Got it all wrong.
Tell me what this nonsense
Has to do with me?

All this time, all this time
All this time at sea.
They say it has no memory.
A poet forgets his library.

My name they say, is a man beloved,
A man with a printed history.
Here I sit, and here they try
To read it back to me.
What’s this accusation?
The hell is poetry?

All this time, all this time
All this time at sea.
They say it has no memory.
A poet forgets his library.

***

Watch a performance of  the above poem.

 

 

jennifer jeanJennifer Jean’s most recent poetry collection is The Fool (Big Table Publishing, 2013). Other collections include: The Archivist, Fishwife, and In the War. Her poetry and prose have appeared in:  Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin Review, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Poetica, and The Mom Egg Review. Jennifer is Director of the Morning Garden Writers Retreat; she blogs for Amirah—a non-profit advocate for sex-trafficking survivors—and, she teaches writing at Salem State University. For more information, visit: www.fishwifetales.com