Make it New/Make it Funky: An Interview with Cornelius Eady
Jona Colson | December 2010
Cornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry including Kartunes; Victims of the Latest Dance Craze; BOOM, BOOM, BOOM (chapbook); The Gathering of My Name (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize); You Don't Miss Your Water; The Autobiography of a Jukebox; and Brutal Imagination, which was a National Book Award Finalist. His most recent collection, Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems,was nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
His honors include the Prairie Schooner Strousse Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Eady is a co-founder, along with poet Toi Derricotte, and vice president of Cave Canem, which offers workshops, retreats, and other resources to African-American poets. Along with Derricote, he also edited the anthology Gathering Ground.
He has collaborated with jazz composer Deidre Murray in the production of several works of musical theater, including You Don't Miss Your Water; Running Man, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1999; Fangs; and Brutal Imagination, which received Newsday's Oppenheimer Award in 2002. He is currently an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Jona Colson: By way of welcome, let me say how much I enjoy your new book, Hardheaded Weather, and reading your new poems and being reminded of your earlier ones. In this new book, you have included new poems as well as selections from your earlier books. What guided you in the selection of those from your other books, and what did you intentionally leave out?
Cornelius Eady: There were a few criteria. One was that I was only given so much room in terms of space and pages; I think it was 225 pages. The other factor was that I didn't want the poems to be too repetitious since there are various themes that you can see as you start going through the book. I think what my editor Marian Wood and I were going for was trying to find the best representative poems. Even though there are poems that are equally good, and could have done the job, but for whatever tangible reason, we found that one was better than the other. It's a mysterious process because, of course, there are poems that I didn't put in that I would have loved to. Mostly it was a matter of space.
Colson: What opportunities does a book of selected poems give you? Is there a certain balance you wanted?
Eady: Not only balance but also an arc. So many people have not read the earlier books for various reasons, either because they are out of print or not easy to get a hold of. I thought to a great extent that people were going to be finding poems they had never read of mine before, so the book is an introduction as well as a reintroduction for readers. I wanted them to uncover a story. After you read the new poems, what are the old poems telling you about my work? Where do we start and where do we end up? The guiding sense of order and organizational tool in this book is discovery. I want people to be surprised, to say "I didn't know he was writing this kind of stuff" or "Oh, my." So many know me as a poet who only writes about race from reading Brutal Imagination, and/or they know me for music/jazz poetry or dance poetry. I wanted a healthy range of poems-different subjects and different styles.
Colson: What was it like for you to revisit your earlier poems and even the unpublished manuscript, The Modern World?
Eady: It wasn't bad. It was more pleasant than I thought it would be. A lot of those poems I hadn't seen or read since they were written. So, it was pleasant to see that there were strong and interesting pieces all the way through, and, of course, the unpublished manuscript was the real find. My editor was flabbergasted that there was an entire manuscript that had never seen the light of day.
Colson: Are there any earlier poems in this new book that have been revised? If so, why did you choose to revise them?
Eady: A few of the poems in the unpublished manuscript got revised, but very few; most of them are pretty much the way you see them-which was very refreshing to find. I did revise a few of them either because the grammar or the ending didn't quite jive. In many ways it was quite fun to go back and simply say, "Oh, of course, why did I say this and not that?" So it was quite enjoyable to do a little tweaking but still have the center and the core of the poem remain the same.
Colson: Do you think you write differently now than you did when your first book, Kartunes, was published in 1980? Is there a different voice or level of maturity in your new poems? Or, in the case of poetry, does maturity have nothing to do with age?
Eady: Experience is the factor here; it's the one element you can't predict or anticipate. It's a different voice from the voice you find in Kartunes and The Modern World. The voice is not entirely different, but I think what happens is you have your voice and experience informs it. You want to emerge as someone who still has that curiosity and excitement about language and is informed by experience. The new poems are an older voice, not a disinterested voice, but a voice that is more concerned with being in the world. The humor in the newer poems is used differently. If there is any kind of surprise for readers, I think it may be how funny the early poems are and how much humor is in the other books.
Colson: You begin this book with a quote from Ezra Pound and a quote from James Brown: "Make it new" and "Make it funky." Why did you choose to begin the collection with these two injunctions?
Eady: Ezra Pound's imperative has been a part of my writer DNA since I started-since I started reading and discovering different writers. The idea that one should "make it new"-whatever it is, make it new. I was going to use another quote from another poet, but then I read a review of James Brown, and I came across this quote. I thought that these two injunctions summarize my entire writing career: it's make it new on one hand, and make it funky on the other. Pound and the modernists really inform a lot of my work. There is that idea of trying to reclaim language and the sense of what a poet is, and this idea concerns African-American poets-that is, whose language are you using and how is it being used? Then there is the "make it funky" part, which is the stamp of your own identity.
Colson: How do titles, both of poems and of books, instruct the reader, and what opportunities are there in titles? And, what does this title Hardheaded Weather convey to you, or what do you want it to convey to the reader?
Eady: The title Hardheaded Weather is actually my second choice for the collection. The working title I had for years was The War Against the Obvious. For years, I knew that was going to be the title of my new and selected works. However, what happened was that when Marian Wood and I were reviewing the galleys, the title, The War Against the Obvious, just didn't seem to fit anymore. I didn't feel like I was at war with anything. What felt more appropriate was the idea of Hardheaded Weather, which pretty much sums up the last five or six years of my life-it was a much more natural fit. This title feels closer to where I am personally, and more about the art of poetry itself: a hardheadedness and the idea of being within this kind of atmosphere. The new title provided a much closer, emotional sense of what you will find when you open the book.
Colson: How are the two new sections, Lucky House and The Way a Long Dress Turns a Corner working together?
Eady: Well, that was me being a little mischievous. The line "The Way a Long Dress Turns a Corner" is from a travel poem that Marian Wood and I could not agree on for inclusion in the book. So, I decided to take a line from that poem and use it as the title of that section. The idea of that section being the idea of memory-as in you can't hold onto stuff-you see it and then it's gone. Lucky House, of course, is house-as-body, house-as-generational-sign-post, house-as-standing-against-various-types-of assaults.
Colson: The first poem in Lucky House is a poem called "The White Couch." In another interview, you stated that you are concerned with "the actual" and looking and examining the objects that we use everyday and how these objects speak. How did this poem come to be? There is a line in this poem "But let's be real! / It's New York City," so how real is this poem for you?
Eady: It's a true story. Sometimes, events in my poems are not real because I am using the stories and the images to speak about something else, but this is an absolute true story. The thing that really came to my mind while I was putting the poem together is that it all comes back to the impulse of the poets you read when you are a younger writer. We are talking about the idea of "make it new," and in a great way what I have been discovering in reviewing my older poems is that I have been having a conversation with those poets whom I first read. And this one is, in a sense, a way that I am writing back to Pound and William Carlos Williams. This poem is about being alert and using things in our world. "The White Couch" is grounded in the real world, New York City, a real object, and a true story. Not all poems are true stories. Brutal Imagination is based on real events, but the story never happened-it was an imaginary guy in Susan Smith's head. But trying to ground the poem in real life and real events is something I have been trying to do in my writing career, and this poem certainly leans against that philosophy.
Colson: Do you still have the couch?
Eady: Yes! NPR contacted me and my wife to see if we would be interviewed about the poem, the couch, and owning a house. On the website, there will be photographs of us sitting on the famous white couch.
Colson: I love the last lines of the poem, "All this moving, he says. / Ah! he says. / This is living, / This is life."
Eady: I know, and that is what the doorman really said! Sometimes, the poetry gods are very kind and they will give you lines like that if you are open and ready to receive them. I wrote the poem when I was on vacation in Italy, and I always knew I was going to use those lines.
Colson: So this poem came rather whole and intact for you?
Eady: I wrote it in an afternoon. I was writing really hard and fast during my ten days in Italy.
Colson: In your new poems, there is a poem called "Migration," which begins with the fall of the twin towers and the events of 9/11. How much distance do you feel there has to be between the tragedies of 9/11 and writing about it? I have been reading a lot of published poems lately about 9/11, and I'm wondering if you feel that now is the time to reflect and talk about this in language?
Eady: Perhaps now writers have found the language. It was really hard for me to write that kind of poem, and the poem "Communion" talks about the complication for me with writing about 9/11. These two poems took a long time to write. I wrote eight to ten poems around that time, which was maybe a year or so after 9/11, and the poems didn't work for me. Maybe you really need to have a period of grief to work that out; the emotion to find its level. You can't predict how long that is going to take, but it took me a while to be able to successfully write about it: one year, ten attempts, two finished poems. I think that we are going to be working this out for a very long time, and that this was the touchstone event for my generation. We are still working it out, and will be for the rest of our time on the planet.
Colson: Talking about "Communion," what struck me about this poem in addition to content was the form of the poem. The lines are longer and hold a longer breath than many of your other poems. Why did this poem need to be in this form?
Eady: I usually question a poem when I write in long lines. But in this poem, as well as all the other poems I wrote regarding 9/11, I didn't question because I felt there was something in the subject matter that needed longer lines, a longer breath, and more information in each line. I didn't want it to be short; I wanted the line to be relaxed and more contemplative. If this were a song, I would be playing minor chords as opposed to major chords. It really has that feel to me-building up an emotional weight. I decided not to distrust the lines and the weight they carried.
For a few weeks after the events of 9/11, I had a difficult time writing. I had offers to read in NYC and Washington, D.C. after 9/11, and I turned them down. I could not get my mind around writing and reading poems for a while, and during that time I could not write. The events of 9/11 and not writing was a transitional moment for me. I had to get past the shock and get back to living and keep going. Writing can be healing at times, and this poem is me working through my feelings-figuring out the human dimension.
Colson: Another poem in your new collection, "The Ghost, The Mountain," reminds me of the poems in Brutal Imagination. Was this your intention or is the poem unrelated?
Eady: The original manuscript of Brutal Imagination started with this poem. As I had imagined it, it was going to be the Joe Wood poem first, then "Brutal Imagination," and then "Running Man." The idea was to begin with someone who was here then disappears, then someone who isn't there, but appears to be real, and finally someone who is real and turns mythical. Originally, the book was arranged to be a trio of African-American maleness and "The Ghost, The Mountain" was going to be the kick-off poem. However, Marian Wood pointed out, and I agreed, that we didn't need a prologue into the book, and we cut it out.
Colson: What work is the repeated line, "The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs" and the question, "Where is the young black man?" doing in the poem?
Eady: The quote "The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs" is from Langston Hughes's essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The question, "Where is the young black man?" is set up as a blues' refrain. It's the blues and the sense of loss. Also, going back to the original placement of the poem as the first poem in Brutal Imagination, it was my hope that you would read the last question of this poem, "Where is the young black man?" and then turn the page and begin the Susan Smith poems.
Colson: You talk about blues and music being central to your writing and your readings. I saw a video of you on YouTube reading a series of poems from Lunch Poems: Noontime Poetry Series, and I was captivated by your reading style. How does music play into the reading of your poems?
Eady: I got lucky in the way that I read, philosophically, which is to act like a singer; approach reading a poem like a jazz musician approaches doing a standard. The printed poem is a fixed form, a lead-sheet, so to speak, yet I can play with the tone, timing, and the beat of it. I can use the microphone in the same way that a singer uses it. When I started out, it was not a good thing to perform while reading-that is, if you did anything to draw attention to yourself during your reading, the conventional wisdom was that you weren't a poet, you were a performer. Now, thanks to open mikes and slams, I feel free to use different textures and nuances within the lines I have formed.
Colson: So, in that sense, contemporary jazz provides a model for your writing?
Eady: It serves as a model for reading. By playing within the beats of the poem, it enhances the meaning of the poem. It also makes it more interesting for me because if I read the same poems over and over again, I want some excitement for myself as well.
Colson: In considering some of the poems from The Modern World, do you think that music and history are indivisible subjects for poetry?
Eady: Yes. We are all stuck in history, and we all have to deal with it as writers, one way or another. One choice you can make as a poet is to not write about history per se, and therefore, hopefully, your poetry gets a timelessness or transcendence to it. That is a legitimate position you can take as a writer; it's not my position. I think the poetry world is big enough to take all sorts of voices, experiences, and concerns. I think it makes you a richer poet and human being to write fully about the experiences and history around you.
Colson: In taking a look at some of the poems from The Modern World, I was struck by the poem "An Uncomfortable Moment with Eve." Throughout this particular section, you experiment with persona and the lyrical I as you embody the voices of people from history or Christian mythology. Do you think that it is you speaking, or that you are writing through someone, or that you are re-writing his/her voice?
Eady: All of it. That is the use of the persona-the I, it can be a slippery I. It doesn't necessarily have to be an autobiographical I. I have been using personas all along in order to talk through, rework, and make comment upon our world. When I was using it in the early books, I wanted to take a deeper look at that constructed persona to make the reader think. Eve is an interesting voice to speak through because you can take that moment and spin it. The story of Eve is one of my gripes with a modern Christian myth; that is, if it's the tree of knowledge and Eve takes a bite of the apple, doesn't that mean that she knows everything? And, what happens if Eve doesn't want to step into that moment, what if she decides to walk away? The two characters in Christian mythology that I think are absolute setups are Eve and Judas; they have to do what they do so that other things can happen. So, I think poetry can be good for that; it can allow you to think about it. It may not change the world, but it makes you think about the world. I like what Eve does in this poem.
Colson: To discuss the genesis of a poem, would you talk a bit about the poem "Crows in a Strong Wind," which is originally from Victims of the Latest Dance Craze?
Eady: The metaphor of the poem comes from sitting at my desk in my office at Sweet Briar College back in the 1980s and watching crows trying to land on a roof. The metaphor of landing, trying to land, and the wind-that became historical wind, in my poem-that pushes back, tries to stop you from doing it. So, that simple action of watching birds trying to land is what triggered the poem for me.
Colson: Your work embodies a strong commitment to the development of an international African-American spirit and identity. Is that a goal for you in your writing?
Eady: It's not a goal, but something that became more apparent as I got older and more conscious of what was going on in the world and, in particular, the poetry world. So the absence of certain things made it more obvious for me that I needed to agitate for those things to be included. What I wasn't seeing was an acknowledgement of African-American life, African-American language, and African-American experience. In fact, it was being discouraged; it was seen as something other or less than, or something that made people uncomfortable. The more I became conscious of that, I felt I needed to be more visible in my work, and that was a conscious choice. The African-American experience is an incredibly rich, diverse, complicated story that involves everyone-we intersect in the "real" world and we need to write fully about it-this is also something that Cave Canem does and speaks to. It really became important for me to let people know that I write from an African-American point of view very often, it's not the only thing I do, but it's part of the makeup of who I am. The African-American voice is not always about politics, is not always about grief, or anger-there are so many elements in that voice.
Colson: How is Cave Canem and its development in the last few years?
Eady: It is an interesting thing. There are other groups now, for instance, Kundiman, which is modeling itself after Cave Canem and they are doing well, which is a wonderful thing. But I must admit, I am a little surprised that it took over ten years for folks to grasp that it can be done. I suppose you can't really reproduce an organization; I think it is a once in a lifetime thing. Cave Canem right now is engaged in being a service organization to African-American poets, so that means our budget has grown in relationship to that. You can launch a workshop very easily by having a mutual agreement on certain things. For example, for the first few years our faculty all volunteered their time, we didn't have tuition, we still don't have tuition, and the participants paid the retreat center directly for room and board. So, if you volunteer your time, you can do a workshop-it's hard work, but it's not impossible. The trick is sticking to it, and at some point you need to decide if you want to be more than a workshop, and so we decided to branch out and do service and anthologies and first book prizes. We thought that it was important to see how we could assist the work being done at Cave Canem to appear in the world through publications. We realize that this is part of our job as well-Cave Canem is an incredible group of writers. One of the organizational concerns of Cave Canem now is that we don't have enough room for all the fellows that apply, and a large part of that is budget. More people getting in means more money we have to raise. We also realized that the size of the retreat is very important to the success of the retreat. Fifty-four people is pretty much what we do every year, and if you go larger than that, say sixty, or sixty-five, it starts to lose cohesion. We tried larger classes, but it never felt right, and we decided that it needs to be small enough so that people can interact with one another, and the small size is really part of the success. We have been struggling with doing more than one workshop per summer, but we need a location and more funding-we are working on that now. That is one regret I have about Cave Canem-that we can't take in everyone we want.
Colson: You are now the Miller Family Endowed Chair and Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Do you teach at the undergraduate or graduate level?
Eady: I teach both. I'm also Professor of Theatre, and I will be teaching playwriting staring in 2012.
Colson: Do you prefer teaching students who are blank slates or those who are students of the art and craft of poetry?
Eady: Undergraduates can be blank slates, and for the most part, they haven't totally formed their ideas of poetry, whereas, graduate students have already made certain choices. For example, in graduate programs, you find students who have already decided that they want to be Wallace Stevens, or whomever. And on one level this is okay because so much we have all learned about how to write comes from reading and modeling. But, what you would prefer in a graduate workshop is that everyone is open to trying new stuff out. Also, some are more self-conscious of the slender window of opportunity to make a certain type of impression career-wise, and they are much more focused and driven because of that. Additionally, the job market for poets is so dismal, and there are more MFA graduates than jobs, so there is an urgency from students to shine very quickly, and perhaps this doesn't allow them to be more flexible in trying something else out that may not appear to be useful at that particular moment. But, aside from that, the energy and excitement that students can bring to a workshop is amazing! They are absolute fans of the art, and read more than I ever could in a year-they know new concepts and they are trying to establish connections to one another. Those two years in an MFA program can really be a great adventure for students.
Colson: Do you teach anything in addition to workshops?
Eady: Yes, I'm doing a seminar this fall on African-American poetry. My seminar will concentrate on literary movements starting with the Harlem Renaissance and ending with Cave Canem. We will explore the idea of whether movements help or hurt writing development, and what is the toll, if any, of identifying yourself with a group. I was thinking about what a contemporary poet once said about Gwendolyn Brooks, the opinion being that she weakened her art once she become more publicly political and supportive of other African-American poets. This was one African-American poet talking about another African-American poet. Or, people talking about the Black Arts Movement-was it really a good thing or a bad thing? For me, of course, it was a good thing. I think that once movements cool down and history moves on, people tend to discount the urgency of the moment and how important it was for people like Gwendolyn Brooks to stand up when she did. I think there are aspects of any movement that you may not care to embrace, but we need to be occasionally reminded that movements are the working out of ideas-you can't go forward unless you go through it. I think movements have helped history move forward, and continue to inform us even now.
Colson: Interesting that you mention Gwendolyn Brooks because it seems that in anthologies, one gets so little of her work because the same poem is being used over and over again. Do you find that only certain poems are taught by certain African-American writers?
Eady: In the case of Gwendolyn Brooks, it is frustrating because you don't get to see the other part of her and the incredible range of her work. And, still, what do you teach? I think there is a sort of laziness when it comes to anthologies, and you go for the easy and obvious ones. I think you can find other shorter poems by her that really show you all the different textures that she has as a writer, and different concerns. That goes for many writers, too, including Langston Hughes. With Hughes you have an amazing body of work-I mean, plays, operas, essays-he was a really multi-faceted writer, and we only get a little sliver of him most of the time. It goes back to the idea of the African-American voice, it's not that it hasn't been there; it's that it hasn't been fully included. I do know that there are editors out there who have tried to expand what is anthologized in African-American poetry, but there also seems to be a lot of resistance to break that template. And it's part of the reason that Cave Canem published the Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear anthologies.
Colson: What are you working on now?
Eady: Something that I am going to be doing in the fall is returning to Running Man. I am told that there will be a revival sometime, either this year or the next, so I will be revisiting that script soon, which is something I haven't done in years. Hopefully, in the near future, I will have a website, and I will do a lot of archival work because I have a lot of readings and music excerpts that I want to put up on the site.
Colson: If there is one thing that you want your readers to know about you, or your work, what is it?
Eady: I don't think many people make the connection between me and imagist poets. When they talk about my work, they talk about it in terms of subject matter; that is, they say "I love You Don't Miss Your Water because it's about family" or "I love Brutal Imagination because it's a great book about race." All of those are true and legitimate reactions to my work, but people don't discuss it in terms of images and technique. Possibly because it's free verse, that horrible word that means nothing, but maybe that's what it is. My poetry is not in fixed forms-I do unfixed forms-but my poems are organized. However, having said that, I'm happy whenever anyone talks about my work. The reviews I have received for Hardheaded Weather have been wonderful, and I am so grateful. I am happy when someone thinks enough of the work to review it at all. A readership is a very lucky thing to have.
Jona Colson's poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Subtropics, and others. He holds an MFA from American University and currently teaches at American University and Goucher College.
by Cornelius Eady
Bob, father of my first girlfriend, who had lost his leg,
once told me about phantom limbs,
how the end of his stump
lied every so often,
nerve and muscle telling his brain, walk
as his eyes blinked true at what was gone.
On the roof of her apartment in lower Manhattan
my friend Meg begins
to read her poem.
It's just past 9/11.
We gaze downtown, towards the smoldering hole
they're still clearing away.
The amputee insists
Her legs are still
Bob said what helped were the dreams;
Both limbs remembered, reunited.
Those nights, his wife watched
as he'd loll on the bed
the way a dog,
asleep on a carpet, chases
what can't be caught.
Free Of Poetry
Into the court yard of the art museum fly
three black girls, excused from the
Maybe someone told them a poetry reading
was like a church sermon, without the
fire and guilt.
Perhaps an adult said a poetry reading
was a word salad, a kind of crazy
that can hijack an ear.
Oh yeah? They have squirmed off the couch,
and what they'll remember of their day trip
is the way they killed time as the poetry lovers
Oooed and Ahhed on the second floor,
how their lanky arms tested everything
they could swing on in the soft, wordless air.
Ode to Pumpsie Green
I will ignore you (tormentors). I will not let you know that I know you are right there
-Pumpsie Green, Boston Red Sox 1959-1963
If the ball be white, then praise to Pumpsie,
who carried Anansi the Spider God to late 1950's Boston.
First black player for the Red Sox, last team in
America to let black players on the field.
Sometimes they say Anansi appears as a spider.
Sometimes he's just some guy who looks like a guy
who makes funny things happen. He slopes his long
fingers around things forbidden; hot sun, white moon,
tosses it where it never belonged.
Why does that moon hang in the sky, we wonder.
Young black man in a field of white faces,
tell us a story:
How did it feel to walk through a hive
of bees? Who sent the lifting winds?
How does a spider steal fire
from under the noses of the Gods?
Reprinted with permission from Cornelius Eady.