Cornelius Eady is the author of eight poetry collections, including Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; The Gathering of My Name (1991), nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; and Brutal Imagination (2001), a National Book Award finalist. With Toi Dericottte, he co-founded the Cave Canem summer workshop and retreat for African American poets in 1996. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. In April, 2017, he participated with poets Danez Smith, Li-Young Lee and Adriana Ramirez, in the Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times event at Chatham University.
The Fourth River: What literary accomplishment are you most proud of?
Cornelius Eady: I don’t really think in those ways. You write the poem and then you write the next poem. You write the book and then you write the next book. You hope that what you’ve done is your best work at that moment.
There’s a lot of poems that I think have worked well. I remember finishing certain poems and realizing I might have pushed it a little further than I normally would have. When I finished “Gratitude,” I thought I had done something that was new for me. It was a little more than a good poem. Finishing “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket” was a moment I thought I had done something slightly better than average. There are par poems, and then suddenly, you write something above par.
TFR: How do you transcend the par poem?
CE: It’s just chance. I’m always writing for the accident. So much of writing is accidental. You have a certain amount of craft, but it’s about being available for the poem. For whatever reason, the elements are right, and you end up some place you weren’t expecting to go.
TFR: Do you have favorite poems to perform at readings?
CE: Galway Kinnell wrote a poem called “Oatmeal,” and it was always his sure-fire, can’t-miss poem. I think “The White Couch” is my “Oatmeal,” at least for now. “I’m A Fool to Love You,” the story my mother told me about meeting my father, works well. I don’t always read them, though; it depends on where I am and to whom I’m reading. You don’t want to get so complacent that you fall asleep at the mic.
TFR: When did you and Toi Derricotte sense Cave Canem was something special?
CE: We knew it from the first year. The fellows we invited that first year knew it, too. They felt invested. Toi tells a story about when we looked at each other that first year, as if to say, “What happened? Who’s running this place?” The fellows felt they could come to us and help us shape the programming. And that’s what happened. Part of the secret of why it worked, why it still works, is that the fellows can, unlike at other workshops, influence what goes on. In some ways, it was an improvisation. We had a basic shape of what Cave Canem was going to be, but they added to it. It became a living, breathing thing.
TFR: What disappoints you in contemporary American poetry right now?
CE: There’s too much emphasis on prizes. There’s too much of, what I consider, a Protestant work ethic that compels you to grind books out. When I entered poetry, you published your first book—and that’s it—from that point on, you were a poet. You didn’t have to defend it or justify your existence. This new model is unfortunate. It produces a lot of premature books, books that should have percolated longer. James Wright wasn’t writing a book every 2 years. Jack Gilbert wasn’t writing a book every 2 years.
It’s about the way you live your life. It’s not a matter of trying to get a product out. There is such a superficial, artificial perception of what it means to be a career poet. If you’re not up at that white-hot pitch, if you’re not spewing out prize-winning books, then you’re not a real player. That’s so false and unreal. I think a lot of poets fear they’re losing this poetry game.
TFR: What excites you about contemporary American poetry right now?
CE: We’ll read manuscripts for Cave Canem and find a certain voice or style, and we’ll say to each other, “This person has got to be here.” And we usually call it right. We’ve seen this wave approaching. We’ve been privileged to see these voices to start to arrive.
These poets seem to be changing the game. There’s a generation of people who grew up with Cave Canem. It’s not a superficial thing. It’s not just books and awards. There are more poets of color directing programs, editing magazines—even The New Yorker. It’s astonishing. I remember all the letter campaigns to The New Yorker pleading a case for writers of color. There has been a marked change since then.
One of the complications of this becomes: did we inadvertently invent our own elite? Is Cave Canem perceived as just a career stop? You can’t control how people perceive it. You can only go back to writing. The workshop hasn’t essentially changed. It’s a place where the poet can go to write the hard poem or the joyous poem or the poem he or she didn’t feel comfortable writing any place else. Once you write that, you realize you can carry it out to the larger world.
Shannon Sankey’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming at Poets.org, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, The Weeklings, Atticus Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere. She is a copywriter and co-editor of Stranded Oak Press. www.shannonsankey.com