The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Cornelius Eady
On June 18, 2015, Cornelius Eady came to City of Asylum to participate in the fifth annual reading by Cave Canem poets. Along with Toi Dericotte, Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem, an African American poetry organization, in 1996.
Cornelius Eady is the author of Hardheaded Weather; Brutal Imagination, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in Poetry; the autobiography of a jukebox; You Don’t Miss Your Water; The Gathering of My Name, nominated for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; BOOM BOOM BOOM; Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, selected for the 1985 Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets by Louise Glück, Charles Simic, and Philip Booth; and Kartunes. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was also awarded with the Prairie Schooner Strousse Award and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award.
Before the reading, Cornelius Eady talked to Sampsonia Way about what the future holds for Cave Canem and the “fearlessness” he is witnessing in the organization’s new generation of fellows.
Cave Canem is coming into its second decade. What challenges are you facing and are these the same or different from when you first founded it?
Things have changed in the writing world since Cave Canem has been there. It has evolved. The problems are still problems. But they have changed in the sense that you now have a place where you know there’s an organization that’s out there looking for you and knows who you are, so even if you’re not in Cave Canem you know there’s another organization out there that is oriented towards your writing and your life. That sometimes really helps.
The challenges for us as an organization is now a matter of transition. We’re starting to think about what the next phase of Cave Canem is going to be and what does that mean, and we’re asking ourselves those questions right now. It’s trying to figure out just how much of the mission stays the mission, how much of the mission changes. How much do we allow there to be some open space for new voices and new ideas to come in and how do we make that happen? And also as we grow, what are the principles of Cave Canem and do they still work in the second decade of the organization?
What do you think are the answers to those questions?
I think that it’s a good thing for the founders to know enough to know that they have to have space for new people and for new ideas and to allow that to occur. We really are an organization that people look towards. It isn’t simply a matter of doing the workshops and doing the book prize. They look towards us as some people who cast the tone. Because of that, we’re being mindful of the moves that we make and how we make them.
For me, I like to think there’s this saying in the fundraising world where basically you try to imagine the growth of the organization as you grow out of the organization. The idea would be a fantasy where you sort of imagine that you come back from the dead and it’s 50 years later and you walk into Cave Canem, either the workshop or the board room, and you won’t recognize the people but you’ll know where you are. Those principles that you set up will now have been translated. So you’ll know this is Cave Canem still. I want to believe that’s a possibility.
Let’s switch directions to talk about craft. When you’re writing a poem how do you know what is or isn’t needed to make it work?
The draft tells you. If you are really being honest with the page you will know. Most people know. Workshops are very efficient and they speed up the writing process. Basically, I think for beginning writers, [they have to] learn to be comfortable with the truth of the draft. It tells you where the holes are, where you are being vain. It tells you where you’re going off track. It tells you tons of things about what’s going on and sometimes people will say, “I don’t know what’s going on!” when actually, you go through the workshop and you go through the process, they tell you what you already know but you didn’t want to say. That it was too vain or you wanted to make a poem that got even for this and that and the other thing.
It’s being able to listen to yourself and listen to the poem but also being able to listen and understand what the poem needs, which is sometimes a separate issue than what the poet wants. Being able to discern that difference is really [how] you get the point. I like to think I’m at that point that I read very well, that I know what the draft’s trying to tell me and what work has to be done. It’s a conversation between yourself and what’s on that page.
What was one of the most important lessons you learned about writing poetry when you were first starting out?
When I started out I was lucky in the sense that I had a community, but I had a community that was so eccentric that they didn’t say things like, “You can’t be reading this,” or “You shouldn’t be reading that,” or questioning in a very deadening way. The first workshop I was in, in Rochester New York, was run a woman named Patricia Janus, who is no longer with us. But Pat had this really wonderful ability to be able to zero in on the draft without making the poet feel like a joke. It was basically saying, “You what know this is wonderful,” be encouraging, “but I can see blemishes here and I’ll show you where those blemishes are.” And pushing you to finish. And I think that grace was something that I picked up from that workshop.
There was another workshop I had, I was a little more formed as a poet, but it was still made a very big impression on me. Gregory Orr and Charles Wright toured an undergrad class at the University of Virginia. I drove from around Lynchburg to Charlottesville once a week to sit in on that class. One of the things I thought was fabulous about those two guys was that even though they came at it from different angles they usually agreed, but they agreed on their own terms. They did it without fighting amongst themselves or trying to upstage the other or show off how brilliant the other was. They just had this wonderful way of talking to each other that really showed you the different ways they saw the poem. Gregory sort of went through it more emotionally and then got to the more technical stuff. Charles would go through the technical stuff to get to the emotion. At some point they just sort of met. It was a beautiful thing to see. As a young writer — well, I’m still young enough — I was really impressed by that.
If you’re lucky, you run into those kinds of situations that make sure that point you in a certain direction or emboldens you to try things out because you can see what they’ve done.
What excites you about the next generation of Cave Canem writers?
I can tell you that what they’re doing is stuff that back when I was a baby poet — thinking about this in the context of what was considered to be acceptable subject matter for writing poetry back in the late ’70s early ’80s when I started writing poetry or started taking it more seriously — you couldn’t talk about sex. You couldn’t talk about identity. You certainly couldn’t talk about politics. And politics was such a narrowly defined term back then.
These poets are just fearless. They are absolutely fearless. If you interviewed some of them they’d probably tell you how afraid you are and I understand these things happen with your lives and your poetry and certain things, but in the workshop they are fearless. Nothing is going to stop these guys from becoming the poets they want to be and nothing is going to talk them out of writing to that voice, to finding that voice that they know, they know is deep inside of them, that they know has to say the things they need to say. It is really astonishing every year for me to sit in a workshop with these people and see that happening, and realize that what’s happening in that space, the workshop space, what’s happened this afternoon, is actually going to go out into the world and they’re going to see it in publications, and see it in workshops that they run themselves, they’re going to see it in the way they interact with one another. And to also realize that’s feeding a larger stream. They are really just brilliant. Sometimes I’m humbled to be in the workshop with them. They’ve sort of worked out or are working out some incredible work. Quite frankly, sometimes when I work with them I go wow, they’re so good. Maybe I should go and try something else for a while because what’s the point? They’re so damn good.
I’m half kidding but that’s what it is. You get to see a really astonishing part that maybe on some level they don’t fully believe that yet, but they get an inkling here. They start to figure out what the registers of their voices are, they start to figure out what the muscles are, how the muscles work, what they can get away with and what they can’t get away with. And how do they push those boundaries?
So for me, that’s the catnip for me. That’s what keeps me doing this for 20 years, knowing that they’re going to keep coming back every summer, I’m going to keep seeing them every summer. I don’t get this anywhere else I teach and I teach in some really nice places. I’m in a Ph.D. program I really love, I really love the people, the students are wonderful but there’s nothing like being at a Cave Canem workshop. That is a space unto itself.