Poet Cornelius Eady on exploring the everyday lives of Black people in America

The National Book Critics Circle is presenting the Black poetry group "Cave Canem” with the inaugural Toni Morrison Achievement Award, saying “no institution has played such a definitive role in shaping the poetry of the 21st century.” For our CANVAS series, Jeffrey Brown spoke with poet Cornelius Eady, who co-founded the group and continues to shape the landscape of American literature.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow, the National Book Critics Circle will present the Black poetry group Cave Canem with the inaugural Toni Morrison Achievement Award, saying, no institution has played such a definitive role in shaping the poetry of the 21st century.

    The co-founder of that group is poet Cornelius Eady. And while he continues to shape the landscape of American literature, he is also expanding his own artistic pursuits.

    Jeffrey Brown spent time with him for our arts and culture series, canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Cornelius Eady is a poet who's always been drawn to music, these days, alongside guitarists Charlie Rauh and Lisa Liu. We recently watched a rehearsal of songs Eady wrote in the last two years, what he calls pandemic folk songs.

  • Cornelius Eady, Poet:

    That's how I got through it. That's all art's about for me, right? You're also trying to find a way to translate your experience.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Now Eady has another project, to help preserve the place of poetry in the larger culture. He's director of Poets House in Lower Manhattan, founded in 1985 as a library and cultural space, one of the country's largest dedicated to poetry, where poets, poetry lovers, and anyone curious could explore some 70,000 volumes, attend readings, and meet up.

    Last August, though, amidst already tough COVID times, a burst pipe in the building led to massive flooding and destruction, forcing Poets House to close.

  • Woman:

    So, thinking about how we can better use that space.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eady is helping plan the physical and conceptual rebuilding and reopening.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    It's trying to figure out how we get to serve poetry, right? We get to serve poets. We get to serve the poetry community. We get to serve the community that doesn't know about poetry, right? We need this location and this culture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But when you say it's needed, I don't know if a lot of people feel like poetry is needed…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … or a Poets House is needed.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    Yes, yes, believe me, believe me, buddy, imagination is needed. You need to imagine.

    "Where is the young Black man? There is a blues that says, gone, never coming back."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For now, Poets House is putting on virtual Hard Hat readings, including by Eady himself.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    "Rambling, can't keep still, but longs for four walls. The arms, they can hold you, keep you steady. Where is the young Black man?"

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eady, now 68, traces his own imaginings to his childhood in Rochester, New York, his love of the library, and a teacher who encouraged him to write poems.

    One of his first was titled "Why?" a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and was published in his high school magazine.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    After it was published, I'd be walking in the hall, and I noticed people would say, "That guy, that guy over there, that guy, that's him. He's the poet. He's the guy. He wrote that poem."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He's the poet.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    He's the poet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ah, you heard yourself called a poet.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    For the first time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And that made an impression?

  • Cornelius Eady:

    Yes. It made an impression.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eady has gone on to write seven volumes of poetry, while also teaching at several universities, currently, the University of Tennessee.

    His book "Brutal Imagination," based on the actual 1994 killing of two children by a white mother who made up and blamed an imaginary Black man, was turned into a play.

    Here is actor Joe Morton.

  • Joe Morton, Actor, Actor:

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

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eady's work has addressed everyday life. But — and this was important to him — an everyday life often less explored in American poetry, the ordinary experiences of a Black man in America.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    Some of the every days are simply just, yes, sitting here talking to people, right? Some of the every day is simply just realizing that, you know what? Oh, George Floyd is on the ground and there's a knee on his neck, and he's being killed in broad daylight. Both things are true. Both things happen.

    And both days, it's part of what I am as a human being and also as a Black person in this culture. So, I do feel I have some sort of duty, some sort of obligation that, while I'm here, I add to that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Helping create a larger space for the full expression of that experience, especially at a time when there were fewer African Americans attending major writing programs, led to what Eady is perhaps best known for, the creation, with fellow poet Toi Derricotte of an organization to foster Black poets and poetry.

    It's called Cave Canem.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    Cave Canem was a part of that moment where, basically, there was a kind of sea change. People decided to find each other.

    And once they started to find each other, they started realizing the power that they had.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The name was playful, taken from a 1995 visit to an ancient Roman site and a sign that translates to "Beware the dog."

    But it had a serious purpose. Cave Canem sponsored annual workshops, fellowships in university writing programs, literary prizes, and numerous other projects. The excitement and the need, Eady says, was felt from the start.

  • Cornelius Eady:

    To understand that you're not crazy, that you're not by yourself, this political thing isn't really political. And you could talk about where you come from, and you can talk about your family. And you can talk about all the stuff that you do, what you're hanging out. And all this is Black, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Twenty-five years later, Cave Canem alumna, students and teachers, represent a who's-who of contemporary American literature, including Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, poets laureate, presidential inaugural poets, and many other prominent writers.

    The talent, Eady says, was always there.

    So you're not surprised by what's happened at all?

  • Cornelius Eady:

    No. For me, it was just sort of like you just saw this wave starting to build. It was incredible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the meantime, poet and singer/songwriter Cornelius Eady has a new album, titled "Don't Get Dead: Pandemic Folks Songs."

  • Cornelius Eady:

    I have a recording contract at 68 years old.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Cornelius Eady:

    Isn't that wild?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congratulations, Cornelius Eady and Cave Canem.

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