A READING BY CORNELIUS EADY
I'm going to start the reading with some excerpts from an untitled, unpublished memoir that I've been working on on and off and in between all the other projects I've been working on the past three or four years. And, since we're talking about Rochester, all of this takes place in Rochester, when I was growing up, probably around the ages of between, I'd say, about six and seven years old to about thirteen, twelve or thirteen was when I actually started to seriously get interested in poetry. Right now that's my cut-off age, at the moment, that might change.
You know, you come back years later, and you realize that your past catches up with you. A teacher from one of the poets in the schools programs I was in when I was teaching in Richmond came and gave me this wonderful reminder of my used-to-be, teaching a class, a photo of me back in my thirties, trim and alert, trying to actually teach poetry to the student workshop, and you can't see it, but there's this kid in one of the photos, he's leaning back in the chair, he's got his arms like this, and his mouth is open, so I must be making a really good point. So this seems appropriate.
This is actually the true story of the first time I actually encountered poetry in any way, shape, or form.
["Poetry," from untitled, unpublished memoir.]
I'm going to read a couple of newer poems. As people know, I live in New York City now, and of course we just went through the events of September 11, and it's been sort of interesting to respond to that. It’s also been interesting because I've also had a lot of different friends and close colleagues die as well—separate from the events of September 11, so there's been coming out of me a lot of elegy poems. I want to read a few of those.
["Hardheaded Weather," by Cornelius Eady, published 2003 by Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts.]
["Grief Bird," by Cornelius Eady, published 2003 by Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts.]
Actually one that's not a grief poem. When I started Brutal Imagination, which I'm going to read some poems from later, there was a whole subtext I started to do where basically other fictional black iconic characters start to comment on the story of the Susan Smith case. And some of these characters and some of these things were inanimate objects, and this is one of those poems with an inanimate object.
["Harriet Tubman's Rock," by Cornelius Eady, published 2003 by Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts.]
I'm going to read a couple of poems from The Gathering of my Name. One of the other things that I think is interesting about history is that . . . this poem, which I am about to read, which is called "The Supremes," which is really about upward mobility and the reason why people saw it as an escape route out of the ghetto. I read this poem at a reading in New York like two years ago, and I was approached by two grad students from the University of Alabama—for some reason they had come up to New York and decided to catch my reading because I’d been at the University of Alabama 1991-92 as writer-in-residence, and they came up to me with all sorts of questions about "The Supremes" because since I'd left they'd been teaching the poem. I'l read the poem and tell you how the story goes.
["The Supremes," by Cornelius Eady, from The Gathering of my Name, published 1998 by Carnegie Mellon University Press.]
So of course it's about my confused sexuality. This is how they're teaching the poem at the University of Alabama . . . wigs, lipstick, sequins. Welcome to the postmodern world, friends. Upward mobility? Yeah, yeah.
This is the title poem from Victims of the Latest Dance Craze. I'm going to read some poems from here, which I haven’t done for a while, but I'm going to read this for a number of reasons, one because it's one of my favorite books, but also because the poems were born here at Sweetbriar. I wrote them in Virginia, at Sweetbriar. This is a totally Virginia book.
["Victims of the Latest Dance Craze," "April," "Johnny Laces up his Red Shoes," "November," "Jazz Dancer," and "Crows in a Strong Wind," by Cornelius Eady, from Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, published 1997 by Carnegie Mellon University Press.)
This is a couple of jazz poems. This is about Thelonious Monk, my favorite pianist, one of my favorite jazz pianists, and I read this poem once—an earlier draft of it—at an upstate New York prison.
In the original draft, the line I am about to read was "the motion frozen in these skyscrapers that can't be sung," and the reason I put "skyscrapers" in is because I was trying to make this connection between Thelonious's music and modern architecture. After my reading, this convict took me aside, and he wanted to explain something to me, and of course you want to always pay attention to a convict who's trying to tell you something in a prison, and he said, "You know man, you know about Thelonious Monk, don't you?" And then you're in that awkward situation because you're black, and you’ve written about jazz, suddenly you're an expert, right? But osmosis, you really know all about jazz—you have that dilemma that basically you pretend that you really what he's about to say to you, and he said, "Well, you know, I grew up in Thelonious’s neighborhood, man, and Thelonious would be walking down the street, and he'd go over to a lamppost, and he’d put his ear against the lamppost, and then he’d listen to the hum, and then he’d go home and he’d try to play the hum." When you’ve been writing about jazz long enough, you start to realize at a certain point that true stories don’t matter, right? That it really doesn't matter whether that's a true story or not because it might as well be a true story, so out of respect to that convict, I changed the line, I changed the word in my next draft:
["Thelonious Monk," by Cornelius Eady, from The Gathering of my Name, published 1998 by Carnegie Mellon University Press.]
This is about Hank Mobley, who was a tenor saxophonist, who was, unfortunately, around the same era that John Coltrane was, so unfortunately, when he died he was considered the poor man's John Coltrane, which was totally unfair, and too bad. This is a Richmond poem. I actually found out about Hank’s death in a used record store in Richmond. I just was browsing one day when I picked up this album, and there was this guy—and I finally got the news that he had died a few years before the album came out, and he didn't die well: he got very ill and had to sell his horns, and died.
["Hank Mobley," "Why Was I Born: A Duet between John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell," and "Photo of Miles Davis at Lennies-on-the-Turnpike, 1968," by Cornelius Eady, from the autobiography of a jukebox, published 1997 by Carnegie Mellon University Press.]
This is a story that's based on a song. I'm using the title of the song to sort of frame it. But it's really about me asking my mother one day, "How did you and Daddy meet?" And my mother is what you would call an unreliable narrator. So I asked her this question, and she told me this story, and like a good son and a good poet, I seized the opportunity, and I ran right home and wrote this poem. And then I asked her again a few months later, and she told me a totally different story. But as the joke says, this is the story I'm sticking with—it's my story, and I'm sticking with it.
["I'm a Fool to Love You," by Cornelius Eady, from the autobiography of a jukebox, published 1997 by Carnegie Mellon University Press.]
I'm going to finish with some poems from Brutal Imagination, and the premise is that it's from the point of view of the imaginary black man that Susan Smith blamed for kidnapping her two children when in fact she had strapped her babies into the back of their family car and pushed the car into John D. Long Lake and let them drown. It took nine days for the authorities to break her story—the FBI and the sheriff to break her story—and so the premise is that for those nine days, that man is alive and walking among us, and it's a big what if: what if he could talk? what if he had the ability to speak, what would he have told us? So the speaker is the guy.
["How I Got Born," "My Heart," and "Who Am I?" by Cornelius Eady, from Brutal Imagination, published 2001 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.]
Once the description of the guy was sent out on the AP wire, people started calling in reports of seeing him and seeing the car and seeing the kids all over the country.
["Sightings" and "The Law," by Cornelius Eady, from Brutal Imagination, published 2001 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.]
Then we go to that section I was talking about where fictional iconic black characters come in and decide to comment on the story. I'm going to read one of these.
["Uncle Tom in Heaven," "What I'm Made Of: Back to the Garden," "Next of Kin," "Sympathy," and "Confession," by Cornelius Eady, from Brutal Imagination, published 2001 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.]
This is the last poem. It's a duet. The first thing you're going to hear is lines that were taken from Susan Smith's actual handwritten confession, and the response is the imaginary black guy.
["Birthing," by Cornelius Eady, from Brutal Imagination, published 2001 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.]