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Cornelius Eady knew it was time to get out. For a year the poet had been pursuing a master’s degree in poetry at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, a small, low-residency school snuggled into the slumbering mountains of Asheville, N.C. Everything seemed OK at first. Eady considered himself “part of the gang.” He was well received by his peers, and his instructors seemed pretty high on him. Then something happened that let Eady know that he was in a gang all by himself.
In 1985, Eady’s second book of poetry, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, won the prestigious Lamont Prize. This should have been the highlight of Eady’s career to that point, and maybe it was, but it was immediately stained by the icy reception the poet received from his presumably jealous peers and instructors.
“It was because I was young. It was because I didn’t come up through the system the way you’re supposed to,” Eady says. “There is this idea nowadays,” he laments, “that you’re supposed to go through the channels. You start off going through MFA programs, someone vouches for you, that person gets you into the various magazines, you build up a portfolio, you get your book done, then you get [the prestigious awards]. What I did was I simply went, VOOM! My publisher threw in the manuscript with all the other manuscripts and the judges said, ‘That one.’”
Youth and evasion of the “proper” channels certainly contributed to Eady’s problems, but there was also something else, something that dispels the notion that liberal poets somehow exist outside of American realities. “I was the first black male to win the Lamont Prize,” Eady says. “The only one, actually, because they changed the name of the prize.”
He runs down the list of poets of color who have since won the prize, and jokes that the name was changed because people thought too many nonwhite poets were winning. Imitating the stereotypical elitist poet, Eady snorts, “Ai, Garret Hongo, Cornelius Eady. Ummm…let’s name it something else.” Eady knows that much of the hoopla boiled down to good old American racism: “They weren’t ready for that yet….By admitting that we exist, that was just too much for them to handle back in ’85.”
Eady is not the person you’d expect to be raising hell about the academy. Usually that job is held down by some bearded burly dude or big-mouthed, head-wrapped honey who dismisses most poetry as some elitist bullshit. D.C. is filled with kids like that. Many of them are open-mike specialists who think they’re Amiri Baraka or Sonia Sanchez. But a good many are legitimate poets, streetwise and somewhat rebellious, but capable of sewing together images that would make any MFA instructor piss in his pants.
At any rate, Eady doesn’t fit either image. A soft-spoken man of medium height, he’s the classic poet, exuding tenderness and sensitivity. He has come to Washington under the auspices of the Jenny McKean Moore Fund, which brings writers to George Washington University to conduct free creative writing workshops. Eady is also pretty firmly entrenched in the academy, with a tenured teaching job in the English department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Not exactly Che Guevara.
But maybe his dreadlocks would be the first clue that this guy isn’t the everyday tortured, “I just happen to be black, and if I could help it I’d be something else” type of black writer. Or if you’ve read his work maybe that would cue you in. In “Jack Johnson Does the Eagle Rock,” Eady insinuates that the Titanic’s sinking was some sort of justice for the crew’s denying Jack Johnson passage.
“It’s all political,” Eady notes. “Writing’s political, whether people like to admit it or not. Language is political.” Even before his conflict at Warren Wilson, this was something Eady knew. In 1976, Eady enrolled at Empire State College, majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. His main poetry adviser was the Indian poet Shreela Ray, who helped him understand the “political ramifications” of literature. “Being somebody who comes from another culture, you get this sense of…cultural imperialism. And you saw that dichotomy in Shreela, and this was not that dissimilar to being a black writer in this culture.”
The older poet helped shape Eady and his work, since she was the first (and one of the few, ever) poet of color he has had the opportunity to study with. But at the same time another experience was shaping Eady. He was attending a private workshop, similar to the one he now runs at GW. There, he was exposed to what is both the bane and the bread and butter of all writers: critique.
No writer is above it. Indeed, most good ones seek it out. But it is never a particularly pleasant experience. “I was really nervous,” says Eady. But the compliments he customarily received from friends had become gratuitous to him. “I really wanted to know….For me there came a point when it wasn’t enough to get feedback from my friends….They’re gonna be nice to you, because you’re friends. And though you really appreciate that, you wanna know, at a certain point, is this any damn good?…I was scared but I also wanted to know.”
Eady takes much of what he learned in that workshop into his workshop at GW. “I try to remember when I’m doing my own workshops…[that] you’re really exposing yourself. When you bring a poem to a workshop you’re saying, ‘This is me naked. This is what I think, this is what I feel, this is what I really think.’” So Eady tries to temper his criticisms, not always wielding a heavy hand when dealing with his participants.
Asked about his current group, Eady laughs and notes that his community class is filled with experienced poets. “I’ve been stunned by the quality of writers here. That workshop I have with the adults, it’s, like, ‘My God, I’ve got a workshop full of ringers here.’ They’re all killer poets.”
Impressed as Eady is with D.C., it is simply impossible not to be impressed by him. At 42, he has already bagged a Pulitzer nomination. Despite the fact that at times the academy seems to be unwilling to give him his props (Neither Victims of the Latest Dance Craze nor his newest book, The Gathering of My Name, was reviewed by any of the major poetry journals), he’s still on the upswing.
And despite Eady’s accomplishments he never shies away from controversy. “One of things I learned [about Victims],” he muses, “was that it was a political book. All of it’s political….Even though the poems are about dance….I didn’t realize that making those choices were political choices. I thought it was just writing. This is the language I grew up with. What’s so big about that? But it was a big deal.”
When you move among conservative academics who see the slightest affirmation of black culture as political, the challenge is to have the fortitude to stare down the conformist critics. Cornelius Eady ain’t blinking. CP