Cornelius Eady begins this lecture by reading an excerpt from his memoir “about the period of my life before I actually even considered I might be a poet, which is probably from about 5 or 6 years old until I became about 12 or 13.” The passage describes his first poetry lesson at school, specifically how dreadful the very idea of poetry was for him at that age. He then reads a number of poems about his youth: one, “The Woman,” describes his adolescent disdain for his father; another, “Rituals,” describes the burial of his childhood pet; another, “Sanctified,” describes the shock he felt as a child when first taken to his mother’s “Black church.” Each poem is a vignette of a different rite of passage, drawing the profound moment out the quotidian details of a modern childhood. Eady closes with poems from Running Man and Brutal Imagination, two poetry cycles that confront the issues of race in America. The Running Man cycle was adapted for the theater by Eady and Diedre Murry, and Eady also touches on the process of writing for the theater.
“Today we learn about poetry…The word just has that sound about it—like vegetables—that makes us want to shove our hands in our pockets and pout. It’s a grown up word, a suck-the-fun-from-the-room word—like behave. Every kid whines as if the lips of a dreaded aunt were upon them.”
“Both churches have an organ, but while the white church whispers, the black church growls. It pulls well-dressed women up into a sweat and men in mohair to lose their jackets and silk ties…The church rocks with a noise we have never heard before. Why are they acting like this? Something in their dancing makes us worry if this is something that we should be seeing, if someone is going to break in and catch us. This JESUS! they scream for is not the one our mother has been sending us away to visit.”
“One day my mother pointed up at the sky. I saw a sparrow being snatched up by a hawk. ‘Someday,’ she said, ‘you’re going to grow up to be just like him.’ She was speaking of the hawk, but I was thinking about the sparrow.”
Cornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry, including Hardheaded Weather (Putnam 2008). His second book, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1985. In 2001, Brutal Imagination was a finalist for the National Book Award. His work in theater includes the libretto for an opera, “Running Man,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. His play “Brutal Imagination” won Newsday’s Oppenheimer award in 2002.
In 1996 Eady co-founded the Cave Canem summer workshop/retreat for African American poets with writer Toi Derricotte. More than a decade later, Cave Canem is a thriving national network of black poets, as well as an institution offering regional workshops, readings, a first book prize, and the summer retreat. Eady has been a teacher for more than 20 years and is now a professor at Notre Dame University.