Cornelius Eady at the Brockport Writers Forum

Cornelius Eady at the Brockport Writers Forum

Stand by… “Miss Johnson Dances for the First Time.”
When Ophelia met the water it was a gentle tumble of a dance, a mixed
marriage of a dance. The swans were confused. She was a contradiction in
terms. She was, simply put, a beautiful death. Not
so with Miss Johnson, a wheat field of a girl, who held her breath as she cast
herself on the dance floor in a metallic blue dress at the Grange Hall
on Saturday night, holding on to a skinny mechanic who knew
two steps that could be shown in public. It was like being pushed off the raft by
her father: the awful moment when the body believes in nothing. How ridiculous
her body looked. How her brothers loved to remind her: a wharf rat. A drowned cow.
When Amelia Earhart met the water, assuming, of course, that she met the
water, did the sea mistake her for a bird or flying fish? In the awkward moment she
belonged neither to sea nor air, did she move like Miss Johnson moves now, bobbing like a buoy at high tide, gulping mouthfuls of air as her legs learn the
beat and push, and her blue dress catches the mechanic’s pant leg like an undertow? My wife taught me–was the first person that actually got me to learn how to
dance, and I remember that awkwardness about being out there. The way she
finally got me over that hump was to remind me that you
have to forget that you look like a fool. Once you do that, everything else is easy. I like to think that I’m a reasonably
good dancer, you know. I think I can reasonably cut a rug. And I just like
having fun with it. I really just personally just enjoy dancing with my
wife you know? We really have a lot of fun. A lot of our relationship was built
around dancing, I think, and you know, that joy in it I think is infused in the
book. So I’m also a musician as well. And I think a lot of that that seeps in. –What’s
your instrument? –Guitar. That’s what I play now. I was formally trained on drums.
On percussion. When I was in high school, at John Marshall High School, there was–I basically wrote four poems for the high school
literary magazine and gave it to my homeroom teacher, who was the editor,
you know, of the high school literary magazine–was also the
radical, you know, person in the school–the
only radical person in the school at the time. This is the sixties
we’re talking about. And she printed all four of them. You know? And that basically got the start. I mean, what happened was that people really liked the poems and
they came back to me and gave me feedback and said that they really liked the
poem, and that’s when I started to become more and more interested
in poetry. Up until that point I would spend a lot of time at the library.
I was always spending time at the library, reading, but I’d be reading things like the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example. I was really big on that. I was
really big on books on space for example. I thought Telstar was just the
most wonderful thing in the world and, you know, nuclear submarines were just
really fantastic, you know–how could they do that? You know, shoot a missile off from
the water. It wasn’t–well, I was really fascinated by that, but once I started
getting–once I started to get this feedback about writing, I decided–I
switched departments in the library from
the youth section to the literature department and I started reading poetry.
I just wanted to find out what it was about. And just naturally
started reading anything I could get my hands on. When I was in elementary school
I was forced to write a poem in the third grade and I really hated that. But probably the reason I really hated it was because I had wrote exactly what I thought a poem was supposed to be. It was
something that rhymes, it was something that that was very boring and everything. But suddenly here was Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and there was this angry, you know, incredible voice–“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, drinking”–there was this all this energy expanding through the
poem and it was something I’d never encountered before. It excited me. It made
me really . . . I wanted to do that. I don’t know what he was doing but I wanted to
do that. And so I ended up–so I wound up trying to emulate that style. I mean
I would . . . write long lines and I heard that it was stream-of-consciousness so I started trying to write things in stream-of-consciousness, and I’d go to–you know, the park right outside of Xerox Tower, here in
Rochester, and, you know, when the weather is nice the executives come
down, you know? And sit in the park and of course like I said this is the sixties and
I’m sitting around thinking, oh, the executives, they’re so–they’re so phony in their three-piece suits, and they’re so, you know, they can’t breathe! It was awful. It was drivel. Horrible drivel. But the thing was that I was–what I was getting from that
was that I was trying–what I was really trying to do was I was trying to infuse energy into my writing. I was trying to say,
how did he do that? You know? How do you– it’s very energetic, and how do you get–how do you capture that energy? So that started me off, but like I said,
that’s just one example, you know. I mean, I can tell you the same story about William Carlos Williams, I could tell you the same thing
about Baraka, I can tell you the same thing about, you know, reading Gwendolyn Brooks for the first time. I can tell you–it was always exactly
the same sort of thing. Suddenly I read somebody that really excited me, you know,
and that wrote really exciting things and really sort of expanded the
way I understood the world. –Tell me, when did you first, along the way, get a critic–somebody to read this stuff and maybe suggest things– –My first critic was
that radical high school teacher, you know? She was the first person that
really read my stuff and really read it lovingly and also read it with
a very critical eye. “Radio.” There is the woman who will not listen to music. There is the man who dreams of kissing the lips attached to the voice. There is the
singer who reinvents the world in musical notation. There is the young couple who
dance slowly on the sidewalk as if the rest of the street didn’t exist. There is
the school boy whose one possession is an electric box that scrambles the
neighborhood. There is the young girl who locks her bedroom door, and lip-synchs in
the mirror. There is the young beau who believes in the song so much, he hears
them even when he isn’t kissing someone. There is the mother who absentmindedly
sways to the beat, but fears the implications for her daughter. There is
the man who carries one in his breast pocket and pretends it’s a Luger. There
are the two young punks who lug one into our car on the stalled D train, who, as we
tense for the assault, tune in a classical music station as if this were Saturday
night on another world. The ideal audience I guess would
probably be the person who doesn’t think they like poetry, you know? I’d like them to
pick up on the energy, I’d like them to pick up on the music, I’d like them to pick up the pick up on the rhythms . . . I think that though it’s not really essential to enjoying the poems, I think in some ways it’s–you have
be aware of fact that a lot of it is . . . a lot of it comes from a Black experience
and a Black background, and there are different ways, and there’s different–
maybe–in some ways, that there are different sorts of Black
poetry. You know? There’s . . . there’s a whole lot of us writing a
whole lot of different ways. What audiences tell me is that they really enjoy it. They love–they enjoy the fact that it isn’t as–on the face of it–isn’t as deadly earnest as they expect it to be. A good example, a good
anecdote for that, is when I first met my publisher for “Kartunes.” It was at the
end of a long, long open reading in in a bar in New York. In the old
days I had dreadlocks, really long, long dreadlocks and I came up to read the book, for my turn– she was about to leave. I mean, we’re
talking, this open reading went on, like, for hours, and everyone was just shell-shocked. And she took a look at me as she was walking out the door and
she thought, this guy, obviously, is a religious fanatic,
you know? It’s gonna be all bombast, and all gonna be, you know,
pedantic, and, you know– But what she heard was
totally different. And she stopped and came back and listened. You know? And
then we talked later on and turns out that she was a publisher.
But that was like– She was expecting one thing and got
something else. I had just moved from Rochester, I was living in living in
Princeton, I was working in Princeton in the library as a shelver, and
coming to New York during the weekends. And it was I think a lot–that insane sort of kinetic, electric energy about being in that place. –You might read
that one poem from “Kartunes” that we talked about. The last
poem in the book. –“Exile Reading the Sunday Funnies.” This is the way to live,
ignoring everything else in the paper but the funnies. These things make sense. I renounce the world. I will lie in bed until everyone agrees to become more
cartoon-like. I long to see victims collect themselves after the letter-bomb
explodes explodes with a red flag that says laugh. No body gets hurt but
everybody gets it, that’s my motto. Yes, I am Don Quixote’s cream pie, Gandhi
slipping on a banana peel the five hundred horsemen
riding into the valley of death on the backs of hogs. There is nothing nobler than laughing when nothing is funny anymore. I will lie
here until somebody laughs. One of the things that strikes me about about the book–both books–and the latest stuff I’ve been writing, is almost a stubborn sense
of optimism in the books. I was really surprised about that. I don’t really consider
myself much of an optimist. I consider myself a real skeptic in a
lot of ways. And when I was reading– last night I was rereading some of the
some of the poems in the book and, you know, thinking about what I was going to
be doing next Friday, for my next reading and suddenly it occurred to me
that there’s just this–no, there’s this real stubborn optimistic streak that runs through the
poems. You just can’t rub it out. Even though some of the some of the poems are just incredibly hard. I mean some of the poems in “Kartunes” are just very–there’s blood, you know, there’s accidents– there’s, you know. . . . There’s that stubborn
streak there that’s that person that doesn’t want to give up, in some way. And
I guess maybe in some ways that’s what– maybe that’s exactly
what I’m after for an audience, to go back to that question. Maybe that’s, to me, that’s exactly what I’m trying to to portray, or try to give
to an audience, the idea of that indomitable thing you can’t really crush out, which I
think is, a lot of ways, the essence of poetry. That thing you can’t crush out. I mean, for proof of that, you can think about all the political poets,
you know, in whatever country, you know– Latin America, and, you know, the Soviet
Union–wherever you want to go–that don’t–that can’t–governments have been trying for centuries to rub people out, you know, to
rub those sort of things out. But it’s very, very
resilient. I think in some ways I was shaped by a lot of the poems in
the Black movement. I mean reading reading stuff like–June Jordan, for
example. June Jordan took the top of my head off I when I read her
stuff. Her collected poems, for example. “Things I Do in the Dark.” You know?
Suddenly there was this wonderful black woman doing these
incredibly strong political but
humane poems. There was humanity in her work that really drew me to her work. It was like, yes! Of course! You know? A person that says, you know, listen.
I notice these things. You know? I want to tell you about these things. And also you’re not gonna get away with these things. Because I’m
watching. You know? And that sense of it. I think in some ways people
like her, people like Baraka who, you know, took a lot of heat for being who he was,
and the stance that he’s taken I think that helps shape–that can’t help but influence the way I turned out. –Do you think
your poems are political in any sense? –I think poetry is political, period. I
mean, but that’s– –Say something about that. –You know. Well. I mean, to expand upon it is sort of redundant. I really think that it’s–I mean–people have their opinions on what they think poetry is and poetry isn’t.
My opinion is simply–I think writing poetry is political act, whether you want
it to be a political act or not, you know? I think there’s a lot of
people who foolishly believe that what they do is in some
ways just a profession or some ways, not a profession but sort of an acceptable byproduct of the way things are and
they’re mistaking themselves. It’s like it’s like . . . you lose the perspective of what the artist is in society and the sort of
distance that you sort of have, you know. I mean there will always be people in
certain positions that will always look upon writers, no matter what their
political affiliation is, with suspicion. You know. Simply because there’s always that dangerous edge of saying, you know–even
by accident–the wrong thing! I simply believe that poetry does have to
have some sort of connection to the outside world to be essential. “Jazz Dancer.” I have a theory about motion. I have a theory about the air. I have a theory about main arteries and bass lines. I have a theory about Friday night, just a
theory, mind you, about a dry mouth and certain kinds of thirst and a once-a-month bulge of money in a working pair of pants. I have a theory about kisses,
the way a woman draws a man across a dance floor like a
ship approaching a new world. I have a theory about space and what’s between
the space, and an idea about words, a theory about balance and the alphabet, a
theory concerning electricity and the tendons, a hunch about long glances from
across a ballroom, even though there’s a man on her arm,
even though there’s a woman on his arm, and Fire and the Ocean, Stars and
Earthquakes, explosions as sharp as new clothes off the rack. When I leap, brushes
strike the lip of a cymbal, when I leap, a note cuts through glass. When I leap, a
thick finger dreams on a bass string and all that sweat, all that spittle, all
those cigarettes and cheap liquor, all that light-hearted sass and volcanism,
all that volatile lipstick, all that cleaves the air the way a man and
woman sweet-talk in a bed. When I leap, I briefly see the world as it is and as
it should be and the street where I grew up, the saxophones, kisses and mysteries
among the houses and my sister, dressing in front of her mirror, a secret weapon
of sound and motion, a missionary in the war against the obvious.

Danny Hutson

1 thought on “Cornelius Eady at the Brockport Writers Forum

  1. Thank you for posting these videos. I had not heard of this poet but he is very interesting to listen to so I'm grateful for the introduction. 🙂

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