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Writer Cornelius Eady On Why Poems Matter

Illinois Wesleyan University

There were few books in Cornelius Eady's household when he was growing up in Rochester, New York.

"We barely had a radio," he recalled on GLT's Sound Ideas.

The local library was his sanctuary, a "serene, welcoming place that let you wander around. It was clean, quiet. There was no chaos about it."

Eady said he scoured the library's set of encyclopedias Britannica, reading about everything from nuclear energy to the habits of squirrels. Then some lyrics he had written were published in his high school literary magazine, "and people started calling me a poet ... I didn't know what that meant."

He would begin to figure it out soon enough through  what he calls "the incredible luck of encountering a really good mentor." That person was his English teacher, Joanna Mason, who also supervised the school literary magazine. She encouraged him to keep writing.

"I like to think if you scratch the surface of most poets, you will find that one person" who sets them on the path of poetry.

One of his early poems was about the assassination of Martin Luther King. "It was really just this awful poem ... 'And if this world is so great, why am I so second rate...' That was the end of the poem," he recalled.

Even after his teacher moved from Rochester to Nova Scotia, Eady would still send her packets of poems and she would return them with her responses.

Soon he was at the library looking up not only poets in the American canon, like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but devouring the beat poets of the 1950s, and those who appeared in journals like City Lights and New Directions that showcased the work of emerging writers.  

Eady recently spoke to writing students at Illinois Wesleyan University and gave a public reading. He has won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award.

Together with poet Toi Derricotte, he co-founded Cave Canem, a Brooklyn-based writing center that offers support and a writing space to African American poets.

Cave Canem championed the early work of several writers who have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, including poets Natasha Tretheway, Terrence Hayes and Tracy K. Smith, considered among the finest poets of the current generation.

"Cave Canem to me is still about the person who up until that point feels he or she is alone, and what they are thinking are just their thoughts. It is about that moment when they can walk into that room and write the poem they couldn't write anywhere else."

Personal experience forms the core of his work. He rejects the idea that there an 'African American style' of poetry. Each poet's voice is distinct, he said.

"Anything an African American writes is African American poetry," he said. "If you want to be experimental and African American, that is African American poetry. If you want to be a traditionalist, that is African American poetry. You get to define what that means in the parameters of your own life and art. No one else gets to name that."

Eady said the nation needs poetry now more than ever. 

"Being a poet is an important thing, it really is,  especially given the moment we are passing through politically. It is one of the most necessary things."

Referring to proposals by the Trump administration and some members of Congress to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Eady said, "The life of the imagination is really crucial and you see proof of that when you see how much energy is being expended to shut it down."

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