Cornelius Eady, Poetry of Compassion and Truth

Cornelius Eady at St ClementsCornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry, including Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems (Putnam, April 2008). His second book, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1985. The Gathering of My Name  was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Brutal Imagination was a 2001 finalist for the National Book Award.

His theater work includes the play, “Brutal Imagination,” based on the Susan Smith story of her children being kidnapped by an African-American man. He collaborated with Diedre Murray on the libretto for the opera, “Running Man,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1999.

In 1996 he co-founded Cave Canem with Toi Derricotte, a summer workshop/retreat for African American poets. He has taught at the University of Missouri and SUNY Stonybrook, Southampton, New York.

I first met Cornelius at a reading of Home Planet News in 1980. In the audience, willowy Patricia Fillingham, a poet from suburban New Jersey, had found a home away from home on the New York poetry scene. With her Warthog Press, she published Breathe: An Anti-Smoking Anthology of poems, cartoons and songs, edited by Shel Horowitz, and Kartunes, a collection of poems by Cornelius Eady. I believe Kartunes was Cornelius’ first published book of poetry.

That fall, poets and actors performing poetry caravanned through the Poetry Festival. Cornelius Eady and Shelley Messing taped some of these events, as part of their work making audiotapes of poets for WBAI around the city. Always amiable, Cornelius was generous with his time and helped promote other poets.

Nocerino&EadyFlyer

Cornelius Eady and another poet, Kathryn Nocerino, appeared together at the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, NYC, several times between 1979 and 1983. One reading was on December 21, 1981. At one of these readings, in the large sanctuary and theater space upstairs in the church, I photographed Cornelius with his portable microphone. Tall and thin, he swayed like bamboo while he read. His poetry is compassionate with an edge that cuts into and through veils of ignorance. He fuses music with language about race, social issues, family, and love.

You can read more about him along with some of his poems at the Poetry Foundation.

 

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Rochelle Ratner: A Living Narrative

TellingsThis is the first in a series of posts on Writers and Poets who were active in New York City in the late 1970s through the 1980s. One of these was Rochelle Ratner. She herself wondered whether her work was poetry or prose poetry, but whatever the category, it spoke to many people. Her long poem, “Tellings,” directed by Richard Spiegel, and performed by Barbara Fisher, was presented by the New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, on Monday, April 6, 1979.

Rochelle Ratner, born in 1949 in Atlantic City, NJ, authored seventeen books, including Practicing to Be A Woman: New and Selected Poems (Scarecrow Press, 1982),  Someday Songs (BkMk Press, 1992), and Balancing Acts (Marsh Hawk Press). A novelist as well as a poet, Coffee House Press published two novels: Bobby’s Girl (1986) and The Lion’s Share (1991). 

She edited an anthology, Bearing Life: Women’s Writings on Childlessness, published in January 2000 by The Feminist Press. Her poetry and criticism appeared widely in literary journals, including Library Journal, Nation, Poetry Review, and Shenandoah.

Over the decades she contributed to literature, serving as an editor for a number of periodicals, including more than twenty-five years as Executive Editor or Associate Editor of American Book Review. Rochelle Ratner died after battling cancer on March 31, 2008.

Review of Someday Songs

“Personal and religious encounters provide the raw material for Ratner’s 13th collection of poetry. And the poems, which evoke Jewish ritual and communal life, are remarkable for their simplicity, clarity and depth of feeling. They are not so much “about” religious experience as they are moments of it …. The poems are declared imitations, representations, and as such gain their power from their exactness of observation and from the poet’s use of language as a mimetic tool.” – Publishers Weekly

Tellings, Rochelle Ratner, an excerpt

The voice is familiar
Power transferred to the brain
And then the heart
Or is the heart first?

Two weeks ago
mother asked what she’d taught me.
Hands twisting in her lap.
Sure she’d given nothing.

These are all her stories,
chants before bed
to make the shadows vanish
or on rainy days
to remember sun by.

I knew her childhood
better than my own.
Easy to get lost there

so that, some twenty years later,
we come back, join hands,
turn the light down.

She searches for her mother,
I search for my mother.
Is she under the bed,
beneath the glass of a picture,
in hair which even now
hasn’t lost its color?

I’ll recognize her on sight.
She looks like both of us.
She comes in, sits by the door,
loosens the scarf from her neck,
turns to her good ear, inclines her head.

*

I will be doing a series of posts on Writers and Poets who were active in New York City in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Why, do you ask, is this of any importance? I’d answer that this era was a time of transformation, and that every era has its vitality, its moments of contribution and destruction, and its value to the universal flow of human endeavor.

For several years I assisted Richard Spiegel (poet and small press publisher) with the New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s on Manhattan’s midtown West Side. Many poets and writers came there as readers or to have their works performed by others.

Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.