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.

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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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Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen

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Book One is available on Scribd.com, free read and download

Talk about miles to go, miles of snow, a transfigured night and all in sight covered in a winding sheet of white.

Stopping by a snowy Ninth Avenue, face and hands wrapped against the wind, I contemplated the divide before me. Ice-crystals glittered in streetlights and snow fenced sidewalks. The city streets were deserted, and I was alone in the canyoned silence. On the avenue’s arctic slope, deep within the haunting sound of a muted city I could hear gypsy cabs snorting dragon-breath in the dark, and I would have stayed to watch fringes of icicles on fire escapes glow in the dying light.

Crossing Ninth Avenue, I heard the wolf howl in the wind. Into a cumbersome gap hacked in frozen snow I pioneered, and westward to find a narrow trail past four and five-story buildings. Bare choirs of trees fell silent, only ticking now and then in frozen despair, until a faint glow, just the slightest cinematic glimmer, fell on the crooked path. I leaned back, one hand on a rack of ice, to see a living painting: a red brick building with tall arched windows of earth and sky-colored glass. Indigo peaked gables and copper crosses with a patina of green sprang like a frieze from a breathing, luminous city-lights gray sky.

Double wooden plank doors painted in vertical stripes of chipped and tattered red, white and blue were shuttered against the cold and any vagrants or visitors who might venture in. Hiking up the steps, kicking footholds in rime-encrusted snow, I peered through wire netting at an empty stairway to heaven.

Tracking again through Technicolor traces from the lighted windows, I discovered a second set of steps and a brightly lit hallway.A royal blue and white plaque with a strident red cross sparked through a crust of frost: Welcome to St. Clement’s. 

A bare bulb in a metal cage hung above the steps. Up and down the street of tenements and brownstones, and on windowsills and steps festooned with snow, there was no other light.On the far side of a railing, steps led to a single recessed arch, and winding down and up again, I began knock-knocking-knocking on heaven’s door.

A small round bell bolted to the brick caught my eye. I heard the buzz resound and die.

Richard Spiegel, the director of the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, opened the door.“Mary?”

In his early thirties, Richard’s long, wavy chestnut hair and trimmed beard shone with a soft gleam of mahogany and substrata strands of red.I had borders to cross and my poetic license in the back pocket of my blue jeans. 

I stepped inside. “I promised I’d come one day.” My eyes pulsated with red and white light as I thawed from the glacial trek.

I was one of only three. We read wine-poetry and drank red wine in cups from St. Clement’s kitchen.