to tell you
an old story.
Appears to be
– Cornelius Eady, "Gratitude"
COLUMBIA – As the poet emerged from the back of the room, heads turned to see the man whom a colleague had just introduced as “a great artist and genius.” Walking slightly hunched, Cornelius Eady moved slowly toward the microphone past students, colleagues and guests.
Squinting through black-frame glasses, he fiddled with the microphone to adjust it for his height of just more than 6 feet. Eventually, with a laugh, he gave up and let someone from the audience do it for him.
After just a few words of thanks and introduction, Eady began to read a personal essay called simply, "Poetry," from his new book, which is still untitled. It's about his first brush with poetry and the poem that resulted from the agony of a fourth-grade school assignment:
I'm in a mess,
And I need you,
I must confess ...
"Good, says Mrs. Edwards when she reads it. Where does it go? Into some young girl's hand who couldn't care less, and I don't remember. And somehow, somewhere deep in my wanna be a soldier-fireman-doctor head."
Eady, 58, is a poet, playwright and teacher. He was hired by Missouri’s English department in the fall as the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing.
He is a bit of a rarity these days: a tenured professor with no terminal degrees, though he has taken college courses over the years. Tenured first at Stony Brook University, then at Notre Dame and now at MU, Eady has published eight books of poetry, among them a National Book Award finalist, “Brutal Imagination” (2001), and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, “The Gathering of My Name” (1991). He also won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1985 for “Victims of the Latest Dance Craze.”
A world of words
He arrived in Columbia in August but commutes almost every week to and from New York where he has an apartment with his wife, Sarah Micklem, a novelist and graphic designer. When he's in town, Eady shares a two-story home in the west side of Columbia with his mother-in-law, Carolyn Micklem.
The bottom floor of their house still feels a bit empty, like the moving-in isn’t quite complete. But there's art on the walls, including a painting that depicts poetic spirits. Scrawled on the bottom of the painting is a dedication: “For Cornelius.” Library books are stacked on the living room table.
Amidst traveling and obligations, Eady invites his students over to his house to talk about their lives and world events. These are like family gatherings: arms are waved to get a point across over the dinner table; voices are raised in friendly discussion.
But after the green beans, chicken and potatoes are eaten, and Eady’s glass of wine is empty, the chatter dies down. Eady’s mother-in-law breaks the drowsy silence with a question, “Who is showing and telling?”
It’s time for students to share their work: poems, songs, and videos.
Jessica Brown, a student in Eady’s African American literature class, reads an untitled poem. Alex Holloway-Melise, another student, plays a song, “She’s So Fine,” that he recorded on his laptop recently. Malik Saaka, a friend of Brown’s who isn’t in any of Eady’s classes, shows a video he’s editing and passes around his latest sketches. Kiara Lanier, another student in Eady’s class, shows a video of her singing in the show and award ceremony, “Black Girls Rock.”
Eady responds to each with a simple, “Wow,” remembering later, “Malik’s designs were fabulous. I’m always impressed when I see somebody young doing something that talented.”
For Eady, the time spent with students takes him back to the time he spent living with one of his mentors, Shreela Ray. He and his wife moved into Ray’s house in the late 1970s when Eady attended Empire State College in New York.
“(Shreela) had a great impact on the way I look at what you should be doing with your students,” Eady said. “You go for a sense of community — like-minded people sitting around being really passionate about the things they really care about."
One of Eady’s passions is Cave Canem, which he co-founded in 1996 to promote African-American poetry and literature. The organization is based in New York, and Eady continues to attend meetings and host events there. Being given the freedom to bring Cave Canem to MU’ helped Eady decide to take the endowed chair position, he said. For the English department, it was part of what made Eady an attractive candidate.
“(Eady was) hired for accomplishments as a poet," said Patricia Okker, chair of MU’s English department. "His expertise in African-American poetry, which is an area the department wanted to build up, was an additional factor."
Eady's work with Cave Canem was especially impressive, she said.
“While Professor Eady's profile is unusual, so, too, are his accomplishments," she said via e-mail. "And it was on the basis of his extraordinary accomplishments that we offered him a position.”
Aliki Barnstone, a fellow poet in the English department, said she thinks Eady could help MU attract more diverse students, especially in light of recent racial incidents on campus that don’t reflect Columbia’s community at large.
“I think that if you’ve had someone like Cornelius, who’s made it his mission in life to create a safe haven for African-American writers, that we’ll have more effective recruiting,” Barnstone said.
A life’s work
Eady was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., across the river from Rochester University. He has a younger brother, Roosevelt, and an older sister, Gloria. His father worked in construction and in the sewer and water works departments for the city. His mother stayed at home, holding smaller jobs on and off.
It wasn’t until his high school homeroom teacher saw the potential in his work that he began writing in earnest. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 prompted Eady to write a poem that was published in his high school’s literary magazine.
“I had written something that the other students had felt but couldn't put into words,” he recalled.
After graduation, Eady worked odd jobs including as a census-taker during the 1980 Census, flipping burgers at a fast-food joint and at a foundry. For one day.
The Poets in Schools program put Eady in elementary and high school classrooms during the 1970s and '80s. But it wasn’t until his first book, “Kartunes,” was published in 1980 that Eady thought of poetry as a career.
“It wasn’t until I got around to that first book that I started realizing that maybe I could do this; maybe this is something I can do for the rest of my life,” Eady said.
He took a job teaching at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and applied for the master's of fine arts program at Warren Wilson College. Then something extraordinary happened: He won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Lamont Poetry Prize in the same year. He decided not to finish the MFA program.
“A new door opened up, and I was eager to go through it,” Eady said. “Applying for jobs wasn’t difficult. At that moment, it wasn’t necessary to have a degree in hand.”
His teaching career has spanned more than three decades with stints at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, American University, Notre Dame, Sweet Briar College and others, as well as at elementary and high schools in Rochester.
His students seem excited to have him at MU. Kiara Lanier, a student in Eady’s African-American Literature class, knew about his work with Cave Canem before he arrived. “I was waiting for him to get here,” Lanier said.
Hired jointly by MU’s Theatre and English departments, Eady will teach classes in both departments, including a workshop-style playwriting class in the fall.
Playwriting has been a passion of his since he quit his job at Stony Brook to produce the opera, "Running Man," which was nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
"I'm a playwright; I'm in the theater," Eady said. "And I want to exercise that part of my imagination as well. I've been ensured that that's a possibility here."
For all of his accomplishments Eady was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Rochester in 2010, the same university he remembers snubbing local poets in his youth. "When I was growing up, there definitely was a wall," he said. "And local poets need not apply, and we resented that."
As he stood on the podium during the ceremony to accept the degree, Eady looked down the lawn and across the river at his old neighborhood. Then, he began to read his poem, "Gratitude."
"It's about survival. It's about the African American voice. It's about my time in Rochester in various ways ...," he said. "And I was really sort of touched by the journey. I had crossed the river in a sense. And it really was an amazing moment."
And to the bullies who need
the musty air of
All to themselves:
I am a brick in a house
that is being built
around your house.
I'm 36 years old,
a black, American poet.