I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
On a beautiful day in October, Cornelius Eady and I sat in a Sixth Avenue diner to talk about writing, art, politics, theatrical collaboration, and yes, the events of September 11. I’ve known Eady since the early ’90s, but had heard his name and read his poetry even earlier. He has worked steadily to build a solid career for himself and to make a space for African-American poets beyond the rap and slam worlds. As director of the Poetry Center at SUNY/Stony Brook, coleader of Cave Canem, the African-American writers’ retreat, and commentator and essayist, Eady has made a way for black poets where there was no way.
Among Eady’s seven volumes of poetry, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze won the 1985 Lamont Poetry Prize and introduced a young poet deeply committed to craft and to personal history—in particular, his mother’s courage and madness. You Don’t Miss Your Water, an extraordinary volume relating the death of Eady’s father and the complexities and difficulties of their relationship came ten years later. In 2001, Brutal Imagination took a different tack with poems that, while overtly critical of American racism, the media, and our culture, display a sharp satiric sensibility that was rare in his earlier work. The narrator only exists as “hand-me-downs / And a knit cap” in the imagination nation of Susan Smith—the white woman and murderess who culled the American psychic register for just that easy a description.
Over the past six years Eady has begun a parallel career in musical theater. In collaboration with the wonderful composer and cellist Deidre Murray, Eady fashions theatrical works based on ideas around family and culture. Running Man, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, presented a black antihero whose psychosexual shenanigans devastate his family. Brutal Imagination, which recently opened at the Vineyard Theatre, continues the artistic collaboration with Deidre Murray, but with a twist. While the music underscores and occasionally rises to chorus for the language on stage, it is a more conventional one-act play. Its hero, Joe Morton, the black man of Susan Smith’s imagination, explores the dangers and functions of American racism and the havoc it wreaks. Watching Morton become the specter that is a “knit cap” is to be reminded that black men of every shape, size and character can be viewed as criminals before they have a chance to pull out their wallets. In transforming Brutal Imagination from poetry to theater, Eady has grown into a powerful playwright. With that in mind, our discussion of poetry, theater, politics, racism and why we love New York felt like a moment of grace after the destruction of September 11.
Patricia Spears Jones Talk a little bit about yourself as a New Yorker and a poet. What has it been like for you?
Cornelius Eady Well, it’s totally different from being a poet in Rochester, New York, where I grew up. And it’s totally different from being a poet in Lynchburg, Virginia, where I spent two years as writer-in-residence at Sweet Briar College, and it’s different than being a poet in Princeton, New Jersey. I’ve lived in different places, but I’m always a poet regardless of where I am. One of the reasons I live in New York is because of how endless the possibilities seem for a writer. All these different places I’ve lived have been very regional, but being regional in New York is unlike being regional any place else in the country (except, perhaps, New Orleans). I don’t interact with every poetic cadre and faction here, but I know that they are out there. It’s a vibrant and vivid place for poetry and I like being a part of that, even if I’m not interacting directly. There’s a vitality here that you just don’t find anyplace else in the country.
PSJ The dialogue is a little more fluid.
CE It’s alive and it’s abundant and all around you, museums, the theater; it’s almost ridiculous, there’s too much of it. Basically, I live my writer’s life, which on some levels absorbs everything that happens. I mean, walking around is enough for me sometimes, you know? Just hanging out and listening to people talk. When I met you at the 14th Street train station by coincidence, I was just returning from my hairdresser, World of Beauty.
PSJ World of Beauty?
CE World of Beauty, on 23rd and Seventh Avenue, listening to Darrell, my hairdresser, and his friends talk to one another. Everyone’s black. Somebody comes in, obviously a drag queen, and I’m listening to the guys shoot the shit. It’s cool, there’s no us/them. It’s like, “Here’s the new Michael Jackson record,” and everyone stops and listens to it, and they have to assess it, and they either like it or they don’t like it. And my hair’s being done, and then somebody’s daughter comes in, back from school, and they’ll catch up. I just love that.
PSJ That level of community.
CE Yeah. But it also pleases me as a writer, those things fuel me. I go to museums and I go to plays, but it’s those other kinds of interactions that I really love, and I get those all the time in New York.
PSJ You’ve always struck me as a very public poet, but your work seems extremely private. Where do you get that balance?
CE Maybe what you’re seeing is a public poet trying to expose the private, what happens internally, and making that public for various reasons. I’m not on a crusade or anything, but one of the things that pushes me as a writer is to get some stories about African-American people out into the larger world. The older I get the more necessary it is to tell these stories.
PSJ And your work from the very beginning has been narrative.
CE Yeah, I love narrative.
PSJ The books of poetry contain very personal stories, from Victims of the Latest Dance Crazeup to Brutal Imagination. How did you do this 180-degree turn from that level of narration in your poetry to theater, and what brought you into theater?
CE I got approached by somebody who wanted me to do an opera with him, and some producers who liked my writing hooked me up with Deirdre Murray. I was doing a book, You Don’t Miss Your Water, poems about my dad. And the producers saw something about that story they thought could be staged, and convinced me that it could be staged. Once I got deeply to work with the piece, I was hooked. I realized how wonderful theater is. You can blow these stories up large. I didn’t see many African American stories out there, at that moment, ’95, ’96. There was some black theater but it was revues, which is fine—there are a lot of wonderful song and dance people out there, so I don’t mean to put that down—but thematic stories about sons and fathers and mothers and daughters, the internal workings of families, I wasn’t seeing a lot of that. I also liked the challenge: Can I actually transpose this story into theater? Is there something theatrical about this story that I’m not really paying attention to as a poet? That was intriguing to me. Realizing that story theatrically was the hook.
PSJ I’m thinking of the first one, You Don’t Miss Your Water, which was at Aaron Davis Hall. The workshop, which I preferred, was much more transgressive than the final production. Were you deeply involved with the structure of the piece itself?
CE Yes. Deeply involved. Deirdre did all the music for that first show, and the narrative part, the dialogue, was all mine. Deirdre and I were trying to figure out how to make this family work as a family, and I had to start writing dialogue for the first time in my life. I’d look at the scenes and we’d have some music going, and it was very seat-of-the-pants—we were just figuring it out as we went along. That’s the edge you were seeing there. That workshop wasn’t as edgy as the producers thought it was, to tell you the truth. One of whom was the wonderful Lynn Austin, who just died recently. Lynn was a great imp; she and Diane Wondisford, the other producer, threw us into the Aaron Davis Hall, left us alone and let us piece the story together. And then maybe two or three days before we were to open, Lynn and Diane reappeared. And Lynn takes a look at it, and says, “Oh, I can’t stand it, this is horrible … ” she goes on and on. And I realized later that this was part of her producer’s bag of tricks.
PSJ To scare the hell out of you?
CE Yeah, before that I was going along, thinking, “This is kind of nice, tra la la … ” We came out with a lot from that first workshop, and luckily Doug Aibel, the artist director of the Vineyard Theatre, thought so too. He saw the last performance, and maybe thought, “It’s kind of rough around the edges, but there’s something honest there.” So it had a second life at the Vineyard Theatre, a totally different show. I wasn’t particularly 100 percent happy with either version, but I liked the idea of tackling that subject matter, and I liked the idea of combining it with music.
PSJ How did you feel about the book of Running Man poems, which were meant to exist as a play? Especially seeing as there’s no CD of the poetry with the music, which was so inherent to the play.
CE At a certain point I had started to relax the tension in the line because they needed to be sung, so I began to write stuff down that would be easier to sing. Which might mean that they won’t hold up as well on the page, without music. But after I thought about it for awhile, I realized that the two sections of Brutal Imagination, the Susan Smith cycle, and the Running Man cycle do complement each other in an odd kind of way; they’re like cousins. They’re both about black guys, and perception, and identity. So, yeah, you can’t hear the Running Manscore when you read the poems, but I felt there’s enough of a connection between the two stories that they belong together. Also, it’s a different narrative than what you’d have if you actually saw Running Man. What you get is a hybrid version of the show, some of the best poems from both the workshop and the theatrical run, which makes for a slightly different plot.
PSJ Brutal Imagination focuses on racism, infanticide, violence, and popular images of black men from both sides of the race line. Why this particular story, and how did you choose which of those popular images to complement the character of Susan Smith?
CE You mean the second section, where you have Buckwheat, Uncle Tom, and Stagger Lee?
PSJ Yeah, I’ve been rereading Amiri Baraka, or as he was then known, LeRoi Jones, “A Poem for Willie Best,” which is an extraordinary examination of African American stereotypes, as well as his take on American cinema. So I was thinking about the precedents for what you’re doing, and Baraka’s choice of using Willie Best, as opposed to Steppin Fetchit, as opposed to somebody else.
CE The poems pushed their way in. I was writing about Susan Smith and the guy she created.
PSJ Susan Smith is the white woman in South Carolina who drowned her children, claiming that a black man had highjacked her car with the children inside and then killed them. All of a sudden he was sighted by everyone in the county. The sheriff finally figured it all out and said, “Susan, we know you’re lying.”
CE The poems in Brutal Imagination are about the dialogue between the imaginary guy she pulled out of her unconscious, and herself. It goes on for nine days, which is how long it took for her to break down. And the second section of the play has a chorus of imaginary, iconic African American males who come on stage and comment on her story. One way of explaining it is that I was writing the story out and suddenly Uncle Tom wanted to say something. I didn’t fully understand where it was going, but I usually trust the impulse and so I wrote the poem, and then some other poems came out of that. Now where that impulse was coming from, of course, was that that’s the pool of gunk Susan Smith is tapping into. That’s the stuff of which he’s made. The other way of looking at it is that those guys took a look at Susan’s guy, shook their heads and decided to take the rookie through initiation: “Hi, come over here. Welcome to our club. Sit down, brother. We’ll tell you what it’s like!” And also now it seems to have been there as a safety valve, letting the steam out of the seriousness of the first section, or as a way of changing the mood, because up to that point the poems are brutal. They’re tough poems. So part of me was looking for another way to approach it, another variation.
PSJ Luckily, Uncle Tom is never a flimsy ghost of an idea, which plays into both stereotypes: either the raping, pillaging black man from Harlem, or the almost neutered man who’s afraid to go out to the graveyard because the haints will get him.
CE It’s an examination of what the stereotypes are made of, the elements that we’ve used to make those characters what they are, our belief system. One thing that fascinated me about the story was how easy it was for Susan Smith to tap into that. She just pulled it out of the ether. I know when it happened. Between the time she sees the car’s taillights go under the lake and when she’s walking from the lake across the highway toward the first house she finds. In that little space of time, she’s thinking, Who did this? Someone’s got to have done this. Someone’s got to be blamed for this. It’s a black guy, and he’s wearing a cap, and he pushed me out of the car. She’s thinking this as she’s walking toward the house. It’s just so easy because it’s plausible. That was the scariest part, how easy it was for her. Indeed, as I’ve said many times at readings, had there been a different sheriff in that town, there might now be a black man on death row; the features she described apparently matched the features of people who lived in that town. It easily could have been close enough, not a perfect match, but hey. The useful lie.
PSJ There’s that incredible statement by Newt Gingrich you put in Brutal Imagination.
CE Right, “Her tragedy was the end result of all these social programs the Democrats put in place.”
PSJ I thought that was hilarious. Okay, so one of your characters is a wife, a mother, and a murderess. Tell me a little bit about how you approached this for the theater.
CE We’re thinking about this as a two person piece now, between Susan and the guy. I’m being a little vague because I haven’t heard Deirdre’s score, so I don’t know how the music is interacting with the text yet. We’re using pretty much the material we used in an early version at The Kitchen. Deirdre is expanding upon that score; it’s a duet, this little dance of death between the two of them. We’re trying to get a little more of how he feels about being that useful tool, his take on being that person who is always around, almost traditional, always there, always ready …
PSJ To do your bidding.
CE To do your bidding. Because, as Diane Paulus, the director, pointed out, it’s a bit kinky.
PSJ It’s very erotic.
CE He’s Susan, Susan is him—they share the same body. And when the truth comes out, he dies. To a great extent he wants the truth to come out, but on the other hand, the truth comes out and he’s gone. So we’re trying to figure out how he feels about Susan, and how he actually feels about being this guy.
PSJ You get a real sense of him as a very good worker. He’s got a job to do, to be the brute in this ghosts-in-the-night realm.
CE Yeah, he knows what he is and what his job is, absolutely. What we’re going to explore in the workshop is how he feels about that. We also have to invent these different characters.
PSJ Uncle Ben and Uncle Tom and …
CE Yeah, it was really interesting in auditions, to see a parade of black male actors try to do Buckwheat. I became fascinated by the way they’d approach it, because I didn’t write that poem in dialect, the language of the poem is not Buckwheat’s language, so they have a choice to do the dialect or not. We didn’t give them any instructions. The chorus ranges from Buckwheat to Stagger Lee—Stagger Lee’s the character where the black community gets to comment on what’s been going on. Stagger Lee really is dangerous. He says, “Hey, this is bogus, she thinks she got the bad guy, but I’m the bad guy, this isn’t even close!”
PSJ The reason I ask about the range of the chorus is that they are iconic characters, some from film, like Buckwheat, Uncle Tom is a fictional character and Aunt Jemima represents a commercial product. She comes up a lot in black art—that great Betye Saar image of Aunt Jemima with a gun in her hand. From Victims of the Latest Dance Craze to Brutal Imaginationthere are tales of African Americans alongside this commentary on American culture. This obviously interests you.
CE Yeah, I love exploring it. We’re all the products of that. That’s what was so interesting with the Buckwheat audition. We didn’t know how many of the poems in that section we were going to use, and my first impulse was to get rid of the Buckwheat poem; I thought it was too easy. But our director, who is younger than I am, said, “No!” She knows—and loves—Buckwheat!
PSJ At the end of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime when the family leaves Mount Kisco with their posse of Jewish kids, black kids—it’s like this new America. And then I thought wait a minute, that’s Spanky and his gang.
CE We’re all bombarded, the iconography means different things to different groups, but we all know it. We all tap into it. But we live in a culture that forgets. We have selective amnesia. We strive toward being a pluralistic society and yet we don’t let certain things happen. We strive and forget simultaneously. It’s so contradictory. Cynically, when I look at American history, there’s this long line of bad choices. We’re doing it right now, we’re in the midst of this huge historical moment and we could decide to find a way of really resolving this. That would be the real struggle, to participate in diffusing these tensions. But we won’t take the tough, participatory route. I know we won’t do that. Well, we’ll see what happens. My money is on the impudent response; we’ll bomb somebody or we’ll put troops on the ground, none of which will get to the root cause of why this is really happening, which would entail a much more complicated way of dealing with it, but we don’t do that, and there we are.
PSJ I think we’re at the beginning of some new version of a cold war, with shadows as our enemy. We’re talking about an ideology rather than a nation-state; there is no resolution. Neither one nor the other is going to win. And that’s what’s really scary. And I don’t want to think about what will happen to Afghanistan, a country that has nothing left to bomb. But it’s the beginning of a new world war.
CE Yeah that’s what it is. It’s the Third World War.
PSJ And New Yorkers, we got the first attack, so we’re number one. (laughter)
CE Well, that’s why we live here. You were thinking it’s more like the Cold War, it struck me like the beginning of the First World War.
PSJ With the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand—all it takes is one crazy group. And this one may not be resolved in our lifetime. This is something that may be passed down to our children.
CE Well you reminded me, on the second night after the attack—maybe it was Sharon, somebody from the Israeli government could barely contain himself: “Now you know what it’s like, y’all.”
PSJ Welcome to the rest of the world.
CE But more importantly he was saying, This is going to be a conflict that will take you generations to settle. Now you know what it feels like. It was “Welcome to the rest of the world.”
PSJ It’s an interesting moment for us as poets. The language you use in the poems of Brutal Imagination is very restrained. And yet it’s a horrific narrative: Susan Smith is an American monster; she kills her own children and she decides to create—
CE A scapegoat.
PSJ And that’s also about containment. I’ll do something terrible, but if I look good enough, if I cry on cue on TV, they’ll let me go, they’ll go find—
CE Somebody else.
PSJ He wasn’t from around here, but somehow he was on the road that night.
CE Like I said, another sheriff in that situation, it might have had a more tragic outcome. But when the sheriff interviewed her that evening, one of the things she said was that she was going in a certain direction on this road that day, and when she was stopped at the red light, that’s when the guy opened the passenger door and jumped in. The sheriff knew that at that time of day, in the direction she was going in, the light doesn’t turn red. Maybe it’s a blinking yellow light. The timer changes at sundown. So if she’s going in that direction, she can’t be stopped by a red light.
PSJ But he let the lie live for nine days?
CE Well, you start thinking, she’s really distraught, she could be getting the story wrong, I don’t know. But there was that little drop of doubt from that first night’s interview in his head. If this isn’t right, then what else isn’t right? And indeed, the more he started to examine the story, the more it started to crumble.
PSJ Talk a bit about the restraint in the play’s language, and why you chose those particular formal strategies.
CE Because it’s a charged story. The only way to get to this and not let sensationalism overwhelm us was to be really restrained in the language. I felt as a poet I didn’t have to beat you over the head to tell you how horrible this story is. I didn’t think anyone would lose the thread. I felt this obligation to have this be a story that people would be able to examine without feeling defensive. The one thing I didn’t want people to do with this book is to get their backs up and say, “Oh, well, this is just an isolated case, it has nothing to do with me.” So my instinct was to be really careful about how I set this up. This is about all of us. And we really need to start examining why we do what we do, or why we set up these people to be who they are. I wanted you to be able to enter the poems and find some space for yourself as a reader in the story.
PSJ Did you have any qualms about taking on the voice of Susan Smith?
CE No, none at all.
PSJ The language and structure of Brutal Imagination seem almost classical; Medea comes to mind, the language of Sophocles or Aeschylus. In the sense of myth, a choice has been made, a deed has been done, someone will pay. And between the time of that deed and its ultimate repercussions, a dialogue is engendered between white American imagination and the black response to it. The need for the monster, and the ease with which Susan Smith and any number of others have created a scapegoat in us is an ongoing form of terror; the open possibility that an imagined tale can lead to the condemnation of an individual—someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
CE Yeah, that’s the idea of getting the reader into the position of thinking that it could be him or her. What is it like to live with that dread, that terror? That someone can come and pluck you away. That’s one of the facts of life of being African American in this country. And now, Arab Americans are feeling it more than we are, but it’s still out there. You’re right, we’re looking for that person. And it’s a skin tone. And people are finding that person, and it’s a skin tone. That’s what that terrorism is about. So the poems are an attempt to get you in the frame of mind of what it actually is to live there for a moment. Just for a moment.
—Patricia Spears Jones is a poet and playwright, and author of the poetry collection The Weather That Kills (Coffee House Press, 1995) and the play Mother, produced by Mabou Mines in 1994. Her poems have been anthologized widely over the past two decades, most recently in The Best American Poetry 2000 (Scribners), and she is the editor of the one-shot literary magazine WB. Jones has received grants from the NEA, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has taught workshops at Parsons, the New York Public Library’s Central Harlem Branch and currently at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.