Visit by acclaimed poet invites engagement with an artist’s many dimensions

Poet, musician, and playwright Cornelius Eady, whose papers are at the Beinecke Library, visits next week for a series of performances and class discussions.
Cornelius Eady

Cornelius Eady

In late October 1994, Susan Smith rolled her car into a lake in Union County, South Carolina, with her two sons, a toddler and a baby, strapped in the backseat, drowning both children. Smith, a white woman, told police that a Black man had carjacked her and sped off with her children. She appeared on newscasts pleading with the fictional assailant to return her boys.

Within nine days authorities discovered Smith’s ruse, and she confessed to her crimes.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the poet Cornelius Eady contemplated Smith’s racist deception in a cycle of poems. The poems were included in his 2001 collection “Brutal Imagination,” which gave voice to the imaginary perpetrator and the woman who conjured him.

In the poem “How I Got Born,” Eady introduces Smith’s bogeyman:

Though it’s common belief
That Susan Smith willed me alive
At the moment
Her babies sank into the lake

When called, I come.
My job is to get things done.

He’s kind of a golem,” Eady said of Smith’s invention. “He’s always there, ready to be called upon as a scapegoat.”

Eady will visit Yale for a staged reading of the poem cycle, which was adapted into a dramatic work, at 5 p.m. Feb. 23. During the event, which will be held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, part of the Yale University Library, Eady will be joined by Emmy-Award-winning actor Joe Morton and Sally Murphy, an ensemble cast member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his original collaborators on the adaptation.

The reading is part of a collaboration of the Beinecke, the Yale Public Humanities Program, the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, and the Department of African American Studies to celebrate Eady and his work. The celebration includes a Beinecke performance, at 4 p.m. on Feb. 21, by the Cornelius Eady Trio, a folk group composed of Eady and guitarists Charlie Rauh and Lisa Liu that sets his poetry to music. Both the reading and the musical performance are free and open to the public.

Lisa Liu, Cornelius Eady, and Charlie Rauh
The Cornelius Eady Trio, a folk group composed of Eady (center) and guitarists Lisa Liu (left) and Charlie Rauh (right) that sets his poetry to music.

While on campus, Eady will also join a session of the undergraduate class, “Approaches to Contemporary Biography at Beinecke Library,” taught by Karin Roffman, a senior lecturer in humanities and English, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and associate director of the Public Humanities Program. He will also participate in a student workshop with Morton and Murphy.

Roffman’s class is working with Eady’s papers, which are housed at the Beinecke along with archives of Cave Canem, a nonprofit organization Eady founded in 1996 with poet Toi Derricotte that supports African American poets through summer retreats, regional workshops, first-book prizes, annual anthologies, and events and readings across the country. 

We are so excited to host Cornelius Eady, an extraordinary poet, musician, and playwright with a wide-ranging curiosity about language and how it reverberates in our society and culture,” said Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.

In addition to being a brilliant writer and thinker, Cornelius is a genuinely warm person who has dedicated himself to supporting African American poets, and I know the students and public will enjoy engaging with him and his work.”

Eady is the author of seven books of poetry and two librettos. His poetry collections include “Victims of the Latest Dance Craze,” winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; “The Gathering of My Name,” nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991; “Brutal Imagination,” a National Book Award finalist; and “Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems.” 

In conjunction with Eady’s visit, “Brutal Imagination” will be featured this spring in the Urban Life Experience Book Discussion Series at the New Haven Free Public Library’s Wilson Branch

Roffman’s students have read the latter two volumes and recently had their first opportunity to dive into Eady’s archive. During a recent class, students discussed Eady’s poetry and then each sifted through a box of his archival material. This allowed them to search for documents that spoke to them while also looking to make connections between Eady’s poems and documents that on their face don’t seem to have much to do with poetry, Roffman said.  

The class is on biography, but the idea is that a person’s life is multi-directional, and the students have so much to choose from in his really remarkable archive, which shows the various developments of his thinking and his life and the daily work of a poet, playwright, and musician,” Roffman said. “There are bills in there. There are drafts of his work. There are birds’ feathers that he collected. There is so much interesting material.”

By also hearing the musical performance the evening before the class, she said, students will also better understand Eady’s approach to poetry.

I think it’ll get the students thinking about the musicality of his poems, not just the references to music, but the rhythm and the beautiful way he moves from the familiar and abstract,” she said. “It’s an exciting way to get to know a poet and their art.”

Eady said he looks forward to engaging with the students, although as a teacher himself, he admits that being the subject of a class that has delved into his papers will be a new experience.

It’ll be different to be the focus,” he said. “I’m used to talking to students about poets like Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton and their impact, so it’ll be kind of a of a topsy turvy moment where I’ve become the subject matter of these students who are studying what I’ve been doing. It’s a moment when you realize that what you’ve been doing turns into what you’ve done, but I’m looking forward to learning about what the students have discovered.”

He is also excited about the staged reading of “Brutal Imagination,” which reunites him with Morton and Murphy, who composed the original cast of the show that was first performed as a theater piece in 2001 shortly after the publication of the poetry collection, with Murphy playing Smith and Morton as the imaginary suspect. 

The three recently recorded the piece for Audible and previously performed it together, albeit from their respective homes, during the pandemic.

To have the original cast together is very special for me,” he said. “We’ve done two performances without being in the same physical space. And we’ve done interviews about it over Zoom, so it’ll be great to be together in the same physical place to share the work with an audience. I’m very excited about it.”

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