by Celeste Schantz
Cornelius Eady doesn’t believe in apologies. At least not when he’s on stage giving a reading of his work, that is.
The poet and Pulitzer Prize nominee was in town on April 19th promoting his new chapbook/CD combo, Book of Hooks, an eclectic blend of spoken word pieces and music. Through his appearances at RIT and Writers and Books in Rochester, NY, Eady illustrates just how engaging a reader he can be, particularly in consort with Rough Magic (the band of musicians he currently performs with.)
In between an on-air interview at WXXI and a race to catch a flight to his next reading gig, Eady generously spares a few moments of his time. We’ve arranged to meet at Rochester’s 1872 Café. It’s an up-and-coming hot spot right across the street from the iconic Nick Tahoe’s, which figures in one of Eady’s poems.
He makes his way out of the light April drizzle into the warmth and light of the café, a fresh pot of coffee brewing behind the counter. Settling at one of the tables, we get right down to business. Every moment must count.
Schantz: Cornelius, thanks so much for meeting today! Your reading and performance with Rough Magic last night was great. I know you’re on a tight schedule, so let’s get right to the first question.
Eady: Thanks, Celeste. Sounds good!
Schantz: Do you feel that there are some poems best read silently on the page and some best performed aloud? Or is all poetry, due to its bardic tradition, best enjoyed through the spoken word?
Eady: All poetry can be performed. Performance is more immediate than words on a page. We need to get away from the idea that a poem will only work on a page. Some material is more complex than others, but using the lyrical instrument of voice and an ability to create a “dance poem,” all poetry can be performed.
Schantz: What’s one common mistake poets make when reading their work?
Eady: Some poets make the mistake of apologizing for their work. Don’t ever apologize! Do not cower or be afraid. Even if you are testing out new material, don’t say that to the audience. The audience is on your side. You walk up to the stage, you give disclaimers, you think you’re being disarming but with total strangers it’s not going to fly. Reading is an intimate thing…you’re exposing yourself and the crowd will taste the feeling, the energy you put out. There’s no sense in questioning why you’re there…if you ask that question, the audience will too! You need to be commanding but welcoming.
Schantz: Do you put poems in sequential order before you read?
Eady: Well, it was total improv at Writers and Books last night. It’s fun to do that! But usually, I make sure I know the first poem I am going to read, and the last poem I am going to read. The rest I base on the audience.
Schantz: Who is one of your favorite poets to hear reading aloud, and why?
Eady: Patricia Smith is an excellent reader. You should look her up and find some videos. She knows how to read a room…instinctively. She always manages to find a way to draw an audience to her. She has projection and confidence; she holds her body up, her voice goes out. I recommend observing Patricia Smith.
And with that, our fifteen minutes has come to an end.
As Cornelius Eady gets up to leave, we shake hands, and I thank him for his gracious consent to meet for this interview. He’s looking around the spacious, well-lit café; new, bright, and inviting, but also looks at his watch. He has that plane to catch.
“You don’t understand” he says, smiling and shaking his head in a bit of disbelief. “When I was growing up, the idea of having a beautiful place like this in this neighborhood would have been impossible–this is great!” He searches unsuccessfully in his jacket for a business card to give the manager, who’s standing nearby. We hand him a pen and a slip of paper. Eady introduces himself to the manager, gives her his contact info, compliments her on how beautiful the café space is and explains that “he’s a poet and he thinks this would be a great spot for poetry readings.” Humility and grace noted.
With that, Eady ’s out the door.
No apologies: just a big smile, a great attitude, and a few well-chosen words, as distilled and meaningful as those in his poems.
This interview originally appeared on the website of Just Poets of Greater Rochester, NY. Eady is an honorary lifetime member of that organization.
Celeste Schantz is a member of Just Poets and a former board member.
David Delaney is a current board member.