A Conversation with poet Cornelius Eady: Part II
by Madeleine Beckman
This is Part 2 of A Conversation with Cornelius Eady. In this part, Eady discusses teaching, society, and music – all which seem to enliven him and ultimately feed his infinite creative energy.
MB: Talk to me about teaching.
CE: We’ve embraced education as a product, a commodity.
MB: What do you mean?
CE: Students get cheated [they’re passed through the system]; they might as well be football players.
MB: What do you not want to do when teaching?
CE: At one school where I taught, there was a professor, he was so beaten down, he could have just phoned in his lecture. I don’t ever want to become that guy.
MB: How do you handle students who don’t do the work?
CE: I tell students they show up and do the work – that’s the contract. That’s what I grade on. I say, it’s a basic contract and if they perform below a certain level they’re in trouble; everybody else did the work and you didn’t. That’s why you got the grade you got.
MB: What about grading someone on a poem? That’s a difficult concept.
CE: I’ve never understood the logic. Why have grades at all? Pass/Fail seems logical. It’s clear what you need in order to pass; and when you don’t do what you need to do – well it’s clear why you got a Fail. And it’s not my problem.
MB: Grading is always difficult for me.
CE: The grading system is not your fault. If a student didn’t do work it’s the student’s responsibility. I didn’t get in the way of the student. He could have done the work; he had an equal chance to do the work. The student makes the choice to do it or not. I’m not going to email you or chase after you; don’t come to me later and say I didn’t tell you. If you go to the administration you’re going to lose. I’m senior faculty; I told you at the beginning what was necessary to pass the course. You do the work or you don’t. If you have a personal problem you can come and talk, but if you just disappear and don’t tell me why you vanished – you’ll get a low grade.
I had one class last spring, an African-American class; they were just not doing the work or the reading. So, I said "Come back in one month. You’re not ready to have this discussion. Come back when you’re prepared. If you’re not going to give me that much, well, you’re not hurting my feelings; I have other things to do with my time.”
MB: The culture of departments and academia has changed from when I first started teaching. What about you?
CE: Yes, academia today is about the culture. If you don’t fit in with the culture of grades and giving grades so students pass – it’s hard. Much of academia today is about hiring someone who understands the culture…
MB: What about academia and writers who teach? What do you think about that culture?
CE: There is tenure and then there is writers’ tenure. As a writer, one little thing and you’re out – unforgiving, exiled.
MB: How do you think the culture has changed since you began teaching?
CE: We’re in an atmosphere today where people are desperate to get over, to use the system. If you get in the way – you’re not with the program; the program doesn’t have to do with what you’ve earned but with, ”I deserve this because I paid for this.”
MB: In a sense – tragedy is inherent in education today.
CE: Yes, the tragedy in education is that a whole class of people is getting the message that the only way you can get a job is through job training; no imagination, no creative work; it’s a controlled underclass. This is a societal decision that is being politically encouraged. Don’t think about “critical thinking” – we’ll [administrators] make that decision for you.
People say that the 60s 70s was a failure – that’s wrong. They say that nothing significant happened – we got fat and lazy, but actually it was a big success. We had a college system from which you could move. We had a society, and social obligations meant something.
MB: And today?
CE: It’s evaporating. Today, you’re all on your own and if you lose, you deserve to lose; your moral fiber is wrong. The ideal of the 60s and 70s – hippies and radicals was an idea of obligation to society – to make sure society was taking care of and spending money for people. That was not a bad thing. Today the thinking is: It’s mine and I get to keep it [all] and you can’t touch it, and if I want to do charity, it’s my decision and you can’t tell me what to do – and that’s absolutely insane.
MB: Where does poetry fit in?
CE: In the 60s and 70s when I was starting, social consciousness meant something; poetry was seen as useful – not just about I’m a craftsperson. It was about speaking and having a voice for oneself and others – and that’s been abandoned.
MB: How are you using your music to that end?
CE: Music softens the blow of words more than poetry.
MB: Do you want to handle issues in your music that you wouldn’t in poetry?
CE: No, there are only two political poems on Book of Hooks [CD]. I felt that I needed to have them. I didn’t want to pretend that I don’t write that sort of music. I also make decisions for my own amusement – you don’t have to get it – like how many tracks are on both CDs, the fact that I’m using writers as musicians, literary references on the CDs…
MB: Are there things that frustrate you about writing poetry or lyrics or the revision process?
CE: Nothing frustrates me about the revision process. And in teaching, it’s about convincing people it’s ok to fuck up; it’s how you get to the good stuff that matters.
My frustration comes from having such a backlog and not enough time to get to all the work. I’m working on a first draft of a theater piece, a book for Cave Canem, more music, and a memoir I have to finish. And I want to get back to finish a book of poetry.
Frustration comes from not being able to concentrate on one thing; it’s not about writing but about how often are you going to get to write. Book of Hooks took two years because I was teaching all the time and finally it had to become THE project; same thing with plays. My crazy idea of doing a double CD was because I didn’t want it to come out and then a year later another would come out – I wanted to get it out of the house.
Now I’m using two bands, working in my apartment in Brooklyn; and now Deidre is knocking on the door about the play – we need to do workshops on the play. I’m trying to organize priorities. And in August I go back to teaching. When I was offered the job in Missouri, I was excited because I get to do theater. I work on their plays; one act plays; we do student readings; it’s fun!
Madeleine Beckman is the author of Dead Boyfriends, a poetry collection. Her poetry, fiction, memoir, articles, and reviews have been published in print and online. She is the recipient of awards and Artist-in-Residency grants in the U.S. and abroad. She is Contributing Reviewer for the Bellevue Literary Review, and teaches in the Masters Scholars Program, NYU/Langone Medical Center. She has been a Contributing Reviewer to The Literary Review and a member of the Gallatin Review Advisory Board (NYU). Madeleine holds an MA in Journalism from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Visit Madeleine at Write Downtown.