Breaking into Song: An Interview with Cornelius Eady

by Alexis Orgera


“Ever try to say / Something, /And know what you said / Slid past an ear?” Cornelius Eady’s speaker asks in “The Lake,” a poem from his chilling 2001 collection Brutal Imagination. In those poems, as with much of his work—as a poet, songwriter, playwright, co-founder of Cave Canem—Eady resurrects voices from the forced silences and willful deafness of America’s historical and contemporary landscape.

In his newest book, a chapbook-CD—the second in a series—Singing While Black (Kattywompus Press 2015), Eady is all about making sound through music. This book is in myriad ways about listening, whether to actual songs or to the stories (the majority of the poems about musicians) that Eady excavates. He poses poems side-by-side with lyrics from the songs on the accompanying CD—performed by Eady and his band, Rough Magic—a choice that he claims was one of mere convenience. “I did that simply as a matter of including most of the poems I’ve been writing about music and musicians over the years, and reading just before performing with Rough Magic live. I felt they sort of complimented both halves of the Singing While Black chapbook/CD.”

In the case of Singing While Black, convenience gives birth to happy accident: many of the poems explore what Eady calls “the mythology of jazz” through recounting specific moments in jazz history. In “Piano Solo: T. Monk on ‘The Man I Love’,” for instance, Eady sketches a scene detailing the only time Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis recorded together.  Or in “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” Eady riffs on Charles Mingus’ elegy for Lester Young.

Inherent in the act of an enforced silencing is the inevitable dislocation, a self ripped from its noise-making body. Or, as in the chapbook’s poem “Overturned,” “You look like / You lost the directions / To where you from.” Or, in “Emmett Till’s Glass Top Casket,” a family of possums replaces Till’s body in his misplaced, discarded, forgotten glass top casket. Or, in “The Gardenia,” a lament for Billie Holiday, “She is always walking too fast / and try as we might, // there’s no talking her into slowing.”

Eady’s song lyrics perform unearthings similar to his poems. “The Pickle King” tells the true story of a slave who walked the rails to freedom while “Tearing Down the Master’s House” hits eerily close to recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore: “The Nat’l guard wants you off their yard / But I was too busy / Tearing down the master’s house.” Eady, in fact, wrote “Tearing Down the Master’s House” in response to the murder of Michael Brown and its disastrous consequences in Ferguson.

I spoke with Eady about words and music, their interplay, and his work as a musician in collaboration with his band. The Rough Magic album is a mix of blues and folk, by turns dark and get-into-your-bones catchy. Sometimes ballads, sometimes battle cries—but he can tell you best.

AO: Seeing poems and lyrics together like this, my first question has to be obvious: what is the difference between writing a poem and writing a song? I read on the Rough Magic website that song writing constitutes an extension of the boundaries of language expression for you. Could you elaborate?

CE: For me, the intent in a song is to sing it.  I compose songs, meaning I’m writing words to be set to music; I’m intending it to not be recited. I’m a singer-songwriter, and I’m a poet, and there really isn’t a contradiction, at least for me. Rough Magic isn’t, for the moment at least, a spoken word band. Same throat, different muscles.

AO: Extension, rather than contradiction, as you say—but I’d love to hear more about how song writing acts as an extension of your creative expression. How, for instance, do you choose to write a song versus a poem about a particular subject?

CE: I think it’s sometimes hard to know who’s choosing whom—the poem, the song, or the writer. You hear or see something, or finally, you get to figure out something—who you were, what’s changed about you and your relationship to the things in the world—and you either reach for a pen, a pencil, your iPad, or you pick up and tune your guitar or sit at the piano and start working your fingers until you begin to hear what it might sound like—you even have the ability to go back and forth between the two—a stuck poem might be redeemed as a melody, or a dumb lyric sharpen into an unfixed, non-musical form. You never know until you get there.

AO: Are their characters or subjects that lend themselves to one or the other?

CE: Everything is up for grabs; what I love about drafts is the experimental nature of them. The draft is what you know about writing a poem running up against what you don’t know about the subject. If you’re lucky, you get to surprise yourself.

AO: Has your poetry changed as you continue to write songs?

CE: I don’t believe so; writing a lyric is writing a lyric, whether it’s sung or recited. Perhaps the question to ask should be, has playing in a band for three years affected you? The answer to that is you bet.

Singing with a band involves a lot: amplification; mics, drums, guitars, interaction between yourself and five other players, rehearsals, etc. When we perform, we’re all involved in the work of getting the song across to an audience—so it isn’t just me, expressing myself, it’s a group of very talented people doing what they love best, what they’ve thrown their lives into. The longer I play with these people, the more I realize how lucky I am to have stumbled into meeting them. I can read a poem to an audience anytime; a moment when all six of us are in a zone with a song is something else. I’m very lucky that at this moment in my life, I can have both.

AO: Would you talk a little more about how lyric and instrument collaborate, sound-wise? I’m transfixed by the idea that certain combinations of notes and chords create very specific bodily reactions. You know, the old heartstrings. 

CE: There are two stages of songwriting for me: the demo stage and the band arrangement. I compose mainly on guitar, and though there are exceptions, the vast majority of my own songs begin as a riff or chord pattern, or a beat that I download from a free site called Looperman. The lyrics are almost always the last thing I write.

A song like “Half Shut” certainly works that way—it was an instrumental track for weeks until I thought about using something Charles Wright said in an interview for the chorus. I just started singing “hum—keep your mouth half-shut” right where you hear it on the track. And there it stayed for another few days until I figured out the verses.

Sometimes, I have a title and a fragment of a line or chorus.  The song about Odetta on the CD (“Odetta Plays B.B. King’s”), I started when I heard a poet, Samantha Thornhill, tell a story at a reading she gave about hearing Odetta play at B.B. King’s club, then putting her to bed. Odetta was infirmed, but still singing; the line “a singer’s a singer til they snatch your breath” flew into my head, and I went home and wrote it down and a bit of what I thought would be the first verse. I fleshed it out the next afternoon when I found the percussion loop I thought best caught the feel.

For the chapbooks Book of Hooks (Kattywompus Press, 2013) and Asking for the Moon (Red Glass Press, 2013), Bernie Heveron, the producer of those projects, would occasionally send music beds, written and played by him that I would add lyrics and melody to—“No More Blues Blues” and “It Don’t Work Out” on Asking for the Moon, and “Fish” and “Unconfirmed” on Book of Hooks started that way—and I would send Bernie dry lyrics that he set to music—“A Poet Forgets His Library” and “Hot Day” on Book of Hooks are two examples of those.

But in general the second step is when I take the demo to the folks in Rough Magic; mainly, on this project, Robin Messing, Concetta Abbate, Emma Alabaster, and Charlie Rauh, who helped me flesh out the arrangements—to go back to “Half Shut,” Charlie added those layers of guitar you hear—I’m playing the riff almost by accident; there was actually a harmony part to that part that I recorded, but it disappeared in the studio mix. Charlie’s playing on that is so strong that that part just wasn’t needed.

They bring great, fresh ideas to a song—Emma Alabaster’s cool bass part on “Summer,” for example, was so rich, it suggested a vibe part to me—which we didn’t have—but it’s why you hear that harmonic “ring” when she bends that note—I added that on electric guitar later. If I brought that demo to the full band—add Leo Ferguson, the drummer—it would change once again. The live band version of “Pickle King” is quite different from the version on the CD.

You know—I caught EmmyLou Harris at City Winery last week, and she said trying to describe the songwriting process was like trying to do card tricks on the radio! She’s so right! I want that on a t-shirt!

AO: Speaking of seen and unseen, in many of the poems in Singing While Black, you revive these moments—I’d call them snapshots—in jazz history. The poems feel restorative and connective to me. I absolutely loved, for instance, reading your poem “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” in which you weave this connective tissue between Charles Mingus, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday through seemingly disparate moments in time and space. You do this in several of the poems. Could you talk a bit about what you’re up to?

CE: I love the mythology of jazz; those human, heroic, funny, fuck-up tales. They tell us so much about ourselves and this country. It feels like it’s a variation on ekphrasis—or perhaps we should come up with a new term for describing writing poems about album tracks, as opposed to paintings or pictures—the old term probably covers all of that, really, but falling into a song like “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” is a bit different, since you can’t actually see the object in front of you—you just have to connect the dots as best you can.

AO: This idea of the ekphrasis of musicality, it seems to me that you’re finding the photographic moment of a song and making it visual through language. That’s a lot of layering! Makes me go back to my initial question about the juxtaposition of your music, lyrics, and poems. I know you said it was a matter of convenience to put them together, but I wonder if you aren’t creating a new kind of hybrid text, other than the usual hybrid of visual/text. What do you think?

CE: Finding a “photographic moment” of a song is as good a way of trying to describe the process as any, and I’m happy you enjoy the ways the poems converse with the lyrics in Singing While Black. Though I put none of my poems in the chapbook portion of Asking for The Moon or Book of Hooks, I thought I was playing a bit more with the concept of an LP and liner notes with those, maybe LP as artifact—for example, they both have 14 tracks (counting the bonus track), which was the standard length of English albums back in the sixties—and the nerd fun of reading a narrative as you listen to a song about how the song was recorded, or what triggered the song, or what was going on at a particular moment. So there’s the song, the words of the song, and the bio of the song all in the same box.

There were other references; both discs had “cover poems”—Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Heart have no pity on this house of bone,” on disc one, and Mary Molyneux Abrams’ poem, “Your Freedom” on disc two –instead of cover songs. I was also messing with the idea or science of the “double” with Book of Hooks—a two CD project—something you have to spend some time with. Most people’s relationships with two-fers shift over time; you usually choose which of the two discs you prefer—and then after a few months or years, you try the other disc again, and re-discover what’s there—and I was aware of that on those, the relationship between the listener and the object, time, and the different ways we experience or take recorded music in.

But I was also out to have fun! That was about as conceptual as I got, and since no one paid much attention to that after those projects came out—I made that far too subtle—I decided to just have poems and lyrics on Singing While Black, and put a few notes on some of the songs at the very back of the chapbook.

AO: I hadn’t thought about the “liner notes” being part of the text, but of course they are! Singing While Black, then, constitutes a double doubling! Poems, lyrics, music, notes.

I was really jazzed (sorry, I had to do that) about “Piano solo: T. Monk on ‘The Man I Love’” in part because it’s about Davis telling Monk to shut up. I love this story, the way you tell it. I particularly love thinking about the fifth stanza: "And these five men who seem to have nothing better to do / on Christmas Eve, 1954, get back to the lyric: / love is food, water, air; lonely sucks.” What is “the lyric,” without words?

CE: Well that’s a great story—Miles thought he didn’t want to hear Monk’s playing on that track—on the other hand, Miles tells the engineer to save the dust up—it’s the only reason we even know about it—so he’s not afraid to let the public hear a less than perfect version of himself—he gives in to art, which is probably what those lines are getting at—it’s an honest moment, even if it’s ugly, and for some reason Miles thinks it’s fit for prime time. So what is art and what is love? Is it the perfect, edited song, or the take with the warts? It’s one of the reason I’ve always loved that track.

AO: So, what is art and what is love?

CE: For that track for that moment, all the longing that song provides, plus all the tension just before the second take. It’s art because we know too much. It’s love because they figure a way to get musically through that moment, to simmer down their egos. What’s better than hearing five guys listening real hard to each other? That’s the essence of that performance.

AO: Many of the lyrics, and the songs themselves, tell stories of disenfranchisement and displacement, often about historical black men. The songs are filled with physical journeys, walking, traveling, as well as the spiritual journey that transports listener from one emotional place to another. Could you talk about journeying in these songs?

CE: “John Punch” and “The Pickle King” are based on true stories that Robin Messing found at a site the New York Times has set up about the Civil War. I wanted something on the CD that touched on those stories, stories we really don’t pay enough attention to—that’s how far back the mood runs, and I’m happy you feel that element runs through the CD. John Punch’s story is the moment black people’s status in the colonies changed from indentured servants to slaves. He’s also related to President Obama on his mother’s side—the first slave and the first Black President on the same family tree—what’s more American than that?

AO: I read “The Gardenia” over again on Billie Holiday’s hundredth birthday and felt its weight, the themes of movement and displacement—how Holiday’s constant walking keeps the demons at bay. Her songs spring from the sediment of danger and sorrow, “Like a fist. If a fist could sing.” Can a fist sing?

CE: In a poem? Sure. But of course in the real world symbolic language couldn’t protect her. I think we poets keep coming back to her as subject matter because so much of her life still speaks to us—for example, that crazy cop logic that had her handcuffed to her deathbed, you feel and see in Ferguson and Baltimore now—a long, furious history of grinding black and poor folk down and out. And of course, she wasn’t a writer, but the songs she chose to sing kept giving us a narrative about what she knew about the world, and what the world kept telling her—very adult songs. You should hear her sing “Deep Song.”

AO: I’d like to probe a little more about the singing fist. For me, it’s such a poignant image of the power of both language and music. To hear Holiday sing “Deep Song,” which I did on repeat, is to feel the palpable sorrow of her life—but the power inherent in this act, the mix of tenderness and despair is what makes her experience universal. Maybe art, through its inherent connection with audience, creates empathy. What do you think? Is there a difference in the way poetry and music accomplish this?

CE: Well here I think it’s important to mention what a great musician Billie Holiday was, how strong her powers of phrasing, pitch, inflection, and mood were, and how well she was able to draw the best from other musicians—Teddy Wilson, Lester Young—that’s her art, and through that, how she connects to the audience. When we love a poem by say, Mark Doty, we love it for much of the same reasons—a moment is caught; it’s a construct, sure, but the singer is clear and true and we don’t concern ourselves by counting out beats or where they take a breath—I’m sure you didn’t wonder what key “Deep Song” was in when you first heard it—you just wanted to hang there for as long as the music did—true artists can do that—make it feel like they’re talking truth right to you in real time—but there is craft there, and it’s important we don’t lose sight of that with Billie—

AO: You invoke Ferguson and Baltimore above. The crazy logic that creates surreal and monstrous situations. I have been singing the refrain to “Tearing Down the Master’s House” for weeks now. It is a timely and timeless song. Could you talk a little about it?

CE: Yes—I wrote "Tearing Down The Master's House" thanks to Ferguson and Michael Brown, but the title, I think, is less about picking up a brick than you can't really stop progress and forward motion—"the history train," as Paul Simon sings in one of his songs on his first solo album—I really like Max Abrams' sax on that one. The fun with that track is the drum sample, which very slowly and surely gets louder as the track goes on.

AO: I think we’re in a pivotal moment in America, in terms of race and gender. We are facing—or running from—some very brutal realities. You have done the amazing work of giving voice to the silenced. Brutal Imagination is one of the most intense and complex examples of this I’ve ever read—giving voice to the imagined, which in turn becomes a voice for the very real black male experience—and it would be stupid of me not to go back to this book at this moment on “the history train.”

What is the progress and forward motion you’re speaking about, specifically? How do your poems contribute to said progress?

CE: I don’t know; I hope they do. I do know choosing not to talk about these subjects can lead to bad results; part of the reason for Ferguson lies in the housing decisions made after WWII—ownership for whites, rentals for blacks. There were covenants in place to make sure black families couldn’t move to those neighborhoods, even if they had the money to do so. The lack of home equity for a span of a generation or two is a part of much of the damage you see there. But it also becomes a National narrative and a trope: “Those people” living “That way.” The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful, and if unexamined, dangerous. I think the unpacking of those stories are important.

AO: Aside from the obvious fact that most of the poems and songs in Singing While Black aren’t persona poems in the way that Brutal Imagination’s are, how are the voices you inhabited BI, particularly the imaginary kidnapper, similar to (or entirely different from) the voices and characters in your newer poems and songs? 

CE: As you say, most of the songs on Singing While Black are not persona songs—Randy Newman does that better than almost anyone, Richard Thompson, as well—like a poem, there’s a “speaker,” but their masks shift; I do set up “Odetta Plays B.B. King’s” as the voice of Odetta; “Limo” is an actual e-mail Robin Messing sent me that I set to music, so it’s her voice you’re hearing; “The Pickle King” is that historical person telling his tale; the rest are telling whatever story the song is telling—no fixed address or autobiography, except for “Living With A Stranger,” which really is about a checkup at my doctor’s—she didn’t actually say what I have her say in the chorus—and I always felt that “A Little Bit Of A Fool” was my response to John Lennon’s “No Reply,” which is a crazy stalker song, but also his response to the old song “Silhouettes On The Shade.” It’s what happens after the speaker in the song hangs up the phone in “No Reply”; he goes to a pub, tells a buddy what he’s been up to, and his friend buys him a pint and sings him what he thinks about it. Basically—time to move on.

AO: I can’t help but think that your poems inhabit a special quality of voice, that your poetic/lyric concern involves undoing silences. James Tate wrote in the introduction to a BAP many years ago that “poetry speaks against an essential backdrop of silence.” Then, in his short essay “It’s Always Night,” Komunyakaa writes of Monk, “Silence in his compositions is music(al).” What do you think about these two ideas, particularly sitting side by side? That, perhaps, both poetry and jazz spring from that same silent well?

CE: I’ve always felt that poetry is the enemy of silence, but of course, in the right moments, silence can be useful. The trick is just trying to figure out when. And when I say silence, I suppose I actually meant erasure—poetry is a force against that, I think, or it should be.

AO: I need to belabor this subject. Your use of erasure seems right on, so I’ll use that. It feels so important to me, and to the work you do. What is the difference between re-animating the erasure, giving voice to the gag order, and appropriating the silence for the sake of “art.” You know what I’m thinking about here—Michael Brown’s autopsy report, the appropriation of the silenced/brutalized black body as an act of ownership over language.

CE: Race, and the discussion of it brings out the bad, the good and the crazy in us, doesn’t it? I read the reports of that performance piece, and you have to wonder what purpose it’s trying to serve; perhaps it was meant to serve as a reminder of how brutal the system is against the black male body—how vicious, yet banal—but black males certainly don’t need that reminder—we live with that, daily. If you wish to see that mythology in action, just hang behind me as I walk into a department store.

What that piece brought to my mind actually is this ability we now have, thanks to tech, to kill and re-kill the victim. To be reduced to a deadpan medical report feels like killing Michael Brown twice, just like we get to see the video clip of Eric Garner being taken down again and again by the cops on Staten Island—that’s the last, painful moments of his life, on instant replay. It’s the truth, but it’s deadening. I don’t think that’s the result or world we actually want, the country we aspire to become—not to feel anything, or to think that it’s just like any thing—numbing it down doesn’t stop or work against the process.

And that’s the reason I think it pissed you off—that performance piece was meant to piss you off, but it isn’t designed to push you towards resistance. It sends you to chat rooms to bitch about Kenneth Goldsmith, and in the meantime the party rolls on, full blast. It’s actually closer to that quote by Toni Morrison about what’s most deadly about race—that it’s a time suck (I’m paraphrasing)—you waste so much of your time and energy explaining or defending your life. It threatens to turn you cynical, and as I read somewhere, cynicism is a form of obedience.

AO: But you so thoughtfully and unflinchingly grapple with systemic racial injustice; it feels irresponsible, as an interviewer, not to ask your opinion of the landscape concerning race in contemporary American poetry. So I’ll keep asking at the risk of being an ass. What do you think is going on in the American poetry community in regard to race? Are there differences in regard to race with “schools/movements/aesthetics” of contemporary American poetry?

CE: We’re at the 20th year mark for Cave Canem, and I think I can safely say it’s had an impact on the scene—you can see it in big and small ways; literary magazines that I compared to segregated neighborhoods back in the 80’s and 90’s are now routinely publishing young writers of color; some of them actually have writers of color as editors. It’s great to see the same thing happening with publishing; small presses, who were always a bit ahead of the curve anyway, and especially major presses have moved away from having the one, “special” poet of color in their catalogue.

There’s a bit more choice and chance for students to work with poets of color in the MFA programs, at least, more than I had when I was a student. And, of course, we have served as a model for other programs like Kundiman and Letras Latinas. The work is far from over, but whether we end up calling this moment the Dark Room or the Cave Canem era in American Letters, the fact is that it is historical. We weren’t full aware when we started of what the effect the workshop would have in the larger writing world—our first 10 years were mainly concerned with keeping it going, and figuring out ways to best serve our Fellows—what I see now are writers who feel less inhibited and invisible; if they don’t live around it, they’re aware that places like Cave Canem are in the mix, and it helps.

And I think the influence we now have on other, older poetry organizations—what I call the “Cave Canem effect”—is important. I think they can now see this work for the plain, clear art on the page; how could you deny that when reading Tracy K. Smith, or Greg Pardlo? I’ve never believed that poetry—especially American poetry—was a museum piece; it changes as the world around it does, and what’s coming out from these poets reflect the changes that are happening right now in our culture. Cave Canem isn’t the sole reason for this change, but I’m happy that we seemed to have had a hand in it.

AO: Let’s talk more about those stories we don’t pay enough attention to. What are the stories, who are the storytellers, we absolutely need to pay more attention to, for the sake of our collective humanity?

CE: Last week, I was having conferences at Poets House with this years crop of emerging poetry fellows, Aziza Barnes, Rio Cortez, Ricardo Hernandez, Esther Lin, Yanyi Luo, Andriniki Mattis, Vikas K. Menon, Timothy Ree, Paul Tran and Aldrin Valdez  and what struck me was that they we all telling the stories we’ve been told you shouldn’t tell, or isn’t correct subject matter for poetry—that those stories were being claimed, and written, and are now on their way into the world. To me, it felt like they were filling in the blanks.

Alexis Orgera

Alexis Orgera is the author of two books of poetry, How Like Foreign Objects and Dust Jacket, two chapbooks, and a forthcoming collaboration with the poet Abraham Smith. Her poems, essays, interviews, and reviews can be found online and in print in various places such as Another Chicago Magazine, Bat City Review, DIAGRAM, Drunken BoatForklift Ohio, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, H_ngm_n, HTMLGiant, The Journal, jubilat, ILK, Memorious, No Tell Motel, Parthenon West, Prairie SchoonerRealPoetik, The Rumpus, Sixth Finch, storySouth, and elsewhere. She can be found at