by Sarah McCall
SM: Stephen Dobyns wrote “many young writers spend sleepless nights trying to identify their subject matter without realizing that, if it exists at all, it has been there all along. One’s concerns, one’s dominant idea only needs to be accessed.” From reading your work, I see that it’s infused with blues, race, and personal history, but what dominant idea would you say defines your work?
CE: Being a human being. Human experience. That’s all it is. It’s the common thread between every poet. Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson to Stephen Dobyns to Whitman to Tim Seibles, that’s the thread. I guess what Dobyns is talking about here is trying to recognize what your story is, and you do carry that, subconsciously. And a lot of poets, younger poets or beginning poets or apprentice poets don’t get that, they don’t understand that they already have the themes there, and they’re going to keep nagging them and they’re going to keep returning to those themes over and over again. Being a writer of color, it’s great to see what your dominant theme is, but if you’re in a workshop, and you’re talking about what the dominant theme is for you, and it happens to be being a person of color going through this culture, a culture that is race-obsessed even though we don’t want to admit it, and because of the reasons that we don’t admit it, the complications arise from the fact that we don’t admit it or do anything about it. And then when it comes to poetry, it becomes a matter of deciding if you are being too political, or too strident, when actually you’re simply reporting about the position where you’re from. So it’s complicated.
SM: You’ve said you love narrative, and I see a lot of that in your work. How important is it to know your temperament(s) and speak or forge your poetic language from that knowing?
CE: You have to know your instrument. Maybe that’s the easiest way of answering that question—imagine yourself being a guitarist. I play guitar, I use it as an instrument to compose songs, but I am not a guitarist like the guitarists in my band, Charlie Rauh or Lisa Liu, they live it they breathe it, they know the fret board like they know the back of their hand. So to bring it to a writing perspective, basically it’s knowing what your instrument is. And it doesn’t mean you have to know every single aspect of what a poem is, or what poetry is about, but you do have to have a general, running sense of it. Sometimes it’s good to know that what separates the novice from the practicing poet is that understanding.
SM: Evidence of the “Cave Canem effect” is clear, in the community of people that have come out of that environment, at least the outward impact. Can you talk about the impact it’s had on your own work/aesthetic, personally? Describe that.
CE: That’s a good question to ask. Because most of the time when people talk about Cave Canem we talk about the fellows…but we rarely talk about the impact it has on the faculty, and it does change a lot of people’s perspectives. I can think about particular African American poets who have taught at Cave Canem who have never taught a class of African American students anywhere else. Even at the traditional black colleges there’s not enough…So unless you teach at a traditionally black college, and that college happens to have a creative writing component attached to it, and some of them don’t, you don’t really get this opportunity. You have to go out of the academy in order to do that, and of course Cave Canem is outside of the academy. It’s a weird kind of position we’re in—we’re not the academy, we’re not accredited—but we do have a lot of MFA students come in, or decide once they come to Cave Canem they can go to an MFA or a PhD program. So, it emboldens, it makes people feel that they are not bizarre, not wrong. If you go back to that earlier question from Dobyns, sometimes in the workshop telling your story, telling your truth, has repercussions. If you’re talking about a story that’s an alien story to a number of people in the workshop, if you’re talking about the perception of what it feels like to have that gaze upon you, an you’re in a room where you have that gaze upon you, it gets complicated. And the question then becomes, do I shut up, or do I say more? Do I just keep my head down and get the grade?
SM: And if I can’t say it here, where can I say it?
CE: Or, if I can’t say it, does that mean it isn’t worth saying? So, sometimes I would call it unintentional censorship that goes on. And I say unintentional because I don’t believe that anybody in an MFA program is out to make sure that you shut up, but the degree of critique can turn in such a way that the student of color suddenly thinks they are being told, “you need to hush up. You can’t bring this stuff up because it’s hard to talk about this stuff. Poetry shouldn’t be about this…poetry shouldn’t be about that.” And they stop talking, or they get really resentful and won’t say anything. So Cave Canem was one of those places where that’s not an issue. And I guess for me, that’s the thing that was one of the engines for starting Cave Canem. It was the understanding that you’re not bizarre, it’s not bizarre to ask these questions; it’s not weird to bring this up or talk about this. And Cave Canem takes the “if it’s legitimate subject matter” off the table. The question then becomes, how can you turn it, poetically? And if it doesn’t turn poetically, we’re going to talk to you about it, but it isn’t “this is something that’s not a poem.” So, for me, it changes you in the sense that it is one of those things where I suddenly realized it becomes a safety zone, it is the reassurance that out there in the rest of the world, there are other people working in the same vein, trying to figure out the best ways of talking about these things. To me, at the moment, the ultimate expression of this is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. And it’s not just subject matter, it’s how she’s dealing with subject matter. She’s exploded the form in order to do that. That’s the landscaper right now. And it isn’t that there aren’t writers that want to talk about it, but it’s figuring out how you talk about it. How do you write about it poetically? How do you take a whack at it?
SM: And you can see that the freedom from some of those constraints…it is happening. She’s proof of that.
CE: And that’s the Cave Canem effect. Before Cave Canem, for example, if you found an African American poet in the New Yorker it was really, really rare, or it was Derek Walcott, and I don’t mean that as a put-down on Derek Walcott, but that’s the extent of what they thought a black poet was supposed to be about. And he was Caribbean. So you get two for one, in their point of view. And now, boom. Same with Poetry magazine then. Back in the ‘80s when I started being a poet, black poets in Poetry magazine were handpicked. And now, kaboom. They’re all over the place. I think they did a Callaloo issue a couple months ago. And it stopped being the special issue. It has definitely shifted. And I’m not saying that the prizes are the only way you can measure it, who’s getting in, who’s getting recognized…
SM: But it is a measure.
CE: But it is a measure. It’s not the only measure. It is a change from where we started. I don’t feel as awkward about being who I was when I started, when I went to my MFA program. I feel like in some ways I’ve answered that with Cave Canem.
SM: Do you think that’s what drove you to create it in the first place? Realizing that I feel awkward, I don’t have a safe place…to share my voice.
CE: Well, it wasn’t that deliberate. It feels that deliberate now. It was just that I kept thinking, there’s got to be something other than this.
SM: But there’s not, so I have to create it!
CE: Right. Charles Rowell, the editor of Callaloo, when I was teaching at Sweet Briar College back in the 80s, he and I were talking in an unpublished interview that we did, and we were talking about lack of representation—I think I had just come from an AWP conference, and that was the year I started boycotting AWP, I felt like I was just in a desert there and I never wanted to go back—and I was grousing about it to Charles Rowell, and we went back and forth about this, and I blurted out, you know there really ought to be a place where writers of color can sit and just do it. You should have a space where you just go in, and just learn.
SM: Like everybody else is doing.
CE: Like everybody else. There really ought to be an equivalent space for literature, for writers of color, that supplement or augment what’s going on in their lives, and it’s not separate from the rest of the world, it’s not a breaking away, it’s something that will…
CE: And makes it a little less of a bumpy ride. But it was something I kept thinking about, there had to be some way to do it. Finally I ran into Toi and the door opened. Toi, independently of me, had made an approach to the University of Pittsburgh and got swatted away. She was trying to think of a school, a low-res kind of thing…and suddenly we started talking about it and there it was. That was the moment. We were trying to figure out the best way to do it, and finally the right people were there. Also, it became a moment where we began thinking, who’s going to show up? Because the thing about this, is that if you are all alone in a program thinking that they’re misreading you or not understanding, then you will either withdraw, or get really angry and belligerent, and turn on yourself. You start thinking, maybe it’s me? Maybe it’s just me feeling this. So we were thinking who’s going to come? Is this really what black poets want? So I suggested, let’s find out. Let’s just do it as a workshop. We’ll put some notices up, make some ads. One thing led to another, and it turned out it really was a good idea.
SM: I want to talk a little bit about Claudia Rankine’s prize-winning book Citizen, since you already mentioned her, and how she did sort of break open all of these boundaries with not only her subject but also her form. Do you feel that poets participate in a discourse of truth telling?
CE: Slippery word, truth. It depends on whose truth and how you’re going to listen to that truth. To me that’s the point of Citizen, that there are various truths. It isn’t just one thing. It’s multi-layered. And how do you write about multi-layered truth? This isn’t the only time she’s worked in this style, but it really seemed to coalesce in a way this time. And of course those other pieces work up to Citizen. So is it truth or is it “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert used to say. You have to beware of truthiness. Like when you’re talking about something that feels good, but doesn’t have any facts in it. And Claudia, I feel, is also including that, truth and truthiness, and the gradations between those things. It’s a big, fractured country, with fractured interpretations of what our history actually is, which we’re still working out. If you can have a situation where you’re still fighting over the Confederate flag, then we haven’t settled it. And there are different truths there. So, how do you best tackle that, in a stationary, static book? I think Claudia found the best way of doing that. And a book isn’t an answer, it isn’t Claudia’s duty to answer the question, it’s just to reflect what it is. Everybody needs to start thinking about their role in this. And I think Claudia galvanizes people with this book. Now again, reading a book is not going to solve the problem, but reading the book starts discussions that are a response to this. That’s not bad for a book of poetry.
SM: Let’s shift to a few things that might be immediate to the MFA candidate. In general, can you reveal some of your process as a writer?
CE: It’s really tough. I really hesitate to talk about this because it’s “famous writer syndrome.” Where basically you think because a person has gotten to a certain place in their career, they have some secrets, and the secrets can actually help the apprentice writer figure out a way, but my life isn’t your life. The potential damage for that is that a writer might hear that and think, well, if that’s the rule, I’m not a writer! And you just have to figure out what your discipline is going to be, and be aware that sometimes, that discipline may be broken by life. By circumstances. And so for me, you’re a writer until you’re not a writer. And writing doesn’t mean you have to write every single day. There might be gaps of years between books, and poems, but it doesn’t mean that you have stopped the process and the life of being a writer. You just haven’t given yourself enough time to stop and get it down. That’s another thing. And individuals have to work that out. And there’s a distinction between writing and fame, which I also think is kind of confused in these questions. Where basically you think that if people aren’t noticing me, then obviously I’m not a writer, I can’t prove it. Real writers publish things. Does it mean you aren’t real if people don’t know who you are? You have to also come to the problem of if you aren’t visible, does that mean you aren’t a writer? So you have to struggle with the invisibility of it. You have to answer those questions if you’re going to keep at it. There are so many variations, so I hesitate to hand out advice because it hasn’t been a straight line for me; you’ve got to get comfortable with the fact that if you’re going to embrace the arts, you have to embrace the bumps that come with it. I have a love/hate relationship with MFA programs, but what better way is there to spend your time? It’s not so bad. And if you’re lucky enough to have that experience, it’s worth the journey. Being allowed to be on that journey is not a bad way to move through your life.
SM: It’s interesting what you say about the MFA, and the workshop—how it’s not requisite but it’s a kind of privilege. Something we talk about a lot in workshop is the difference in poetry between accessibility and obfuscation. Poetry has a bad rep for being confusing and alienating…so what do you feel about that tension between whether it should be accessible or not? Do you feel concerned with that?
CE: It’s a stylistic position. I’m a lyric, narrative poet, so I don’t play in that tension. It doesn’t concern me. I have great admiration for writers that do that well…and are there weak, uninteresting narrative poets? Absolutely. Like there are always going to be bad musicians, there’s always going to be bad poets. Regardless of what style you choose. You can’t waste your time fighting over this.
Poetry is one of those things that people think of suspiciously. It’s on the same level as opera. It’s obviously just for a small percentage of people who love this stuff. Plenty of people think it’s a little elite corner that has nothing to do with anything that goes on in the world, they aren’t engaged with what’s going on in the world. But there are tons of poets out there that do engage with the world! They are out there, and attached to people, and attached to ideas, and politics…so I can’t get panicked over it. Look: Poetry will outlast all of us. It’s been around for millennium. The impulse to speak and say what it is to be here is very strong. It’s just as important to us as air and water. The world is big and confusing and we are puny humans and the only way to figure it out is to tell stories about it. Otherwise, it’s a chaotic, senseless existence. And who wants that? This impulse will never go away as long as humans walk the face of the earth. We have no other recourse or power than to talk back in a story or a poem. We will always use this way of trying to explain the world because nothing else works. So if you’re going to fight over one little corner of it, the idea of abstraction, to me it’s a nice way of saying how scared and confused people are about being straightforward. But being indirect like that, or trying to avoid saying anything, tells you how scared you are about how the world is. It also tells you how scared they are of the repercussions of saying something. So you might think behind the wall you’re being really clever, or radical, but basically you know, it’s not going to touch anyone.
SM: I feel like that’s what ruins poetry for some readers.
CE: For some readers. It depends on who you encounter, and what it reinforces. But if you run into Tim Seibles, your reaction is going to be different. If you’re someone who has never encountered poetry, and you run into Tim, you might not love poetry, but you’re going to love Tim by the time that reading is over. And you’re going to start reading Tim, and it’s like jazz. Some people come to jazz because someone gave them Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and they listen to Miles Davis, and say, wow I didn’t know jazz could be this beautiful. And then they turn the record cover over, back in the day when there were records, and check who else is on the record with Miles. That’s the jumping off point. And then they begin to connect the dots. They’re on their own little journey of accumulating similar artists, beginning with those guys on that session—the sax players, the bass player, the pianists– and figuring out what jazz is, what appeals to them. It’s the same thing with poetry.
SM: I think that’s an important part of studying in the MFA. Just reading. And then of course tracing the lines and making connections.
CE: Yes. This is how I learned poetry too. For me, it goes all the way back to Phillis Wheatley. I can run a thread from Phillis Wheatley all the way through everything else that goes on in African American poetry. Everything you want to know about what goes on in the African American poetic for me goes back to that one little poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Eight lines, and it’s full of double consciousness. She’s grateful about being saved and liberated, but in the last few lines she tells you she knows how she’s being looked at. By white people. It’s about history. The one real beef I have with some aspect of the “Language” poets is that they want to deny the history connected to poetry. That it’s apolitical and ahistorical, and that’s the best way you should be as a poet. But there are tons of poets I’ve learned from that tell me that’s not the case. Your art is your art, and I don’t like criticizing people for their aesthetics, but when people start saying identity is not poetry, it affects me.
And to go back to what you asked me earlier, about what I learned from Cave Canem, it’s that it’s always better to try it than to not try it. That’s one of the things I learned about Cave Canem. Even if doesn’t work out, it’s better to try it than to not. Cave Canem has cured me of sour grapes. I’ve gotten this from working in theater, too. I’m not afraid to screw up. To be an artist, you have to be comfortable with failure.
SM: You know Ta-Nehisi Coates said that same thing recently. Writing is a process that involves repeated failure.
CE: No he did not! Really!? You have to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes it doesn’t work out. You’re not going to die, you’ll be fine. You’ll do something else. And all those different failures add up to what the new thing actually is…but the audience doesn’t see everything that went into it. I can’t be embarrassed about failure anymore. That’s what theater and Cave Canem taught me. It doesn’t bother me anymore. It doesn’t stop me from doing the next thing.
SM: I want to read you a couple of lines from Victims of the Latest Dance Craze: “You will need medicine: / powders for your feet, / salve for tired muscles, / and maybe, / at times, / when your art permits, / someone to rub it on.” The implication here seems to be that art is often a solitary endeavor, but that we need connection. Has poetry (and music, and theater…) been a salve for you?
CE: My real reaction to those lines, which I must’ve written in my early thirties, is how wise I was then. I wish I was that smart now (laughs). That guy was right, he actually got it. Your art is your art, and that’s going to be your real partner in your life. I am married, and I have been married for 38 years, and I was married when I wrote those words, but it’s better with someone. Knowing that you are beloved by someone is really an amazing thing to have. To know that whatever else will happen, you still have someone that’s paying attention and cares. It’s an amazing gift to have, and I’ve had that. You might always have your writing, but it’s great to know that you’re sharing the journey. It softens the blow. Can you be a complete person just living on your art? Absolutely, I know people that do, that don’t necessarily need to have another person, they think it’s a distraction or a threat to their art. And there’s a certain kind of selfishness that comes with being an artist or a writer—you have to be selfish. And I’ve done that in my life. You can’t always fully articulate it, but your instinct is telling you—this is the direction I need to go in until a wall stops me. As a 60-year-old I can articulate that better, but as a 30-year-old I didn’t know it as well. So I’m doubly blessed though all this, to have someone who hangs on. And vice versa, it’s never simply one-sided. But at least it’s always understood.
Cornelius Eady is the author of Hardheaded Weather (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008); Brutal Imagination (2001), which was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in Poetry; the autobiography of a jukebox (1997); You Don’t Miss Your Water (1995); The Gathering of My Name (1991), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; BOOM BOOM BOOM (1988); Victims of the Latest Dance Craze (1985), which was chosen by Louise Glück, Charles Simic, and Philip Booth for the 1985 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets; and Kartunes (1980).
Sarah McCall is a poet, yoga teacher, and student of all things wordy and spiritual. She has spent many years as an English teacher, bartender, list maker, and lover of clean, bright things. She and her husband and their two dogs live in Norfolk, VA, where Sarah is an MFA candidate at Old Dominion University.