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A Conversation with Literature

When Cornelius Eady decided to put his name in the running for the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence in the UT Department of English, his only hesitation was the pair of shoes he would be filling – former chair and current Poet Laurate for the United States Joy Harjo.

“She is a tough act to follow, but Joy was the one who recommended I apply,” said Eady, who joined the English department August 1. “She had nothing but praise for the students and faculty and felt what I do and where the program is headed would make a good match.”

Eady brings with him 30 years of teaching experience and the energy and resources of Cave Canem, a workshop for African American poets he helped start many years ago.

“Cornelius has an energy, creativity, and passion for teaching that has been recognized the Modern Language Association through their highest honor, the Phyllis Franklin award for Public Advocacy for the Humanities,” said Misty Anderson, professor and head of English. “He will be a great champion for our department and is already reaching out to Austin-East High School to engage them with poetry and English in general.”

In addition to his poetry and teaching experiences, Eady also brings music to the Scruffy City. Eady, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize nominated poet, set his poetry to song with the Cornelius Eady Trio. Their first appearance in Knoxville is Thursday, September 16 on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special. They will also perform Friday, September 17 with guest Concetta Abbate in the Powell Recital Hall in the Natalie Haslam Music Building on the UT campus.

“We will perform a cycle of songs I wrote during the pandemic lockdown last spring,” Eady said. “We call them our pandemic folks songs.”

John Freeman, in his review of Eady’s project for The Museum of Americana wrote that “Eady’s songs are momentous and unique. This is stunning music that everyone ought to be listening to.”

Eady and his trio wrote the songs remotely from their homes in the New York area, including Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.

“The project was a lifeline through 2020 and our way of coping,” Eady said.

Eady is familiar with projects to help cope with various stages of his life and experiences. Along with poet Toi Derricotte, Eady founded the Cave Canem Foundation as a home for the many voices of African American poetry.

“The idea started as a ‘safe space’ for African American poets to write, experiment, and find different ways of using their voices,” Eady said.

Poets can attend workshops, apply to be fellows, and find productive spaces for writing without fear of censure or the need to defend their subject matter or language.

“We give each other permission to do things we would not have done otherwise,” said Eady, who is proud of the fact that every African American poet since Rita Dove who has won a Pulitzer has had some connection with Cave Canem. “It’s a small workshop, but it has had a huge impact on the way African American poetry is seen in this country.”

This fall, Eady will bring six Cave Canem fellows to campus to celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary. The event is a reading that will take place October 24-26. Eady hopes to bring more Cave Canem programs to UT, but for now, is settling into life on Rocky Top and in Knoxville. As a professor of poetry, Eady will encourage his students to embrace life through poetry.

“When I first learned about poetry, I was just a precocious kid spending time in the library,” Eady said. “One thing led to another and, thanks to a really great homeroom teacher in high school, I stepped on the path of being a writer, which began my conversation with literature.”

Eady answers the question “Why poetry?” with a question of his own – “Why not?”

“The more I teach, the more my students answer this question for me,” Eady said. “They have a way of seeing what they can do, how they can embrace life, and find their voices. The difference between them and me as baby poet is they seem more deliberate about what they want to do. I suppose in a way, teaching for me is appreciating where I was, and where they are, and to do what I can to help make their first steps less mysterious.”

The John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence was established in 1972 to allow the department to attract nationally and internationally recognized senior faculty with a record of excellence in publication, teaching, and service.