Though there is already a great deal of excitement surrounding the planned return to in-person classes in the fall, the English department’s latest hire has given them another reason to look forward to next semester. Cornelius Eady will be joining the faculty as the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence, bringing with him over 40 years of experience not only as an award-winning writer, but also as a beloved educator and community builder.
Eady said he is looking forward to joining the UT community, especially after hearing glowing comments about the creative writing program from Joy Harjo, the incumbent U.S. poet laureate who last held the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence.
“I like community, I like the idea of community, I like the idea of what community can do,” Eady said. “I think this, from my perception, is a community, a very very vibrant, curious, open community and I’m looking really forward to being a citizen of that community.”
Eady, 67, has published several books of poetry and many plays across his career, including “Victims of the Latest Dance Craze” (1985), which won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Poets, as well as the Pulitzer Prize nominated collection “The Gathering of My Name”(1991) and the National Book Award finalist “Brutal Imagination”(2001).
Eady’s work often focuses on matters of race and class in America, and he is fond of incorporating jazz and blues music into lyrical poetry. For him, poetry and music are “cousins” who share melody and rhythm and can work in tandem.
“Brutal Imagination,” Eady’s most celebrated collection, is based on the infamous 1994 case of Susan Smith, a white woman in South Carolina who blamed the kidnapping of her two children on a Black man before authorities uncovered that she had made this man up and had strapped her two sons into a car and drowned them herself.
The collection, which includes theatrical sequences, is largely told from the perspective of the imaginary Black man who existed in the minds of the FBI and the nation at large for nine days before the truth was uncovered. It was adapted by Eady into an off-Broadway play in 2001, directed by and starring Joe Morton, which won the Newsday Oppenheimer award.
A dedicated songwriter, Eady collaborated with composer Diedre Murray to create the Pulitzer Prize finalist libretto “Running Man,” also based on his poetry. His musical group the Cornelius Eady Trio, comprised of Eady and guitarists Lisa Liu and Charlie Rauh, toured widely and were recently featured on the BBC for their newest album “Don’t Get Dead,” a collection of “pandemic folk songs.”
In 1996, Eady co-founded Cave Canem, a non-profit organization for Black poets, with poet Toi Derricotte. Since that time, Cave Canem has become a premier retreat for Black poetry and also provides readings, workshops and awards to support a broad community of Black poets.
Eady will be moving to Knoxville from New York City, where he most recently held a professorship in the MFA program at SUNY Stony Brook. A native of upstate New York, he has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University and City College of New York. But his position at UT will not be the first time he’s taught in the South, having previously held positions at The College of William and Mary and the University of Missouri.
After being a faculty member in so many programs across the country, Eady said he is glad to be joining an English department that is looking to grow and become more dynamic.
“It’s one thing to come down just to teach but I think it’s also another thing to come down to be part of a growth of a department, to be around when that’s about to happen” Eady said. “I think the timing seems to be ideal for myself and also for the department.”
As a poet with a passion for education, Eady said he hopes to be able to introduce his students to the world of Black literature and art of which he is a part.
“My role as an educator is simply to be a doorway for my students and to also be a representative of a certain artistic culture, you know, certain aspects of an African American culture,” Eady said. “In terms of poetry, I come from a very long lineage starting with Phyllis Wheatley.”
Eady, like Harjo before him, will be teaching students at the graduate level, students who are working towards becoming poets themselves. One of the central modes for teaching at this level is the workshop, where students read and critique each other’s work. Eady said this kind of education is a powerful tool for sending writers into their futures.
“What participants in these kind of workshops at the university level … all workshops really, they’re inventing their future selves, right? That’s what they’re doing,” Eady said. “They’re inventing their future selves, right in real time in that room.”
Eady believes that his unique strength as an educator is his ability to create a space where students are able to be fully themselves in their work, but also able to discover who they want to be as writers. While he wants to steward the voices of all his students, this is especially true for the students of color at UT.
“For any minority students I’m going to encounter, I’m also trying to reinforce the idea of the rightness of who they are, that there’s no need for them to transform themselves into something else in order to become the writer they want to be,” Eady said. “They don’t have to apologize for being who they are or have to figure out a workaround for who they are or where they come from.”
Misty Anderson, head of the English department, said that the search for a new Hodges Chair in Excellence began back in 2018, when its previous holder Joy Harjo was selected as the first Native American poet laureate of the United States. Harjo helped in the search for her successor, and Anderson said Eady emerged as the perfect choice.
“I could not imagine someone more perfect for our next chair of excellence,” Anderson said. “He’s the kind of person, the kind of artist and professor who is orienting his work life around supporting others, his students, other poets. He’s an extraordinarily generous person.”
The English department is rethinking much of how it operates after the total upending that attended the pandemic. In Anderson’s first year as head of the department, she has overseen the development of an alumni mentoring program to help undergraduates plan for the future as well as the beginning of a broad update to English curriculum.
Another change that she said the department would like to see is a more representative faculty that can help the department tell the most diverse set of stories as possible. This was an important factor in selecting the next faculty member for the Hodges Chair of Excellence.
“We looked at a field of prominent American poets and we were committed to making sure that our representation in creative writing and more generally in English was reflecting (the) American experience,” Anderson said.
Already, Eady said he is thinking about artistic projects and events to bring with him to Knoxville. These include a potential celebration of Cave Canem’s 25th anniversary later this year, which could draw some of the most prominent Black poets from across the nation, as well as a local production of “Brutal Imagination.”
Anderson said that bringing Eady onto the faculty means not only adding his generosity and expertise to the department, but also bringing a vibrant community of Black artists and poets who will find their way to the UT community to see a dear friend and to share their work.
“This is what UT is about. We are gathering together the luminaries of the American poetry scene with Harjo and Eady,” Anderson said. “With Cornelius’s arrival, we are looking forward of dreaming up with him where his great imagination takes us.”