By Yael Valencia Aldana
On Saturday afternoon, a few hundred literary souls braved the unusually cold weather and a stiff biting breeze for the event, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, Cornelius Eady and Rowan Ricardo Phillips in conversation. I love these events as it gives us access to literary royalty. Cornelius Eady is someone whose name rings as legend, yet he was sitting in front of us talking about being a young man in Rochester, New York.
Eady and Phillips were well-known to each other and had an easy banter back and forth. Phillips asked Eady what mentorship mean to him. Eady shared the story of his own mentor, Michael S. Harper. He used an interesting term to describe how Harper helped him. Eady said Harper tracked him and what he was doing, and that Harper would pop up along the way to help him. For instance, he helped Eady secure a tenured position at Stony Brook University.
Eady said it’s hard to be a writer and a poet, and it’s harder still to be an other poet, like a Black poet. And that he too, now tracks those he mentors to remind them that they are not alone. This a fascinating insight from the co-founder of Cave Canem, an organization that has sheltered and encouraged so many Back poets.
Much of Eady and Phillips’s conversation focused on Black poets of the distant past, including Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman and the first African American Woman to publish a book of poetry; Lucy Terry Prince, another enslaved woman and poet; and Jupiter Hammon, also enslaved and the first published African American poet.
As a Black woman, I was familiar with Phillis Wheatley, but I largely dismissed her work as puppetry, strongly catering to her white American masters. And, of course, she had to. Catering to the people that owned her was a necessary mode of survival. But Eady noted that kernels of her experience are in her work: “You have to dig for the truth of her experience.”
Eady’s insights gave me a new perspective into Wheatley and her fellow enslaved poets, and I’ll be taking another look at their work with fresh eyes to mine for those hidden nuggets of themselves.
Eady and Phillips also read poems from other Black poets, including Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sterling A. Brown. The talk ended with Eady reading his poem, “Radio,” which was just the sunshine we needed on this blustery Saturday.
Yael Valencia Aldana is a Caribbean-American Afro-Latinx writer and poet. She lives in South Florida with her son and too many pets.