The Creative Writing and Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton is growing! This semester they’ve added two titans in their respective genres: short story writer Amy Hempel and poet Cornelius Eady. Both will be reading at Writer Speak Wednesdays reading series on the college campus on September 13.
Tell us about your background.
I’m originally from Rochester, New York, same as poets Marie Howe and Phillip Schultz albeit from different times. I grew up in a black neighborhood with my parents, older sister, younger brother and my aunts. However, there was such stability there. Everyone on the block had a mortgage and helped each other. I don’t think I could’ve been a writer if it wasn’t for the stability I experienced there. As a child, I was extremely precocious. I was reading newspapers at age 3. I also demonstrated a high aptitude for math.
How did you get your start in poetry?
I got my start in poetry probably the same way everyone does: a teacher. My homeroom teacher at John Marshall High School used to encourage my writing. I mainly wrote song lyrics during that time and she saw the poetic value in them. This teacher was also the editor of the school’s literary magazine and she would publish my pieces. Through her honesty and support along with the exposure, I became aware of my writing and how it was perceived by others.
During my sophomore year, she moved to Nova Scotia with her husband. However, we kept in touch. I would send her my pieces and she would mail them back with critiques, kind of like a low-residency program. Besides our back and forth, I frequented the library in downtown Rochester which had a really good poetry section. It had books from publishers like City Lights and New Directions. I read the likes of Baraka, Corso, Ginsberg and Brooks.
I applied and got into a poetry workshop taught by Pat Janus. From there, I became aware of the poetry world and what it had to offer.
What are your initial thoughts of the MFA program in Southampton?
So far, I’m very impressed by the energy of the program. It’s very small, but very generous and mindful. You can often get a vibe within the first few minutes of the dynamics of a place, like which student is the know-it-all or which one is the star. However, you don’t get this competitive, cutthroat energy here.
The faculty enjoy each other and are very congenial. When I called in during our first faculty meeting earlier this week—I never heard so much laughter in one. Normally, the inaugural faculty meeting of the semester fills you with dread. You’re thinking why do I have to do this and oh God. With Southampton, it is the first time I wished I was in the room.
If you had to compare your poetic sensibilities to a U.S. city, which would you choose and why?
For my early stuff, Rochester. On some level, it reflects where I come from, the people I grew up with, the education system, the place you’re born and the place you choose. I choose Rochester and Manhattan.
The poet Terrance Hayes refers to poetry as the “supreme genre.” What is it about poetry which allows it to inform different genres and disciplines?
When you get to certain authors like Hemingway or Carver, the idea of that kind of singing, the ear detects a certain way of singing or description that can’t be effected any other way. You know, the kind that forces one to dream with their eyes open and transports them someplace else. Basically, the reader is not only made to understand but to feel. At the highest level of this, it is “poetic.”
Writers Speak Wednesday is held in the Radio Lounge in Chancellor’s Hall on Stony Brook Southampton campus, 239 Montauk Highway. Find them on Facebook @WritersSpeakWednesdays.