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Words with Melody 

Cornelius Eady and his band Rough Magic bring music to poetry

click to enlarge Cornelius Eady
  • Cornelius Eady

Cornelius Eady doesn't consider what he does work. Yes, he teaches weekly at the University of Missouri discussing poetry, literature and theater, but he says there's little separation between this and what he loves to do. After three days on the job, he flies back home to Manhattan to continue his various projects, including writing poetry and collaborating with his literary band, Rough Magic.

"We use that term [literary band] because there are so many writers in the band," Eady says last week over the phone.

The five-piece began in 2013 when Eady's friend and fellow poet Robin Messing wanted to sing together. Soon, musicians came together for a recording session of Eady's poetry in a rented-out Brooklyn basement. When asked to give a reading at a Manhattan church, Eady obliged, as long as his "band" could come too.

"We weren't even official then," he says. But since then, the group, made up of stand-up bass, violin, drums, guitar and vocals, has collaborated and performed steadily throughout the East Coast. This weekend, the group's jazz-tinged instrumentation and bluesy beats come to the Get Lit! festival.

Now in his sixties, the National Book Award finalist can't remember a time when the two artistic media weren't a part of his life.

"Poetry and music have been porous throughout my career," says Eady, who even wrote a libretto for an opera.

He does say that putting melody to words has opened up a new way for people to appreciate his and other poets' works. He explains that songs are often more immediate than poems: "You either get songs, or you don't." Simply speaking poetry out loud has a slowing effect, causing listeners to contemplate life.

He makes it clear that songwriting and adding music to poetry are two different entities. When lyrics are written specific to a song, it's obvious in flow and melody. But when poems are added to music, the sound can be avant-garde and modern in scope — like the two pieces don't completely fit.

How he writes is straightforward, Eady says, but it's often challenging to explain his process in a group setting because there is no big secret.

"I'm reluctant to talk process publicly," Eady says. "The best thing to say is: You work on it until you get it done. Sometimes it's easy; sometimes it's tough. Writing it is the only way to get through it."

With eight books of poetry published, the most recent 2008's Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems, Eady says he's focusing on the poetry and musical aspect of his career right now. The band's album, which features American poet Sterling A. Brown's text set to music, is expected next year.

Get Lit! is the group's first West Coast venture and Eady says that the audience should pay attention to the interaction between the instrumentalists.

"I think people are going to be happily surprised about how tight the band is, how well we play and what we do with the poems," Eady says. ♦

An Evening of Poetry and Music feat. Cornelius Eady and Rough Magic • Fri, April 15, 7 pm • $15 general admission/free for students • Lincoln Ballroom at The Lincoln Center, 1316 N. Lincoln

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