Cedric Tillman holds a BA in English from UNC-Charlotte and graduated from American University's Creative Writing MFA program. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a former Boston Review "Discovery" Contest semifinalist. Cedric's poems have appeared in several publications including Crosscut, Folio, The Drunken Boat, Kakalak, The Chemistry of Color, and Home Is Where: An Anthology of African American Poets From the Carolinas. In 2011, his debut collection was a semifinalist selection for the 42 Miles Press Poetry award; the manuscript, titled Lilies in the Valley, was published by Willow Books in 2013. He lives in Charlotte.
At the North Carolina Writers' Network 2014 Fall Conference, Cedric will lead a poetry workshop titled "The Marrow: Cutting the Fat." Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life . . .” In this workshop, we will discuss how to get at the marrow of our poetry, and consider ways we can “rout” all that isn’t poetry―unless, of course, we wish to make a statement about what poetry can be. Specifically, we’ll discuss wordiness, the utility of reading your work aloud, and the extent to which word choice can (or ought to) be affected by prospective audiences. Register now!
What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading A Testament of Hope, a collection of MLK’s speeches and writings edited by James M. Washington. I’m also reading Derrick Harriell’s collection Cotton. I just finished Wendy S. Walters’ Troy, Michigan, and I highly recommend it.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I like to write in libraries, restaurants, and coffeehouses, but I write most productively in dimly lit areas; the ability to see other stuff is a distraction. I often go into my basement, where I have a lamp with these six tenacle-like bulb sockets that are gradually dying one by one. When one goes out I just move the bulb to the next one until I find one that works...in any case, the light from one bulb is as much as I want to have.
If you weren't a writer, what kind of job would you like to have?
Probably something sports-related. I regret not trying to play football beyond sandlot. There really isn’t enough sports poetry, BTW. I need to get at it somehow. I’d love to be a GM of a basketball team.
Like many writers, I’d actually like to be more of a writer―I’m a very part-time writer with a full-time job. I also have what is almost certainly a romanticized idea of working in government in some role that would make me feel I was enhancing the quality of life of fellow citizens in some way. Teaching has always intrigued me but I learned quickly that doing it part-time and trying to juggle it with a full-time gig and a family wasn’t the ticket.
Who has influenced your writing style the most?
I bring a few people with me whenever I write. I love Charles Bukowski’s audacity. His Last Night of the Earth completely blew me away, and not in that trite, b.s. manner we poets typically use the phrase “blew me away.” That audacity gave me license. And then I went to get an MFA where nothing he did would’ve passed muster―and so those impulses were reigned in, but his resistance to decorum pops up in my own work.
I love Gwendolyn Brooks’ elegance. I actually like her pre-60’s/Black Arts Movement stuff more, her more formal era where she managed to stuff subtle critique into sonnets, for example. I am very much a Hemingway fan; his use of implication is masterful, the way he manages to set moods without delineating with specifics. Cornelius Eady’s poetry works in this way for me too―not a lot of fancy verbal gymnastics―just careful word choice and a way of being accessible without being facile.
If you could switch places with one fictional character, who would it be?
I don’t get to nearly as much fiction as I’d like to. My gut, off-the-top-of-the-head response is Gatsby. He played himself in the Daisy situation, wanted too much too soon. Or perhaps, should’ve been contented with the “attention” he was getting. I could’ve shown him how to go about this thing. He was never going to take her from Tom’s money. Something about that story will always stick in my craw. If you’ve ever been the little guy, you want Gatsby to win.
What do you hope attendees takeaway from Fall Conference, especially if they sign up for your workshop?
My workshop will center on issues around editing, such as the utility of reading what you believe to be finished work aloud to yourself and avoiding wordiness. I hope attendees come away with a stronger sensitivity to redundancy, more of an ability to see the points in a poem at which they were striving to have something they could call a poem at the expense of the poetry. We are guilty sometimes of just wanting to use more vertical lines space on a page so we feel like we wrote a poem. Often the real poem is there and there’s just fat around the pith.
Charlotte is known as both "The Queen City" and "The Hornet's Nest." Does one of those nicknames ring more true for you than the other?
I refer to Charlotte as “The QC.” That’s what I’ll always use. The city’s prominence in banking and financial services brings to mind power and prestige and from there it’s not a big leap to associate those characteristics with royalty―so the name has some resonance today beyond its original derivation from Queen Charlotte. I’m so glad we have the Hornets back. It’s good to have the team’s name reunited with the Revolutionary War-era history of the area. I hope the corporate moniker doesn’t prevent us from going back to referring to our stadium (now Time Warner Arena) as “The Hive” instead of “The Cable Box,” but outside of sports this is “The QC.” Most importantly, “QC” is more compact and sounds cooler.
A panel on Sunday is titled, "The Many Paths to Publication." What's the first thing you ever published?
The first thing I ever published (other than one of those contests I entered in high school where you submit and everyone gets published that pays) was a poem called “Read This Back.” It was published in an anthology of poets from the Carolinas called Kakalak, in 2006. A friend from work saw an ad for submissions in Creative Loafing and suggested it to me. My book, Lilies in the Valley, came about through a chance meeting of a reader for Willow Books at a Cave Canem Foundation writing conference. She forwarded my manuscript to the poetry editor, Randall Horton. I’d met Randall at the 2009 Cave Canem Workshop but didn’t know anything about Willow. It took a lot of revision and a year and a half or so to get the go-ahead but I’m thrilled that Willow gave me a shot.
Give us three adjectives you hope critics use to describe your next book.
Accessible, emotional, inimitable.
What is the most frustrating or rewarding part of the writing process?
It usually takes me a long time to come up with something I feel good about sharing with people. It’s finding the time to put in the time you know you’ll have to put in to get something you’re happy with that’s most frustrating. The problem is you’re never happy or content until you make that time and flesh out the idea(s) in your head, so there’s always a nagging sensation of guilt and responsibility lingering around every spare moment.
What’s one piece of advice no one gave you when you were starting out, that you wish they had?
Stay in your lane. You can branch out but don’t ever think your experiences and your background is unworthy of being elevated in importance or illuminated by writing. Don’t let people make you feel that way, and don’t let you make you feel that way. It’s OK that your story isn’t their story―your story is somebody’s story, and a lot of people who won’t speak for themselves, who aren’t moved to put pen to pad won’t see themselves if you don’t declare that people like you and people like them exist.
If you could mandate that everyone in the world read one book, which one would you choose?
The Bible. I can think of several books I think every American should read (The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. DuBois, The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson, The Debt by Randall Robinson) but it’s hard to think of more than the one that I’d recommend to the world.
Describe your ideal literary festival. Who would give the keynote address? Who would be the featured readers? What else?
I’ll stick to the living on this one, on the off chance that my wildest dream comes true. The mélange of styles and spirits would be CRAZY! (commencing name drop…) On the poetry side I’d have so much of my Cave Canem people that it’d probably resemble another one of its workshop retreats. I’d have people I know and people I don’t know whose work I admire from afar. Right now I’m thinking Cornelius Eady and Colleen McElroy and Derrick Harriell and Wendy Walters and Brian Gilmore and L. Lamar Wilson and Joseph Ross and Alan King and Derrick Brown. People from grad school like Sandra Beasley, Venus Thrash, Ebony Golden, Myra Sklarew. Pat Buchanan (yes, that Pat Buchanan―rough segue, huh?). Lisa Schamess and Edward P. Jones to rep for fiction. I’d have Timothy Keller, who’s book The Reason for God might be the second-most important book I’ve ever read, be the keynote. Just a bunch of talented, funny, thoughtful, serious spirits. Maybe a two/three day deal with presentations and Q&As and small groups. A little something for everyone.
Do you steal hotel pens?
Not without a complete absence of guilt. It’s for a good cause.
Registration for the North Carolina Writers' Network 2014 Fall Conference is now open.