Toi Derricotte is the author of The Undertaker’s Daughter and four earlier collections of poetry, including Tender, winner of the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks, received the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her several distinguished awards include the Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists. Below, she shares with Lauren K. Alleyne her thoughts on dialogue, connection, co-founding the Cave Canem Foundation, and living the work.
LKA: What do you try to do when you sit down to write a poem? What’s your process?
TD: For me, it’s physical. It just takes everything—mind and body, too, because there are all these connections between things, and for me, that’s the process. Often in the past art was made for religious purposes, to celebrate the relationship between God and the artist or humanity or whatever, and sometimes it was made as an offering so that bad things wouldn’t happen to individuals or groups of people. I think I have some of that impetus in my work: It means something, the shape of it, the way things are connected inside of it; it’s connected to some deep part of me that sort of knows when it’s done. And, it has to do with me accessing memories and feelings attached to memories. I know when it’s done, I can feel when it’s done but I don’t know exactly why it is done, why it’s gone over the line between when it’s not done and when it is done! So I don’t know exactly—maybe it’s just a gift that it all comes together in a way that has meaning.
LKA: That’s really interesting, that idea of process as a spiritual movement, where something’s transformed, and you as the writer know when that transformation has happened, though it’s not really definable—that’s really beautiful. How do you think that translates into the world? And how is it important to the bigger outside of ourselves and that personal/spiritual transformation? What do you think a poem can do in the world?
TD: I think a poem puts something that has shape and order into the world. And I think that has meaning for people. I think poetry is sort of on the side of good, because evil seems to me—I have experienced evil—as something that breaks apart a connection between the self and between people, and I sense that a certain kind of order of things brings peace, love, compassion, understanding. And so I hope to do some of that kind of work when I do my work.
LKA: I love that idea of evil as something that severs connection and poetry as something that brings us back together. I have an image now of little poem warriors fighting on the side of good and light. I like it!
TD: Well, when I was in Catholic school—I went to Catholic school for many years—we learned that hell was hell because you couldn’t talk to God. You were cut off from communication with God, so I experience hell on earth as being unable to communicate, to be cut off from connection to other beings. Hopefully, the work that I love wants to communicate with other beings what it’s like to be human.
LKA: So speaking of connections with others, of course, there’s no way I can interview you and not talk about Cave Canem! The foundation will be twenty this year. Can you talk a bit about that journey from an idea to becoming “the premiere home for black poets in America?”
TD: Of course, wonderful! Twenty years ago, I just was sort of floatin’ out there in the atmosphere, and it was not only a feeling of being alone, but also in a hostile world. The world of poetry and aesthetics was cruel. It was racist as anything in the world was at that moment in time, and so the connections that Cornelius Eady and Sarah Micklem and I made at the beginning, the understanding that something could be done, and that we could figure it out, and the desire—the deep desire—to make this happen was kind of a gift.
It was like having a baby or somethin’, you don’t know what the hell is happening, but it’s big! Like, all you did was have sex, and then this amazing thing happens. It was like that. I can’t tell you why we wanted to do this so badly, but certainly it was deeper than just “this is a good idea.” It was a force, I think, that was coming through us, as if a door opened. I always sense that spiritual side of it. What you create sort of shifts the universe a little. For black poets, it changed our visibility in the world—mostly to ourselves! It created dialogue and support that didn’t exist before. Now I can read the books that didn’t exist when I was a young poet. It makes me know I’m not alone. That’s what Cave Canem meant to me. That’s what it still means to me.
And, I’m so honored to receive people’s gratitude; I know I’ve worked hard. I am very involved in the success of the organization; however, it’s way beyond us individuals. I think of all of you [Cave Canem Fellows] and how you have helped each other, how the fellows have loved each other, your determination to make it work, which happens every year. Every year is not a perfect year, and we know that, but somehow people work it out, because they just want it to happen so badly.
So where I’m at right now is just in the process of knowing it is a process, and I am part of the process. I have a certain role. My role is changing now, because the organization is growing and changing, and this is right that this is happening, and the organization is evolving. I was a parent, and now, maybe I’m more like a grandparent. I don’t know. I’m still really involved in the transition, but at some point, I really see myself as trusting the process, which I do more and more as time goes on.
LKA: How do you think the needs and experiences of writers of color have evolved in the past 20 years? The thing—”desire” is the word you used— that birthed Cave Canem twenty years ago, do you think it’s a different force now? What’s changed?
TD: I would hope! We’re back to communication again, and the importance I see in dialogue, in connection with other people. I think I would say in most of those twenty years, my idea was always about art. Why do you have dialogue? Why do you have a community? Why do you talk to each other? Why do you tell the truth? Why do you work hard on your poems? Why do you critique yourself, and why are you open to others? Why do these things? Because you want to make great art! That’s what it’s all about for me.
As I grow older, I’m changing a little bit, but I still see that has been a very significant shaping of the retreat itself—people come there ready to do hard things, and confront themselves, and think about, and be open to learning. I think it’s always been about art. These are people who really want to be poets, and make great poetry.
And I think this was so important because when I was in graduate school ten years before Cave Canem, I’d never read a black poet; it looked to me that it was impossible for us to make great poetry. That there was something wrong or something missing. So that emphasis I had [on making great poetry] was almost like rebellion. A resistance. It was like, yeah, I’m going to write a great poem! And we can write great poems. There was an anger to it, even. So I think that’s all part of this change in poetry, because I’m not so sure that kind of thinking is as prevalent in the poetry world as it was twenty years ago. I don’t know if we have that same kind of work to do in the same way. I’m not sure about that. I’ll have to find out from you guys . . .
LKA: I was so excited about the National Book Awards nominees this year!
TD: Yes! And all the people nominated for the Black Image Awards were Cave Canem people: it’s just amazing. And I always knew this! I always knew. Even from childhood. I knew that black people with their serious problems were just the most brilliant, most understanding, most joyful, most . . . they were the smartest people! Even with all their problems, the black people I grew up with had everything. Psychologically, there were big issues going on, but their inner spirits had everything beautiful, brilliant. They were thinkers and storytellers, so I always, deep down wanted to believe in that, and to feed it—to feed it and make it real. That seems to me why the poem has something to do with the world, because you’re feeding something; you’re feeding a belief. Who knows whether God is good or bad or if there is no God or whatever, but when you feed a belief, it means something.
LKA: Yes. I definitely think that you and Cornelius and Sarah were feeding the belief twenty years ago, and doing the work that made it possible for those voices and those spirits to find their way. That’s certainly how I feel about Cave Canem!
TD: Yes. And it’s important to realize that Sarah and Cornelius and I all brought different, necessary gifts. I couldn’t do it alone. I don’t think Cornelius could do it alone; I don’t think Sarah could. It’s not just that we did it, it’s that we each were a part of the success or of the creation, and that’s, I think, a very significant idea in today’s world where it’s “me me me,” and who’s on top of the next guy. We’re really driven to this kind of definition of what success is, that it’s one person. It wasn’t like that for Cave Canem, and isn’t. The community only exists because of [the fellows], it is not one person who’s in charge, who makes or breaks it. And that’s why I have so much trust about moving through my process. It’s up to you guys! I really trust you. From my experience, you’re going to do whatever you need to do because you have such great hearts, and part of my job is to trust.
LKA: In terms of nuts and bolts advice—and you’ve already started to give it in terms of recognizing the importance of team and community—what are some things you’d share with our readers, many of whom are women, who are feeling this desire to make something like this come into the world?
TD: It seems to me that the young women today are more confident, more able to come forth with what they want; they feel more in control of their own destiny. Maybe I’m wrong, but for me, and I feel this is true for everyone, when you really have something that you want to do, and you feel that it’s very important, you have to grow as a person to get it done. One of the biggest things that I found out is that it isn’t personal. For example, sometimes there might be poets out there who weren’t my best friends. So would those people come to Cave Canem and teach? Or would it only be people who were my friends? You know what I mean? And so I had to learn it wasn’t about me, or my personal feelings. It was about Cave Canem.
And so I think it’s very important for any person to keep learning how to give yourself in the best way you can to your organization, and for everyone that’s going to be different. Certainly for me, it was learning to separate my personal feelings, and my own personal ways of relating to people, from what was best for the organization. I think it’s a good idea to learn how to forget yourself. In AA they say “Principles above personality.” I think the success of your organization has to come before your personal feelings about things.
LKA: So I was fortunate to have had you as a workshop leader. Tell me a bit about your philosophy: how do you teach a poem, or how do you teach someone to write poetry?
TD [big, beautiful laugh]: You’d think I’d know after teaching fifty years, huh?
LKA: FIFTY YEARS?!
TD: Fifty years. I started teaching when I was twenty. I taught students who were socially maladjusted (that’s what we called it at the time); basically, they were kids with problems. I did that for about ten years. I learned a lot about people’s expectations not necessarily being accurate because a lot of these kids, though they were poor and uneducated, were just brilliant . . .
But anyway, I guess what do I want to teach? For years I never really knew for sure. I’d have a plan when I went into a classroom, a general idea that what happens between me and another person is based on what kind of connection we make, and I was always trying to understand what I could give. It was good, in that it was open ended, and a lot of surprising insights occurred. A lot of the time, it was personal and very specific to each person in the workshop.
Somebody told me that one of the things that Ed (Roberson) did, when he was teaching at Cave Canem, was that he looked at everybody’s poem and found a lesson for the day based on the poems of the people who were in the classroom, and then he’d teach that lesson, whatever it was, before the workshop. That’s a really smart idea. Most often in the past, I felt my job was to just be there, to be with the poets. People in the classroom know more than I do in lots of areas. I mean a Cave Canem workshop, for example, is right out of heaven, people are so smart and so generous and loving, and on point.
Lately, however, I’ve been teaching with an almost opposite technique—maybe because I’m older and I don’t have forever to get out what I want to say about poems. Also I wonder if part of the reason for my prior technique was that I was afraid of being seen. Lately I’ve been reading the poem of each poet aloud and then going through it line by line with the poet, asking questions and making comments before I allow anyone else to speak. It sounds terribly bossy. But it seems to work very well because then the poet knows exactly what I think and, let’s be frank, I know a lot! I like how being an older woman gives you a blanket permission to act like a queen!
LKA: You’ve been writing yourself for a really long time. What keeps you going as a writer? What do you do to feed your practice as a poet?
TD: I don’t know when I learned that the thinking that I was doing was the thinking that writers do, because probably I had just thought like that all my life, and I just didn’t know what to attach to it. But now I know that all day long I’m probably thinking about what I’m going to be writing next. It’s just . . . everything. Everything is about my writing.
LKA: Who are you reading? Who are some writers you find exciting right now?
TD: Right now I’m reading Lauren Alleyne. She’s very exciting to me right now. Let’s see. I have a book called The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was written in the 17th century by a nun who saw in visions moment by moment, descriptions of the Virgin’s life. And I’m talking about like, what she was wearing, the robes, and like the birth of Jesus—she describes the birth— and everything. It’s a big old book! I’m reading Tracy K. Smith. I’m reading Jessamyn Ward. I’m reading Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m reading Claudia Rankine, and Juliana Spahr’s American Women Poets of the 21st Century, and I’m just finishing Ta Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
LKA: You put out a lot of hard hitters there! And also, you’re not a one-book woman!
TD: Nope. I read when I get in bed at night, and am like, which do I feel like picking up tonight?
LKA: So according to the bio on your webpage, you’ve published over one thousand poems. That boggles my mind, first of all—
TD: They’re not all of them good, you know!
LKA: I doubt that! But what I want to know is, given your wide reading and publishing, do you read any particular literary journals religiously?
TD: Honestly, I can’t say I’m a great reader of literary journals. I just like to go sit in the library or lie in bed and read a book. I wouldn’t say that I’m watching for journals. I get journals sent to me, and I’ll flip thorough them, see who’s published, and read a few poems. When I get ready to send out (I don’t send out poems that much because I’m such a slow writer of poetry), but if I get 10 poems that I decide I want to send out, I might go to the library and look through the journals and see which ones I like now, but I won’t say I’m a good reader of literary journals. I like books.
LKA: With writing five books, co-founding Cave Canem, teaching, and the rest, you’ve built this wonderful career around poetry. We have readers who are “women in and about books” and who love words. What do you think are some things to think about when one is trying to build a career centered on writing and poetry?
TD: It takes time. It takes time and hard work and ambition and determination, and it also takes talent. And it takes sacrifice, because it does take time, and we don’t have an unlimited amount of time. When I first started writing— for the first I would say 7-8 years— I was working 7-8 hours every day, and probably longer than that. I mean just on writing. And then the business of writing is another kind of career. I don’t know how many hours a week I’ve spent on my career in a business sense, you know, answering requests, writing recommendations, doing interviews, managing the business of doing readings, Cave Canem and my continuous involvement with that, with the board, being the director. And it’s a work of love, it’s like raising your kid or something, but all of these things take a lot of time. And . . . I’m not the kind of person that, you know, is centered around my family; I’m great to my family, and I have a great relationship with my family, but I won’t be baking cakes for everyone for Christmas or sending individual presents chosen by looking in stores for days. That’s just not how I use my time.
Of course, at different stages of your life you do different things. When I had a baby, I didn’t write for three years—probably longer than that. When Tony was born, I don’t think I wrote for like 5 years! But you need determination, because you know, you do need talent, you really do, but you may not be the most talented person in the world and do great, because of your determination and ambition. A lot of people are really great, but they don’t know how to hang in there, and they just don’t want to do the hard work. And it is hard work! It’s a work of love for a lot of people; they may just love it. But some of us struggle, and it’s not always like oh I’m so happy. Especially working with difficult content, you know, you don’t just work on these poems and walk away feeling great!
You do pay a price for doing this work. A lot of people in the past century drank themselves to death— they didn’t have medicine, or didn’t choose therapy—because this is hard work, psychologically and spiritually too. It’s hard and it doesn’t just go away when you stop writing for the day; you live your work. You don’t just write it: you live it.
LKA: My last interview for femmeliterate was with the novelist Nina Revoyr, and she talked about the pure joy of writing her novels. It was wonderful to hear, but I remember feeling like, geez! That is so not my experience!
TD: But I have experienced some of that in writing prose. I do! I truly do! I don’t think this is true of all poets, but for me, writing a poem is like digging—it’s really “get your back up against the fork” digging. But, prose flows for me. It didn’t in The Black Notebooks. Oh, God, no. But I think that you do learn more about writing, and you make decisions more easily, because of what you’ve done in the past. I think you learn to write by writing and it does get easier . . . I think . . . wait . . . well, no, it doesn’t. That’s a lie. [big beautiful laugh] You know, I think it’s that I deceive myself—you know, where at the end of the day I look at a poem and I think that this poem is so good, and the next day, I think this poem is a piece of shit! You know, I think you deceive yourself to keep going. It is just always hard work, and it takes time to figure out what’s good.
LKA: Are you working on anything new?
TD: Yes! I’m writing new poems, and working on what I’m calling The Fractured Knee Journals. I fractured my knee three years ago and my whole life has changed since then: everything. I changed a relationship with somebody whowas a very significant person in my life; I sold my house and moved to a condo; I decided I was going to stay in Pittsburgh as long as I can; I retired from teaching; I retired from Cave Canem . . . So, yeah, I call it The Fractured Knee Journals: The Interior Life of a Young Old Woman Writer. It’s memoir.
I’m working on poems too, but so far I don’t have a theme or anything. Sometimes I just write poems, as individual poems, and then a couple years down the line, I’ll see that I’ve been writing about this subject or that subject or that theme, and then I’ll have more of a sense of what’s shaping my work. But right now, I don’t know what it is for my poetry.
LKA: Do you have any final words for our readers?
TD: Just hang in there. Hold on to your life— it’s precious. Love yourself, and be gentle with yourself. And just keep on, keep on, keep on. Keep on investing as much as you can into what’s a good direction for you. Keep on learning about your art; keep on being committed to it.
Lauren K. Alleyne is the author of Difficult Fruit and and her fiction, non-fiction, interviews, and poetry have been widely published. Her honors and awards include the Picador Guest Professorship in Literature at the University of Leipzig, an Iowa Arts Council Fellowship, and a Small Axe Literary Award. Alleyne is a Cave Canem graduate, is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and is currently the Poet-in-Residence and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Dubuque in Iowa.