Award-winning author and scholar, Toi Derricotte co-founded Cave Canem Foundation with Cornelius Eady in 1996. She is the recipient of the 2021 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets and the 2020 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.
Photo by Heather Kresge
Recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ 2021 Wallace Stevens Award and the Poetry Society’s 2020 Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry, Toi Derricotte is the author of 2019 National Book Awards Finalist I: New & Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), The Undertaker’s Daughter (2011), 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 honors include, among many others, the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, three Pushcart Prizes, and the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists. Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, Derricotte co-founded Cave Canem Foundation (with Cornelius Eady) in 1996; served on the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors, 2012-2017; and currently serves on Cave Canem’s Board of Directors and Marsh Hawk Press’s Artistic Advisory Board. Visit her website for more.
by Toi Derricotte
At the counter, the pressed
Elizabeth collects my cash,
wraps my laundry & bends
her head slightly to the left—
from whence exudes a soft keening:
“Baby wants to meet you.”
She lifts a threadbare armful
that sniffs a quarter-sized nose
at me & licks my hand.
Mommy pulls her back.
They exchange mouth kisses.
“Joy of my life,” she proclaims.
Behind us the door bangs & Baby
starts barking wildly. I turn to see
a young black man. Elizabeth waves
in a friendly way, “Oh Jeff,
be right with you,” but pulls in close
& mouths a silent explanation:
“Baby doesn’t like black people.”
as if “dogs do the weirdest things!”—
& Baby keeps barking as if he’d like to
rip off Jeff’s skin. “I’m black too,”
I mouth back at her, extravagantly
shaping the “B.” She freezes—
but not as if she said the wrong thing;
more like she’s trying to figure out
if it’s me or Baby that’s confused.
This interview was conducted between Amanda Johnston and Toi Derricotte by Zoom on March 30, 2022.
Congratulations on being the 2022 AWP keynote speaker and your many recent awards. How does it feel to be celebrated at this point in your life?
It was a great pleasure and joy to get this gift from the universe, to have something that is able to do good for other people. That's a great joy. And I think that is the great gift of my life. Because, you know, I was always so self-criticizing. It just really taught me that this is a gift that I received. And I worked it! I could have put it in the garbage. Or I could have stayed in a place where I might have been crushed. But I kept knowing how to get out of those places. I wonder how Lucille Clifton felt about that. All my joy was in the connection. If I had just been standing up there as a thing it wouldn't have been fun. It’s the giving and receiving and giving and receiving. It goes both ways. That's where the fun is.
You co-founded Cave Canem Foundation with Cornelius Eady over 25 years ago. Cave Canem recently received the inaugural Toni Morrison Achievement Award from The National Book Critics Circle. In the early days, did you think the organization would grow to be what it is today?
I think Cornelius and I both thought that and that's why we did it. But we got a lot of help in the early days from people like Sarah, Father Francis, Carolyn, and all of the executive directors. And because of the fellows doing their work. So much power that comes from the fellows’ work. And that's how it is, we give back and forth. And I think that's very much a Black thing. You know, there's something in us. And I think it goes all the way back to Africa. I think we're so special as survivors and joyous people. I really think we have special gifts for that. And that's why, you know, white people are jealous.
One of the other things I love so much about Cave Canem is that you don't have to be a certain kind of poet. You don't have to be a language poet or narrative poet or anything. You can do anything you want. You can combine them. And you know, that's another way we're so smart. There's no hierarchy of work here. I told Cornelius the other day I said, buddy, you gave me permission to be me. He said I feel the same way. Yeah, so what we want to do is give each other permission to be ourselves.
As the author of numerous books, most recently I: New & Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press), a 2019 National Book Awards Finalist, how have you managed your professional career aka “the PoBiz” while nurturing your creative work?
It's like everything else, you know, it's ambivalent. And the thing that Tyehimba and you and the board presidents have done for me is let me know that you love Cave Canem and you know what to do next. And I really don't, you know, I really don't. I can pass on what I did and what I believed in. But, you know, the world has changed so much in 25 years. And so, I learned to count on you and let go. And I really have learned that that's a process. And that takes time. And fortunately, you guys are giving me time. I'm almost ready to let go. And of course, I'm so fortunate because I’m still gonna be able to write and love my writing. I still have life.
And I feel like poets are the best friends you can have in the world. Because they really, you know, have probed their own limits. I think poets tell you the truth. I think Black poets are just extraordinary. I always believed that. From the first time I stood up in that circle at the retreat to the last time, you know, I was standing there thinking what a phony I am. While they're thinking I'm the leader and all this crap, you know. But I learned, you guys understand me. And I understand you and I’m ready to know more and to love you for who you are. And, you know, with all my own feelings of unworthiness, there was something deep in me that thought we're no good. Just like they tell us we're no good. I'm no good. But every time I would still go into that opening circle, honey, all that was blasted to shit. Because deep down, I knew we were brilliant and beautiful. I knew it deeper down than even my unworthiness and self-loathing. I knew we were beautiful. And I could see it. I could see it with my eyes. And hear it with my ears. What a fabulous thing to know.
In your poem “Laundry” the speaker is faced with a choice: to acknowledge they are Black or allow a stranger to assume they are white. Can you share why the choice went the way it did in the poem and what the risk may have been if a different choice was made?
Well, I liked very much that I could joke around. That was a triumph. You know, I could’ve called her a bitch and walked out of the store and all that stuff, but the deafest people are the ones who don't want to hear. Why should I waste my time? If they don't want to hear it, I just go the other way. You know, and I have to make these decisions right now. Nowadays, you can decide what [race] you are on your medical records. When I was a young woman, you couldn't. The doctor just looked at you and decided. So, you know, it's a real world that we live in. And people pay terrible prices for racism. And we know how to dance.
I understand you split your time between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Can you tell us your connection to these two cities?
Well, New Orleans, you know, half my family came from Louisiana, so I have family there. The man that owns Lil Dizzy's Café is from my grandfather's generation. We have baptismal records from that time to show that my grandfather was the sponsor of his grandfather at baptism. There's a lot of stuff, you know, back to music and Congo Square, and all of that. I feel very connected. When I'm in New Orleans, it's just so beautiful. Oh, my God, those live oak trees and the humidity, your face just kind of plumps up with humidity. And the people are so lovely. If you love New Orleans, you know the depth of what comes out there. I am so happy when I'm there. Just when I walk around on the earth. I just feel so joyous.
I came to Pittsburgh and I thought I would really miss New York, and I do, but I've made friends here with poets. And I feel very loved and supported here. I think it was a good place for me because I could afford to live here and live pretty well with my job. As a professor, if I'd stayed in New York, I'd be running around to four different jobs. I think it was the right time in my life. I was about 50 and I had a secure life. And I was able to write and do Cave Canem. And I'm not sure if I had had to work so hard to survive economically if I would have been able to get all that in.
Tell us about your writing space. What does it look like? Do you have any rituals or practices that help you through your creative process?
I have two bedrooms and one is my office. And I have a big living room. And there’s a picture by Terrance Hayes and there's another picture by a Black artist from New Orleans, John Scott. I have a chair where I watch TV on the computer. And there's space for all my books and paintings and stuff. It is very, very comfortable. And I have a big huge window that I can look out of. I'm looking at the Cathedral of Learning on one side and St. Paul's Cathedral on the other.
Writing exercises sure helped me. Sonia Sanchez told me she writes a haiku every day before she gets out of bed and sets her intention for the day. I tried it. I don't write it before I get out of bed and I don't follow the form strictly. I do 5-7-5, but I don't do image and all that, you know, I just write 5-7-5. And I do it in the morning, it is one of the first things I do. And then I set my intention for the day. After a while of doing that, I think I opened up. Every morning when something comes to me, I sit down and just write and I open the line for myself. I don’t try and use traditional forms. I've always found that for me, the end of a line teaches you a lot about what language goes with the most impact. What the mind responds to with impact. That sets the development of the dramatic tone and power, knowing what to put on each line. I learned a lot about the line after 50 years of writing, but it was time for me to take that and spread it out a little bit. I still use the sentence and my control of language, knowing what units of grammar and English to use to develop the poem and the power of the poem, but losing my attachment to the end of the line really opened up my ability to listen. I have been calling it pros, but when I read it to people, they call it a poem. And I think that's because the language is very controlled, just like in a poem. The form is in knowing how to structure sentences and what kind of language keeps surprising you. So it's very much like a poem. That's what I've been working on this past year. I want to do a book like that.
What advice would you give to other writers?
I realized I have two pieces of advice: Write the hard poem and don’t write the hard poem. Just sit in your chair and love yourself, take care of yourself, and stay who you are. And you’ve got to do both of those at the same time. It's about learning to live with ambivalence, tension, and opposites. That's what poems are about. Don't do one and not do the other because we need both of those things.
When you’re feeling good, what music is playing in the background?
Lately, none. I'm like everybody else watching the news wondering what’s gonna destroy us. I loved classical music. I loved a lot of classical music, and 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s music. Then I dropped out. But now I'm getting back to it. Lizzo! I'm getting back into it now.
Sweet or salty snacks?
Both! I’ll get some peanuts today and I have some Häagen-Dazs in the refrigerator for tonight. I could just put those peanuts on top of that. Maybe I’ll get some caramel sauce. Maybe some whipped cream. Why not?!
How can people support you right now?
Support Cave Canem and keep doing your work.
Who is another Black woman writer people should read?
Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste. It's a very difficult book to read but get through it a little bit at a time. She is doing wonderful work. And Elizabeth Alexander's book, The Light of the Word. I love how she puts together her love for her husband and her family with her love for art, food, and friendship.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.