“We Are Not Post-racial:” An Interview with Toi Derricotte
In 1996 poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem as a retreat for black poets. Since then, the organization has grown in size and reputation. It is now a renowned and influential institution with an annual writing retreat at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, two book prizes with well-known presses, and a national reading series.
On June 24, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh will partner with Cave Canem and host a reading with Colleen J. McElroy, Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine, and Sapphire. Click here to reserve your seat.
Toi Derricotte joined Sampsonia Way editor Elizabeth Hoover to talk about the history of Cave Canem and how it supports free expression for African-American writers.
Why did you and Eady think that an organization for black poets was necessary?
Because we both had been in so many situations where we were the only black poets—in workshops, in graduate school, and in the places we taught. It was fortunate we were both at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley workshop together. I got to know Cornelius and his wife Sarah very well there. I had been asked to bring students with me—as frequently happens when people want more black writers at a conferences—and they had a hard time. They felt like their work was exoticized and that there were certain expectations that made them uncomfortable.
When I first started out as a poet, I was afraid of going to an artist colony because I was always the only person of color. The first time I went to one was in 1984. The day I arrived another black poet left. My whole time there, I was praying that another black poet wouldn’t come on the day I left—and they did. That’s the way people integrated then: one person at a time. It was degrading and not very compassionate.
Cave Canem gives poets a chance to talk about these types of experiences and form their own community. This way they know they are not alone and they are much more comfortable even in situations where they are the only person of color.
I had wanted to start something for African-American poets of color since the early 1980s, but I couldn’t get funding. Then Cornelius, Sarah, and I decided to just do it out of our pockets because if we waited for funding we would be waiting forever.
It sounds like poets of color always face a pressure to write “black.”
Yes, and face that dreaded question: Are you a poet or are you a black poet? That question creates a terrible division in the soul. That’s the great thing about Cave Canem: You have permission to write whatever you want to write and then we will critique it as art.
The inspiration for the name Cave Canem came from a mosaic of a guard dog in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, Italy. It’s Latin for “beware of the dog.” What has that name come to mean for you?
For me it has a lot to do with safety and being protected. Our organization has credibility and it gives individuals a kind of armor, or something that says you are a poet, you don’t have to prove it. You don’t have to prove that black people can write poetry. That’s already done. I think it gives people a good kind of visibility rather than invisibility or a bad kind of visibility.
Cave Canem has really grown since you started it. You have a national fellowship of nearly 300 poets and programs all over the country. Were you expecting it to take off like this?
I can’t believe it. The first year we had 25 fellows and the faculty was me, Cornelius, Elizabeth Alexander, and Afaa Michael Weaver. The first night when everyone sat in a circle and started breaking down about how they had never felt safe and never studied with an African-American poet, you could see something had really happened. But we had no idea how far we’d come from sitting around Cornelius and Sarah’s coffee table to having these fabulous offices in DUMBO, Brooklyn, overlooking the Manhattan Bridge.
Since the election of President Barak Obama there has been a lot of talk that we are in a “post-racial age.” Why do you think Cave Canem is still relevant?
Because we are not post-racial. This year at the Associated Writers Program’s conference almost no white people came to the Cave Canem panel. Things have changed in the sense that a lot of poets of color have been published and are teaching at great schools, but you can’t say that American literature represents in an integrated way the diverse voices of the American people. There are still these separations that have to do with class and money and power and race and all those things.
Does Cave Canem implicitly support that segregation by being exclusive to black writers?
Look, the integration plan just hasn’t worked. In fact, this has worked better. There is more integration of black writers than before and that has to do with the visibility of Cave Canem. We have high quality writers because the program is so competitive. We get 150 applicants for 20 spots. People can’t buy their way in because we don’t charge tuition.
It also has to do with the way Cave Canem empowers its writers. Writers don’t grow in solitude. They get their confidence and they study their subjects in dialogue with other writers. If black writers are being forced into narrow categories then that dialogue is cut off. When you have brilliant people discussing literature or just the issues of being alive today, it’s very inspiring and it encourages you to keep writing.
Cave Canem is partnering with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh for a reading on June 24. How do you see this partnership?
I think it is wonderful. We share a lot of our commitments. I am on COA/P’s board and Henry Reese, director of COA/P, is on our board. The strengths we each bring as individuals and as organizations works very well. I am interested in seeing Cave Canem becoming more invested in Pittsburgh and have more events here. I want us to have a real bedrock here. And it’s happening!
Read Elizabeth’s bio.