Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis 2013

Last week, I had the honor of attending Cave Canem Retreat as a second-year fellow. Cave Canem is an organization built for poets of African descent, founded twenty years ago by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. It has been called “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry” by Nikky Finney. While fellows and faculty run a three year course before graduating from Cave Canem, its two cornerstones have always been Toi and Cornelius. This year also marked Toi’s last year as faculty of the retreat. For those readers unfamiliar with Toi Derricotte, she was born in Hamtramck and lived in and around Detroit through her mid 20’s. Her work, much like her, is simultaneously vulnerable and unabashed, often saying that which would otherwise go unspoken in American literature or elsewhere. Toi has long encouraged Cave Canem fellows to “write the hard poem”, as she has done time and time again. It is thanks to Cave Canem that I now feel re-invigorated to do just that, over and over again. I had a chance to speak with her on the last day of the retreat, an in the interest of brevity, I have broken the interview into two parts. Enjoy!

Casey Rocheteau: Who’s your favorite poet from Detroit and why?

Toi Derricotte: Robert Hayden, of course, because of his great poems. The two—“The Whipping” and “Sunday Morning” are maybe the greatest poems in American literature.

CR: Do you think your being from Detroit/Hamtramck influences your opinion?

TD: Not at all. He’s just a great poet, and doing work that nobody else did. And he opened the way for poets like me, and all of you (at Cave Canem) certainly, and suffered. I would have loved those poems anyway, but those poems he did not come by easily. And he lived a commitment. He was a brave, good human being . Who wouldn’t admire him?

CR: Cave Canem is a very intentional writing community—this is a two part question. I wonder when you first knew what you wanted to do, and what need you saw then, and what needs you see now that need to be filled.

TD: As you get older, understanding what you did in your life, I don’t know if you make up new stories, or if in fact you understand things on a much deeper level. Things make sense to me now in a much different way, and it seems my whole life was about becoming a poet, becoming a black poet and maybe you just re-order your life as you get older to make sense. It certainly seems like the things I loved originally were music and writing from a very early age, since I was a baby. It seems like I recognized very early on the pain of having nobody to talk to, and in looking for those people, that part of me that I knew was extremely vulnerable would be saved, and at the same time knowing I had to protect it. So there’s always been part of me that is extremely vulnerable and extremely, like you protect your baby—instinctually, knowing that there were things I had to not let happen. I just probably started there.

CR: The last year that I was here was two years ago, and Thomas Sayers Ellis when he graduated was saying that we need black literary agents, and publications. I wondered to what degree you agree or disagree, and what you think is most important right now?

TD: Ambition. Great ambition to write great poems. It’s the same thing as Robert Hayden. That’s the only thing necessary. In the long run, that’s all that really matters. I know everybody has to survive, I know everybody has to make connections. I admire that, I love it, I love to see you do it, I want to see your poetry known, I want you to be a success. Those are important things to do. I knew how to do some of those things by instinct. I knew how to get a job. I manipulated that world very well, and I hope you guys do that, and it’s a different world today. There are things that didn’t exist. Those kinds of connections, people will bring them to you, that I didn’t have the ability to do. Yeah, yeah, all of that, but if you’re not great poets, throw it in the trash. And sometimes, in my generation at least, you had to walk very carefully not to get killed and get sidetracked. And that’s another thing, that’s why Cave Canem is so wonderful—it’s an energy, it’s a need, it’s not us. Your reputation has nothing to do with Cave Canem, because you’ll live your life and Cave Canem will go on as long as there is that energy. So, I totally feel that that’s what it’s about, that great poetry that we’re capable of writing—that was what I had hoped for, a place where that desire, that need would be safe. That’s all that matters to me.

CR: I actually wonder about how you feel about the idea of Write A House. For me, being in Detroit, I hear a poem like “Black Bottom” very differently because it just doesn’t exist anymore.

TD: You know what it is? It’s a palimpsest. It’s an archaeological thing way way way underground, but it’s there.

CR: Another thing I’ve noticed, too, is that people talk about ’67 like it happened last week in a way.

TD: You know the interesting thing? I left Detroit to go to New York the weekend that the riots happened.

CR: That is wild.

TD: 1967.

CR: You were going for a while, or were you just going to visit?

TD: Yeah, I married Bruce in December of that year, but the weekend of the riots, I went to New York to get ready for the wedding and all of that. So then I came back. I lived in the projects, in the Jeffries Projects and I remember when I came back Monday, looking out of my window and just seeing this different world out there. And then I left a couple months later and went to New York.

CR: Have you written about that?

TD: No.

CR: Toi!

TD: I don’t know how to access it. Give me a way to open up…

CR: Well, it’s two images, right? It’s you looking out the window before you left, and then after you came back.

TD: Okay. That's why I need you guys. I’m going to send my poems and get accepted to Cave Canem. OK, so what is your question about?

CR: So I guess, my question about Write A House. I was very skeptical about what it meant.

TD: Because?

CR: Even not being from Detroit, I felt protective of it. And I just felt like, the idea of moving artists in, just felt like a progression towards a certain kind of development, right? But giving writers houses...

TD: Uh, yeah!

CR: Right?

TD: Sh*t!

CR: I'm just wondering what you think of the project.

TD: I'm so happy for you. That's the bottom line. And I think they do it for this reason: you're going to do a lot of important work there. What could not be good? And even you looking at the complications of it, that's part of the excavation of your work. It's all good. I mean, God knows, it's wretched what has happened and why, in Detroit. I always felt that Detroit was a crucible. If you survived it, you were so tough. The psychological threats of being, living with that division of Black Bottom, between the middle class and upper class. The things we did to each other to learn how to get along with all this f**ked up racist, ugly sh*t was terrible. Especially when I was a child, I just thought it was horrible. I thought I was living in hell. And the sky. The blueness of the sky there. You know every city has a different sky. The sky was so f**king abstract, this intense, cold blue. It's lucid and big. It just felt like we were living in a place where there was this over-arching absence of care. I got used to terrible things happening, that was just the way it was.

CR: You know the f**ked up thing is that you had that experience, and I know children that feel the same way today.

TD: In their world? In Detroit? How do you know that?

CR: I teach.

TD: [after a long solemn pause] You have your finger on something. It's very important for you to be there.

CR: I have a great, great love for a place that I haven't been very long. That's all.

Part 2 of the interview will be forthcoming on Monday.