Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis 2013
TD: I can’t wait till I get (to Detroit) again. I want to see your house. Where is it?
CR: Just south of Davison, near Conant.
TD: Over on the east side. Oh yeah, because that’s where Conant Gardens is. That’s where I grew up.
CR: I love the neighborhood.
TD: What’s it like?
CR: There are a lot of Bangladeshi folks, there’s a lot of families. When I go back home, there will probably be a lot of young boys playing soccer on the lot near me. There’s also still a decent number of old school Eastern Europeans around, too. It’s well populated.
TD: What’s the house like?
CR: It’s like a bungalow. One big bedroom and a living room.
TD: Nice kitchen?
CR: Yes, everything is designed really well. Cork floors and also my favorite part is the bathroom, where they cut a hole in the wall and kept part of the attic staircase, which wouldn’t pass code, and made it into a shelf.
TD: I wonder how many cities do this.
CR: I think more might start.
TD: All you have to do is be an artist?
CR: Yep. And pay the bills. I have no complaints. So one thing I wanted to ask you about was your relationship to Philip Levine.
TD: Yeah, I was going to mention Phil when you asked who was my favorite poet from Detroit. Robert Hayden, and then Phil second. I have a poem, actually, about Phil and my relationship with Phil. Some great poets I knew first as friends, not Phil. He was my teacher at NYU. So part of a him always remained for me like those great poets in books, intimidating, pulling, totally taking in, humming, my sense of looking at history through his eyes in Detroit. But what I learned the most from him were practical ways of being a teacher. He’d look at a poem and say “that’s a piece of crap”. He never said it to me, thank God, but he would not hesitate. Totally without guile, but very protective too, of the people he liked. He wasn’t afraid.
CR: I just want to know how you’re feeling, because this is the 20th anniversary
TD: So good. You know, I’ll have to process, I’m sure, grief and all that, and loneliness. That’s why you and I are going to stay in touch. That’s what I want to learn how to do now, is make connections that I was too busy to make. I feel so great, to actually see what you wanted your whole life. It’s a great feeling. It makes me grateful for everything in my life that has been so difficult. It’s almost like it all had a reason. --------------------------------------------------------------------
While normally I wouldn’t end an interview with any sort of exposition, I think it is warranted here. First, I will say, if you want a clearer understanding of what it was like for Toi Derricotte to grow up in Detroit, I highly recommend The Black Notebooks. And then, I want to briefly touch upon the experience of being a Cave Canem fellow.
It wasn’t until I was at the retreat that I could clearly write about my birthday, or feeling lonely in part because of the kind of community fostered amongst the fellows, faculty and staff. On Monday, I spent a lot of time in tears at the revelation that I was not alone, and that I had felt a peculiar kind of solitude that I had not been acknowledging since moving. While being granted this house has allowed me enormous opportunity and freedom, this has, to wit, been one of the most difficult years to be black in America.
My first year as a Cave Canem fellow opened up my eyes to a number of things, foremost of which was the right to my own identity. This year, there was a thread throughout the retreat that motivated everyone to consider joy. Since moving to Detroit, so much has happened that has made me feel small, afraid, and powerless--the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the murders of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, the rebellion in Baltimore, the murder of Terrance Kellom, and just this month, the Charleston massacre, and just this week the deaths of Michaelangelo and Makiah Jackson, 6 and 3 years old, run over by Detroit police during a chase. To take a moment, any moment, as a black writer in America and consider joy is a radical act, even if it is the joy of venting rage.
While I was at Cave Canem, there was a kind of wormhole to Detroit. I had been scheduled to co-facilitate a session for the Allied Media Conference with two close friends. The session was titled We Reminisce Over You: The Black Death Mixtape, and was designed to create community designed digital altars through music. While I was not in the room, I was. While I was in workshop with Willie Perdomo, laughing wildly and thinking deeply, I was also in another space attempting to provide new ways of coping with grief. When I had realized the schedule conflict between CC and the AMC, I chided myself that the choice I was making was somehow wrong, that focusing on my writing was a professional choice as opposed to an outward community responsibility. What I realized in my week at Cave Canem, however, was that it was a necessary space I put myself in for personal reasons. It wasn’t about furthering my writing career, but a kind of self reflection necessary to any sense of activism.
During the week I was at CC, I found a great deal of joy and rootedness. And while I would say that it was a good space to be in when the senseless murders occurred in Charleston, SC, it almost felt inevitable that some fresh tragedy would occur. One night I happened across a conversation where someone asked what sacred spaces were left for black folks in America. The question was almost too much to bear. I didn’t stay to try to sort out the answer, because sometimes joy looks like flight. I don’t believe in the idea of safe spaces, because I don’t think human existence is, at any moment, devoid of the anguish we carry or the fears we harbor. However, one of the only spaces where I’ve ever felt safe to cry in public, to laugh with my whole body, to tell the kind of truth is scares me to speak is at Cave Canem. When Toi said that seeing Cave Canem flourish gave a kind of purpose to her suffering, the feeling is one that I think is shared by many of us who have had the opportunity to attend. There is an unmatched joy, even in the midst of deep grief and constant trauma, finding a space that feels sacred, that feels like a new word for home. Even if the process is messy, if it opens old wounds, if revelations are sorrowful, having a space where it is alright to lay down your sword and shield grants a necessary relief.