I left Detroit for a few weeks to go back to Massachusetts. It’s the third time I’ve been outside of Detroit since moving, and in many ways it was the strangest journey, because I was gone longer than before, and I was returning “home” home to where I grew up. For most of the time I was away I was on Cape Cod, and while I was there in part to see family, I was also attending a week-long workshop at the Fine Art Works Center in Provincetown. The workshop leader also happened to be Matthew Olzmann, who is from Detroit, and has lived in Hamtramck for many years.
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!
June 1st marked seven months for me here in Detroit. I never officially had a house warming party. I’ve hosted musicians and poets who needed to crash for a night. I’ve had conversations with a bevy of reporters, but never have I had a full blown event. This Monday rectified all of that. A good friend of mine, Corina, who’s been a solid fixture in my life since moving here, wanted to throw a fundraiser in order to get to a writing retreat in Portugal, where her family is from. Initially, she had thought to do the event in her apartment, but after a while I suggested doing it at the Brave New Home because then there would also be a yard and the ability to grill.
I started teaching in 2007 with City Year, Americorps largest program which primarily focuses on literacy in public school classrooms across the country. It is an organization which is often criticized for putting untrained young people into classrooms. I was certainly that, working in 8th grade civics classrooms twice a week and also running programming at a teen center on the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury in Boston. While I had never formally done any teaching before, most of my work was relegated to classroom assistance and also helping students conceive of and execute civic engagement projects in their school and broader community. While the work was taxing, over-taxing at times, overall the experience steered me on a path towards working with youth. At the present time, I teach poetry two days a week at two high schools in Detroit. I am fortunate to have gained a position as a Writer in Residence for insideOut Literary Arts, a Detroit-based writing and literacy organization founded by Terry Blackhawk nearly two decades ago. (Eddie Stewart is a student at Marcus Garvey. He works with iO's Peter Markus at his school.)