Where Poets Explore Their Pain While Others Beware the Dog

Article excerpt

Poet Toi Derricotte once dreamed of a place where African-American poets could retreat in safety and comfort. "Who can tell when the dream started?" Derricotte, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, asks herself. "Working at the university and being the only black poet just made me see how important it is to have programs where you're not the only one and where you can say whatever it is you need to say and people understand you."

Derricotte knows firsthand the isolation and frustration of being the only African American in a creative writing program. At New York University, where she earned her master of fine arts degree, she once asked her professor why they didn't study any black writers. "He said, `We don't go down that low,'" she recalls. "That was in 1984. What did he think of my poetry? He didn't know I was black, obviously. But if I had told him, how would that have affected his feelings about my work?"

Soon, Derricotte began brainstorming about a school of black poetry. For support she turned to three kindred visionaries: Cornelius Eady, a professor of English at the New School of Social Research, in New York City; Elizabeth Alexander, an English professor at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass.; and Afaa Michael Weaver, an English professor at Simmons College, in Boston. Four years ago, Derricotte and Eady founded Cave Canem as a space where poets could craft language and discuss it fearlessly with accomplished mentors. The nonprofit organization held its first weeklong summer workshop and retreat in June 1996 at the Mount St. Alphonsus Retreat Center on New York's Hudson River.

"I really believe in writers' having a community of like-minded people among whom they can explore things that they can't explore in their regular communities, because with your family and friends, if you say certain things, then they get worried about you," Derricotte says. "They don't want you to be sad or have problems, and so you're silenced because you don't want them to worry about you. In a community of like-minded people, you can do the work you need to do as a writer, which means, explore your pain."

Thus, Cave Canem was born from the silent histories, voices, joy, pain and wealth of the African diaspora. The name, which means "beware the dog" in Latin, was inspired by a mosaic of a black dog spotted by Derricotte, Eady, and his wife, Sarah, in the foyer of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.

Poet Sonia Sanchez, in the title of her 1997 book, asked, "Does your house have lions" to protect its inhabitants? Cave Canem's house has a black dog poised to pounce on the foes of black poetry. "People have argued about what Cave Canem means," Derricotte says. "Some people think that it means we're the dog, and we're in a threatening position. It means our organization is a place that offers safety, that offers protection. We are the treasures of the Tragic Poet.... Our voices, our lives, our histories are the treasures of Western civilization. At this point, in many ways, we are the inheritors of the House of the Tragic Poet. I think that's the meaning of Cave Canem."

Eady, like Derricotte, recognizes the need for a safe haven for black poets. During his graduate years at Warren Wilson College, black writers were not discussed. "Maybe Gwendolyn Brooks, maybe Langston Hughes, or maybe one or two others," he says, "but you could tell that they weren't taken seriously. Most people never had to read AfricanAmerican poetry or literature or African-American history or even consider their part in that history, so there's this 'benign' ignorance that is very, very damaging.

"Poetry is complicated, regardless of what color you are. It is always complicated, trying to figure out how to be who you are and hone your craft. But as African-American writers, we also have to deal with the idea, with the concept of devaluation of your experience, of your language, of your history. …