Toi Derricotte is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the co-founder of Cave Canem, the historic workshop/retreat for African American poets. She has been a member of the graduate faculty in writing programs at New York University and George Mason University. She is the author of a memoir, The Black Notebooks (1997), which received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award in nonfiction, and was nominated for the PEN Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. It was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has four books of poetry: Tender (1997), winner of the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize, Captivity (1989), which received the Columbia Book Award from the Poetry Committee Book of the Greater Washington, D.C., Natural Birth (1983 and 2000) and Empress of the Death House (1978). She has received numerous awards, including the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. (2008), the Distinguished Alumni/Alumnae Award from New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science (2008), the Elizabeth Kray Award for Service to Poetry from Poets House (2008), a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation (2006), the Guggenheim Foundation (2004), two fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts (1985 and 1990), two Pushcart Prizes (1989 and 1998), and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from Poetry Society of America. She is working on a new book of poetry, The Undertaker’s Daughter and a book of essays, Beginning Dialogues, one of which was selected for publication in The Best American Essays of 2006.
- Readan essay, “The Bond of Living Things: Poems of Ancestry”.
- Read a poem, “The Weakness”.
- Five poems from Poetry.
Teaching and Writing
“I learned when I was teaching in the Poets-in-the-School program thirty years ago that writing poetry really does change lives. I’d go to classrooms for one hour a day for four days. I worked with thousands of children. Several years after I stopped teaching in the schools, I went back to children I had worked with years before and found that most remembered the day, the lesson, and the poem they had written. I understood that writing a poem is a power that no one can take away.
I didn’t read any black poets in grade school, high school, college or graduate school. A professor, when I had asked why, said, “We don’t go down that low.” A part of me thought that perhaps I wasn’t entitled to that “high art.” They say a poet writes in solitude and isolation; however, under such circumstances, I could not have survived as a writer without the support of a community.
Thirteen years ago I co-founded, with Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem, a workshop/retreat for African American poets meant to counter the under-representation of black poets in writers’ workshops and literary programs. Begun as an all community of emerging and established poets, a family of writers who create, publish, perform, teach, study poetry, and support each others’ work.
To watch poems come to life in these communities is beyond anything I could have wished for. It is a gift so far from my sense of possibilities that a part of me is still catching up to the fact of it happening.”