Toi Derricotte is one of the founders of the retreat for black poets, Cave Canem. Here are some excerpts of an interview with her by Elizabeth Hoover, for Sampsonia Way:
Derricotte: When I first started out as a poet, I was afraid of going to an artist colony because I was always the only person of color. The first time I went to one was in 1984. The day I arrived another black poet left. My whole time there, I was praying that another black poet wouldn’t come on the day I left—and they did. That’s the way people integrated then: one person at a time. It was degrading and not very compassionate.
Cave Canem gives poets a chance to talk about these types of experiences and form their own community. This way they know they are not alone and they are much more comfortable even in situations where they are the only person of color.
Hoover: Since the election of President Barak Obama there has been a lot of talk that we are in a “post-racial age.” Why do you think Cave Canem is still relevant?
Derricotte: Because we are not post-racial. This year at the Associated Writers Program’s conference almost no white people came to the Cave Canem panel. Things have changed in the sense that a lot of poets of color have been published and are teaching at great schools, but you can’t say that American literature represents in an integrated way the diverse voices of the American people. There are still these separations that have to do with class and money and power and race and all those things.
Hoover: Does Cave Canem implicitly support that segregation by being exclusive to black writers?
Derricotte: Look, the integration plan just hasn’t worked. In fact, this has worked better. There is more integration of black writers than before and that has to do with the visibility of Cave Canem. We have high quality writers because the program is so competitive. We get 150 applicants for 20 spots. People can’t buy their way in because we don’t charge tuition.
It also has to do with the way Cave Canem empowers its writers. Writers don’t grow in solitude. They get their confidence and they study their subjects in dialogue with other writers. If black writers are being forced into narrow categories then that dialogue is cut off. When you have brilliant people discussing literature or just the issues of being alive today, it’s very inspiring and it encourages you to keep writing.
Photo credit: by Alison Meyers, from Sampsonia Way