Award-winning poet, educator, and Cave Canem co-founder Toi Derricotte bravely tackles difficult and universal subject matter such as violence, racism, motherhood, and identity through an autobiographical lens.
Toi Derricotte is the author of “I”: New and Selected Poems (2019), a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, The Undertaker’s Daughter (2011), Natural Birth (2000), Tender (1997), winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Captivity (1989). She is also the author of The Black Notebooks (1999), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2019, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The Paris Review, and many others. She is the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors.
She is also the founder, along with poet Cornelius Eady, of Cave Canem, the preeminent organization devoted to the development and support of Black poetry in the United States. Cave Canem’s work has changed the landscape of American poetry, and produced Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poets, in addition to winners of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the National Poetry Series, and Ruth Lilly and Lannan fellowships.
In a discussion about the challenges of creating The Undertaker’s Daughter, which incorporates both poetry and prose, she notes, “To make the best art, you have to be willing to sacrifice the art. I mean to really make the best, you have to even have “what’s art” up for grabs at all times. That’s why there is prose in that book, because I couldn’t get it to be other than that. I had to challenge my own definition, and so in these ways I think whatever you’re doing…to grow as human beings, we have to keep challenging our own definitions and our own safety in those definitions. And so it’s just sort of aligning yourself with the universe anyway, because things are always changing.”
About the impetus behind the founding of Cave Canem, she describes her early days as a poet: “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.”
A beloved and respected mentor to a generation of Black poets, she has been awarded the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for service to the literary community, and the Elizabeth Kray Award for service to the field of poetry from Poets House.
She is professor emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, and a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Born and raised in Detroit, she currently lives in Pittsburgh.