To step into Toi Derricotte's sun-drenched living room in Pittsburgh is to understand her passion for poetry: Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves wrap around the room, housing her impressive library. Books and literary journals are piled invitingly on the coffee table. The written word has pride of place here.
And well it should. Derricotte has been professor
of English at the University of Pittsburgh since 1991, and is the author of four
books of poems and an award-winning memoir, The Black Notebooks. A contributor to the recent poetry anthology published by Penn State Press, titled Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania, Derricotte's work has been called "raw, honest and provocative," particularly in its examination of her central subjects—the complexities of race, class, gender and identity.
Derricotte is a native of Detroit, Michigan who has lived in many different places, and the concepts of "home" and
"community" reverberate through her life and work. One of her proudest accomplishments is co-founding the non-profit literary organization Cave Canem, which she calls "a home and safe haven for black poets." Committed to the discovery and cultivation of new voices in African American poetry, Cave Canem sponsors a poetry prize, publishes an annual anthology, and holds summer workshops and retreats, most recently held at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
Derricotte speaks openly, in her writing and her classrooms, of her eye-opening experiences as a light-skinned African American woman who has been able to "pass" as white throughout her life. When she asked a professor in graduate school why they weren't reading any African American authors, Derricotte recalls, "He said, 'We don't go down that low.' Because I don't look black, he didn't know he was saying this to a black person."
It was a privilege to sit with Derricotte on a sunny afternoon, surrounded by her books, and listen to her stories of self-discovery, pain, pride, and survival.
A conversation with Toi Dericotte
Q: How did your move to Pennsylvania influence your writing and your life?
A: I didn't buy a home during my first ten years here because I'd left a marriage I'd been in for 25 years and I sort of thought that buying a house is something you do with a man, something you do when you know you're going to stay—and I wasn't sure I was going to stay in Pittsburgh. Home is such a significant word to me and, over the years, I have found a real home here. I've gone through midlife transition here which is—for women—a huge thing...I was able to let go of that "good girl" status and I think I've gained a lot of confidence as a writer, as a human being. Being in Pittsburgh has worked on me from the outside in...It's almost like something that's impacting you in a very
soft way, changing you. I'm starting to be aware of these mild forces that operate and how powerful and meaningful they are. I used to think if it wasn't slapping you in the head—if it wasn't at 100 degree volume—it wasn't really important. But since I moved here, there's a subtlety that has come into my writing and my appreciation of people, conversation, everything!
Q: Community is a big theme in your work and your life. What is special about the Cave Canem community?
A: Oh, it's just so much...You know, as African Americans, there are the losses that happened as a result of slavery that we're still psychologically and emotionally bound to. And that's one thing that binds the community together. In our lives there's also a long tradition of forming community from people who aren't necessarily
kin, a long history of extended families, so-called aunts and uncles. We've had to have a people we could depend on wherever we were, so that there have always been communities of black folks that are interdependent and rich in what they share. That history is an important part of Cave Canem.
Q: So the creative community is recreating what Cave Canem artists had in their extended families?
A: Yes, those are the roots. But also, in so many of our families—as much as they gave us—there were
different things that were taboo to talk or write about. The complicated relationships of dominated people in their relationships to people with power, the shame attached to these relationships, even though they were necessary for survival, are not part of the history that most families are proud of. Besides that, most families wanted their children to become middle class, to have economic security. I wrote from the time I was ten or so, but I never thought of becoming a poet or writer. I was going to be a doctor. Cave Canem recreates the energy of the communities that saved us, but also it supports the day in day out struggles of being a poet. It's so fabulous.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: I'm thinking and writing about the amazing survival mechanisms that people have. I mean, I was in New Orleans recently and it was just amazing to see how people are holding on, even though everything they have has been destroyed. I was born in Detroit, but my mother grew up in Louisiana and left there when she was eighteen. I'm writing about her life and her mother's life in Louisiana. I'm writing a book that's in dialogue with the book she wrote over a fifteen year period about her mother and grandmother. I see it as an opportunity for my mother and I to "talk" about things that we couldn't talk about while she was alive. I want to honor the writing she did and at the same time figure things, ask questions. I'm also writing about the games that black institutions have had to play through history to get support. In particular, I'm writing about an order of nuns called the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, which I believe was the first black order in the United States. They all were light-skinned, and they had to come from free families in order to be accepted. Black women were considered
animals—that's what slavery was all about!—and also evil, for example, responsible for white men's promiscuousness. So these nuns had to convince the powers that be that they were "different" from other black women in order to get support. Thus they played into the divisions of race, class and color, but, at the same time, they gained the means to help women who were slaves and dark. There was a Redemptorist priest who supported their organization but, when he wrote the Pope asking that they be recognized, he couldn't write him that they were black. The Pope wouldn't have recognized an order of black nuns! The nun's mission was to educate slaves and poor black women, but in order to help their own people they had to be acceptable to the people who would support them, therefore, they had to be "of a better class" than the dark-skinned people and slaves they worked for. It was a thin tightrope.
Q: How does it feel to tell your mother's and grandmother's stories?
A: One of the things I learned in writing The Black Notebooks is how we are sent on
our parents' missions to handle their unfinished business. We learn the pains of history in our parents' bed...and I really do feel that whatever I'm doing now is about the past.
Q: In your years of teaching here, do you have a sense of what defines a Pennsylvania poet?
A: There are so many really great poets here. The ones from Pittsburgh really resonate with the city's history, the steel factories, and the culture of humanistic values and protest. There's a sense of vitality that comes out of the close communities here where different nationalities settled, like Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill...It's different from New York City where the value may be more self-consciously intellectual. It seems that people who continue to live here in Pittsburgh have a tradition of class consciousness that is really special.
Q: Are you happy with the evolution of your career?
A: Well, it hasn't been a planned out thing but I find that there are miracles in my life that are far beyond me and my control. Everybody has work to do on this planet and I just feel fortunate that
I'm able to do mine, especially with Cave Canem. It's become something beyond what I could have dreamed of. As far as my own writing, being free to pursue my own artistic journey is another kind of release from bondage. Having a community where I feel safe takes the pressure off me in other ways in my life. I don't feel like my blackness is always on the line...I just feel like I'm out here, doing my work. And that's so important: to feel like you're doing your work.