The cobblestones of the Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO—a self-denigrating acronym that stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”—shine with rainwater. Fog tops the skyscrapers across the East River. The low-slung structure where Cave Canem keeps its offices sits just north of the bridge, which, viewed from inside, appears to hang from the windows like innovative blinds. A sign on the bridge flashes: “Wet road. Use caution.”
Caution, daring, and the need for shelter mark the story of Cave Canem that Cornelius Eady is telling me. The poet and Cave Canem co-founder sports black canvas high-tops, black sweatpants, a black long-sleeved shirt, and a gold ring on each hand. He’s pulled his long hair into a ponytail, and he smiles wide and often.
Before I arrived, I thought I knew what Cave Canem was: a foundation devoted to supporting black poets and poetry through workshops, awards, prizes, and readings. But the longer I talk with Eady, the more I sense that I’ll never really understand the nature of the organization. After the first week of the first summer workshop, in 1996, Eady says he started telling attendees, “You’re not going to be able to explain this to anyone. Don’t even try.”
So it’s with a sense of Keatsian negative capability that I take in Eady’s account of Cave Canem’s founding. The atmosphere for black poets in America in the mid-’90s and before, he says, was something of a “desert.” In the Cave Canem anthology Gathering Ground, the organization’s co-founder, Toi Derricotte, describes her literary education as nearly devoid of black influence: “In all my years of study—from grade school through graduate school—I had never read a black poet. I had never been taught by a black teacher. . . . There was a suspicion that black people weren’t really good enough to be published, to be poets.”
That suspicion seems to have permeated Eady’s experience as both student and instructor. Workshop curricula rarely offered models by black poets, Eady says, and MFA student bodies and faculties might feature one black participant. The ramifications for classroom dynamics were complex: if a poem by a classmate reminds you of Audre Lorde’s work, for example, should you mention the association? “Do you expose yourself?” Eady asks. “Do you trust that it will be seen not as political or polemic?”
Those inquiries lead to—or stem from—an overwhelming question: how should, or can, a person be black in a bi- or multiracial American writing class? One of the cornerstone poems of contemporary high school English courses attempts a reply to that inquiry—only to pose another. Early in “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes writes: “I wonder if it’s that simple?”
In her poem “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” Derricotte portrays the issue as anything but simple. She addresses an African American student who fears describing a white woman in a poem: “she shouldn’t write about a white woman . . . / maybe the black poets will think she wants to be / that woman and be mad at her and say she hates herself . . . / she has to be so careful.”
By the time Derricotte and Eady met they had both started to dream about an environment where black poets didn’t have to be so careful—or, more precisely, where they owed care to form and meter and voice, rather than to the conversational land mines both detected under the surface of most workshop discussions. But they weren’t sure anyone else shared their goals. “We wondered: was it all in our heads?” Eady says. “Maybe Toi and I just imagined this kind of space is necessary?”
And maybe such a space—designed, above all, to be safe—might fall prey to threats of its own. Note that the student in Derricotte’s poem worries about the reactions of black students, not white ones. “There are so many ways that black poets have historically turned on each other,” Eady says, “à la ‘You’re too white, too black, political, apolitical, too political, you’re a Marxist, I’m a Maoist!’” He and Derricotte hoped they could foster an atmosphere without such judgment.
Like so many artistic movements, Cave Canem owes its genesis, at least partly, to the Romans. During a trip to Italy about 15 years ago, the colleagues’ idea crystallized: they decided to fund a workshop out of their own pockets and to see, depending on turnout, whether other black poets sensed the same problems they did. In Pompeii, Eady and Derricotte visited the House of the Tragic Poet and discovered in the vestibule a mosaic of a black-and-white dog straining at its leash. The dog’s claw rests on the words printed below it: cave canem, “beware the dog.” Thus the organization gained both a name and a meaningful symbol: one not of aggression, Eady clarifies, but of protection and privacy.
They found a suitable space shortly thereafter, in a New York State retreat center called Mount St. Alphonsus—a palatial former tuberculosis clinic. And they attracted participants. Publications such as Poets & Writers and Callaloo advertised the workshop for free, Derricotte and Eady appealed to MFA programs, and 24 writers appeared for the first Cave Canem summer workshop.
Describing the first workshop, Eady says, “It’s hard to talk about it now.… People broke open. And then everyone hung out by the river and built a fire and really claimed the space. . . . We thought we were building a space to protect poets, but the poets were protecting the space themselves.”
Eady adds that the poets seemed to welcome the message he and Derricotte hoped to deliver, which was, in short: “I see who you are, I understand you, and you’re not crazy.”
After a few years, Eady continues, Cave Canem evolved into a foundation with broader goals than workshops: it now funds book prizes, readings, panels, and more, and has started a weekend workshop in the South to complement its weeklong summer retreats in the North (now held at the University of Pittsburgh). Finding backing has proven difficult, partly because poetry’s audience in America is small, and partly because Cave Canem hopes to support poets who aren’t yet established—their “future selves,” as Eady puts it. “It can sometimes be a tricky concept: poetry, African American, what, what?” He waves his hands around.
Such writers hail from all over what Elizabeth Alexander, a Cave Canem instructor, dubs the “wild wooly (yes!) universe of contemporary black poetry.” Gathering Ground features ghazals, prose poems, sestinas, free verse, and entirely new forms created on location. One summer, Afaa Michael Weaver invented the “bop,” which resembles an extended sonnet plus refrains. Kate Rushin has devised the “seven sevens”—a form that comprises stanzas of seven lines, and lines of seven syllables—plus its kingly cousin, the “seven crown,” a “seven sevens” that’s seven stanzas long.
Poems in Gathering Ground, and by Cave Canem fellows more generally, approach African American themes directly or obliquely or not at all. Their treatments of such themes range from riotous to wrenching. Tim Seibles’s “Ambition: II. Mosquito in the Mist” is a dramatic monologue by a blustering, bloodthirsty bug: “you guys are walkin’ smoothies / ta me, milkshakes wearin’ trousers, / a cup’a coffee mowin’ a lawn.” Carlo Toli Paul’s “The only shine on the Titanic,” also a dramatic monologue, features a black speaker who faces death on the Titanic. He observes: “this is not right / that my tragedy / is unremarkable.”
Remarking on unremarkable tragedies, on problems so pervasive they might come to seem normal, remains the project of Cave Canem as it approaches its 15th year—as does liberating poets from having to comment on them. It’s a complicated, and remarkable, freedom of speech.