‘I’m With You’

Cave Canem celebrates its 20th anniversary.

It started on a trip. About 20 years ago, the poets Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte were vacationing together with their families in Italy. The two had been talking about putting together a workshop for African American poets when they took a day trip to Pompeii. “We saw the house of the tragic poet,” Eady says, at the entryway of which is a famous mosaic; Cave Canem, it says, “Beware of the Dog.” And it seemed suddenly symbolic of what they were trying to do. “To have a safe space,” Eady says, “the dog patrols the space that we all have.”

Two decades later, Cave Canem, the pioneering literary nonprofit supporting poets of color that Eady and Derricotte cofounded, is thriving, welcoming hundreds of poets from across the United States and the world to its annual summer program, now held at the University of Pittsburgh. Many more attend Cave Canem readings and events during the year. Cave Canem has also established three awards—the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize; and the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize—that have helped cement its position as an influential literary organization. Cave Canem poets include a Pulitzer Prize winner (Tracy K. Smith), National Book Award winners (Terrance Hayes and Robin Coste Lewis), and many young, impressive poets, such as Rickey Laurentiis and Nate Marshall.

To celebrate Cave Canem’s 20th birthday, the Poetry Foundation asked a variety of Cave Canem–affiliated poets for their thoughts and memories on what the organization has meant to them. The poets were interviewed separately, and the quotes that follow have been edited and condensed.

Toi Derricotte (cofounder): Cornelius and Sarah [Cornelius’s wife] and I first met at Squaw Valley. I had brought a group of black poets—undergraduates—with me. This was the first time they had been in this situation where they were the rare black people there, and I just loved the way Cornelius and Sarah supported them. I felt this trust and loyalty, and that means so much when you have someone you can talk to and share your anxieties with, somebody who says, “I’m with you no matter what.”

We went on a vacation the next year, and during the vacation I made up my mind. I just said, “Would you be interested in trying to put together a workshop for African American poets?” We had gone through many conversations about the difficulty about being the only one. And they both said, “Yeah!” I said, “I tried; I just can’t get the funding.” And Sarah said, “Let’s do it out of our own pockets.” Cave Canem has had this way of almost divine orchestration. As soon one door opens, you see where the next doorway is. My friend Father Francis said, “If you ever want to use the monastery, just call and come on up.” He was the retreat director of a monastery, [the Marist Brothers Center at Esopus], over a hundred acres on the Hudson River and a building that was like a castle. We called him from Capri, and he said sure. And then we had a place.

Cornelius Eady (cofounder): The origin of Cave Canem comes from our own experiences of being poets and students of poetry: the feeling that somehow African American poetry was some sort of stepchild of “normal” poetry, that poets were not really being taken as seriously or as deeply as they could have been when they were being studied at all. You start feeling that something’s out of whack: Why isn’t it taken as seriously? Was it you? I know that a lot of African American students have had that feeling—you’re the only person [of color] there or one of only two or three if you’re lucky, and there’s that question of why you’re there, that unspoken thing about affirmative action. Instead of having to deal with all of that, wouldn’t be better to be able to concentrate on the work itself?

Cave Canem Co-founders at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, 2011. Photographed by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Robin Coste Lewis (winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 2015): Cave Canem was founded at time when intense culture wars were taking place. How brilliant was it of Cornelius and Toi to create an idea or a foundation that wasn’t going to engage that debate in any way and went off on its own and founded this place purely for the purpose of supporting emerging black poets? That was profound in terms of strategy. It says so much: we’re not here to fight. We’re here to write and to write about our own experiences, our own cultures, sometimes, sometimes not—we’re here to write about hummingbirds, too, without having to fight for our right simply to hold a pen or for our right simply to read other black poets.

Terrance Hayes (winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 2010): For me, from the beginning, Cave Canem was always just a place for fellowship, this fortunate place. I was Toi’s graduate student when she started it. I went to University of Pittsburgh because Toi was there. She asked me to work [for Cave Canem] with another of her graduate students, Michelle Elliott. We made copies and greeted everyone as they came in. There was no money, no expectation for what it was going to be like. What it did was tear down walls about what black poetry was. Spoken work, experimental poetry, confessional second-generation poetry, political poetry—all those subsets overlapped and hybridized and synthesized. It created this wonderful rich tapestry of a family, of what black poetry is.

Nick Makoha (director of the Youth Poetry Network in England; he is working on his first poetry collection): I’m from the U.K., and there are very many barriers that you have to face as a poet in England. But when you’re there in front of 50 other great writers—some are faculty, some are students—you realize there are a lot more of us than the world would have you believe. Cave Canem gives rise to a kind of permission you need to give yourself. It gives you that impetus, that zeal. It puts you in alignment with a lot of other great writers of color.

Lewis: I first became aware of Cave Canem in the early 2000s. I don’t remember who told me about it. I do remember my response was that it sounded like a mythical place and how could it possibly exist? At that time, so many arts organizations were beginning to fold.

I was very ill at the time—I had had an accident and was badly hurt. I remember being in bed reading for the first time these younger, black poets. I remember reading Kevin Young’s book in traction in awe. And Cornelius too, and Elizabeth Alexander, and I realized there was a whole community I didn’t know was out there, and if I could learn in any way to write a halfway decent poem, I maybe could participate in that conversation or in that culture. I wanted to be in service in any way I could in that literary tradition, and their work was an invitation to join them.

Eady: The first year it was a small class. We had maybe 24 or 26 fellows we accepted, a lot from the DC area; that was the real catalyst. Once they came to Cave Canem and saw what that moment was—and it was a unique moment—they took it back to DC, and it spread like wildfire into the writing world.

Hayes: Joel Dias-Porter, [aka] DJ Renegade, told a lot of folks in DC. Two people he told were young poets at the time: Yona Harvey, now my wife, who was at Howard University, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was also at Howard. Yona and Ta-Nehisi applied at the same time, but Ta-Nehisi didn’t put his zip code on the application, and it never arrived [to our office]. I sent out the very first letters of acceptance. I can remember Yona’s name, and I think I would remember Ta-Nehisi Coates’s name. Who knows what would’ve happened had he actually put the zip code on the application? Obviously he’s fared OK.

Derricotte: The first night of Cave Canem, we decided to have an opening circle, and this was the question: why are you here? And boy, I tell you! People started flooding the room with their stories of isolation and loneliness and the ways they had been harmed. A lot of people didn’t even know how to think about themselves. But then when you look around the room and you see people you know are great writers and you’re there with them–it’s like, oh, man, you’re validated. This bond formed. It was intense. Cornelius and I said, “Who’s in charge here?” because it was way beyond anything we had thought possible.

Eady: We did it without a map—which is a crazy thing to do but also the right thing to do because it allowed the fellows to feel that they had a stake in this as well. It wasn’t this already made-up thing where Toi and I were telling people what the week would be like. The opening circle was suggested by the fellows. The closing circle was suggested by Father Francis. One of the traditions—where the second years throw a graduation party or ceremony for the third years—was suggested by the fellows themselves. They came into the office one summer and said, “The tradition at Cave Canem is …” and we looked at each other like, what tradition?

Makoha: Opening circle removes all kinds of barriers that people have. When I was there, I thought it was a get-to-know-you exercise, but it sets you up for the week—it’s a yielding. It allows you to be a conjurer for the week.

I came in with a preconceived idea that I knew what I was doing. But the circle sets you up in a space of unknowing. I did it through tears, cried like I hadn’t cried before. I look back and see I was in sanctuary, and I realized what my family, my wife had sacrificed for me to be there.

Rio Cortez (received the first Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize in 2015): I was very quiet that first year and just listened. The huge draw was the faculty. A lot of my heroes were teaching those workshops. It was life changing. I also met my fiancé at that first retreat in 2011. We’re both Cave Canem poets, and we’re being married by Robin Coste Lewis.

Lewis: They asked me to marry them because we love each other deeply, but it’s also because we were at Cave Canem together and we watched each other work hard. And in the background of all this work you’re doing individually, you have all these people supporting you and encouraging you to go wherever you need to go.

I wrote two poems about my black family’s owning slaves, thinking I’d be tarred and feathered. What I got was nothing but encouragement, not shame, not questioning, not anything but “How can we help you make this very significant, thematically significant, work better?” And also, “How can we make sure that you are whole by the end of it? How can we love you into making this OK?”

Hayes: Cave Canem was like a reunion of relatives you didn’t know you had. One night, the group of fellows separated from the faculty, and we went down to the river. I can barely remember who was there—Yona was there, Renegade was there, Herman Beavers, I want to say maybe Van Jordan was there too and Major Jackson. We just went down to the river, which wasn’t that far from the grounds, and maybe we made a fire. It wasn’t a workshop, it wasn’t in the cafeteria, it was just us hanging out and singing and having a good time. It was an important moment—it was something that hadn’t happened for anyone at that moment.

Derricotte: People would be up all night—there was a lounge, and they’d be in there writing poems, helping each other write poems all night and going out in the middle of the night to Kmart for fried chicken. There was a need for each other. There was so much they needed to talk about that they had never talked about before. It was not only bringing poets together but also bringing together a unique group of people who had felt a lot of pressure and now saw a way to be free.

I remember a circle one year when we were all partying, and we were out, and there was a gold moon centered over our circle, a huge gold moon. I thought the universe was telling us, “This is your time, this is your time. We are with you.”

Cortez: There’s a huge variety of age ranges and professional backgrounds and regional poets. I not only met writers who were black but also writers who were working fulltime, who were balancing their lives in a similar way to me, and that was inspiring—to see that that could be done.

Lewis: You spend your whole life in profound isolation if you’re a black poet, culturally speaking if you’re a writer—it’s like being from another country, and you’re the sole citizen of that country. Then suddenly you walk into this place and you find all your other countrymen and countrywomen. That’s a profound experience: to realize that you have a whole city of people who are living dispersed around the world but you nevertheless carry this place inside for the rest of your life.

Mahoka: When you hear the works, you realize the total compendium of possibility of what blackness can be. It gives you more confidence in your own story, in your own narrative, or in the narratives you want to play around with. I used to go running every day because I wanted to keep the place in my body. What was the air like in Pittsburgh? What was it like to write in Pittsburgh? Even when I was back in England, my body remembered and brought it back to my navigation.

Cortez: When I got there, I was really shy. I had grown up in Salt Lake City, where I had been a terminal outsider. I didn’t know a lot of people. I was in awe. It sounds like fake testimony—when I left Cave Canem, I had a network or a family of black poets all over the country. If someone has a reading, we all show up. It’s a spider-web of connections. There’s a lot of love between everyone, and you know that if you’re at a reading and you see a Cave Canem fellow, you cheer louder, even if you’ve never met the person. As you travel—cause they’re all over the country—people stay on one another’s couches.

Eady: Every year is unique. The one constant is that Toi and I have been there for every summer. We have the memory of Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey hooking up at Cave Canem, and we have Elizabeth Alexander pregnant and then bringing her kid and then being pregnant again at Cave Canem.

Hayes: There have been a few couples over the years, but we were the first Cave Canem couple, first Cave Canem baby. Our daughter was born in 1999, came to a lot of the early retreats. We got married 13 months after we met at Cave Canem. I don’t know if anybody ever broke that record.

Lewis: Nobody was expecting me to write about anything. They were just expecting me to write. The contrast with other workshops where I had heard, “Why don’t you talk more ‘ghetto?’’’—whatever people’s projected stereotypes of blackness are, and there are countless and endless, not having to hear any of that but to have people engage the work solely on its own terms without questioning in any way any performance or representation or engagement or lack of performance—that has never happened to me in my life again, nor do I expect it to. That’s how special it is.

Any experience that I brought or wanted to examine in my world, I could do it there. Most of the strongest poems I think I’ve ever written, including poems that were in my book that just won a National Book Award, I wrote at Cave Canem. “Plantation,” the first poem in my book; “Félicité,” the last one in my book—Claudia Rankine was the faculty member I wrote “Félicité” for, Carl Phillips was the faculty member I wrote “Plantation” for, and the reason I had the courage to do those hard, politically complicated poems is because I was at Cave Canem, and I knew no one was going to say anything to me; nobody would say, “You can’t do this. You can’t write this.”

Hayes: The last time I went—I think it was my last teaching year—there was a moment when Avery R. Young, a Chicago poet, sang a poem-song kind of thing, and he cleared the room. He was saying this song poem inspired by Trayvon Martin’s death. It was a church moment. Nikky Finney was lost in the woods. She went walking. I was sitting on the side of a hill crying. The whole event just stopped. After maybe 15 minutes, we tried to get ourselves together—the night had to go on, but that was a kind of outer-space moment. Those moments happen often. Those are the moments when it’s more than poetry. There’s something else going on.

Derricotte: Just a few weeks ago, Terrance Hayes and Dawn Lundy Martin here at the University of Pittsburgh had a reading, and they were all Cave Canem people: the elders, Afaa Michael Weaver and I; the mid-generation, Terrance and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Ross Gay; and the third generation, Rickey Laurentiis and Nate Marshall—all on the stage together. It was the most well-attended event that we’ve ever had at Pitt. A hundred people had to be turned away. But what everyone said was, “I didn’t know that black poets were so diverse and doing all this different kind of work.” They were amazed at the connection of love between all of these people and the respect we have for each other’s work. Lyrae, who is in her 40s now, said to a young poet, Rickey, who is 27, “How did you write that poem? I want you to come to my house in New York and stay with me and teach me to write a poem like that.”

That’s what the conversation has been since Cave Canem started. It isn’t, “Who’s the top poet? Let’s learn how to do that poem.” It’s “Hey—I love what you’re doing. Teach me how to do that.” You have all this diversity from the diaspora. You have people from Trinidad and Oregon, from all over, from England, and everybody’s bringing something, and they’re grabbing on to “Whatever you know, I want to know that too.” That’s because they love poetry so much, and they’re so ambitious. Not to be famous, not to win prizes, but to write great poems.

Originally Published: July 13th, 2016

Sara Ivry hosted the National Magazine Award-winning podcast Vox Tablet. She has written about books, art, television, and other topics for the for the New York Times, Bookforum, the  Boston Globe, Tablet Magaine, and other publications.