Toi Derricotte Reads “Speculations about ‘I’”
Curtis Fox: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of January 28th, 2019. I’m producer Curtis Fox with an archival edition of the podcast from September of 2016. The podcast was hosted by poetry editor Don Share and associate editor Lindsay Garbutt. They were joined in their discussion of the poem by Christina Pugh, the consulting editor for the magazine. Here is Don Share.
Don Share: Cave canem means “beware of dog” in Latin. It’s also the name of the literary organization that serves as a home base for many African-American poets. Cave Canem is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and we want to congratulate them on their achievement.
Lindsay Garbutt: Over the years, many poets associated with Cave Canem have been published in Poetry, including Terrance Hayes, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and many, many others...
Don Share: ...including Toi Derricotte, one of the co-founders, with Cornelius Eady, of Cave Canem. Toi is the author of “The Undertaker’s Daughter” and four other poetry collections, as well as a memoir. We have a poem of hers in the September issue, called “Speculations About “I””.
Toi Derricotte: I wrote this poem a few months ago, and I was thinking a lot about why I wrote so-called personal poetry for so many years. And during that time, it occurred to me that it wasn’t personal in the way most people think of it. And I learned that through writing this poem.
Lindsay Garbutt: The poem has an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau.
Toi Derricotte: A certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another.
Don Share: The poem’s in thirteen short parts. Let’s hear the first six.
I didn’t choose the word —
it came pouring out of my throat
like the water inside a drowned man.
I didn’t even push on my stomach.
I just lay there, dead (like he told me)
& “I” came out.
(I’m sorry, Father.
“I” wasn’t my fault.)
(How did “I” feel?)
Felt almost alive
when I’d get in, like the Trojan horse.
I’d sit on the bench
(I didn’t look out of the eyeholes
so I wouldn’t see the carnage).
(Is “I” speaking another language?)
I said, “I” is dangerous.
But at the time I couldn’t tell
which one of us was speaking.
“I” was the closest I could get to the
one I loved (who I believe was
smothered in her playpen).
Perhaps she gave birth
to “I” before she died.
I deny “I,”
& the closer
I get, the more
“I” keeps receding.
I found “I”
in the bulrushes
raised by a dirtiness
I loved “I” like a stinky bed.
While I hid in a sentence
with a bunch of other words.
Don Share: I love the way she reads this, because I think in so many ways, there is an abstraction that contemporary poets are fascinated with, you know, to take, as she said, the personal out of poetry is a thing so many people work on these days, for various reasons. And I like that the poem challenges all that. And when she reads it, you know, the person is back in the poem, where she should be and is anyway all along. But more specifically, the poem reminds me a little bit of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about being in the waiting room, you know, where there’s an I in Elizabeth. It’s sort of the great puzzle in that poem, you know, the poet is describing the childhood experience of understanding that you are an I and what that means, and this poem, to me, it’s a delightful continuance of that, in sort of a very different form.
Christina Pugh: It is interesting and there is this opposition or this kind of fulcrum between, I think, poets who are really working, as you were saying, Don, to get the personal out of the poem and kind of, you know, recovering from confessional poetry, and having been influenced by Language poetry, and so on and so forth. But it seems to me there is also perhaps some belief still in the writing world, in the old adages of write what you know, find your voice and all that sort of stuff, and especially if you are trying to write out of a specific experience, perhaps. And so how do you put all those things together. And I really like the way this poem is interrogating all of that, because it seems like there is that doubleness between the I, non-quoted, and the “I” in quotation marks. But then there is also this… the “I” in quotation marks seems to often to come out of a lot of experiences of violence and suffering. For example, “the / one I loved (who I believe was / smothered in her playpen).” Well, there are a lot of ways you can interpret that. And it seems like maybe it’s part of the self, but still, smothering in the playpen is a pretty shocking sort of image to use there. And so I think it’s really smart, this poem, the way that it’s distancing itself from, you know, another part of the self, and yet it’s not doing it in a way that is just over-intellectualized.
Don Share: You’re right, that survival’s at stake in a section that we didn’t just hear, but it’s a section in the poem. She says:
Toi Derricotte: They say that what I write / belongs to me, that it is my true / experience. They think it validates / my endurance. / But why pretend? / “I” is a kind of terminal survival.
Don Share: “”I” is a kind of terminal survival.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Christina Pugh: Oh, the terminal survival, yeah. It’s just really quite compelling, I thought.
Lindsay Garbutt: There is a lot of violence in this poem. There is a lot of similes that say, “I” is like this. So it’s like “the water inside a drowned man,” it’s like “the Trojan horse,” and so there is…
Don Share: And don’t forget, there is ““I” like a stinky bed.”
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Lindsay Garbutt: (LAUGHING)
Don Share: I thought that was one of the best similes she stumbled upon.
Lindsay Garbutt: Absolutely. And so I love that “I” has become both something that is inside the speaker, but also something that the speaker can get inside of. So it’s coming out and something you go into, and it’s getting at that sort of dual role of voice, and how you can use it. And one of the sections that we didn’t hear, that I really love, is the one where she says, I am not the “I”...
Toi Derricotte: I am not the “I” / in my poems. “I” / is the net I try to pull me in with.
Lindsay Garbutt: That it’s kind of like a survival mechanism, but also a trap at the same time.
Christina Pugh: Yeah. And in another section, which is kind of the definition section:
Toi Derricotte: (What is “I”?) // A transmission through space? / A dismemberment of the spirit? // More like opening the chest & / throwing the heart out with the gizzards.
Christina Pugh: It’s that expulsion that you were just speaking about. And the dismemberment also seems, again, so much in opposition to this very euphoric, find-your-voice sort of credo.
Don Share: Well, it’s much more intense than that. I mean, even the title, “Speculations About “I”,” I mean, speculations sounds like a philosophical thing. I mean, it’s funny too, it’s Eliot’s observations, only, it’s strangely deeper than that. I mean, Eliot was supposedly interested in what he called the “escape from personality,” and in this poem the poem is delving very deeply into it and sort of looking to see what gets reflected back about it.
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm. It’s also kind of a creation story of how “I” came into being. There is a lot of references to myths here, like the water inside a drowned man, or the Trojan horse, or even finding “I” in the bulrushes, that is Moses, right. And so there’s all these stories of how I might have come into being, and they don’t all really co-exist together all that comfortably ...
Christina Pugh: Right, right, right.
Lindsay Garbutt: ... which makes the poem all the more interesting.
Don Share: You can read “Speculations About “I”” by Toi Derricotte in the September 2016 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: You’ve been listening to the weekly version of the Poetry magazine podcast. We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can listen to the whole program in the regular Poetry magazine podcast.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program and this new weekly format. Email us at [email protected].
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.