Toi Derricotte is an award-winning poet whose writings, though frequently autobiographical, treat universal subjects such as racism and identity in ways that are moving, painful, and illuminating. Her style is credited with an evocative simplicity reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, though it also contains the kind of expansive colloquial expression attributed to Walt Whitman. Derricotte is also known for treating sexual topics with candor, and for exploring the shadows that surround difficult and painful realities. “Her poems begin in ordinary experiences but she dissects the routine definitions supplied by society as a way towards making discoveries about what unsuspected resources the self actually contains,” wrote Jon Woodson in Contemporary Women Poets.
Derricotte was born in Hamtramck, Michigan in 1941. As a child, she spent time at her grandparents’ funeral home in Detroit, an experience that shaped much of her early work. As she told Contemporary Authors: “My fears of death were prominent in my early poems. In my first book, The Empress of the Death House (1978), that theme persists and is embodied in ‘The Grandmother Poems,' a group of poems about my early experiences at my grandparents' funeral home in Detroit.” Derricotte’s family life was marked by death, abuse, pain and racism—coupled with her Roman Catholic schooling and light skin, Derricotte often felt alienated and guilty. In her interview, Derricotte confided that: “As a black woman, I have been consistently confused about my 'sins,' unsure of which faults were in me and which faults were the results of others' projections.” She added that, “truthtelling in my art is also a way to separate my 'self' from what I have been taught to believe about my 'self,' the degrading stereotypes about black women.”
A reviewer in Publishers Weekly characterized Derricotte as a writer who “blends personal history, invention and reportage” in works that begin with a focus on the experiences of black women, and ultimately discuss various themes concerning identity. Derricotte's first books, including The Empress of the Death House and Natural Birth (1983), focus on gender, fertility, and race. Derricotte's third collection, Captivity (1990), considers the vestiges of slavery in the lives of contemporary African Americans, including the prevalence of violence in the family, and the continued abuses of racism within the society. Derricotte's fourth book of poetry, Tender (1997), won the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. The volume’s title poem is short and stark, associating the word itself with both meat and a certain quality of family life. In a preface to the volume, Derricotte notes that the seven sections of Tender emanate like the spokes of a wheel from the hub of this poem. Ellen Kaufman, reviewing the collection for Library Journal, highlighted Derricotte's dedication to the use of “plain language that does not settle for simplicity or cliche,” adding that “despite its raw and upsetting subject matter” Tender is extremely readable. Monica Dyer Rowe, writing in American Visions, similarly focused on the intimacy of Derricotte's poetic voice: “Reading Tender is like coming across another's journal and, despite feeling somewhat guilty . . . , being too mesmerized to put the book down.”
In fact, Derricotte's prose publication, The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (1997), is comprised of selections from journals kept over the course of twenty years. At the focal point of these journals is the author's identity as a light-skinned black woman who is often mistaken for white, an issue Derricotte uses throughout her poetic oeuvre as a jumping off point for an inquiry into identity. Here, the author gathers moments from both her personal and her professional lives “that have caused her to examine her blackness and its impact on her understanding of herself and the world,” comments Lillian Lewis in Booklist. Derricotte's occasional choice to “pass” for white, as when she was attempting to buy a house in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood in New York, has engendered episodes of profound discomfort with herself, resulting in a type of spiritual malaise. The book won the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Derricotte also had an essay, “Beginning Dialogues,” published in Best American Essays 2006. Another collection of poetry, The Undertaker’s Daughter, was published in 2011.
Toi Derricotte received her B.A. from Wayne State University and an M.A. in English Literature from New York University. She has received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists two Pushcart Prizes, , and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Guggenheim, and the Maryland State Arts Council. In 1996, with poet Cornelius Eady, she founded Cave Canem, a writing workshop for African- American poets. In 2012, she was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
The poet Marilyn Hacker has said that Toi Derricotte’s poems are “honest, fine-honed, deceptively simple. . . deadly accurate, 'more merciless to herself than history’ [and] as unique as her point of view. And it is the specificity, the fine observation of that viewpoint...which makes it at once accessible and revelatory to readers, whatever their origins, whatever their preconceptions of the possibilities of poetry.”