Books & Writing

Cave Canem Workshop with Toi Derricotte

June 9, 2012
In Contemporary Poetry last semester we contemplated the ways photography, prose, and poetry could assist each other in revealing a poetic idea or theme. One of the texts we studied was Toi Derricotte’s chapbook The Undertaker’s Daughter which was released in 2011 by the University of Pittsburg Press.  The Undertaker’s Daughter 7th book that Toi has put out in a span of 34 years. The language in this chapbook is fresh, evocative, picturesque, and rooted in a poetic poise most of us would love to own ourselves. The theme Toi generates through the usage of photos, poems, and poetic prose is geared to the chid abuse and self identification she experienced as child and the affect it had on her adulthood and development as a woman. Powerful, powerful, powerful.
The weekend after we finished discussing the Undertaker’s Daughter I drove to Brooklyn, New York to take a workshop class with Toi Derricotte at Cave Canem! She co-founded Cave Canem in 1996 with Cornelius Eady and since then its been the home to African-American poets and their journey in professional and artistic growth. This moment was a testimony that timing is everything! I’m so glad she released her book, my professor assigned it, and she was offering a class at a time I was able to attend!
I’ve been hearing it for awhile now… “Erika you NEED to move to Brooklyn.” I wasn’t sure what about me spoke to Brooklyn but it didn’t take long for me to find out. There are some really artsy sections of this borough! It’s also a youthful borough and a ton of young people (married AND unmarried) live there. It was really impressive to see little shops, restaurants, and bookstores. I can definitely see why when some people think of Brooklyn they think of me.
Anywho! This is me in the elevator looking EXCITED to meet Toi and workshop until my fingers bleed poetry. Yeah, it was that serious. 5 hours of intense POETRY.
So I got to Cave Canem’s home, 310A, and immediately felt a whirlwind. I said a quick prayer and opened the door to a ton of beautiful faces and happy writers ready to share their world with each other. There were even breakfast items! I wasn’t really in the mood to eat because I had had coffee in the car and I was just too nervous.
We got settled and Toi made sure we went around to introduce ourselves. I was in awe that there were so many women in the class. Some young, some older, all full of wisdom, poise, and dignity. I knew that this moment was meant for me. I was meant to be there.Toi started the with the first poem in the chapbook and she sung a few parts of it for us and I couldn’t help but think about how beautiful she was. A matte shade of red lipstick lined her lips, her hair was perfectly combed into place, and she stood there radiating in all black. Toi Derricotte was there, singing to us, sharing her voice with us, committed in those five hours to helping up find our own. I was in awe.In short, the workshop was broken up into parts. We listened to Toi give a personal reading of a few more of her poems. We asked her questions on her style and to define the ways she was driven to use photos and poetry and then we passed out our own work. Prior to reading each person’s piece we did writing exercises. Personally, this was my favorite part. I recognize that most places I go, as a writer, I’m usually the youngest person there. I never let this discourage me. Instead, I use it as an opportunity to gain wisdom.

I sat there, writing and listening when Toi called on me to explain the direction of the poem I wrote. I couldn’t believe it, and before I could get too flustered I just started to read the words on the page. “Writer, daughter, sister, too young, what do I have, what can I say”. Everyone listened and a small smile formed in the corners of Toi’s face. In that moment, I cannot tell you how proud of myself I felt. I’m so shy sometimes but that day, I amazed myself by not only attending this event but my sharing my soul with people who were so willing to share theirs with me.

I had to finish my trip to Brooklyn with some of Not Ray’s pizza! It was a great way for me to replenish my body with nutrients and energy since I spent the day reading, writing, workshopping, and singing (yes SINGING) with Toi Derricotte.
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