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Biography
Alison Meyers’ poems have appeared in CONNECTICUT REVIEW, COMMON GROUND REVIEW, FRESHWATER REVIEW and CADUCEUS II. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is the author of two chapbooks, RED ANGEL'S ORPHAN & OTHER POEMS and PEST CONTROL (Everyday Books). Alison became Executive Director of Cave Canem Foundation, New York City, in 2006. Previously, she directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, a multi-faceted program of Hill-Stead Museum, CT, where she concurrently served as Director of Marketing & Communications. She has served as a panelist for the Urban Artists Initiative (CT), the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, the New York State Council on the Arts’ Facing Pages Conference, the New England Foundation for the Arts Conference and elsewhere; and has been a judge for the NEA/Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Out Loud, the IMPAC/CSU Poetry Awards and the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry. Currently, she serves on the boards of Bowery Arts & Science and Soul Mountain Retreat.

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CAVE CANEM: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOI DERRICOTTE AND ALISON MEYERS

- by Interview by Goutam Datta; Video by Kajal Mukhopadhyay & Mousumi Dutta Roy


"I got hold of a book entitled "The Columbian Orator."  Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book... During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write...  By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy books... When left thus (unsupervised in the master's house), I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying what he had written.  I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write." (Douglass 278-81).

In 1845 Frederick Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. At the time, some critics attacked the book and questioned whether a black man could have produced such an eloquent piece of literature.  African American writers have come a long way. However, as recently as the 1990s, African Americans still had no poetic institute of their own where poets, irrespective of their lifestyles or gender, could meet other like-minded African American writers. They found many faces in the American literary mirror except their own. Cave Canem was created in 1996 to do exactly that: to create a mirror, a place of affirmation and a safe haven for African American poets.  Urhalpool editor Goutam Datta spoke with Cave Canem founder Toi Derricotte and Executive Director Alison Meyers at their offices in New York.

Urhalpool:  Can you please tell us a little about Cave Canem’s history?  Can you tell me in your own words how you started this program?  

Toi Derricotte:  I think that one thing that’s interesting about Cave Canem is that it really began as a community.  I mean, I had tried to get a retreat going, funding from a university, a couple of universities actually, but it didn’t work out. But I met Cornelius [Eady] at a writers retreat where we were both teaching and were the only African Americans teaching.  We got a chance to talk a lot about being the “only” all the time.  And we formed a very close friendship, and his wife and we decided to go on a vacation together.  I had recently gotten news that the funding I had tried to get to do a retreat on my own hadn’t panned out.  So I asked him and his wife if they were interested in doing a workshop. I don’t know how we framed that, but we decided to have a place for African American people to meet and not feel isolated and alone, but to be with a group of African American poets. We had never seen anything like that happen. We had never taught African American poets, I mean, rarely.

Urhalpool:  No?

Toi Derricotte:  No, because when you’re in the university, there are no African American poets. So you’re just rarely teaching African American poets, you’re not with African American poets.

Urhalpool:  Which year—in 1996?

Toi Derricotte:  Yes, absolutely.  When I was at NYU, I graduated in 1985, and I was the only African American at New York University and graduate in the English department.  Yep.

Urhalpool:  So from that point it has changed a lot.  Right?

Toi Derricotte:  I don’t know if I’d say a lot…

Alison Meyers:  Somewhat.

Urhalpool:  But you have African American Studies and many professors teaching—
    
Toi Derricotte:  Well, I’m talking about the English Department. There’s a divide between African American Studies and the English Department.  Even though in African American Studies they study literature.  It’s that same divide, you see?

Urhalpool:  In the MFA also, right?

Toi Derricotte:  Yes, but you see that there’s a hierarchy. The English Department is on top, and African American Studies is under, and we talked about why earlier.  All over the world, right?  But this is the racial divide.

Urhalpool:  So that made you start this whole thing in 1996?

Toi Derricotte:  Yes, we decided that [was] the first thing that we wanted to do, but also we realized we didn’t have any money, and we had to do it out of our own pockets.  And that’s very important because, in that way, you have control, you’re sort of going out on faith because certainly we didn’t have a lot of money.  I made a phone call to a priest who’s a dear friend of mine, who was a retreat director at a large monastery on the Hudson River. He said, “Bring everybody here.”  So we started and things just started falling into place. We put one little ad in the paper, and we got sixty applications for twenty spaces. Now we get hundreds.

Alison Meyers:  We got 233 this year for twenty spaces.

Toi Derricotte:  It’s really been hard work for our director Alison, and our director before, but people are committed to doing this, they want to do this, and that makes a huge difference.  The need is there and the passion to get this done.

Alison Meyers:  In an almost organic way, in an intuitive way, you and Cornelius set up some of the community building, structures or environment, really kind of a pedagogical model, and they work to this day, but they represent a departure from the traditional hierarchical or competitive model, and that started at inception in ’96.

Toi Derricotte:  I remember, for example, the opening circle.  It wasn’t like we talked about that.  Just the night when everybody came, I guess I remembered other circles that I had been a part of, and I think that even when teaching sometimes I had used that model and noticed that that made a big difference.  I think that there’s a lot of validation about having a circle.  We knew it wasn’t hierarchical.  We never thought that way.  We never thought that people would be lined up in chairs facing the front with somebody presenting an idea to them.  It never occurred to us, and so the forms just followed that.

Urhalpool:  Did you get a space immediately, like a rental space, like an office or something?

Toi Derricotte:  Oh nooo (laughing).  All of our papers were in Cornelius’ apartment for several years, and he has a small apartment.  But we didn’t have an office until 2000—

Allison Meyers:  Five years ago.  

Toi Derricotte:  But one of the other things that we decided that has been very meaningful [was] in the first year…  I think Cornelius said something to me or Sarah, I forget, about having fellows come back.

Alison Meyers:  One of our programs is a workshop in New York City, and we teach two per year.   And sometimes fellows teach them, and sometimes other individuals, other poets, but this year we’ve had three poets get into the retreat who came from the workshop experience.  And that was really exciting to see because, first, it’s very competitive—we wish it weren’t because, you know, more and more the demand is growing, and we still don’t have the capacity to run five retreats. We’re running one retreat, but I mean it was very, very, exciting and encouraging to see that these poets had continued to develop and came out of that, applied, and got in. So, we’re hoping over time, as our programs build and as our fellows build programs across the country, these opportunities are going to actually expand.

Toi Derricotte:  One thing that Cave Canem changes is that in my generation I couldn’t have a conversation with fifty African American poets.  I couldn’t hear their opinions about what was going on in the world.  I couldn’t be in contact.

Urhalpool:  No?

Toi Derricotte:  No, because one thing, there weren’t African American poets where I grew up in Detroit. I had no idea I was going to be African American poet. I was going to be a teacher or a doctor, you know, because you didn’t become a poet.  Nobody became a poet, you know? And there were some artists in Detroit, but it felt like it was a very different kind of thing that I was writing, I was writing personal poetry about my family. The people in the Black Arts Movement at the time were writing political poetry, and yet when I studied white poets in graduate school, you know, something was missing there. There was not a place where I really fit as a poet. So I was sort of questioning, “Maybe I’m not a real poet, because I don’t fit in this place or that place.” Uhm, yeah, I didn’t really think that I was going to be a poet until I came to New York. Because growing up in Detroit, in a middle class black family, a lot was about the economics of getting a job.

Urhalpool: I would imagine that would happen because of the economic background that African American poets come from; the general African American population is not economically high powered in this country.  Like me, I came from India. If I were born in this country, I would have been a full time writer. However, in India, people like me had to go into the engineering or medical field just to get out of poverty.

Alison Meyers:  How could you be full time writer if you were born in this country?

Urhalpool: Basically you cannot compare the poverty in India and here. However, African American students may go through the similar situations here. They may not go to the MFA straight from college. They may go into other professions initially.  They may come from other backgrounds.

Toi Derricotte:  That happens with us so much.  Many poets go through Cave Canem and, during that time, they get the courage to join an MFA program.  Coming here [to New York], I realized that you could take workshops, study—it was a completely different world for me.

Urhalpool: Anyway, that was my next question, and you have already started to answer it.  My question was: why New York?  Why not Chicago or San Francisco?  You already gave that answer. Now please tell me, besides this retreat, what does Cave Canem do throughout the year?

Toi Derricotte:  One thing is the Cave Canem first book prize we started.

Alison Meyers:  In 1999.  The first winner was Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work chosen by Rita Dove.

Urhalpool:  She is one my most favorite poets.  A very fine poet.

Alison Meyers:  We were very thrilled when she won the Pulitzer Prize.

Toi Derricotte:  She is coming to Cave Canem this year.

Alison Meyers:  She will be our guest poet this summer.

Urhalpool: She sent me ten of her poems to translate for our Bengali African American Poetry Anthology.  I came into contact with her then, and I fell in love with her poems.

Alison Meyers:  The latest one is Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, selected by Claudia Rankine.  It won the 2007 Cave Canem Award. We collaborate with three presses to put out a book every year. The University of Pittsburgh Press, Gray Wolf Press, and the University of Georgia Press.  Yusef Komunyakaa is judging the 2009 prize. We will announce that in September.  We also started a second book prize which we are doing with Northwestern University. I actually can tell you the winner because it will be announced by the time you put out your magazine. The winner is Indigo Moore. You know, the second book prize is the tough one because there aren’t many prizes for the second book. That’s itself an extraordinary thing.

Urhalpool: I guess many African American poets submit their books to be considered for the prize. Or do you choose randomly from all the available books?

Alison Meyers:  No, we run it in a traditional way. The poets submit their books and a distinguished judge chooses a book.  In addition to that, there are two honorable mentions each year.  Additionally, we publish this anthology.  It is been phenomenal for us. The second one is for black poets in the South, edited by Nikky Finney. You absolutely have to read her introduction.

Urhalpool: She is also included in the Bengali African American Poetry Anthology. She is an African American lesbian poet too.

Toi Derricotte:  Yes.

Alison Meyers:  She is an amazing poet. Her prose is as poetic as her poems… We also have the Legacy Conversation Series which was launched in 1999.

Toi Derricotte:  The Legacy Conversation Series has conversations between an elder poet and a younger poet. The idea is to preserve these conversations because there were many African American poets who weren’t preserved, their wisdom, life stories, connections between their lives and poetry.  It is very important to preserve this heritage. It is a precious document we would like to keep when they leave us.

Urhalpool:  From its inception in 1996, there have been a large number of African American poets who are very active in Cave Canem.

Toi Derricotte:  Yes, our poets, it’s very interesting, it is very mixed group. Lot of people have MFAs and some people come from very surprising backgrounds. We don’t choose people because of what they have done or their backgrounds.  It is purely on the basis of their works. We read their letters and names and it is just about poetry. We find out some surprising things. People who were in prison for considerable amount of time, we didn’t know this before, there are people with Doctor degrees, university professors, poets with many books published and there are people who are just starting up who are extremely talented.

Alison Meyers:  Last year we had a young poet who was just entering college. We have poets in their 60s. So many fellows really do give back in terms of their sweat equity, organizing readings with us, just this summer alone.  We are going to have a reading in Atlanta and that’s organized by Lita Hooper. We’re going to the Baltimore Book Fair—and that’s organized by Reggie Harris—we’re going to have a reading at Enoch Pratt Free Library where Reggie works, and he’s been doing that every year.  Tracy K. Smith, with Tina Chang, has organized an annual African American and Asian American Reading every year, and that’s become a tradition. We’re going to be in Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry Festival with Soul Mountain Retreat in July.  So we look for these partnerships, and the fellows are participating in that process. They’re ambassadors for Cave Canem, and, again, it goes back to the community model where they’re inviting each other, supporting each other’s work, and of course we’re trying to coordinate all that through the office.  But it’s a model that you don’t see a lot in non-profit organizations where usually there’s the staff over here, the artist here, and the members over here, but those distinctions don’t exist so much with us.   It’s more of a circle model.

Urhalpool:  So now we should go to Toi, regarding your poetry and your thinking. What do you think about the election of Barack Hussein Obama?

Allison Meyers:  Ask her if she’s got his life-size cardboard “pin-up.” (Laughing)

Toi Derricotte:  When Sarah Palin was nominated I thought, “I’ve got to do something, because if these people get in office, I’m going to leave the country, for sure.”  So I was thinking about doing a benefit reading, and Alison just happened to be in Pittsburgh for a meeting at that time, and we decided we would have a National Cave Canem.

Alison Meyers:  It wasn’t Cave Canem; it was Poets for a Better Country.

Toi Derricotte:  And what I did in Pittsburgh was invite twenty-five poets. It sort of turned out to be like Cave Canem, because a lot of the poets in Pittsburgh—this group of poets doesn’t read with that group of poets, doesn’t speak to this group of poets, because they had a feud forty years ago, so they’ve never been in the same room together.  So I invited these poets, and that was the first time they read together.  And, you know it was a benefit, and we made 1200 bucks.  But the thing that was so beautiful is this vision of Barack Obama sort of plays out with Cave Canem in a certain kind of way, this inclusivity and openness and—

Alison Meyers:  The importance of arts and culture—

Toi Derricotte:  The transparency and arts and culture.  So it was lovely.  Some of the people that hadn’t seen in each other for years were hugging each other.

Alison Meyers:  Really?  Oh man, I wish you’d videotaped that.

Toi Derricotte:  So it was meaningful to me.  My part in the organization, and it seems to have been working, is very intuitive.  I mean, when Alison came along as the director, we had no idea—when our first director decided to leave, it was a pretty scary moment because, you know, this is a very difficult position to fill.

Urhalpool:  She was Cornelius’ mother-in-law right?

Alison Meyers: Caroline Micklem.

Toi Derricotte:  She was a wonderful lady and she did wonderfully and Amen.  She did a great job… and she had done a lot.  And so, it was a scary moment, but it just seems that something is happening that we’re not in control of, and yet it’s happened.  It’s not without all of the same things that successful organizations have to have.  You know somebody like Alison who’s extremely hard working and capable and sophisticated and savvy and all of that.

Urhalpool:  But she’s also white.  I am right?   You didn’t choose that. You know, I’m saying you didn’t have to choose--“Oh, Cave Canem is for African Americans so I have to get another African American person.”

Toi Derricotte:  You’re right and, as a matter of fact, I think this is part of the Barack thing too.

Urhalpool:  Exactly.

Toi Derricotte:  That you use what you need, what fits, we’re not making the laws about who can help Cave Canem.  I mean, it seems that it moves in the way that is helping the fellows. I feel that one of the things that Cave Canem did for me, and this partnership between Cornelius and me, I think that’s very interesting because of the gender balance. To have a man and a woman to be friends and partners and work together in a very equal way.  I did not feel that in the Black Arts Movement.  I felt that, at that time in history, it was appropriate for certain things—

Urhalpool:  But you shouldn’t be a prisoner of the past.

Toi Derricotte:  That’s right.

Urhalpool:  Yesterday, Barack said that.

Toi Derricotte:  It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, and that’s appropriate to bring in. Exactly, and I think that at that time the concern was not until black men were economically stable could the family have solidity, and that’s what would be the basis of the stable black family in our society. With Cave Canem, it was a different time, and gender issues don’t really come up in a certain kind of way. The economy has changed—in some ways it hasn’t changed—but that has changed.  I mean it’s a big conflict. You feel like you’ve done something important, and then they tell you, “No, you can’t do this.  You people don’t do this.” So to have this community that is sort of a bridge to the next poem, instead of having this space that’s compelled… and then you go to the next poem. You’ve got all this fertile soil and mirrors. When you sit in a circle, the mirror is mirroring back, “You’re a poet.  I’m a poet and you’re poet.”  And when I was at NYU, the mirror was broken.  It’s broken, I didn’t see myself in that mirror.  And so it’s a powerful reinforcement… Basho said being poet is writing one poem, and I believe that’s true.  But again, when you have this dialogue and this place of acceptance, you’re going to produce a different quality, a different richness—the language and articulation gets more and more refined and nuanced, and you have more choices. This is a whole different generation.

Alison Meyers:  I even think about what topics you permit yourself to put into your poem…

Toi Derricotte:  One of the things that I thought was fascinating is that I write a lot about self- loathing.  I write a lot about being repulsed by my own blackness, as a light skinned black woman.  Now, why would somebody like me be the founder of an organization like Cave Canem?  It makes perfect sense because, like you said, “It’s for everybody, it’s where everything is welcomed, every topic.”

Alison Meyers:  But also your bravery is inspirational, so that’s important.

Toi Derricotte:  I think that we are an organization that really does believe that it’s okay to be us, that you don’t have to—I mean, in my middle class childhood it was about projecting an image, about looking a certain way.  That was so destructive, you know.  But that was that was the generational evolution.  My great-grandmother was born two years after slavery. I mean these people were in dire powerlessness, and they had to do what they had to do, which was,  “Hey, skin color was very important, in terms of your vulnerability.” But I think this is a time when all of that can be part of what makes great art—its truth, it tells what it’s like to be a human being, to evolve in a situation when you’re othered all the time.   It’s all there in the literature, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Urhalpool:  Yeah, that’s the best thing in the literature, it breaks all barriers.  It doesn’t matter—race, gender, color…

Alison Meyers:  Carl Philips said on a recent panel called “State of the Art: African American Poetry Today,” “I think my poem is successful when it speaks to human beings,” and I really like that…

Urhalpool:  So we’ll wrap up the interview with one of your poems?

Toi Derricotte:  Oh, of course. Take the one that you translated.

Urhalpool:  I thought that it was a different poem.

Toi Derricotte:  Well, “Saks Fifth Avenue.”   Will people know what Saks Fifth Avenue is? (laughing)

Urhalpool:  Of course.

Toi Derricotte:  Well at this time in the 1940s, black people just didn’t go to Saks Fifth Avenue.

Urhalpool:  Well, I wouldn’t know, unless you told me the story. I came to this country in 1981.

Toi Derricotte:  In the 40s black people couldn’t even be saleswomen in Saks or run the elevator.

Urhalpool:  Not even in New York City?

Toi Derricotte:  Right, right, that was to come later.  So my grandmother was light skinned, and my grandfather owned a funeral home, so we had a Cadillac. And my grandfather was dark skinned.  So he would sit in front of the car as if he were our chauffeur and drive us.

Urhalpool:  How old were you at that time?

Toi Derricotte:  I was three, four, five observing this, and nobody ever said that we were trying to pass.  I mean, that was never discussed, or that my grandfather was dark, and he was driving and that we were sitting in the back.  Nobody said anything, but I’m picking up the vibes. And if you asked a group of people when they found out what race they were and there were black people and white people in the room. Typically white people don’t know what they are until much later than black people.  Black people know they’re black when they’re two, three, four years old, and white people don’t understand that until later on, until they go school.  So already by the time I was three or four I had some sense about race and class, and I had some idea about fear and shame, and I think this experience sort of nailed a lot down for me.


THE WEAKNESS

That time my grandmother dragged me
through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up
by my arm, hissing, “Stand up,”
through clenched teeth, her eyes
bright as a dog’s
cornered in the light.
She said it over and over,
as if she were Jesus,
and I were dead.  She had been
solid as a tree,
a fur around her neck, a
light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling
marble and passed through
brass openings—in 1945.
There was not even a black
elevator operator at Saks.
The saleswoman had brought velvet
leggings to lace me in, and cooed,
as if in the service of all grandmothers.
My grandmother had smiled, but not
hungrily, not like my mother
who hated them, but wanted to please,
and they had smiled back, as if
they were wearing wooden collars.
When my legs gave out, my grandmother
dragged me up and held me like God
holds saints by the
roots of their hair.  I begged her
to believe I couldn’t help it.  Stumbling,
her face white
with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing
away from those eyes
that saw through
her clothes, under
her skin, all the way down
to the transparent
genes confessing.

Urhalpool:  Beautiful poem, thank you very much.

Toi Derricotte:  You’re welcome, thank you for translating.