When Cave Canem announced recently that one of its participants had
her manuscript selected as 1999 prize winner by Rita Dove, and was
going to be published by Graywolf Press, it was just the latest
success for an organizaiton that is dedicated to a widening range of
support and networking activities for African-American poets.
Natasha Trethewey, who Cave Canem organizers say was an accomplished
young writer "just waiting to be discovered," was
recognized when Rita Dove chose her manuscript "Domestic
Work" from the 1999 submissions to the competition - the first
in the organization's young history. And if that wasn't news enough,
Trethewey followed up on that achievement with a Bunting Fellowship
Major Jackson, 2000 prize winner for Leaving Saturn and a winter
fellow at Provincetown, one of his poems from the manuscript
appeared in the New Yorker in November 2000.
Dove noted the "muscular luminosity" of Trethewey's work
in diverse forms "shot through with the syncopated attitude of
blues." Anthony Walton wrote in Oxford American Sept/Oct 2000
that this first volume "marks the addition of a valuable new
voice to the varied cacophony of contemporary American poetry"
in a voice that is "quiet, understated and at times
startling...uniquley her own."
As for Cave Canem co-founder and co-director Toi Derricotte - who
helped host the organization's first-book reading at the New School
in NYC in April 2000 - she said that Domestic Work utilizes
"meticulous control and subtle perception to put "black
women's work, the hard unpretty background music of our survival, in
its proper perspective." And Graywolf terms the moving
portraits of families, "past and present, caught int he act of
earning a living and managing their households," as eloquent
illuminations of the "intensity of simple motion, busy hands
and busy minds, of people daily trying to keep it all together, both
personally and collectively."
That first-book reading, co-sponsored by the Academy of American
Poets, was hailed by no
less a figure than Jan Clausen in the Jul 24/31 issue of The Nation.
In the article "The Speed of Poetry," she writes that the
venture "may provide significant occasions for poets espousing
widely varied aesthetics to come within hailing distance of one
another, maybe even converse" and hints that "Cave Canem
must be the scene of energetic debates about poetics."
Cave Canem is an organization founded in 1996 by co-founders
Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to offer African-American poets a
chance to work together "in a welcoming atmosphere and to study
with accomplished African-American poets and teachers."
It was founded by the pair, they say, because they knew from their
experience as teachers how few emerging African-American poets
attend professional-level workshops, and how isolated the often feel
when they do. Their aim? To create opportunities for writers like
these to improve their craft, increase their self-confidence, and
make connections in "a safe and affirming environment."
Among the programs which have grown up around their initial concept
are regional workshops, public readings, the Cave Canem Prize, an
annual anthology of poems, and even an email listserve for workshop
But key to the effort is the summer workshop/retreat. Last year's
workshop included 51 fellows - more than half of them returning,
with ten for their third and final year. In addition to Derricotte
and Eady, Michael Harper, Harryette Mullen and Tim Seibles rounded
out the faculty, with guest poet Lucille Clifton bringing
"excitement and grace during her three day tenure,"
according to Cave Canem organizers. "There was something of a
demographic shift with a larger group of poets over 40, but the
majority were under 35, as in the past," noted Carolyn Micklem,
Cave Canem's director.
The schedule for the retreat features faculty-led afternoon
workshops as the core of the experience, and and readings each
participant-led workshops on a variety of topics were held in the
mornings, led by fellows who presented topics of special interest to
themselves - in 2000, these topics included Haiku, Performance
Poetry, Pomo Funk, Improvisational Techniques, and even Getting
Money (while pursuing the life of a poet).
The faculty readings were featured in a column in the Detroit Free
Press and, after it was announced that they were open to the
community a large local audience came to hear Lucille Clifton and
Michael Harper read. A number of them returned three days later to
hear the other faculty members perform their work - an audience that
included eight to ten youth from Cranbrook's Horizon's Upward Bound
So far this seems like pretty standard stuff for week-long
workshops, but there is an additional element that sets Cave Canem
apart from many other writing workshops: the intense feeling of
community that develops among all who participate. As one
participant noted, "We were writing from a safe place so that
we could take risks and struggle with poems." "Most of us
never had participated in a workshop with more than one black
participant," noted another graduate. "I was amazed that
every single participant had experienced artistic isolation, and
that we all felt a sense of home immediately."
This sense, say Cave Canem organizers, is intentionally fostered by
the program design. "The feeling of community began surfacing
after the first participant reading where everyone realized just how
talented each member of the group really was.
Afterwards, the spontaneous gatherings that happen at Cave
Canem began with one fellow initiating an impromptu break dance that
developed into a group "sing" with many songs current 8-10
years ago rendered from memory.
Another high point of community was singing "Lift Every
Voice and Sing" as farewell to Michael Harper who was
completing his third year on faculty.
A final was the closing ceremony on the last night, when the
graduating fellows "crossed over" under a billowing canopy
of cloth and a mega group hug was exchanged.
UPCOMING 2001 CAVE CANEM EVENTS
Readings: March 9, Toi Derricotte reads at The Loft, Minneapolis
March 16, Harryette Mullen: 7
pm at the Walt Whitman Center, Camden, NJ
Cave Canem Reunion Reading: 9
pm at the Philadelphia Ethical Society
March 23, Cornelius Eady reads at the VA Festival of the Book:
8 pm Charlottesville
March 24, Cave Canem Fellows read at the VA Festival of the Book:
March 31, Cave Canem Fellows read at the Peoples Poetry Gathering,
New York City, time TBA
March 31, Black Took Collective, with Cave Canem Fellows,
leads panel on Oppositional Poetry at the Peoples Poetry
Gather, NYC, time TBA
April 22, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady read with Cave Canem
Fellows at the Pratt Library, Baltimore
April 25, Al Young, Major Jackson and other Cave Canem fellows read
at the New School, co-sponsored by the Academy of American Poets,
New York City
Workshops: February - April, 10 Poetry Workshop at Poets House, TBA,
New York City
March 10, Toi Derricotte leads Master Class at The Loft, Minneapolis
June 24 - July 1, Summer Workshop/Retreat at Cranbrook Educational
Community, Bloomfield Hills, MI