On Sunday June 20, 2010, Brenda Cárdenas and I arrived at Pittsburgh airport, separately, and boarded shuttles that took us to the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. In each case, we got to share the journey with Cave Canem fellows (I enjoyed, for example, getting acquainted and conversing with third year fellow Kelly Harris, who is now based in New Orleans.) What follows is a conversation that Brenda and I had over e-mail about our time among the Cave Canem family. Most of this dialogue took place before the CantoMundo retreat—an initiative that took as its inspiration Cave Canem and whose co-founder, Toi Derricotte, graced the inaugural CantoMundo retreat with her presence and spirit, sharing with us her wisdom and words.
July 14, 2010
Thank you for agreeing to take part in this e-conversation as a way to reflect and de-brief ourselves on what I think was a special experience for us both: being week-long guests at the Cave Canem retreat. I'll start things off with a brief comment and then a related question. As I think you will agree, that first night at Cave Canem was quite moving: I'm talking about the time we spent in the opening circle listening to people tell the story of what brought them to Cave Canem. It felt, that Circle did, almost like a sacred space and an ideal way to kick off the week. Could you share what your particular impressions were. And could you also paraphrase what you shared with the Cave Canem fellows that was related to your early education as a poet.
Yes, I too found the opening circle at the Cave Canem retreat inspiring because it was so real, so down to earth. The fellows were exuberant even when what they needed to express something difficult or sorrowful because they had dug deeply in order to speak honestly and passionately about what it means to be a poet—and a Black poet—in this historical moment. I thought it was quite insightful on Toi Derricotte’s part to ask fellows and teachers alike to talk about who they really were as poets, what had brought them to CC, and what they hoped to gain from the CC retreat, minus their book titles, awards, degrees, teaching positions, etc. And I was struck by the general sense of how isolated poets of color still feel in the U.S. despite all of the “multiculturalism” we’ve been hearing about for the past 30 years or so. In her interview with Elizabeth Hoover of Sampsonia Way magazine, Derricotte reminds us that we are not a post-racial society. Despite the success of many fine Black writers, individuals often still find themselves to be the only Black poet in a creative writing graduate course (or even program); at a writer’s workshop, conference, or retreat; as a faculty member of a writing program; etc. And being that one Black poet often is accompanied by others’ expectations born of stereotypes and narrow ideas/essentialisms surrounding the literature written by people of color. I was also quite moved by the stories shared by fellows with multi-ethnic heritages—the tugs of war between the different cultures that reside within them, the exclusions and pressures to deny major parts of who they are. This resonated for me, as I imagine it might with many Latina/o poets. And, of course, I have to note how the stories and statements that the fellows shared always came back to the writing—how hard they work at it, how much they eat and breathe it, the challenges they knew they’d meet in the week to follow and how excited they were to rise to them, the directions in which they wanted to take their work, etc. It was obvious to me from the start that this would not be just a “feel good,” esteem building set of workshops, but rather a rigorous one with very high standards, a supportive but challenging experience for participants.
When it was my turn to speak, I remember first thanking the founders, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, and the fellows for allowing me to be present at the retreat as a visiting poet. I had known before boarding the plane to Pittsburgh that an amazing honor had been bestowed upon me, but the opening circle demonstrated even more clearly that it would probably be one of the greatest honors of my writing life. Cave Canem defines itself as a home for black writers; it’s a safe space in which one does not have to be on guard all the time (except for making sure s/he is producing the finest poetry s/he can muster) and also one in which s/he will get honest, thoughtful feedback on her/his work. For the co-founders, fellows, and staff to invite you and me to be present, observe, and participate in parts of this retreat was incredibly generous (and, to some degree, risky) on their part. I wanted to make sure that they all knew I understood that. I explained that I hoped and planned to learn from the fellows and teachers in residence via attending and listening actively at all of the readings and events and by conversing with fellows. I also planned to try to push my own poetry into new (for me) terrain. Finally, I spoke about the fact that when I was in high school in the late 70’s (I’m 48 years old), there were no Latina/o poets at all in the curriculum or textbooks. They weren’t even in my undergraduate curriculum. I had to find them on my own. Yet, in my high school literature classes and anthologies, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Loraine Hansberry were present, and they had taught me how to sing. They inspired me to write and seemed to give me permission to do so. Fellows who had spoken before me had mentioned that they felt/sensed Lucille Clifton’s presence at the retreat, as the late Clifton had been an advocate of Cave Canem and often attended the retreat as a guest poet. I said that I imagined Hughes, Brooks and Hansberry were present as well. What a first evening!
Your response prompted me to go back and re-read Toi's interview for Sampsonia Way (The first time I read it was before the retreat.) In re-reading it, I couldn't help but remember a moment during the week that particularly struck me. It was either Monday or Tuesday morning at the optional morning seminar for the fellows (and given by fellows), which we were welcome to attend. It was the one on shaping a first book manuscript, and it was being led by Metta Sama. A couple of things: she brought a stack of "first books" and in the pile were a number of books I immediately recognized. They included the first books by Blas Falconer, Helena Mesa, and Aracelis Girmay. In fact, part of the seminar involved looking at the table of contents of Teeth (Araceli's book) and discussing the first two pieces in the volume. I remember that it was a very lively and stimulating discussion, and everyone in the room was freely contributing their thoughts on the ins and outs of organizing a manuscript, and the heart of the discussion had to do with the heart of the matter: the poems, the poetry. It was a perfectly normal discussion one would expect for a seminar on this topic. I don't recall any particular discussion of race or ethnicity. And then it struck me as I gazed around the room—there were maybe twenty people present—excepting me, everyone in that room was black. It was a small, epiphany-like moment for me. Even if I include my experience at Macondo, which is mostly but not exclusively Latino/a, I don't think I'd ever had that experience: being in a poetry setting—any setting of instruction really—where every single person around the table or in the room was non-white. Did you have any similar moments during your time spent among the fellows (and faculty for that matter, since it was so nice spending time with them as well). Another way of phrasing this might be: could you share any particular moment or moments from your week that struck a particular chord with you?
I wasn't at Metta's seminar (wish I had been), but it sounds like it was as valuable as all of the events at Cave Canem. There wasn't one event I attended all week that wasn't super high caliber. I like how you noted that the fellows were having a stimulating discussion regarding the ins and outs of organizing a manuscript with no particular discussion of race and ethnicity. This is important because the poetry/the art itself and the choices one makes as a poet were primary at CC. Certainly, sometimes there was crossover with themes/issues regarding race, ethnicity, culture, but certainly not always and not as the primary focus. That's true when you put a bunch of white poets together in a room, and it's true when you put a bunch of brown or black or red poets together too. We love language, we spend many hours reading, we dwell for long periods of time on a single line when we write.
You ask if I had any of those epiphany moments or moments that struck a particular chord with me, and there were so many that I hesitated answering the question for a spell because it's so difficult to choose only one. So I haven't. I've chosen a few. First, in the aftermath of the retreat, I noted something that I imagine has happened to everyone, probably more than once, in her life. That is the way we are drawn to certain kinds of personalities no matter how the larger group is constituted and despite the fact that we know no one in the group at the beginning. Somehow those we are drawn to almost feel like old friends by the end of a first conversation, and we find ourselves sharing deeply with them by the end of a week. I had that happen with certain fellows. Although I really liked and learned from everyone, I felt especially connected to certain people as though they had been cousins or close friends in another lifetime. I've experienced this before, and I was glad that I experienced it at CC too.
Also the couple of times I sat with Ed Roberson at dinner were pretty amazing, as he is such a brilliant poet and wise person whose wisdom has evolved or deepened, I think, in part from his world travels and scientific studies. He has a solitude about him that perhaps only comes from both living fully in the world and observing it carefully in all of its intricacies.
One of the more significant exchanges I had with one of the fellows was the conversation at lunch one day for which both Ed and you were present. I'm speaking of the day that Nandi, who had attended bilingual schools in the Detroit area during her K-12 years, narrated her story about watching Mexican wrestling for the first time in a public square in Guadalajara during the three years she lived and taught in Mexico. First of all, she told the story with such vigor and wit that she practically had all of us falling out of our seats with laughter. Secondly, it was obvious from the story that although Nandi is African American, raised by activist parents (connected to the Black Power Movement), and not Chicana or Mexicana, she had developed a deep appreciation and love for the culture, which had been born of her submersion experience. When Nandi finished the story, I mentioned that I was looking forward to someday seeing the poems or stories that she’d write from her experience in Mexico. She replied that she had always wanted to write about that part of her life and to use Spanish in her poetry, but that she hadn’t (she never felt she could) due to her concerns about appropriating another people’s culture, as there are such dangers in that. I agreed that appropriation can be very problematic and slippery but expressed that I felt that the Spanish language was hers—she had mastered it and spoken it for so long, she was fluent—and that when she told us her story about Mexican wrestling, she had positioned herself (the narrator) with great care and self awareness. She was speaking for no one but herself. Perhaps writing successfully about one's experiences with people of a different culture or ethnicity works when one is very mindful of one’s approach and positioning (and even questions or critiques that positioning), when one writes with deep respect and care and when one does her research thoroughly, which includes primary research or experience in the culture. Others around the table concurred. Nandi seemed truly touched by our remarks and later that night at the fellows' poetry reading, she delivered two poems. The second one had been written in a mix of English and Spanish, and it concerned issues of poverty and, perhaps, orphanage in Mexico. It was a new poem—lyrical and tender. It was respectful and beautiful and painful due in part to Nandi's restraint, economy of language, and diction. It was dedicated to you, Francisco, and to me. It was one of the most cherished gifts I've ever received—something I'll always carry with me.
Another super significant moment for me was hearing Avery Young perform his poem regarding the New Orleans flood. There's no way to describe that performance—the way he brought the poem up through the Earth's deepest veins into his toes and up his torso, through his throat and off his tongue. There's no way to describe the audience's collective hard swallow and hush. There's no way to begin to describe what he does with the word "Help." All I can say was that I realized as he finished performing that I had witnessed what García Lorca calls Duende in that performance—puro duende. I was stunned.
What were your feelings or reactions to these moments, as you were present too?
I have to say that I have very little to add to your depiction of these particular moments except to echo my deep sense of gratitude, both for being allowed to be present in the first place, and for how deeply touched I was. I guess Nandi’s story about her time in Mexico touched me in a particular way because one of the things Letras Latinas is striving to do in some of its programming is create situations where dialogue and mutual appreciation of our two literary communities (Latino and African American) can be enhanced. In that sense, Nandi’s story was a particularly poignant gift.
As I think about how this e-conversation of ours has unfolded, I am preparing to depart Albuquerque, NM after experiencing the inaugural CantoMundo retreat. It feels as if my experience of CantoMundo as the other side of this coin, or the mirror of our experience of Cave Canem, in terms of fellowship and community-building.....all around the act of making poems. And you'll be happy to know that just as we were guests a few weeks ago in Greensburg, our guest this past weekend in Albuquerque was Toi Derricotte. She delivered wonderful keynote remarks on Friday morning. Based on the comments I have heard from other CantoMundistas, her presence was definitely one of the highlights of the retreat—in the same way (from my perspective and from what I was able to observe and hear) that your presence was a highlight for a number of Cave Canem fellows. Because the CC group numbered more than 50, it’s not surprising that we grew better acquainted with some fellows more than others. I have gotten a few nice Facebook messages from Robin in these last few days. And Ian Williams' name came up here in New Mexico, as well: J. Michael Martinez enjoyed interacting with him in Vermont at a residency there a short while ago.
Are there any other closing remarks you’d like to make to wind down this e-conversation?
I’m glad you mentioned Robin, as she is one of those people who feels like a long, lost cousin, plus what a talented poet she is!
I’ll close by saying that it was also such an honor for me to read with Cornelius Eady, Toi Dericotte and Ed Roberson, as well as to do the craft talk with Sapphire. These are all poets/writers I've read and admired over the years, so I was quite nervous when it came to sharing stages with them, but everyone was so supportive that, of course, these ended up being enriching and rich exchanges too. After the first few minutes of the talk with Sapphire, we eased into natural conversation, made easier by fellow and moderator Nicole Sealy's thoughtful and challenging questions regarding the many difficult choices we make in the writing of any poem. Sapphire, Nicole, the other fellows who posed questions, and I were able to flesh out some of the ideas and topics of conversation about writing that had sprung up during the week too, so it was great that the craft talk was scheduled near the week’s end.
One more thing: It seems that Cornelius, Toi, Allison (the Executive Director), and Sarah Micklem, (Cornelius’ wife who has been actively involved from CC’s inception) have not only been incredible inspirations as poets/writers, but also as community/cultural workers and activists. I was quite impressed by the number of CC fellows who were or had at some point in their lives been deeply engaged in vital community arts work/projects. This is one of the many things that I feel sets the CC retreat/residency apart from others around the country. Where else do you end up in a group of 50 poets and find so many who have participated so significantly as community/cultural workers? In this way it is fitting that one of the faculty readings took place at Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh—home to City of Asylum residencies—definitely one of the most significant community projects I’ve ever witnessed. We probably need to have an e-mail exchange about that residency too!
I’m so glad to hear that Canto Mundo struck you as having some similar strengths as those we’ve mentioned about CC. I wanted to apply to attend Canto Mundo but couldn’t do three residencies in one summer due to other obligations. Nonetheless, I was rooting for it to be just such an environment as you describe.
Finally, I just want anyone associated with Cave Canem who may read this to know how appreciative I am of this experience and how much I valued my time with each and every fellow, faculty member, and staff member. I also want to thank you, Francisco, for linking me to CC and for sharing so many of your own insights, kindnesses, and even a few poems while we were at CC. I felt that the fellows really valued your experience as both poet and arts administrator—one who is always cultivating amazing projects and collaborations.
I’m really glad you brought up your craft talk with Sapphire. While I would concur that your reading on Monday night with Cornelius, Toi, and Ed was, by definition, a highlight of our week in Greensburg, what transpired in that room while you and Sapphire conversed towards the week’s end was the icing on the cake. I don’t know if you knew this, but it was after that craft talk that you sold the rest of your books. Boomerang was purchased 40 times when it was all said and done. If there was ever a measuring stick to how you were received at Cave Canem, that would be it, I think.
I’m really looking forward to your and Paul Martinez Pompa’s reading in Washington DC on September 16th in collaboration with the American Poetry Museum, where you’ll be reading with R. Dwane Betts and Inés P. Rivera Prosdocimi; and also the one in Bethesda the next day with Teri Cross Davis and Gregory Pardlo in collaboration with The Writers Center.