The Millions

It’s Our Time: Cave Canem’s Founder on the Power of Poetry

In her five books of poetry, Toi Derricotte has joined a generation of writers who have picked up the mantle of the confessional poet, seeking to blend personal experience with larger questions around race, gender, sex and identity. There is a specificity and an unflinching candor that runs through Derricotte’s work, incisive and unsparing toward everything and everyone—especially herself. This could seem cruel, but it’s tempered by what I called, in our conversation, a spiritual quality—she uses her poems to understand herself and to be understood by others, viewing self-knowledge and communication as vital, life-affirming acts.

Derricotte has received many award—including the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in 2012 and three Pushcart Prizes—and is a Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh. Derricotte is also the co-founder of Cave Canem, which has become one of the nation’s great literary organizations, receiving the Literian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2016 by the National Book Award Foundation.

Derricotte’s new book is I”: New and Selected Poems. We spoke recently about her work, career, and being hopeful at this moment.

The Millions: What was it like to assemble a new and selected volume of your poetry? Because this is your chance to define yourself and your work.

Toi Derricotte: My editor suggested I do a new and collected. When I started putting the book together I realized that it was an opportunity to think about all of my work as one long project. I have always thought of every book as its own project. How many writers get to look at 50 years of their writing in one book? I think that’s rare and I feel really good about it.

You open the book with a quotation from : “The purpose of poetry is to remind

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