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Poetry Moment: Toi Derricotte evokes a legacy of poetry and cruelty

This week’s poem contains a legacy.

Like a story told and retold on families’ front porches, this Poetry Moment features author Toi Derricotte reading a poem that changed her life, “Southern Road” by Sterling Allen Brown.

With colloquial rhymes and dialect, the poem’s haunting rhythms echo the stories and songs of chain gangs. Conceived during the Civil War to provide free labor, chain gangs proliferated in the South until the 1950s, when they were largely phased out in most of the nation. The practice lingered in Georgia and North Carolina until the 1970s, and was resurrected in the 1990s “tough on crime” era.

Chain gangs became part of American culture, with Nina Simone and Sam Cooke writing songs about the lines of prisoners often seen along Southern roads.

Prisoners, many of whom were Black and most of whom were convicted of minor crimes, were shackled together at the ankles to provide states free labor. They broke rocks, built the nation’s roads and highways, dug holes. Treated cruelly, prisoners were sometimes kept in cages, and usually fed little and beaten liberally. For photos and history of the chain gang, see this fascinating and horrifying history project by the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Brown’s poem called forth the chain gang’s speech and song in a way that American readers had never seen. Poet Derricotte explained that besides Langston Hughes, she read no works by Black writers in grade school, in high school, or even in college. When she started reading Brown’s poems, “they blew my mind.” In this Poetry Moment, Derricotte reads only the last three stanzas of Brown’s iconic poem.

Sterling Brown

Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., attended Harvard, then returned to Howard to teach for more than 40 years until he retired in 1969. Brown, whose father was born into slavery and became a prominent minister and professor at Howard, became a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary Black poets like Derricotte.

A 2019 finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, Derricotte visited HoCoPoLitSo in November 2012 to read her own poetry and talk about the legacy of Lucille Clifton, our longtime artistic advisor and the nation’s beloved, award-winning poet. Before she read for our audience, Derricotte filmed an interview about her work with E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and activist from D.C. who knew Brown well. Miller asked her to read some poetry that inspired her. Derricotte chose a Sylvia Plath poem, and this work by Brown.

Toi Derricotte

Derricotte has her own legacy to pass on. She and poet Cornelius Eady formed Cave Canem, a retreat and foundation to support and host African American poets. Cave Canem, which translates from Latin as “Beware the Dog,” was named after the mosaic of the protective dog at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, preserved in Pompeii (see image below). Founded in 1996 to nurture Black poets, Cave Canem has supported thousands of Black poets with workshops, prizes, and readings. Fellows of the program have published more than 250 books.

Try one of their books, listen to “Southern Road” here, pick up The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, read some of Derricotte’s confessional and personal work. Then sit on the porch with your family and tell these stories.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life


Sterling Brown Photo:  By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42296826

Poems of Pain, Times of Joy — Toi Derricotte and Lucille Clifton

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte’s poems speak pain plainly. A wince from long ago when her father dangled her by her hair for failing to clean her plate. The deep ache of her grandmother trying to pass for white in Saks Fifth Avenue in the 1940s. And the torment of insomnia – wee hours of the morning full of anything but sleep: raw nerves, to-do lists, stubborn grudges.

In her poem “Invisible Dreams”, Derricotte’s lines embody insomnia, give it a color (rust), map out the suffering of leaden bones, name the smell of an ocean of decay.

Derricotte has an ability to take the personal and make it, if not universal – there are a few who blissfully sleep through every lucky night—then open to many. Born a light-skinned African-American girl with “good hair” into a family of undertakers, Derricotte started writing poetry at age 10. She now teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh and has written five acclaimed books of poetry and a memoir, The Black Notebooks. Just this year, she won the PEN/Voelcker Poetry Prize.

Poet Sharon Olds has called her work “vibrant poems, poems in the voice of the living creature, the one who escaped—and paused, and turned back, and saw, and cried out. This is one of the most beautiful and necessary voices in American poetry today.”

On Nov. 2, Derricotte will read her work and talk about the legacy of the late poet Lucille Clifton in HoCoPoLitSo’s opening event for the fall, the Lucille Clifton Poetry Series. We’ve called the event “Good Times”, after one of Clifton’s famous poems of dancing in the kitchen when the rent is paid and the electricity is back on. While we probably won’t be dancing (though who knows?), we will celebrate the power and light of Lucille Clifton, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for years and taught many poetry workshops at Cave Canem, the writers’ retreat program Derricotte co-founded. A new collection of Clifton’s poetry – a sturdy volume with many previously unpublished poems – came out last month and it reveals plainly the pain and joy in Clifton’s work.

Clifton and Derricotte both write about painful subjects – child abuse, history, family ties, racism – and they knew each other well. One of the things Derricotte admired about Clifton was her endurance. She writes: “In her poetry Lucille Clifton models survival for all of us with toughness and humor. And I don’t mean just physical endurance. I mean the ability to prevail over the many things that are able to kill body and spirit. The poets who manage to keep writing reveal this attribute in their lives and their work.”

Derricotte, also, has survived to write her own poems of prevailing over things that want to kill body and spirit. Heavily influenced by the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath, Derricotte writes personal poetry. And much of it is painful – working out abuse by her parents and rage over that kind of childhood. But her latest collection, The Undertaker’s Daughter, seems to work through the anger at her parents and ends with glimpses of joy and peace.

As she writes in a poem “After a Reading at a Black College,” from her collection Tender, which won the Patterson Prize, “Poems do that sometimes, take/ the craziness and salvage some/ small clear part of the soul, / and that is why, though frightened, / I don’t stop the spirit.”

On Nov. 2, join HoCoPoLitSo for good times in this time of craziness, to help salvage our spirits with poetry, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, from Derricotte and Clifton.

— Susan Thornton Hobby

Tickets for the event, Friday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Monteabaro Recital Hall (HCC campus), are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/280070. Admission is $15, and $10 for seniors and students. For information, call 443-518-4568.

Invisible Dreams

By Toi Derricotte

La poesie vit d’insomnie perpetuelle
—René Char

There’s a sickness in me. During
the night I wake up & it’s brought

a stain into my mouth, as if
an ocean has risen & left back

a stink on the rocks of my teeth.
I stink. My mouth is ugly, human

stink. A color like rust
is in me. I can’t get rid of it.

It rises after I
brush my teeth, a taste

like iron. In the
night, left like a dream,

a caustic light
washing over the insides of me.

*

What to do with my arms? They
coil out of my body

like snakes.
They branch & spit.

I want to shake myself
until they fall like withered

roots; until
they bend the right way—

until I fit in them,
or they in me.

I have to lay them down as
carefully as an old wedding dress,

I have to fold them
like the arms of someone dead.

The house is quiet; all
night I struggle. All

because of my arms,
which have no peace!

*

I’m a martyr, a girl who’s been dead
two thousand years. I turn

on my left side, like one comfortable
after a long, hard death.

The angels look down
tenderly. “She’s sleeping,” they say

& pass me by. But
all night, I am passing

in & out of my body
on my naked feet.

*

I’m awake when I’m sleeping & I’m
sleeping when I’m awake, & no one

knows, not even me, for my eyes
are closed to myself.

I think I am thinking I see
a man beside me, & he thinks

in his sleep that I’m awake
writing. I hear a pen scratch

a paper. There is some idea
I think is clever: I want to

capture myself in a book.

*

I have to make a
place for my body in

my body. I’m like a
dog pawing a blanket

on the floor. I have to
turn & twist myself

like a rag until I
can smell myself in myself.

I’m sweating; the water is
pouring out of me

like silver. I put my head
in the crook of my arm

like a brilliant moon.

*

The bones of my left foot
are too heavy on the bones

of my right. They
lie still for a little while,

sleeping, but soon they
bruise each other like

angry twins. Then
the bones of my right foot

command the bones of my left
to climb down.

— Toi Derricott

HoCoPoLitSo Welcomes 2012 PEN/Voelcker Winner for Poetry

Toi Derricotte Celebrates Lucille Clifton

Photo by Seishi Tsutsumi

Toi Derricotte, 2012 PEN/Voelcker Winner for Poetry, will read for HoCoPoLitSo 8 pm, November 2, at the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts’ Monteaboro Recital Hall on the Howard Community College campus.

Tickets are available $15 to the general public; $10 for students and senior citizens.  Credit card orders are available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/280070.

Good Times: Toi Derricotte Celebrates Poetry and Lucille Clifton celebrates distinguished poet and University of Pittsburgh professor Derricotte’s recent work, The Undertaker’s Daughter, and Lucille Clifton’s influence on Derricotte’s work.

“We are proud to welcome back Toi to read for HoCoPoLitSo and celebrate our good friend and former board member, Lucille Clifton,” said Dr. Tara Hart, Co-Chair, HoCoPoLitSo.

“Lucille was a personal friend and also a supporter of other poets’ work,” Derricotte said, reflecting upon the personal impact Clifton had on her own work, on other writers’ work and on the literary community.

Derricotte, co-founder of Cave Canem, a summer poetry workshop for African-American writers, frequently hosted Clifton who provided constructive, critical advice to young and emerging writers.

“She (Clifton) came to Cave Canem several times even when she was extremely ill, so you can imagine how grateful we all were for her presence,” Derricotte said. “She gave of herself without holding back.  This, in itself, was a totally unique gift to all of us.”

Clifton (1936-2010) was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, a former Maryland Poet Laureate, The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, and she is scheduled to receive The Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement for poetry from the Poetry Society of America.

She left a 45-year legacy of poetry, children’s books and other writing.  The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, “provides a definitive statement about this major American poet’s career.”

Derricotte’s work, greatly influenced by Clifton, makes a statement of its own.  The Undertaker’s Daughter has been hearlded as another great work from Derricotte.  The Washington Post has described these “Poems that stick with you like a song that won’t stop repeating itself in your brain…”

“Derricotte’s work continues to have a profound impact on society and HoCoPoLitSo is honored to add her to the long list of distinguished, award-winning writers that have shared their work with our community,” Hart said.

For more than 38 years, HoCoPoLitSo has nurtured a love and respect for contemporary literary arts and global literary heritage in Howard County.  The society sponsors live readings by authors and hosts a monthly television series, literary contest, writers-in-residence outreach programs and activities, and partners with other cultural arts societies to support the arts in Howard County, Maryland.

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