Poetry Fridays: Toi Derricotte

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Toi Derricote’s amiable demeanor belies the intensity of the inner searching at the core of her poem, “Invisible Dreams.”

Only a poet determined to give voice to whatever she discovers about her most secret self could write the lines:

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 my myself.

Derricotte makes this look easy. It is not. Such poems are written by sheer force of will, a refusal to turn away from what she sees, regardless if what is seen inspires anger, fear or shame. To call her poems fearless is to diminish the achievement. They are forged, not without fear, but in spite of it.

Galway Kinnell has said that part of the poet’s task is to go deeper than the “merely personal” into the “profoundly personal,” to that inner space where we discover the universal and the personal are one. Derricotte takes us there in poem after poem.

But the journey has not been easy. Although she started writing poems at the age of ten, she showed them to no one but one cousin when she was fourteen. His response was so negative that she didn’t show her poems to anyone again until she was twenty-seven. By then, she had given birth to her first son in a home for unwed mothers, gone on to complete a degree in special education and launched her teaching career. Having kept her writing life a secret for many years, she earned her master’s degree in English and creative writing from New York University at the age of 43.

Since then, she has garnered many awards for her writing; co-founded Cave Canem, a workshop retreat for African American poets; and published the poetry collections Tender (1997) which won the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize, Captivity (1989), Natural Birth (1983) and The Empress of the Death House (1978), and The Black Notebooks, a literary memoir. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

The text of “Invisible Dreams” can be found in Tender.

Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Jorie Graham, Tony Hoagland, Taslima Nasreen and others.

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