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Cave Canem: A Special Section

Cave Canem, the first workshop/retreat for African-American poets, was co-founded in 1996 by Cornelius Eady and myself. It was established in recognition of a need for a safe space in which African-American poets, marginalized from mainstream American poetry, often writing in isolation or having to explain and/or justify their words, could meet, write, read their poetry, talk, listen, debate aesthetics, have fun, and, generally, celebrate each other’s existence. For four years we have met at a retreat site on the Hudson River for one week in June. But Cave Canem has become much more than a weeklong summer workshop. Poets who are accepted are invited to return for three years. In this way, Cave Canem has become a community, as many poets say, a “home” that extends far beyond time together or locality. It is a locus of support and struggle, of creative outpouring, of growth and change, of generosity of spirit. It is a network bound together by resilience and need.

As you read this collection, notice the diversity of the content, themes, forms, and styles. These reflect the diversity of Cave Canem poets. We range in age from eighty-five to nineteen. We come from twenty-two states. Some of us have published books and received major literary awards. Some have MFAs, some PhDs, and some no degrees at all. We are professors, lawyers, teachers, actors, editors, researchers, librarians, and community activists. Many of us have been as marginalized, rejected and/or dictated to by the poetics of African-American communities as we have been by white—sometimes with even more painful consequences. Our poetry weaves together a host of traditions. Safety and support for the widest representation of voices was essential.

You will be struck by the quality of these poems. One rarely sees that from a workshop space. True, among our poets, there are several who have published books and some who are highly respected critics and teachers. But it is not just these poets who are writing amazing work. All poets have to fight nihilism to attain voice; however, over and above that personal challenge, African-American poets have to struggle against the ubiquitous, universally devastating forces of racism—those forces which are still attempting to prove that we are incapable of being poets. Does this additional task demand the creation of a more complex, profound and significant art? Cave Canem, over and above its particular contribution to literature, is a mirror in which we apprehend our own power. It is a signal in a long line of evidence—from Phillis Wheatley and the illegal reading and writing of the slaves to the moment of this writing—that we will not be held back. This is our time. The great literature of the 21st century is in our hearts, minds, and hands.

I am grateful to Charles Rowell and the editors of Callaloofor their selections and for the opportunity to present this poetry to a wider audience.

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte is author of four books of poetry and a memoir, The Black Notebooks. The Black Notebooks won the Annisfield-Wolf Award in nonfiction and the nonfiction award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association in 1997. Her latest book of poems, Tender, won the Paterson Poetry Prize in 1998. She is co-founder (with Cornelius Eady) of Cave Canem, the first workshop for African-American poets.

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