- Toi Derricotte and the Psychology of the Sublime: An Interview
Poet Toi Derricotte is our living treasure. Acknowledging her publishing contributions to the world of American letters for the past forty years, Furious Flower presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in September 2014. In 2012, she was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, further affirmation of her unique wisdom and leadership in the robust field of American poetry. Before that she won Pushcart Prizes, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, and awards from United Black Artists and the Poetry Society of America. But Derricotte also has time to take interviews from eighth graders in Washington, D.C., cofound Cave Canem (a summer workshop for African American writers), and teach in Mexico on winter breaks from her professorship at the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout our early e-mail exchanges for this interview, she expressed the joy of having a whole week off to work on her own writing! Derricotte has earned the title “master poet.” She is eager to give back to younger writers and share retrospectively about her growth as a poet, mentor, and teacher. With all of her awards, she has not forgotten that she is a worker. Her previous working roles—teacher of the mentally and emotionally disabled, remedial reading teacher, poet in residence, editorial staff, and educational consultant—testify to Derricotte’s commitment to connecting to her literary family through language and learning.
It is indeed this description of herself—“I am a worker”—that I remember most from our interview. In this her spirit of generosity toward others and doing the work she was born to do as a poet, Derricotte received me into her Pittsburgh home for an interview on October 20, 2015 to talk about the sublime and the presence of family in her poetry. Derricotte is an only child who was born in Detroit to parents Benjamin and Antonia. She has one son, Anthony, and is now a grandmother. I asked Derricotte about her feelings of terror and anticipation as it relates to connecting with her mother, father, and son in her collections, The Undertaker’s Daughter, Captivity, and Natural Birth. Derricotte reminds me throughout the interview that even though she tries to connect with others by “staying close to the ground,” there are sublime moments when she is off the ground and able to connect with those she loves.
The phrase psychology of the sublime in the title is a loose reference to Immanuel Kant’s description of the sublime as a “mental crisis” during which one is unable to put into language what one is experiencing. Writers of both the Romantic and contemporary sublime argue that the inherent lack of language felt during the sublime moment is what epitomizes it as an experience of mental fragmentation or division. But these versions usually end up telling a one-sided story of domination, violence, or silencing. Female poets like Derricotte do tell a story of the sublime as a mental crisis (with all of its accompanying feelings of anxiety and terror and speechlessness). But by narrating the intimacy of bodies or the shared sorrow of a community of women, Derricotte’s sublime also emphasizes a momentary return to unified desire (with all if its feelings of ecstasy and positive denouement where connection with others is made possible). This return to unified desire, in which a daughter eventually feels loved, is crucial for a world that undermines frameworks prohibiting reconciliation. [End Page 251]
As a whole, the interview gives readers an intimate look at the range of sublime experiences in Derricotte’s work and a historical recollection of other female poets who have shaped and supported her vision of poetry when she was still a young artist. Derricotte also discusses the current metaphor that is driving her new work and highlights how writers can find surrogate families among their readers when their biological families fail them.
As a child, I longed for an emotional and physical connection to my father. Is his body my body? Is his suffering my suffering? I see some of this same longing for the father...