By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Toi Derricotte’s poetry is an intimate conversation, a contemplative sigh, an ordinary moment which proves transformational. Like Chance the Rapper singing about his grandma’s hat, dinner rolls and peppermints, Derricotte’s poems suck you in. She lures you in with the promise of the commonplace and the everyday. The corned beef sandwich shared with her aunt and the empty pill bottle in a stranger’s purse seduce the reader before she navigates into much deeper, more ponderous waters. She is a master of the specific and the confessional.
“Sometimes it has to do with something that I don’t want to talk about, a question or something that’s bothering me,” Derricotte told the Current via telephone while traveling. “For me, writing about the self is a way of transforming the self and gaining access to powers that have been repressed or forbidden. Or taken away by society.”
Derricotte’s newest collection, ‘I’: New and Selected Poems, out this month from University of Pittsburgh Press, feels very much like a gift to the hungry reader. In addition to the 35 new poems, there are selections from five earlier collections dating to 1978’s The Empress of Death House.
A professor emerita at Pitt, Derricotte has stepped away from the grind of day to day teaching. She has received too many awards to count, including three Pushcart prizes and a Pen/Voelker award in 2012, the same year when she was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1996, Derricotte co-founded Cave Canem, the safe home for black poetry, with her friend Cornelius Eades. At the time, they had no idea it would grow to be the platform it has become. They just wanted to create fertile ground for African-American poets to blossom and share in community.
Cave Canem has exploded in its twenty-plus year existence. The fellows are poetry all-star lineup including US poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith (interviewed by PC this fall), Terrance Hayes and Pitt professor Yona Harvey who co-authored Black Panther and the Crew with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Poetry, when I was growing up, was for white people,” Derricotte explained. “I never read a black poet in grade school or high school or college or graduate school. There was an underlying belief that black people weren’t capable of this kind of thinking. Cornelius and I knew the need was there, but had no idea how much people wanted this and needed this. It’s like food. You gotta have it. It was missing.”
The difficulty of being black in America is something that turns up in her writing often, as well as the beauty and diversity of black people. The poem, ‘What Are You?’ closes this new collection and she writes:
“… What are you? A question that black people
Never ask, perhaps, catching the drift of a slave ship
In my speech, most likely, what I laugh at
Or how I laugh …”
She examines blackness, her blackness, as though she is examining a found riverstone, turning it over and over in her hand, seeing it from every angle and in every light. What does it even mean to be black? Or white, for that matter.
“It’s (the concept of black) something we made up as a result of slavery,” she said. “It’s not only an illusion, it’s also a metaphor. I think part of the thing is that, even the people who are black, sort of go through these layers of doing and undoing who they are and who we are. It’s not something fixed — there’s no fixed point to aim for, is what I’m saying.”
Having published more than 1,000 poems in her career, this collection, her first since 2012, is an assemblage of all of the “selves” that comprise this generous, daring writer. It is both a looking back and an embrace of this moment, this time, this history. She is able to explore new territory as a writer fully possessed of her own voice. As always, Derricotte is reconnoitering deep territory — what is it to be a woman, what is it to be black, what is it to just be yourself? What is the nature of love? Of connection? Of human growth? How do we embrace change?
“If my work is about people being open to change, how do you access that part of a person that is open to change?” she said. “To me, it’s with a way of creating a moment of dramatic, but informal conversation.”