Black and White Program

Poet Toi Derricotte

July 18th, 2008 by John Eastman

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Toi Derricotte is a writer and poet, author of five books, and co-founder of Cave Canem, a summer workshop for African American poets. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Poet Toi DerricotteIn your writing, do you think of yourself as speaking to someone? Do you have a notion in mind of who you are speaking to?

DERRICOTTE: I think one of the things about being a writer is that you don’t know as much about it as that part of you knows. And you try to guess at what it’s doing and why it’s doing it, and your guess is maybe good sometimes. I guess I was always talking to a part of myself, because I started writing when I was about 10 years old. And I don’t know if a part of me was talking to another part of myself…

You kept diaries when you were young?

At that point, you were just speaking for yourself?
DERRICOTTE: I thought of it as recording the stuff I couldn’t talk about, secret pleasures, or joys, or sorrows that weren’t public. It was a very private self that I was recording.

I have read that when you showed them to people originally, they didn’t view what you had written very favorably.

And so it was so dangerous for me… to have that part of me rejected, because it really was a primal state of protection.

DERRICOTTE: Yes. I didn’t show anyone anything until I was about 14, and a cousin who was in medical school took me to Chicago museum to show the embryos from conception to birth and so I thought, “Oh my God. This man is really into the secret, the hidden.” And, I showed him some poems and he said, “Oh, these are morbid.” And so it was so dangerous for me to be– to have that part of me rejected, because it really was a primal state of protection. It would have been very dangerous if that part of me had me at been attacked at that time because, I had already gone there, because my existence in some ways had already been threatened. So I’d already gone to the very furthest place I could go to exist and have an essential, authentic existence. So if I would have had that knocked away, that would have been pretty dangerous.

So as you progressed through the years and had written more, say, after the first book in 1973, were you then conscious of who you were writing for at that point?
DERRICOTTE: Absolutely not. You really do not. You just keep doing it, because you’re driven to it. For me, with my first book, I was able to express anger. I was 27, 28 years old when I came to New York. I mean, I could never have done this in my home town. And that’s why they say artists have to leave their home town a lot of times. In your hometown, you are so fused with your parents and your parents’ lives that you can’t speak the truth.

So I went to New York and I went into a writers workshop and I read Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy. And I thought, “Damn, she’s really mad.” And I never knew that in art, you could express anger. I always thought art was very contained and very intellectual, and removed, like it was an object in a museum. But here she was really in touch with this fury, this rage. And so I thought, “Gee. Okay, you could do that in a poem.” And I had never known that. So my first book, I think, was the first time I tried to leap over some barrier to my feelings and express those.

You would consider her a significant influence?
DERRICOTTE: Oh, absolutely. A powerful influence, because I wasn’t reading women or black people up to that point. And I knew that, when I was that age, I really felt that gender or male domination was more of a hindrance to me, than race even at that time. And so to hear these women speaking freely about their reality changed my life.

Since we’re on the subject of an influences in your life, what else? Who else is an influence?
DERRICOTTE: You mean currently?

How about when you were younger?
DERRICOTTE: Billie Holiday, for the same reason, because I heard her first when I was 14 years old. And I heard her voice and I understood from the sound of her voice that she was speaking a language I understood, and nobody else was doing that.

I can’t think of anyone who has a voice like that.
DERRICOTTE: Yes. And I knew that voice stood for something that, you know, it’s like you hear somebody who speaks your language on another planet and you say, “Oh, yeah. Those are my kin.”

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