By DONOVAN HARRELL
Toi Derricotte wants others to find beauty in their humanity.
In her new book, “ ‘I’: New and Selected Poems,” she looks inward, defining herself and embracing the complexities of her life and the lives of others in the collection of 39 new poems and previous works.
And now, thanks to this collection, the professor emeritus is one of five finalists for the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry. The winners will be announced Nov. 20.
She was elated that her work, the culmination of more than five decades of writing, has garnered attention.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” Derricotte said. “You know, I have been writing and publishing for over 50 years. It means a lot at this time in my life to get that kind of acknowledgment.”
“I” tackles a myriad of subjects, including race, colorism, motherhood, abuse and sexuality, with the honest, intimate style her work is known for and, on occasion, criticized for.
The first poem in the book “Speculations of ‘I,’ ” explains the meanings behind the title of the book, and, in part, addresses some criticism she’s received in the past about her work being too intimate.
The “I” helped her along her artistic journey, she said, allowing her to “do things I couldn’t do without it.” She described “I” as being a tool to help her explore, define and remake the stories that made her who she is today.
At first, she said, she planned to put this book out a few years from now, but her editor Ed Ochester with the University of Pittsburgh Press, pushed her to crank it out in several months.
She had written 30 to 40 new poems and was a bit unsure about which poems to pick from her body of work, which began with her 1978 debut, “The Empress of the Death House.”
For the collection, Ochester encouraged her to pick her favorite poems and get rid of the rest. The creation of the book captured the process of “letting go,” she said.
This has been a lifelong process for her since she began writing to cope with her traumatic childhood in Detroit. Her parents subjected her to a strict Catholic upbringing, and her father abused her regularly — experiences she documented in her book “The Undertaker’s Daughter.”
She used poems from that book in “I” and added an apology immediately before the section because of the intensity and graphic detail of some of her experiences.
“Whether you bring it up or not, it’s in your body,” she said. “And I think for me, bringing it up is the way I swim toward the light rather than keeping it in the dark and keeping that part of myself buried and silent.”
She dealt with “tortuous voices” that told her, as a child, she was to blame for her abuse.
“I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but when we’ve been abused a lot of times, we blame ourselves. …” she said. “And I found by being able to use poetry and creating something with poetry, it gave me a sense of power, my own power, something that I did, not something that was done to me.”
As a light-skinned black woman sometimes mistaken as white, race and colorism are issues that Derricotte explores throughout “I.”
The alienation she felt from some of the experiences surrounding her appearance and race led her to become a co-founder for the nonprofit organization, Cave Canem, a national poetry organization that cultivates “the artistic and professional growth of African American poets.”
Since she co-founded the organization with Cornelius Eady in 1996, Cave Canem has held numerous conferences, workshops and retreats for black poets. Fellows have gone on to earn the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award and the NAACP Image award. The organization helped bring black poets like her together to help cope with less diverse environments.
“Cave Canem is really part of this journey in becoming part of the family (in which) people are able to express their creativity and think in diverse ways,” she said. “And still, there is some kind of dynamism that allows everybody to be powerful and be themselves.”
And Derricotte hopes to spread this ideology to encourage others, through her poetry, to look at themselves, and their lives, from a different perspective.
“I hope that people will see how beautiful they are in their humaneness,” she said. “I sometimes worry that people are going to read it and just feel sad or depressed, but … I’m not doing this to make you depressed. But I had to do it. And if it can be a benefit to anyone, my great hope with it would be that they would be able to see it’s all right to not be perfect.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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