Some 70 years ago, Countee Cullen penned “Yet Do I Marvel,” his classic Harlem Renaissance sonnet. “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing,” wrote Cullen, “to make a poet black and bid him sing.” To be a poet of any color is indeed a curious thing. But for most poets, the academy and the writer’s retreat offer rare solace from a world ruled by the left-brained. Here, poets can hone their craft and shoot the shit with kindred spiritsthat is, if they’re the right race.
University of Pittsburgh professor Toi Derricote knows this well. So two years ago the poet teamed up with Lamont Prize winner Cornelius Eady and began Cave Canem (Latin for “Beware of the Dog”), a weeklong retreat for black poets, held at the Mount St. Alphonsus Retreat Center in the slumbering mountains of Esopus, N.Y.
Those chosen for Cave Canem participate in critique sessions and attend nightly readings by the participants and the faculty. This year Cave Canem added University of Chicago professor Elizabeth Alexander and Bucknell instructor Afaa M. Weaver (né Michael Weaver) to its faculty roster. And as an indication of the strength of the District’s writing scene, one fourth of the writers in attendance at last month’s retreat were from D.C.
It is Wednesday night at the retreat, and the participants have gathered in the main hall for the nightly reading. A good portion of the folks on the list are MFA students in creative writing. Their instructors would probably flip if they could see them now. During and after each reading, a raucous amalgam of laughter, moaning, and applause erupts. Whenever a poet from D.C. steps up, the contingent of D.C. writers yells, “2-0-2! Ruff it off!” This reading is straight out of Gutbucket Citya Baptist service under the cloak of polite verse.
The retreat is an indirect response to the alienation that both Derricote and Eady felt in the academy. “We’re very aware that it’s 1997 and we can walk the halls of our University and be the only black person there,” says Derricote. “Why is it that in your department there can be no black person tenured, or one black person tenured, or no black full professor? You’ve gotta say that there’s something wrong here.”
The typical course of action is to protest, throw a fit, maybe even sue for discrimination. But Derricote and Eady decided that if the university wouldn’t offer them a home, they would get one of their own. “For one week out of the year,” says Eady, “you can just walk into a workshop and you don’t have to fear, you don’t have to explain, you don’t have to negotiate, you don’t have to apologize.”
Cave Canem is perhaps the only retreat specifically tailored to black poets. More importantly, it’s a place where black poets can come together and bond over their love of their art and their culture. Yet one cannot escape the irony of Cave Canem. The gathering caters to a generation, or the children of a generation, that fought for the right to work and learn in the very institutions it now feels alienated from.
Cave Canem demonstrates that the rhetoric of integration is much simpler on paper than it is in reality. The proponents of assimilationist theory make the critical error of viewing black people simply as representatives of a race, and not as an ethnic group with distinct cultural practices.
Art is rooted in culture, and if people have no understanding of a particular culture, they can forget about understanding the art that culture produces. This can be crippling to a poet in a workshop or the academy, because critique is an essential element of good writing. If the people who are critiquing have a limited knowledge of their subject’s culture, how can they possibly adequately understand or critique the art produced by it?
“The thing is that there is an awful lot of translation that has to be done,” says Weaver. “If I’m sitting in the room with a Chaucer specialist, a 19th-century Americanist, and a neo-Marxist critic, and I’m talking about the need for community in black literature, I would get interesting comments. The Marxist would make some type of class analysis, the 19th-century Americanist would say, ‘How Twainish of you,’ and the Chaucerian would say, ‘Well, that parallels sitting around a campfire and telling these wise tales.’ I cannot, in all truthfulness, condemn them for saying those things. But I can, in all truthfulness, seek my own community.”
One thing the D.C. contingent of writers doesn’t lack is community. This is the city that spoon-fed talent to the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer all had ties to D.C. before migrating north. Even today, D.C. boasts one of the strongest open-mike scenes in the country. The African-American Writers Guild is headquartered here, and at least one workshop in the city specializes in black poetry.
Local poet Erica Doyle describes Cave Canem as a “transformative and transcending experience.” Yet Doyle was still amazed by the level of isolation many of the writers at the retreat felt. “I knew that everywhere wasn’t like [D.C.],” she says, “but the depth of the pain people were in as a result of their isolation was really shocking. We have our little kinks, we have our problems, and we have our issues. But we have a lot of opportunities, we have a lot of variety, and a lot of respect. That really made me appreciate things here and made me understand that something remarkable is happening in D.C.”
Valerie Jean, also a Washington-area poet, says that the retreat showed how important it is to have community. “You take it for granted,” she says, “but this shows how blessed we are to have an active literary community.” Jean points out that she even has a friend at the retreat whom she jokingly classifies as a “D.C. wannabe.”
Cave Canem participant Robin Dunn is a student in an MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is also a graduate assistant to Marita Golden, who started the African-American Writers Guild. Dunn knows the feeling of isolation all too well. She says “there is no possible comparison” between Cave Canem and her MFA program. In the Cave Canem workshops, Dunn says, “there’s nothing that needs to be explained. If I’m talking about Donny Hathaway or writing a historical piece, nobody’s gonna go off on a tangent about who these people are. We can get right into the work. You don’t have to go through the bullshit to get to the poem.”
Cave Canem participant Desiree Cooper agrees: “You don’t have to go through the judgments. The fact that [some writers] don’t know anything about your references is a statement about what they think about you and your references.” And by extension, your culture.
While Cave Canem organizers eschew cultural nationalism (Weaver calls himself a “nationalist in recovery”), there is still a strong element of ethnic consciousness, a clear sense of cultural pride, that pervades all aspects of the retreat. The closing ceremony features a strong dose of spirituality, some of which was obviously acquired in America, but much of which comes from somewhere east of here.
Weaver is sporting a kente-cloth strip around his neck, and the writers are calling out, “Ashe”a Yoruba affirmation popularized in America by black cultural nationalists. Everyone is assembled in a circle, and as if on cue, they all begin singing “May the Circle Be Unbroken.” This is not exactly integrationist protocol. And though the ceremony excludes no onethe white priest who heads the retreat center is in the circleit is something you simply would never see at a retreat for white writers.
“If you can say we have anything in common, it’s three things,” says Alexander. “Everybody here feels passionately about poetry, which is not true in every academic department. Everybody here cares passionately about the future of black culturefurthering it, contributing to it, nurturing it. And everybody here loves black people, whatever our differences.”
In his poem “Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing,” Eady writes of a student in a workshop who wants to know, “If all music begins equal,” then why was it that her poem “needed a passport, a glossary, a disclaimer.” The truth is that “music,” like most things in this country, neither begins nor becomes equal. But Cave Canem isn’t worried about that. Maybe it can’t level the playing field, but it can create a field of its own. One blossoming with bebop, fried okra, and Wu-Tang freestyles. Check your glossary at the door.CP