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Recorded at the Chancellors Reading, Poets Forum 2014. NYU Skirball Center.

About this poet

On April 12, 1941, Toi Derricotte was born in Hamtramck, Michigan. She earned her BA in special education from Wayne State University and her MA in English literature from New York University.

Her books of poetry include The Undertaker's Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), which won the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize; Captivity (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989); Natural Birth (Crossing Press, 1983); and The Empress of the Death House (Lotus Press, 1978). She is also the author of a literary memoir, The Black Notebooks (W. W. Norton, 1997), which won the 1998 Annisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction.

Together with Cornelius Eady, in 1996, she cofounded the Cave Canem Foundation, a national poetry organization committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. In 2016, she and Eady accepted the National Book Foundation's Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community on behalf of Cave Canem.

About her work, the poet Sharon Olds has said, "Toi Derricotte's poems show us our underlife, tender and dreadful. And they are vibrant poems, poems in the voice of the living creature, the one who escaped—and paused, and turned back, and saw, and cried out. This is one of the most beautiful and necessary voices in American poetry today."

Her honors include the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement for Previous Winners of The Paterson Poetry Prize, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

She was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012 and is currently a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.


Selected Bibliography

The Undertaker's Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)
Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)
Captivity (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989)
Natural Birth (Crossing Press, 1983)
The Empress of the Death House (Lotus Press, 1978)

from Burial Sites

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what
we hold inside us in the absence of an
empathetic witness.

Peter Levine, The Unspoken Voice

 

 

I.

 

The first was a bassinet. I don’t remember what it was made of; I think it was one of those big white wicker baskets with wheels. When I couldn’t sleep at night, my father would drag it into the kitchen. It was winter. He’d light the gas oven. I remember the room’s stuffiness, the acrid bite of cold and fumes.

     My father didn’t like crying. He said I was doing it to get attention. He didn’t like my mother teaching me that I could cry and get attention. Nothing was wrong with me, and, even if I was hungry, it wasn’t time to eat. Sometimes, I screamed for hours, and my father—I do remember this—would push his chair up to the lip of the bassinet and smoke, as if he were keeping me company.

     After a few nights, he had broken me.  I stopped crying.  But, when he put the bottle to my lips, I didn’t want it.  I was too exhausted to drink.

 

 

V.

 

Most times I liked my food. I didn’t mind eating until my daddy started making me clean my plate and either struck me off my chair if I didn’t or lifted me up by my hair and held me midair if I was slow. He wanted me to eat faster; he didn’t have all day.

     He’d hold me off the floor until I pleaded. I’d sputter in fear and humiliation—I don’t remember pain—but I had to button up before he put me down to do exactly what he had told me to do, fast.

     Slowness was a sign of insubordination. If I missed a pea or a crumb, I was trying to outwit him. I must have thought he was stupid. And if I pleaded that I hadn’t seen the pea, he’d know I was lying. “Your story is so touching till it sounds like a lie.”

     I swallowed it down; I wiped that look off my face. But still he would notice my bottom lip beginning to quiver.  This was a personal insult, as if I had taken a knife and put it to his face. If my brow wrinkled in a question—“Do you love me, daddy? How could you hurt me like this?”—this implied I was pursuing my own version of the truth, as if I were his victim.

     It was a war of wills, as he so clearly saw, and these were my attempts to subvert him, to make my will reign, to plant my flag.

     He was the ruler of my body. I had to learn that.  He had to be deep in me, deeper than instinct, like the commander of a submarine during times of war.

 

 

Afterword:

I hear in myself a slight opposition, a wounded presence saying, “I am me, I know who I am.” But I am left with only a narrow hole, a thin tube that the words must squeak through. Where words might have gushed out as from a struck well, now, instead, I watch it—watch every word. It wasn’t my father’s thought that I took in; it was his language. It is the language in me that must change.

 

“Burial Sites” was originally published in The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press). Copyright © by Toi Derricotte. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

“Burial Sites” was originally published in The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press). Copyright © by Toi Derricotte. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte

The author of several books of poetry, Toi Derricotte is cofounder of Cave Canem, a national poetry organization committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. She currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,  
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,  
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,  
with

poem
That time my grandmother dragged me
through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up
by my arm, hissing, "Stand up,"
through clenched teeth, her eyes
bright as a dog's
cornered in the light.
She said it over and over,
as if she were Jesus,
and I were dead.  She had been
solid as a tree,
a fur around her neck,
poem

We like the houses here.
We circle the lake turning
into dark cleavages, dense-packed gleamings.
We could live here, we say.
We’re smiling, but thinking
of the houses at the last resort:
The real estate agent looked surprised
when she saw Bruce’s face; then flipped 
quickly

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