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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)

Cherry blossoms

I went down to
mingle my breath
with the breath
of the cherry blossoms.

There were photographers:
Mothers arranging their
children against
gnarled old trees;
a couple, hugging,
asks a passerby
to snap them
like that,
so that their love
will always be caught
between two friendships:
ours & the friendship
of the cherry trees.

Oh Cherry,
why can't my poems
be as beautiful?


A young woman in a fur-trimmed
coat sets a card table
with linens, candles,
a picnic basket & wine.
A father tips
a boy's wheelchair back
so he can gaze
up at a branched
heaven.
                     All around us
the blossoms
flurry down
whispering,

        Be patient
you have an ancient beauty.

                                            Be patient,
                                  you have an ancient beauty.

From <i>The Undertaker's Daughter</i>, by Toi Derricotte, &copy; 2011. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission.

From <i>The Undertaker's Daughter</i>, by Toi Derricotte, &copy; 2011. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission.

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

What the hell am I doing
hugging a white man in an apron?

I said it to myself—but out loud! —so that
he pushed me away slightly:
What did you say?
This was the first white man I had dated—
though I was sixty!
It wasn't only that I was holding
a body close for

poem

 

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2
poem
i knew you before you had a mother,
when you were newtlike, swimming,
a horrible brain in water.
i knew you when your connections
belonged only to yourself,
when you had no history
to hook on to,
barnacle,
when you had no sustenance of metal
when you had no boat to travel
when you stayed in the same
place,
2