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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 served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017 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)

Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

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 tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us
unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.

Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even
then were old from scrubbing, whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens, painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside. 

But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.

From Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

From Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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 served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017.

by this poet

poem

Telly’s favorite artist was Alice Neel.
When he first came to my house,
I propped up her bright yellow shade with open
window & a vase of flowers (postcard size)
behind his first fish bowl. I thought
it might give him something
to look at, like the center
of a house you keep

poem

Bruce Derricotte, June 22, 1928 - June 21, 2011


What was there is no longer there:
Not the blood running its wires of flame through the whole length
Not the memories, the texts written in the language of the flat hills
No, not the
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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