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Toi Derricotte: Dear Poet 2015

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)

For Telly the Fish

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 coming
back to, a hearth, a root
for your eye. It was a
wondering in me that came up with that
thought, a kind of empathy
across my air & through his
water, maybe the first
word I cast out between us
in case he could
hear. Telly would stare at that painting
for hours, hanging there with his glassy
eyes wide
open. At night he wanted the
bottom, as if it were a warm
bed, he’d lay there
sort of dreaming, his eyes
gray & dim &
thoughtless. For months he came back
to her, the way a critic or lover
can build a whole
life on the study of one
great work. I don’t know why
he stopped, maybe it was when
he first noticed
me, the face above my hand
feeding for, sometimes, when I’d set the food
on top, he’d still watch me, eye
to eye, as if saying, food
isn’t enough. Once, when I
bent, he jumped up out of the water & kissed
my lips. What is a fish’s kiss like?
You’d think it would be
cold, slimy, but it was
quick, nippy, hard. Maybe it was just
what I expected. For all
our fears of
touch, it takes so long
to learn how to take in.

When he stopped coming
to the top, I guess I did all the wrong
things—the fish medicine
that smelled, measured
carefully for his ounce of weight—
for his gills worked
so hard & he lay still,
tipped over slightly
like a dead boat.
How do you stop the hurt
of having to breathe?

After, I took him to the middle of the
yellow bridge right near the
Andy Warhol museum—
I had put a paper towel
in a painted egg & laid him in it—
&, at the top,
I opened the casket & emptied him out
into the water.

From The Undertaker's Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) by Toi Derricotte. Copyright @2011 by Toi Derricotte. Used with permission of the author.

From The Undertaker's Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) by Toi Derricotte. Copyright @2011 by Toi Derricotte. Used with 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

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,

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 


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,