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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)

Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945

In their brand new caramel Cadillac,
Julia and Walter arrived at 4,
Trunk stuffed with leather suitcases,
Steaks, champagne and oysters in a cooler,
And Walter’s only drink—Johnnie Walker Blue.
Julia, hands flaring, in the clunky music
Of a pound of real gold charms,
Walter in a tan linen jacket
And shoes soft as old money.

Sweet-tempered, sweet-tongued,
He’d tease the women to blushing,
And let his wife reign queen
In a diamond ring to knock your eyes out.

She was known from New York to LA
For her fried chicken and greens,
And didn’t hesitate, after hours of driving,
To throw an apron over a French cotton dress
And slap the flour on thirty or more pieces.

Oh the chicken breasts and thighs
Spattering, juicy, in just the right degree of heat,
As she told stories, hilarious and true
To a kitchen full of steamy women
That made them double over and pee themselves.

Saturday morning, men to golf,
And women in floral robes
With cups of a New Orleans blend
So strong they said
It stained the rim and turned you black;
Me, in a high chair, straining
For language, my bottle
Stirred with a spoon of coffee
And half a pint of cream.

At 15,
My first trip cross-country on a train,
I stopped to spend the night.
We took the “L” to Marshall Fields
Where Julia bought my first expensive cold creams
And hose the shades of which—for the first time—
Dared the colors of our colored skin. 

She told me she had lovers,
One a handsome Pullman porter.
My last nights onboard,
I, myself, enjoyed a notable service:
A café au lait gentleman
Woke me for breakfast
By slipping his hand through the sealed drapes
And gently shaking my rump.
I waited all night,
damp with wonder.

She had a wart on her chin or nose—
I can’t remember which—
She wore it 
Like exquisite jewelry,
Like Marilyn Monroe wore her beauty mark,
With unforgettable style.

“Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945” originally appeared in The New Yorker. Copyright © by Toi Derricotte. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

“Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945” originally appeared in The New Yorker. 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 served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017.

by this poet

poem

When relatives came from out of town,
we would drive down to Blackbottom,
drive slowly down the congested main streets
     -- Beubian and Hastings --
trapped in the mesh of Saturday night.
Freshly escaped, black middle class,
we snickered, and were proud;
the louder the streets,

2
poem

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

2
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,