Author Features / Features / Interviews / Poetry

Breaking Open the Box: A Conversation with Toi Derricotte

By Nancy Koerbel

I had the pleasure of talking with Toi Derricotte on a sunny but cold day at the end of December. We met in Hillman Library on the University of Pittsburgh campus, and although Hillman is a cold and impersonal building, my conversation with Derricotte was anything but. She is generous, warm, and disarmingly honest about her life and work. 

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Derricotte is the author of The Black Notebooks and five collections of poetry. Her sixth book of poems, “i” New and Selected Poems, was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, and she was just announced as the 2020 recipient of the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry by The Poetry Society of America. In 1996 she and Cornelius Eady co-founded Cave Canem, a literary organization that is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. 
Toi Derricotte is a trailblazer, a community builder, and a beloved teacher and mentor. We started off by discussing the influence of time and age on her current work. “For me the poem is what saved my life,” she told me, “for me it’s a way of breaking open the box.”


Nancy Koerbel: I know that with the publication of “i” you’ve been able to look back across the course of your career … you’re known as a poet who writes hard things, and you encourage others to write hard things as well. But it takes some people longer than others to get to those hard things.  Can you talk about the effect of time in poetry and in your own work?

Toi Derricotte: I think a lot of us need to … take our personal inventory for the day or the week or the year. I’m going to spend this year reading a book about the process of getting ready to die. What are the practical things you do? How do you prepare … what are the feelings and thoughts and memories that come to you?

I plan to make it a creative experience in the same way that becoming a teenager or a mother is a creative experience – to pay attention to what living is like right now. What are our internal processes and what are our fantasies?  The older I get, the more important I see my writing has been as a way of taking care of myself and valuing myself and having compassion for myself.

There are all kinds of things to beat yourself up about: when you don’t have a man, when you stop having sex, when your waist thickens, when your children grow up—then you’re not a woman anymore. You’re not as strong. There are just all kinds of ways to diminish yourself, but your writing is a way to think of yourself as an expansive self. You’re just working on different stuff now that you’re older—and you’re having different opportunities – new ways to balance. That’s what I’m thinking about.

These things aren’t black and white. We’re only human. We’re going to bump in to people, people are going to bump in to us. Writers have to be open always. Rilke said it: live the question.

Some of my work has been integrating the part of myself in my writing that I can be in touch with and I can use and be in conversation with to write poetry. Sort of growing my other self to be able to welcome that into myself fully, and that takes time.

NK: In your poem “When My Father Was Beating Me” you have the line “I learned to stretch time and space so I could think what she was thinking.” I think what you’re talking about, in part, is your capacity to move beyond the forms of people and constructed forms in poetry.

TD: So the idea is that any experience is not just happening now. In fact, you can think about it like the history of being black in this country, what happened to my grandmother in 1860 is still in me. That’s the way you learn to stretch time and space, so that in some ways you relive and re-experience what’s happened in the past, and even in the present some part of you is not only in the present but thinking in the future and in the past, too.

I think that’s partly what trauma may do – or maybe just being aware of that part of the self – that the self, the consciousness is something that is expansive. Is not something that’s just stuck in time. The way that works, of course, is that the writer then gets to relive experience – to sort of take and bring a different consciousness to it, or bring the same consciousness and the consciousness changes as you write it. The consciousness makes experience very flexible.

Certainly in writing about the violence in my childhood, I really changed myself.

NK: You say when you’re writing the hard and difficult things you’re always starting over – but I think your voice is consistent throughout the different changes and consciousnesses  ….

TD: Wow – what do you hear?

NK: I hear a young woman – a young woman standing in her own truth struggling to speak … a girl, really—

TD: I like that, because sometimes I think the part of me that I’m getting back to in my writing is the two-year-old who was in her crib asking the shades, now if you hear me, bang two times. I wanted to know – was anybody out there aware of me? Who was I in conversation with? That idea that I’m not alone – and that part of me started at about two years old: being able to speak to all things. Not just people. I think I’m getting back to that part of me – the longer I write, the more I have access to that two year-old.

NK: Which is wonderful. I love that – speaking to the shades. To all things.

Your poem “Untitled” is just astonishing in its intimacy and tenderness.  When you were speaking about it “…like a prayer going up from my whole body,” you said, “I have touched some deeper female presence that her death gives me as a gift.” I think that is the most beautiful transcendent thing. It would seem like such a forbidden thing to talk about grief and self-pleasure together, but it’s just beautiful and true.

TD: Thank you so much. I never read that poem because it’s one of those scary poems to read, and at my retirement party Sharon Olds came, to read and talk about me, and she read that poem at my retirement party! I’m like: shut up! She read it. Sometimes even when you write poems you need a friend to help you bring that poem into another sphere of your life. A larger sphere.

NK: Speaking of communities and larger spheres — I want to be sure and ask you about Cave Canem and the building of that community.  At one of your readings you said how tremendously rewarding it was to sit back and read the poems of the poets you’ve helped to nurture. Do you have any thoughts about what these poets have taught you? How has reading them changed the way that you write?

TD: It’s a different world. They’ve created a different poetry than existed when I was growing up and becoming a poet. So it’s almost like when I read them, they give me permission, in the same way maybe I gave permission, to explore. I was reading a piece just yesterday about what life was like for a woman in the 1840s. It was a wonderful story. And I started thinking about … in my generation a lot of the black people I grew up with didn’t want to talk about their past. They didn’t want to return to the South – they were part of the migration north. They left those days behind. So there were a lot of stories—talk about shame and sadness. We don’t talk about that. Like my Aunt used to say when I said, “You should be in therapy.” She said, “I don’t have time for that – I have all these jobs I have to work, just put it out of your mind. It’s so much easier that way.” That’s how those people had to live. They couldn’t be worrying about stuff – they couldn’t be thinking about how they were fearful–they were afraid of white people at their jobs – they couldn’t be thinking about all that (other) stuff. They had to work hours and hours and every day. And they had to – you know – just work.

It’s interesting how many generations it takes. Do we miss the truth because they didn’t talk about what really happened? I don’t know.

But it’s very true that the mind and soul can only bear so much. It’s like a palimpsest: you take off layer by layer so that’s what’s happening for me as I read the poets today – it’s helping me to be able to imagine what was unimaginable. I don’t know if it’s truth, but I say in The Black Notebooks you learn the painful lessons of history in your parents’ bed – so I think there is some truth that I know I’ve gained as a result of living intimately with black people all my life, and especially in my childhood. There are just things that are passed down I don’t think you even have to talk about. Symbols are passed down.  Dream stories. What I’m reading now that the young poets are writing is part of a chain of connections to the past. I’m on that chain and I’m able to open up to things that I wasn’t able to before they wrote those poems.

Cornelius Eady has a line in one of his poems thanking everyone who made room for him. You have to go where you’re supported. It’s not all good, but it’s not all bad, either. Identity is complicated. Finding the way to be a powerful poet and do your work, that’s what I want the poets of Cave Canem to do. Do their work. They don’t have to win any awards; nobody has to be the top. That’s not what Cave Canem is about. It’s about people helping to support each other to do the great work they want to do—great like expressing your true experience of life and yourself. And to be true to that and honor it and make it beautiful.

When I was growing up there wasn’t this community of black people, a lot of times there was a line drawn, OK I can get this much support but can’t go into that areaDon’t be writing about being black. Cave Canem gave us a space where we could talk about everything we needed to talk about.

NK: You said once: What are poems but houses for the heart to live in? And you were talking about a paragraph in The Black Notebooks. I would be interested in anything you have to say about your movement between poetry and prose and poetry in lines…

TD: The Black Notebooks was written as poetry. And that’s what I want to say — for me, everything

I write is a poem. But, certain things work better when the lines aren’t put in those little boxes. When the piece moves through ideas and the mind is pushed to move through it.

The Black Notebooks was originally in lines. It was iambic pentameter—the whole damn book.

NK: And the publisher took it out?

TD: I took it out. The Black Notebooks is poetry, but I knew that if it looked like a poem people would be like “oh, it’s a poem.” It reads like a diary. People think “oh she just kinda wrote that this morning.” No—it’s so intimate that you just enter into it. You’re just reading it in an intimate way.

Nowadays I notice people have prioritized form over content. In my generation it was content over form. Everybody’s got to do sonnets and sestinas. And I think that’s not what form has to be. Form and content are supposed to be equally significant in delivering a powerful creation. So, the judges would say it’s a better poem if it looks like a poem. But I say no. I’m on the side of what makes the poem do what makes it truer to itself.

If you open that book I’ll show you exactly where you could break the line. But that isn’t how I wanted the reader to experience it.  It’s the flow of it.

But it doesn’t matter if it looks like prose. That isn’t what makes it have form.

I think the emphasis today on form is a response to people thinking that if you’re not able to do that you’re not really a poet – you’re not genuine. Because you know poetry is the highest art; like Phyllis Wheatley couldn’t be a poet because she was black. Even in the Twentieth Century there was a special section called negro poetry. So I think this idea that form makes you acceptable in some way is dangerous.

 And I think for black writers, I do have that caution. Maybe a part of me is still angry about tradition, or about traditional form and those demands, and it may be part of my instinct to break it. I just want to be sure I’m making it mine. I want it to serve my poems. That’s what I’d say to any poet: let it serve you, don’t serve it.

Form doesn’t make you a poet. The use of form doesn’t make you a poet.

NK: Do you think you have to know form to break it though?

TD: But there you go! Knowing form – what is that? Picking up a book with sestinas in it? Is that form?

NK: That’s a good question.

TD: The idea that form is something you can learn in a book is so Western and so white.

If this is what everybody is saying is form – I hate it! I hate that!  I might not be able to talk about and tell you every reason why every line looks the way it does in The Black Notebooks, but I’ll tell you I spent 25 years on form and I know this is the right form and I know every line is right.

Bloom Post End

Nancy Koerbel teaches professional and legal writing at the University of Pittsburgh, holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her poems have appeared most recently in One, Redactions, and The Pittsburgh Poetry Review.

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