An (Erased) Week in Black Poetry History


Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center

Last Saturday, I arose feeling fabulous. I bounced up out of bed and made me a café au (soy) lait and settled in with my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, which had an interview with a brother-poet, Major Jackson. His latest book, Holding Company, is out right now from W.W. Norton.

Major and I go way, way back. He and I were among the first group of fellows from the renowned Cave Canem Workshop/Retreat for African American Poets; I saw in Poets and Writers that Major had mentioned that wonderful week in June all of us shared fourteen years ago at Mt. St. Alphonsus, a former monastery turned Catholic retreat center in Esopus, New York; the center perched on the banks of the Hudson.

Also, Major had mentioned two other folks besides him from that week to publish books, A. Van Jordan and Terrance Hayes, both of them men. But he didn’t mention me, the only woman fellow from that week to have had a successful career in poetry. That was pretty upsetting, to say the least.

For those of you who don’t know about Cave Canem, let me give you some history. The workshop/retreat was founded by the poets Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in1996. The very first Cave Canem took place in a former monastery in Esopus, New York, a small town that sits on the Hudson River winding through the Catskill Mountains.

There were thirty of us total including two faculty members, two visiting poets, the director of the workshop retreat (also the wife of one of the founders), one week-long poet in-residence, twenty-three fellows and Father Francis Gargani, who ran the retreat center and who was the finest priest I had ever laid eyes on. And by the way, he is still fine, fourteen years later. It must be all that clean living.

The first day was intense and strange, at least to me. We sat around in a circle and started giving our back-stories. When we got to Renée Moore, she started weeping. I remember feeling shaken and confused by the sight of all those Black poets sitting around the circle. I had never experienced this scene, intellectually, emotionally, or any other kind of way. Vincent Woodard, our sweet departed soul, cried as well. He was the spiritual center of our group.

One night, several of the fellows decided to walk down the hill from the monastery to the river. It was blinding dark—no light anywhere on the path—and a few feet down the hill we realized we had no flashlights, but we couldn’t see to walk back. Some of the older people had stayed up the hill, like Miss Carrie Allen McCray (passed now as well) who was eighty-two and who needed her rest.

We had to hold each others’ hands in a chain and walk carefully. Someone said, “I wonder if this is what the runaway slaves felt like.” It was a sobering thought, because I was scared of the dark. But I had my friends to keep me safe, especially Herman Beavers, the first Black male feminist I ever met. I heard Van Jordan’s baritone somewhere. And James Richardson, who remains the most brilliant individual I have ever met, was bringing up the rear.  John Frazier was somewhere in that group, too.

At the bottom of the hill, Hayes Davis and D. J. Renegade made a bonfire. Elizabeth Alexander was down there, kicking it with us, even though she was officially famous and not a fellow but a poet-in-residence. And then, I started singing Aretha songs—with my little one and a half octave range. Rachel Harding was a lovely soprano so she took the notes I couldn’t hit.

At the end of the week when we left the monastery, I drove Hayes and Major back to Philadelphia where they both lived, because I had a rental car. We had such a good time in the car, just laughing and talking and cutting up. After we dropped Major off in Germantown, I stayed overnight with Hayes and his father, Mr. Earl (now late), who was an otherworldly brilliant and beautiful artist.  Mr. Earl bought us a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and I was so relieved. I was from the South and I had hoped those Northern Negroes didn’t want to eat something all chi-chi. And just like southern folks, Mr. Earl gave the blessing before we began to eat.

Over that next year, some of the 1996 fellows wrote me snail mail letters and I saved them all. I have letters from Van, Hayes, Yona Harvey (who married Terrance that next year), Toi, Herman—and a baby picture of Herm’s firstborn child. Sherry Lee sent us all pictures that she had taken and made into a calendar.

And I have a letter that Major wrote me. He was just starting his career back then, but I knew he would be famous one day. In the letter, he talked about having dinner with a few poets, all of them famous, and I was so proud of him.

Now, I could discuss the sexism of Major’s interview in Poets and Writers, in which Major apparently erased the entire memory of not only me, but all the other Black women—his Sisters—at that week-long workshop retreat, including the founder Toi Derricotte and Elizabeth Alexander, the woman who composed—from scratch—a poem she read at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

I could talk about why the only Sister out of the 1996 Cave Canem Fellows’ Group to make a career as a poet—that would be me—was not mentioned.  And he’s not the only Black male poet to erase other Black women; that history of sexism goes back a long time. And believe me, I will talk about that and in great and detailed length, but that discussion is for a later time.

Finally, I could remind that Negro that I let him ride back to Philly in my rental car for free, because I don’t recollect that he gave me no gas money.

For now, though, it’s really about a time lost. I was a girl then, a very young (minded) almost-twenty nine, and that first Cave Canem was the only time in my entire life where I felt truly loved and accepted by other Black people—or people, period.  I was completely wrapped up in joy.  I know it sounds silly, but that week seemed like one of those sunlit scenes from a film, out of time and place. A scene you hope will go on and on.

Over the years, I’ve remembered the love I shared with all those people, but I can’t remember all the names. One reason is that, if you go on the Cave Canem website’s mission page, there is a “history” section, but no list of the original fellows from that year. Which is pretty sad and strange considering that we Black folks hold history in such high esteem, because much of our history has been taken from us.

Some of the people I haven’t mentioned by name are: Sarah Micklem, Omari Daniel, Ronald Dorris, Valerie Jean, Afaa Michael Weaver, Patricia Spears Jones, and Lorelei Williams. But I know I have forgotten at least two people and that makes me really sad.

Over and over, I’ve gone to the Cave Canem website hoping for a list of the names of the original folks from 1996, but the list is never there, or at least, not where I can find it. Somewhere in an archive there are records of all those Black poets who helped to make Cave Canem what it is today—for better or for worse—but it would be nice if I didn’t have to search out that place to find a record of such a beautiful time. It would be nice if those six joyful days were fully honored.

12 thoughts on “An (Erased) Week in Black Poetry History

    • Thanks for writing this response. I realize, I don’t think I’ve ever written about that incredible retreat and maybe it’s time. I wonder what I would discover. But just so you know, poetry has continued to be an important part of my life. I taught Creative Writing at Metro State for about ten years, but realized my calling was to mentor and teach in non academic settings. I have two books of poetry Chinese Blackbird and How To Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life, Loving Healing Press. Here’s my Web site http://www.SherryQuanLee.com I work as a Program Associate for the Split Rock Arts Program, University of Minnesota to pay the rent, but I continue to teach writing workshops, and mentoring other writers. I would love to hear from others. Renee and I have continued to stay in touch since that incredible week in 1996! Unfortunately I never finished my third CC year. But, the second year I attended at Cranbrook and met the amazing Taiyon Coleman! Hi to all!

  1. I am especially moved by the point you make about keeping history. I love your rendering of the communal spirit that marked the first attendees of Cave Canem, and I hope all of the rest since then. It’s good to ask what we must do to carry that spirit of community forward. Holding hands to find one’s way in the dark– a beautiful story, but also a timely metaphor for what we need to do in these very dark times.

  2. There may be no list of the original fellows from the CC’s starting year in the history section precisely because it–the Foundation, the fellowship–is not about individuals. It’s about something bigger, even from the start. I don’t think you’re making totally incorrect points (sexism does exist in every avenue of our lives, the black poetry community being no exception) but I do think a part of this is personal beef gone wild. Methinks there’s one too many inflated egos within these “four poets who went on to have poetry careers.” Frankly, the recurrence of that phrase nauseates me and smacks of elitism. Can we not speak of elitism in the black poetry community? I expected more of you.

    • Dear “Disappointed”:

      Thank you for leaving a comment. First, I guess I could be sad that I disappointed “you,” but since “you” don’t use a real email address and your “website” is apparently nonexistent, I don’t know who you are, so I can’t say I am sorry.:-)

      But I am not sorry.

      Second, if the Cave Canem organization isn’t about individuals, why are there dozens of beautiful smiling Black faces–representing different people and not the same two person–and why are there testimonials from Fellows on the Cave Canem website?

      Further, why is there a list of the prizes that individual fellows have won? This organization was not made by only two people. And, for your information, in the early years, some of us–including me– were asked to write letters of support that were circulated to funding organizations so that Cave Canem could raise money. And we were asked to submit resumes and curriculum vitae. So sure, if you–whoever you are–were asked to do that, you might get a little hurt, too, that your being an individual was fine and dandy back in the day when your name and accomplishments were needed for fundraising and now, you are told “oh, now, it’s a foundation and not about individuals.” Just a thought.

      But let’s get back to the notion of individual people. I mentioned Vincent Woodard in my blog post. Is there any substantive statement on the Cave Canem webiste that acknowledges that most of those rituals that Cave Canem fellows take for granted were STARTED BY VINCENT WOODARD in 1996 and 1997? I am doing that for that brother, and speaking his name, because he gave us his beautiful spirit and his fierce love of the ancestors, and I know a bunch of other fellows from the first and second Cave Canem classes who would do the same. I am not the only one.

      And yes, my ego is large–I admit it–but my ego isn’t inflated because I earned all the ego I possess by being 1) a good poet who tries to make sure that my work stands for something in the Black community, the women’s community, and the world community, and 2) I’m the only woman fellow from that group to have made a career at Cave Canem from 1996. That might seem ego, but you try making a career when nobody even acknowledges the presence of Black women in this society, let alone that we have lives separate and apart from our Brothers’s. You try writing that poetry, and you will get just as mad as I do to be erased.

      Acknowledging Black women’s achievements may not be important to you–whoever you are–but that is important to me. And it is important that I stand on the shoulders of the other women who made my career possible–and who fought important yet difficult and painful battles. It is now my responsibility to take up this mantle. I do not say this lightly, and I do not try to act as if I think I am doing even half of their work. But it is up to me to do this work for younger Black women coming up behind me, who depend on me to support them and model what good behavior is–and what activist behavior is. Whether I feel ready or not, I must be ready now. And believe me, I am ready.

      So this is not a personal beef. This is Phillis Wheatley’s beef, and the beef of Helene Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Lucille Clifton. All those Sisters, now gone to the ancestors, who made it possible for me–this egotistical Black woman— to have a career in a white and male dominated profession. And all the Poet-Sisters who are alive now and doing the work and modeling what I should be doing; perhaps they are doing the work differently, but I do not stand alone and I appreciate them and love them so much.

      My naming these issues–and this is just the beginning–is about the fact that we need to be nurturing and supporting and acknowledging Black poets within this Black poetry community–all the Black poets. Not just the males. Please understand that, although I am the only one talking about these issues in public right now, I stand for a lot of women who want me to talk about these thing and they are giving me encouragement. And there are some good Womanist/feminist Brother-poets who have given me support as well.

      I am trying to do the work here, and more importantly, I am putting whatever fear I have for my career and my legacy to the side and I am doing this work in public because this work needs to be done. I am not running around whispering, and I have the courage to put whatever I say behind my own name.

      Can you say the same?

      Take care,
      Honorée

  3. You’re right. I’ve no intention on tagging my name to this. Call that act, if you will, an act of self-protection and not to much my “self” but really–you’re favorite word–my “career.”

    Theoretically, my words should stand on their own. I hear what you’re saying about writing that poetry (I too write that poetry) and that literature. I wish, though, that’s where you would channel this energy, for as far as I’m concerned this back-and-forth over blogs and FB is childish immaturity. And you stand in the middle of the fray.

    I could back-track, and spend a little time about how those fellow quotations on the website are–majorally–unnamed. I can also talk abut how it’s childish still to expect something when giving. But I won’t. As always, your opinion is granite.

    You’ve done very little to speak about what I ended my paragraph with: elitism in the black poetry community, of which I am accusing you. You’re little tit-for-tat with Joel over FB was appalling, not because I don’t believe the things you accuse him of but the manner in which you presented them. Is it a possible thought for you that a poetry career does not exist merely through the publication of books, any more than exists merely in the publication of books from, say, Norton (and other major NY publishing houses)? DO I NEED TO TYPE THIS IN ALL CAPS TO GET A RESPONSE?

    You calling up the names of those important black, women writers is wonderful, noble but does not an argument make. Yes, sexism exists (as I said everywhere) but in this particular situation (with Major’s interview) I can’t be too sure. Moreover, he left out your name because he doesn’t like you. Personally.

    • Dear Disappointed:

      Well, thank you for letting me know how you feel about my personality. Because I appreciate your giving all my readers an example of a Black poetry ad hominem drive-by of a Black woman.:-)

      This is exactly how people in this Black poetry community–and the Black community at large–silence Black women when they complain about their treatment. They get vicious. And sometimes that viciousness works–with women who give a damn about whether they are liked or not. But I’m not one of those women. If you’ve been reading my blog for the past year, you would know that.:-) But I really appreciate your throwing a rock and hiding your (anonymous) hand, because you have proven my point for me.

      Here’s what you need to do, however: get off my personality and bring this back to the real subject, which is sexism toward Black women in the Black poetry world and the erasure of their professional accomplishments. I am not going to go off on personal issues that you want to bring up. That’s such an easy carrot you are dangling over my face–and it would have worked when I was in my twenties:-)

      Whatever my relationship–or lack thereof–with any Black male poet you want to name and my personal tussles with those poets, that’s none of your business, even if it takes place on someone’s comment thread on Facebook. What is your business is how Black female poets get treated in the Black poetry community.

      Further, the issue of elitism that you raise is a double standard here–and an example of a logical fallacy. If Major Jackson wasn’t an established, well-known Black male writer he wouldn’t have been in the pages of Poets and Writers to begin with; I notice you didn’t talk about that elitism. And the two writers he gave as his “close friends” were also well-known, established writers, only they were men. That is a glaring omission to dismiss the only woman.

      As the only woman in that “elite” group of 1996 Cave Canem fellows to have published books and make a successful career as a poet, I simply wondered why my name wasn’t mentioned within that “elite” cohort. Saying that one can or cannot make a career as a poet without going through certain channels is a different issue, and a discussion for another time. But I did go through those channels and I “made my bones.” Telling me that I don’t get to be named in the elite cohort in which I have earned a position because I’m not liked, well that’s just a specious argument. It doesn’t matter whether he liked me or not; to mention my name is simple collegiality. He gave the names of plenty of writers in that interview and you don’t know how he felt about them or how they felt about him, either.

      The point is about respect for what I have accomplished. Since you are on Facebook, you would have seen that, before this unfortunate issue arose, I posted a couple of times on my page giving Major his due about his forthcoming book and also, two poems that he published on Poetry Daily. I even gave people a link to the Amazon.com page in this blog post so that they could order the book. That, again, is simple collegiality.

      Whatever our friendship status or lack thereof, I don’t think that any of us Black poets have come so far that we can just ignore the accomplishments of other Black poets in national publications–I’m not talking about on Facebook– simply because we don’t like somebody–and oh, by the way, they are the only female, too. That’s pretty convenient, isn’t it?

      We can disagree over aesthetics and we don’t have to braid each other’s hair and paint each other’s toe nails, but respect for hard work–if not personalities– should be mutual. We are in this Black poetry community together and we are all invested in that. That’s what “Black” means. It’s not a blood quantum. It’s about community. And last I heard, “community” didn’t just include people you liked and who liked you. Because that would reduce this community down to three people.

      Tangent: I’m sorry that you think I dislike Major Jackson so much, because I really don’t. He’s actually quite dear to me, believe it or not. I actually considered him a friend, even if he didn’t consider me one.:-)

      Anyway, perhaps you have a right to dislike me–I can’t please everybody. I can only please God and my mama. So even if you don’t agree with the way I’ve done things, support another Black woman who is saying what I’m saying, only she’s saying them in a far more “mature,” “decorous,” and “classy” way than I am.

      If you tell me your real name, perhaps I will give you a phone call and check with you as to how I should behave about this issue the next time it comes up.:-) And it will come up in, like, five more minutes. So why don’t I give you a holler next time?

      Take care,
      Honorée

  4. This is my last post. I only want to comment on something you say early in your second reply, which is about Black women being silenced. Particular to you, how have I silenced you? How have you been made not to speak or express your opinion? In fact, my comments only incited you into discourse (whereas those that come before mine, those agreeing or congratulating you, you had nothing to say in response). Let’s not (meaning you) interpret disagreement, or rather uneasy agreement, as silencing.

  5. Dear Honoree, If I entertain for a nanosecond that your plea to be included in a memory, to be given mention is an egotistical demand for “me first!” as charged, I am still left with a question. What is wrong with a brilliant Black Woman writer saying “me first?” With all the seized privilege in this society with its lack of parity, is it a social faux pas or social sin for a Black Woman to write “me first?” For once? Oh wait, you never wrote that. You just wrote, “me too,” as in…”I was there too. I was included. Please mention me, remember me, include me…” I wonder really what kind of society we live in if it invites so much flack and attack when a Black woman simply writes, “Me too.”

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