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.