Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Cave Canem

Some of the 2011 Cave Canem Fellows with instructor Carl Phillips (back row, 2nd from right). Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

You might not expect Pompeii to figure significantly in the history of African-American literature, but it was a visit to the ancient buried city that inspired the name for Cave Canem, the Brooklyn-based poetry organization for African-American poets. It all started with a dream, more specifically, poet Toi Dericotte’s dream to create a retreat for African-American poets where they could meet each other and write and learn together. When Dericotte shared this wish with fellow poet Cornelius Eady and his novelist wife Sarah Micklem, the pair enthusiastically agreed to make the workshop a reality.

As Cave Canem Executive Director Alison Meyers explains, “While vacationing in Pompeii, they found a fitting symbol for the safe space they planned to create---the mosaic of a dog guarding the entry to the House of the Tragic Poet, with the inscription, ‘Cave Canem’ (Beware of the Dog)." She adds, "In designing the logo for their new enterprise, Micklem introduced a telling visual metaphor by breaking the dog's chain.”

Since its first retreat in 1996---for which Dericotte, Eady, Elizabeth Alexander, and Afaa Michael Weaver donated their time---Cave Canem has grown into a poetry powerhouse, offering not only the highly competitive annual retreat, but also community workshops, a first-book prize, and poetry readings, among other activities. We spoke with Meyers about the organization---recipient of a 2011 NEA grant---which she describes as, “a protection for poets and a catalyst for unleashing vital, new voices into the literary world.”

NEA: Why does the literary field need an organization like Cave Canem?

ALISON MEYERS: Big question! Perhaps it’s useful to approach it from the other side: what would our field look like without Cave Canem, or similar organizations, or our predecessors, in the mix? I think less engaged, less textured, and certainly less representative of the breadth and depth of poetry production in the United States. It’s not that African-American poets (and other marginalized voices) haven’t always produced---of course, this is a long and rich history. Contemporary poets connect with Cave Canem as a site for community building and aesthetic “safety,” the place where you can write your poems, the poems you need to write, and often discover new strategies for making them stronger. Through the collective impact of Cave Canem poets’ work in the world, Cave Canem has evolved to the point where there’s increased visibility for black poets. For example, you invited me to do this interview---a kind of “validation” that Cave Canem is achieving its mission.

Why do we continue to need Cave Canem? Because racism and classism infect our culture, and literature is a key art form for cultural transformation. The literary world needs many diverse voices in order to tell the whole story, the whole truth of our American culture and history. Cave Canem’s presence in the field helps keep these imperatives on the literary radar screen.

NEA: Can you describe a typical Cave Canem retreat?

MEYERS: For the past several years, we’ve held our June retreat on the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus, our home for a week. The retreat begins with an Opening Circle where everyone can introduce her/himself and share expectations or concerns. Throughout the retreat, 54  fellows work in groups of nine, studying in rotation with six faculty members in three-hour daily workshops; participants produce six poems in as many days. Our 2012 faculty are Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes and Angela Jackson. A guest poet–---this year, Amiri Baraka---gives a talk on craft. The retreat includes three “lightning round” readings, each with 18 fellows---extraordinary four-minute readings when the community as a whole discovers, celebrates, validates, and is moved, enlightened, and entertained. Two faculty readings are highlights of the retreat, one on campus, the second under a tent on Pittsburgh’s Northside streets, courtesy of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, our event co-sponsor. Historically, second-year fellows design and host a celebratory ceremony for the graduating class of third-year fellows. Other aspects of the retreat include mentorship, fellow-led workshops on themes from professional development to craft, informal dialogue, and socializing.

NEA: What makes or characterizes a "Cave Canem poet?"

MEYERS: I believe that poets who seek out Cave Canem are looking for a resource for artistic self-development. Typically, a Cave Canem fellow is smart, dedicated to craft and language, and willing to work very hard. Aesthetically, there is no prescription. I’m interested in what one fellow wrote me on this question:

“I think what characterizes a Cave Canem fellow is someone who has the desire to operate and be heard by her/his peers outside of the stereotypical tropes of ‘Black’ writing. Someone who writes from a place of multiplicity, and whose story/writing, though informed by race, is also informed by gender, sexual orientation, location, two-parent homes, single-parent homes, and by what it means to be alive and experiencing the world right here, right now. Personally, for me, I feel like one of the only times I am a poet and not a ‘Black’ poet is when I am being viewed by CC.”

Last year, a fellow offered a similar observation: “At Cave Canem the pressure to represent or ‘write from our race’ is not a requirement, but rather a choice. The freedom of that is liberating.”  Another reflected, “I came home feeling, for the first time, that I am part of a community of artists who want to see me create.”

NEA: What do you want fellows to get from the program? 

MEYERS: I’d say that we want every fellow and faculty member to “get” from the retreat what s/he personally needs. Everyone’s goals are individual; the retreat is a personal journey. Outcomes might include breaking through isolation and finding a supportive community, improving one’s craft, building life-long relationships, or changing one’s goals in a significant or small way. From an arts administrator’s perspective, I hope that participants feel that the retreat delivers Cave Canem’s mission, that they benefit in a meaningful way, and that they will “pay forward” their benefits and discoveries in the communities where they live, study, and work.

NEA: Over the years the organization has expanded so that Cave Canem is more than a poetry retreat. Can you talk about some of the additional programming?

MEYERS: Cave Canem is a full-fledged organization of which the poetry retreat is one program. The retreat is our flagship program, but several others are core. The Cave Canem Prize, a first-book award for African-American poets, was established in 1999, when Rita Dove chose Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work. We’ve been fortunate to partner with wonderful presses (Graywolf, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Georgia) and to engage renowned judges. Patricia Smith selected Nicole Terez Dutton’s If One of Us Should Fall for the 2011 prize, and Major Jackson will judge in 2012.

Our successful New York City workshops, which continue apace, were also launched in 1999. Currently, we offer four at our Brooklyn headquarters. These greatly expand public access to Cave Canem. Eventually, with the help of our national fellowship and contingent on future capacity, we hope to offer community-based workshops in other areas of the country.

Additional significant programs include Legacy Conversations with pre-eminent poets and scholars (Nikki Giovanni will be interviewed by Thomas Sayers Ellis at AWP this year); Poets on Craft talks; anthology publication (Gathering Ground in 2006; The Ringing Ear in 2007; and a biennial anthology of poetry from the retreat, the first volume of which is forthcoming from Willow Books later this year); readings hosted by The New School and New York University showcasing fellows with new and recent books; the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize, a second-book award  offered every other year; and “Poetry Meets Art” readings at museums and galleries. We are a Literary Partner of the AWP Conference and a Programming Partner of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

NEA: What do you think is the most significant or important thing Cave Canem has achieved since its founding?

MEYERS: That Cave Canem is here to stay. Like Poets & Writers, the Poetry Society of America, Poets House, and the Academy of American Poets, our concerns are cultural, literary, and generational, and we are taking our place alongside these organizations. Cave Canem fellows and prize winners have achieved recognitions and milestones that reflect positively on the organization; I like to think that Cave Canem’s program of services, our ethos, have served as a kind of “accelerant” and validation for fellows who go on to publish, teach, and win such prestigious awards as the National Poetry Selection, the Whiting Writers' Award, the NAACP Image Award, and the Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, among many others.

NEA: In what ways has National Endowment for the Arts grant support been important to Cave Canem?

MEYERS: Grant support from the National Endowment for the Arts has been more than important; it’s been essential. Over the past couple of years, thanks to larger awards, we’ve been able to earmark funds for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, in addition to the retreat (NEA funding has accounted for 20% of our retreat costs). We’re grateful.

NEA: What do you hope is the legacy of Cave Canem?

MEYERS: I hope Cave Canem’s legacy will have something to do with the importance of belief, courage, and transformation. Some injustices seem endemic, yet if challenged, can be disrupted; then transformation and progress can find a foothold in the space previously occupied by received ideas. An extraordinary thing about Cave Canem is its wealth of talent and commitment, and the community’s appreciation of history and the work of those who came before. There’s humanity in this that is rare and necessary.

In case you missed it, check out our interview with Cave Canem fellow Gregory Pardlo, then meet Gary Jackson, whose first collection Missing You Metropolis received the 2009 Cave Canem prize.

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