Life and Work
Toi Derricotte was born on April 12, 1941 in Hamtramck, Michigan. As a child growing up in Detroit, Derricotte struggled with the divorce of her parents and the death of her grandmother (Pettis 83). She explains how writing helped her through this difficult time: “I started writing when I was ten or eleven years old—and I think that my journals, my diaries, my poems were ways that I addressed the things that I couldn‘t talk about in my everyday relationships. . . My feelings—especially of grief, anger, and fear—were as real as, maybe more real than, my relationships.” But after a cousin insulted her work at the age of fifteen, she kept her writing a secret until she turned twenty-seven (“Beyond” 654).
Derricotte received a bachelor of arts degree in special education from Wayne State University and later received a master of arts degree in English and creative writing from New York University. While in college, Derricotte experienced racism, sometimes quite overtly, as when she “remember[s] asking the man who was [her] advisor in graduate school why [they] hadn’t read any Black writers in [her] classes and he said, ‘We don’t go down that low’” (“Beyond” 656). And because women writers were excluded in most of her classes, she also experienced sexism (Pettis 84).
Throughout her career, Derricotte has taught in Detroit and New Jersey, at Duke Ellington High School, and at New York University, George Mason, and Old Dominion. Since 1991, Derricotte has worked in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches courses in race and gender in 20th century American poetry and leads poetry and creative writing workshops.
In 1996, while teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, Derricotte and fellow writer Cornelius Eady formed the Cave Canem Foundation, the first workshop for Black poets. According to Tara Hutchinson, “As a result of the workshops, a community of African American writers has emerged, offering a network that has opened the door to publishing opportunities and funding sources.” This foundation enables Derricotte to foster and encourage the very literature that was so neglected when she herself was a student.
Derricotte’s four books of poetry and her latest work, a memoir, chronicle her life and the struggles she has encountered. Her first book of poetry, The Empress of the Death House, explores Derricotte’s feelings and memories about her childhood. She writes about her relationship with her grandmother, death, violence, and sexual issues. Derricotte’s next work, Natural Birth, discusses her experience of being an unwed mother. Her poems here deal with feelings of embarrassment, helplessness, and loneliness. Captivity, her third book of poetry, focuses on race issues, including Derricotte’s difficulties growing up in a white neighborhood as well as questions about whether Black victims are treated differently than white victims. Her next work, Tender, examines many of the same issues that appear in her earlier works, such as racism, violence, and sexuality, but does so in a new form that she describes in the preface: “Tender is not to be read in linear fashion. Rather, it is a seven-spoked wheel, with the poem ‘Tender’ as the hub, each ‘spoke’ or subdivision radiating out from that center” (ix). Her latest work, a memoir titled The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, focuses on her struggle to understand her identity as an African American despite looking white.
While each of her works have a different focus, several themes emerge that tie them all together. Joyce Pettis identifies these as “violence, motherhood, the tortured self, and victimization.” Pettis believes that Derricotte’s treatment of these subjects “balanc[es] personal experiences against their broader implications in the public venue” (83). Two of these themes, violence and victimization, appear in Derricotte’s poem “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses” from he collection Captivity. The bodies of five Black women have been found in a farmer’s field, and the speaker, a Black woman, feels afraid, asking, “How can I / protect myself? Even if I lock my doors, / walk only in the light, someone wants me dead” (64).
The theme of the “tortured self” appears in Derricotte’s “Letter to an Editor Who Wants to Publish a Black Writer” from her memoir, The Black Notebooks. She writes, “All my life I have been struggling on that pin—the need to claim my own people, my own blood . . . And the fear that in claiming Black people I will be categorized as irrelevant by this white civilization.” Her struggle with identity is not so much about knowing the self as it is knowing how to be oneself in a racist society.
The fourth theme described by Pettis, motherhood, appears in Derricotte’s “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing.” After describing the contrast between her mother’s beauty and her rough hands, the speaker addresses the different roles her mother plays: “But once a year my mother / rose in her white silk slip, / not the slave of the house, the woman, / took the ironed dress from the hanger” (Captivity 9-10). In addition to the themes of violence, motherhood, the tortured self, and victimization, examinations of racism and sexism also appear in Derricotte’s poems.
Toi Derricotte has received critical praise and numerous literary awards for her writing. In a review of Tender, Ellen Kauffman praises Derricotte’s originality and depth: “In plain language that does not settle for simplicity or cliché, these poems probe being at its root—sexually, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually—and recount how violence—both physical and mental–ravages the self” (104). Another critic praises the straight-forward, honest nature of Derricotte’s work in Natural Birth: “We take an amazing journey into the depths of agony, of wonder—surrealistic in treatment, unrelenting in the frank and open disclosure” (Lane 684). And in a review ofThe Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, the political nature of her work is noted in that “Her diaries plumb numerous racially freighted incidents,” and again she is praised for her openness: “her candor is brave” (Stuttaford 69).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of Poetry
- The Empress of the Death House. Detroit: Lotus, 1978.
- Natural Birth. New York: Crossing, 1983. Firebrand, 2000.
- Captivity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1989.
- Tender. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1997.
- [With Madeline Bass]. Creative Writing: A Manual for Teachers. New Jersey State Council on the Arts, 1985.
- The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. New York: Norton, 1997.
- American Poetry Review
- Bread Loaf Quarterly
- Feminist Studies
- Iowa Review
- Massachusetts Review
- Northwest Review
- Poetry Northwest
- African American Women Speak out on Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas. Ed. Geneva Smitherman. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995.
- Ariadne’s Thread: A Collection of Contemporary Women’s Journals. Ed. Lyn Lifshin. New York: Harper, 1982.
- Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers & Daughters. Ed. Patricia Bell-Scott. Boston: Beacon, 1991.
- Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now. Ed. Marge Piercy. New York: Pandora, 1987.
- Extended Outlooks: The Iowa Review Collection of Contemporary Women Writers. Ed. Jane Cooper et al. Macmillan, 1982.
- Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Ed. Barbara Smith. Persphone, 1982.
- I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by African Americans. Ed. Arnold Adoff and Benny Andrews. New York: Aladdin, 1997.
- An Introduction to Poetry. Ed. Louis Simpson, 1986.
- Memory of Kin: Stories about Family by Black Writers. Ed. Mary Helen Washington. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
- The Pushcart prize, XV, 1990-1991: The Best of the Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York: Pushcart, 1990. New York: Simon, 1991.
- The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York: Pushcart, 1999.
- Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. Ed. Keith Gilyard with Sekou Sundiata. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997.
- Waltzing on the Water: Poetry by Women. Ed. Norma Fox Mazer and Marjorie Lewis. New York: Dell, 1989.
- Woman Poet. Vol. 2, The East. Ed. Elaine Dallman. Reno, NV: Women-in-Literature, 1981.
- Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. With Cornelius Eady and Camille T. Dungy. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2006.
- Introduction. Mullaney, Janet Palmer. Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.
- “Writing Natural Birth.” The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood. Ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003.
- “Beginning Dialogues.” Best American Essays 2006. Ed. Lauren Slater and Robert Atwan. Boston: Houghton, 2006.
- Toi Derricotte, Michelle Cliff 10/9/1986 reading. Videocassette. Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives, 1986.
- The Poet and the Poem. With Grace Cavalieri. Sound tape reel. WPFW-FM, 1988. Washington, DC: Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Library of Congress), 1998.
- Distinct Traditions, Myths and Voices of the Many Americas. With Shahid Ali Agha, Cecilia Vicuña, Ray A Young Bear, Cynthia Atkins, and John Mohawk. Audiocassette. Poetry Society of America, 1994.
- Healing the Inner Wound. Videocassette. University of Tennessee at Martin, 1994.
- The Poet and the Poem. Library of Congress, 1998.
- Furious Flower: Conversations with African American Poets. Vol. 3, Seers. Videocassette. California Newsreel, 1998.
- Pen and Brush Award, New School for Social Research, 1973
- Poetry teacher prize from Academy of American Poets for “Unburying the Bird,” 1974
- Poetry teacher prize from Academy of American Poets for Natural Birth, 1978
- MacDowell Colony Fellowship, 1982
- New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship, 1983
- New York University’s Graduate English Creative Writing Program Fellowship, 1984
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1985
- Lucille Medmick Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America, 1985
- Writer’s Voice, Manhattan West Side Y, New York City, 1985
- Arts Council Fellowship, State of Maryland, 1987
- Pushcart Prize, 1989
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1990
- Poetry Committee Book Award, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1990
- Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award, United Black Artists, 1993
- Keck Fellowship, Sarah Lawrence College, 1993
- New York Times Notable Book of the Year for The Black Notebooks, 1997
- Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Black Notebooks, 1998
- Black Caucus of the American Library Association Nonfiction Award for The Black Notebooks, 1998
- Paterson Poetry Prize for Tender, 1998
- Pushcart Prize, 1998
- First Dudley Randall Award for National Contributions to Literature, 2001
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Caudell, Robin M. “Where Poets Explore Their Pain Where Others Beware the Dog.” American Visions (Oct.-Nov.1999): 30-32.
- “Contributor Spotlight: Toi Derricotte.” Ploughshares 22.1 (Spring 1996): 208-11.
- Contemporary Authors. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 30 Mar. 2004. <http://www.galenet.com/ servlet/GLD>.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 30 Mar. 2004. <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Gilyard, Keith. “Kinship and Theory.” American Literary History 11.1 (1999): 187-95.
- Hernton, Calvin C. “Black Women Poets: The Oral Tradition.” The Sexual Mountain and the Black Women Writers. Ed. Calvin C. Hernton. New York: Anchor, 1987. 119-55.
- Hutchinson, Tara D. “Cave Canem: A Haven for African American Poets.” University of Pittsburgh Campaign Chronicle 2 February 2004. University of Pittsburgh. 12 Mar. 2004. <http://www.discover.pitt.edu/media/pcc020204/BHMSderricotte.html>.
- Kaufman, Ellen. Rev. of Tender. Library Journal 123.1 (Jan.1998): 104.
- Koolish, Lynda. African American Writers: Portraits and Visions. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 34-35.
- Lane, Pinkie Gordon. Rev. of Natural Birth. African American Review 35.4 (Winter 2001): 684.
- Peterson, V. R. “Word Star—Toi Derricotte: Making it Real.” Essence (Dec.1997): 64.
- Pettis, Joyce. African American Poets: Lives, Works, and Sources. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 81-88.
- Richardson, James W., Jr. “Toi Derricotte.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Francis Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 210.
- Rouse, Deborah L. “Black Notebooks Reveals Whiteness.” Emerge 9.3 (1997): 78.
- Shanley, Katherine and Carolina Hospital. “Distinct Traditions: Myths and Voices of the Many Americas.” Newsletter of the Poetry Society of America 44-45 (Autumn 1994):18-23.
- Stuttaford, Genevieve, Maria Simson, and Jeff Zaleski. Rev. of The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. Publishers Weekly 8 Sept. 1997: 69.
- “Toi Derricotte.” Spec. issue of Callaloo 14.3 (Summer 1991): 634-664.
- Woodard, Loretta G. “Toi Derricotte.” African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 90-94.
- “Beyond Our Lives: An Interview with Toi Derricotte.” By Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo 14.3 (Summer 1991): 654-64.
- “Interview with Toi Derricotte: Saturday, November 6, 1999.” Xavier Review 20.1 (2000): 12-20.