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Mission & History

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Founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996 to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape, Cave Canem Foundation is a home for the many voices of African American poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets.

A 501-c-3 non-profit literary service organization with administrative and programming headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, Cave Canem has grown from a gathering of 26 poets to become an influential movement with a renowned faculty, high-achieving national fellowship of over 400 and a workshop community of 900. Our operating budget has increased from $20,000 in 1996 to $450,000 in 2015, with significant grant awards from such funders as Lannan Foundation, Whiting Foundation, New York Community Trust, National Endowment for the Arts, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Cave Canem enjoys over 20 local, regional and national cultural partnerships, among them the Brooklyn Book Festival, where we are a Programming Partner; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, where we are a Literary Partner; and collaborative residencies for fellows at such sites as the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and The Home School.

Cave Canem’s programs and publications enlarge the American literary canon; democratize archives; and expand for students, aspiring poets and readers the notion of what’s possible and valuable in a poem. In Cave Canem, poets of color find productive space for writing without fear of censure or the need to defend subject matter or language—an intellectual and physical site where they validate their own and their peers’ voices and deeply know that s/he is not “the only one.” Established in 1996, our flagship program is a writing retreat in Greensburg and Pittsburgh, PA, that today annually serves 54 emerging African American poets. Core programs comprise three book prizes delivered in partnership with five prestigious presses; community-based workshops for emerging adult poets; Legacy Conversations with legendary poets and scholars; New Works readings showcasing poetry by contemporary African American practitioners; cross-cultural Poets on Craft conversations with poets of color in mid-career; a popular lecture series; and a Poets Tour representing over 70 fellows.

Cave Canem is part of a national coalition of poetry organizations working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds. Learn more about this coalition of poetry organizations.

Selected Highlights

With 9 as “exceptional” and 8 as “outstanding,” the New York State Council on the Arts’ 2012-13 peer review panel awarded Cave Canem a score of 8.7 for Service to the Public, Artistic/Programmatic Quality and Managerial/Fiscal Competence. In 2013, Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired our organizational papers, 1996-2011, for its James Weldon Johnson Collection. Cave Canem’s organizational model has inspired the genesis of Kundiman, a national organization dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American poetry; CantoMundo, which provides a space for the creation and critical analysis of Latina/o poetry; and Kimbilio, a community of writers and scholars committed to developing, empowering and sustaining fiction writers from the African diaspora.

Awards garnered by fellows include, among many others, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award, the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the National Poetry Series Selection, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Ruth Lilly and Lannan fellowships. Fellows have 250-plus books in print and have gained significant footholds in academic positions around the country.