A Look Back at the Cave Canem Poetry Prize

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This November, Cave Canem fellow Julian Randall takes to the mic to share work from his Cave Canem Poetry Prize-winning debut Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), selected by Hurston/Wright Legacy Awardee Vievee Francis. Randall notes, “The Cave Canem Prize is literally my dream prize…the only prize for which I own every single book that has ever won it. To have my name alongside books I have wept over, aspired towards, that have launched careers that have made so much of my poetics possible, it’s beyond surreal.” Julian Randall joins the seventeen poets previously selected for this first-book award over the prize’s near twenty-year run. In anticipation of Randall’s upcoming feature reading, we delve into the prize’s history.

The Cave Canem Poetry Prize was first awarded in 1999 to Natasha Trethewey for her debut collection Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 1999). Trethewey’s manuscript was selected by acclaimed poet Rita Dove, the first Black Poet Laureate of the United States. Trethewey has since gone on to receive prestigious honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, to name a few. In 2012 she was appointed as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States.

Many subsequent Cave Canem Poetry Prize-winners have gone on to receive a host of recognitions and awards. Poet Major Jackson was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize the year after Trethewey for Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia Press, 2000), which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Soon after, Jackson received a 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award. In 2002, Tracy K. Smith was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press, 2002). Smith was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her third collection, and currently serves as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States.

In the words of Donika Kelly, who won the 2015 prize for her collection Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2002), “The history of the Cave Canem Prize itself speaks to its importance within the larger poetry community, and to be situated in that lineage challenges me…to pay forward Cave Canem’s mission of fostering the growth of Black poets.” While the prize is celebrated for its reputation of setting the stage for flourishing careers, it primarily represents a community of Black poets affirming their own brilliance, independent of the literary community at large.  In this way, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize continues to be among the first to recognize and uplift the genius of Black poets.

Join us in celebrating Julian Randall’s debut at the Cave Canem Poetry Prize reading, November 29, 2018, 7pm at the NYU Lillian Vernon House!


Photo: Cave Canem Poetry Prize-winning collections pictured at AWP 2018.