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‘I’m With You’: Poetry Foundation marks 20 years of Cave Canem

In a new interview piece, Sara Ivry speaks with five members from the Cave Canem community. Co-founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady; faculty member Terrance Hayes; Rio Cortez, inaugural winner of the Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize; fellow Nick Makoha; and 2015 National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis talk about what Cave Canem means in their own lives and reflect on the foundation’s ongoing legacy.  Read the full piece on the Poetry Foundation website.

We are living in a time of profound change which has affected our day-to-day lives and the ways of working, creating, governing and teaching. Many people are experiencing high levels of sleeplessness. Whenever I cannot sleep or I wake up at some ungodly hour, I grab a book and read. Among my early morning favorites are Lao Tzu, Rumi, Colleen McElroy, Kamau Braithwaite, Ai and the list goes on. It is poetry that both grounds and saves me from the noise and darkness of the world. Poetry is one of the antidotes to despair, grief and sadness. It can function like the blues, where one does not avoid the “situation” but instead confronts it through repetition and the trying of a line to arrive at some level of triumph or resolution. And so it is with the practice of reading poetry. Writers have multiple and simultaneous forms of practice which can range from the act of writing, editing, critique, performance and a practice of reflection and reading. Here I will share observations of two poets and their poetry: Pablo Neruda and Metta Sáma.

Many years ago, when Gotham Books on 46th Street in Midtown Manhattan was still open, I gave myself a copy of Isla de la Negra by Pablo Neruda. This book is now well worn; one quarter of the front cover is missing, and the rest is held in place by tape. No matter what is going on, I never tire of reading Pablo Neruda. You can find me some mornings reading poems aloud in Spanish and then in English. For a brief span of time my desire to live in another language or place is partially realized. I relish Neruda’s poems of becoming and finding himself, and I enjoy many of his references and images of the sea and earth. Isla de la Negra can be considered Neruda’s poetic autobiography.

Isla Negra is not actually an island but one of the furthest most tips on the pacific coast of Chile, known for its isolation and proximity to the ocean. On Isla Negra, Neruda was devoted to his two loves, Mathilde Urrutia and the sea. It is also on Isla Negra that he wrote more than half of his collected works and poems.

Neruda was a great wanderer and traveler. His public life as a poet, diplomate, senator and cultural ambassador for Chile left him with few contemporaries. I think of Langston Hughes and his long years of global travel as one such figure, though he never served in a diplomatic capacity. The pursuit of a diplomatic career is a rare occupation among contemporary poets, but in Neruda’s time it was a common occurrence in Latin America and Mexico. Sri Lankan-American poet, essayist and translator Indran Amirthanayagam, who has served as a US diplomat in countries like Kenya, Mexico, Haiti and various others in Latin America, is among the rare few in these times. 

Neruda’s poetry has been translated in over twenty languages. I have a few English translations of his work by various translators, but I like Alastair Reeds’ translations best. He visited with Neruda on Isla Negra and was among his close friends, following Neruda’s mandate: “Don’t just translate my poems…I want you to improve them.” Many translators get to the essence of Neruda’s poems, but Reid manages to reveal their soul. Whether Neruda was at home or traveling in Asia, Europe or other parts of Latin America, his primary pursuit was to reveal our essential human condition. The poems are full of observations—the indifference he encountered in countries like China: “I suffered the gold pagoda with other men of clay. / There it was unseen, / so gilded and vertical, with so much light it was invisible.” Neruda is keenly aware of a culture that has created a false god whom the everyday people despise.

Neruda’s activism has its roots in Chile, but found expression during his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil war when he joined the communist party and his subsequent return to Chile in 1930’s. It is ironic that as Neruda’s life was ending, so was the Allende democratic era which imploded at the hands of the dictator Pinochet. I came of age during the era of the “missing” in Chile and Latin America. Younger poets may know that the leaders of the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador were all poets. Neruda was to some degree a “state” poet and vulnerable to all the intrigue and power changes of the Chilean government. I think living on Isla Negra allowed him to turn away from the business of the world and write, though he never stopped his political activism.

Isla de la Negra is full of wonderful opening lines. In “October Fullness,” the poet tells us: “Little by little, and also in great leaps, / life happened to me.” In “Loves: Rosura II,” we are reminded that “Love for us, was the one thing that made us matter.” And in “Paris 1927,” I marvel at: “Paris magnetic rose, an ancient spider web, there it was, silvered.” But, one of my favorite poems is “Oh Earth Wait for Me,” for how it is filled with a deep longing for home and the poet’s cherished forest.  

Oh Earth Wait for Me

Return me, oh sun
to my country destiny,
rain of the ancient woods.
Bring me back its aroma, and the swords
falling from the sky,
the solitary peace of pasture and rock,
the damp at the rivers margins,
the smell of the larch tree,
the wind alive like a heart
beating in the crowded remoteness
of the towering araucaria.

Earth, give me back your pristine gifts,
towers of silence which rose from
the solemnity of their roots.
I want to go back to being what I haven’t been,
to learn to return
from such depths
That among all natural things
I may live or not live. I don’t mind
being one stone more, the dark stone
the pure stone that the river bears away.

In this moment of the Covid-19 pandemic, civil unrest and anti-police marches, what can Neruda teach us about the poet as activist? What are the many ways one can cultivate a life-long practice and devotion to poetry?   

Another of my early morning reads is Swing at Your Own Risk, by Metta Sáma. One of the things I love about the book is its design. This book and her chapbooks, such as le animal and other creatures, are so beautifully produced and are true collector’s items. In Swing at Your Own Risk, the first thing one will view is a montage of language that forms the opening title pages.  The rhythmic display of black epigram pages throughout the text are a visual homage to the late Monica Hands’ me and Nina, which was among the first contemporary poetry books to offer singular black pages as part of the text and design. No need to interpret the blackness of the Black pages. So, when one views Michaela Pilar Brown’s The Cut as the cover image of Sáma’s Swing at Your Own Risk, one knows from the get-go this is a take-no-prisoners book.

Within Swing at Your Own Risk, there is a great deal of mischief and irony with shades of Bob Kaufman’s “beat” aesthetics. I delight in the fact that every chapter is named “Swing,” it describes perfectly how I don’t read the book in sequential order, but jump in and out at various places each time I revisit it. Sáma is adept at experimental form and language. Initially, my hands found “Silence: A Retreat a Meditation,” located in the center of the book. It is a long poem that contains many forms, including a letter to Trayvon Martin. It is a narrative, chant blues, critiquing intimate feelings of race and class between a mother and daughter against the disquiet of centuries of violence:

“We have all been hunted at least once held against our will held down our freedoms blocked our rights to walk down a street at night in the rain taken away from us….

We all have been hunted at some point in our lives pointed at feared….”

This poem resonates across time to our current historical moment in this country where Black lives, Black bodies are caught in a cyclical replay of death by police. Many of the poems in this book are entwined with American and colonial history. A poem such as “& on the fifth day God created,” is agile and full of layered allusions to the tale of Jonah and the Whale that signify history and erasure: “one story begins and ends with brown people.” Another short prose poem, “The closed field: Montreal, Quebec,” starts with two Black women browsing in an antique shop. Through the use of historical objects, Sáma manages to detail the social and class violence hurled at them. These poems are political, funny, dark, sensual and much needed during this time of change we’re experiencing. The poems in Swing at Your Own Risk are not easy poems, they are necessary poems.

The wee hours of the morning are the perfect time to cultivate your own relationship with various texts. You might like to look at the tradition of the ecstatic poets such as Rumi or Hafiz, or the Japanese court poets such as Izumi Shikibu, masters of Haiku and Tanka forms. Some of you may need more contemporary poets. I like following a poet across five or six books to see their evolution and what themes and voices manifest in the work. The practice of reading can become obsessive or addictive, so I caution you, not to end up like I do some nights with eight to ten books strewn across my bed as I follow the winding path of words and meaning.

Next up on the 3 a.m. list:

Too Much Midnight, Krista Franklin
Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz
Come See About Me, Brian Gilmore
Gut Botany, Petra Kuppers



Jacqueline Johnson is a multi-disciplined artist creating in poetry, fiction writing and fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman’s Season and A Gathering of Mother Tongues, winner of the Third Annual White Pine Press Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (edited by Tiffany Austin), Pank’s Health and Healing Folio, and on American Public Media’s podcast, The Slow Down. She is a Cave Canem fellow and is currently working on a volume of poetry and a short story collection. Jacqueline is a graduate of New York University and the City University of New York. A native of Philadelphia, she resides in Brooklyn, New York.


Cave Canem Foundation, in league with members of the Poetry Coalition and other arts organizations across the U.S., is committed to challenging the proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts. We join #SaveTheNEA to bolster public outcry and illuminate the absolute necessity of this federal agency. Below you’ll find resources to make your voice heard and ensure that our many creative communities continue to thrive.

Contact Your Representatives

Americans for the Arts Action Fund

LitNet, a coalition of nonprofit literary organizations that advocates for federal and other funding for the literary arts, has a page of actions you can take. Learn more on their website.

Visit Cave Canem’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram streams highlighting the testimonials and works of Cave Canem fellows who have received NEA grants.

Donate to Cave Canem

Our 2022 Retreat was Cave Canem’s first Retreat since 2019 (postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions). Also, this year’s Retreat was Cave Canem’s first free Retreat. Lisa Willis, Executive Director of Cave Canem, has said “With our field, in particular, being one of the most under-resourced in all of the cultural activities—making the retreat free…it’s a really important signal.” We are proud to be of service to Black poetry and Black poets through our flagship program.

Our Retreat residency offers an unparalleled opportunity to study with a world-class faculty and join a community of peers. Some fellows hail from the spoken word tradition, others focus on the text. Some are formalists, others work at the cutting edge of experimentation. All are united by a common purpose to improve their craft and find productive space, as Harryette Mullen says, “where black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.”

Cave Canem’s week-long Retreat is held annually at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Black poets of African descent, ages 21 and over, are eligible to apply. Once accepted, poets become “fellows.” Most are invited to attend two additional retreats within a five-year period.

We are thankful for the support of all of our collaborators in-service to Black poets. Cheers to the 2022 Retreat Graduates, newcomers, and returning Fellows. Special thanks to 2022 Faculty Janice Harrington, D.S. Marriott, Tracie Morris, Evie Shockley, and Frank X Walker, and our Guest Poet Francine J. Harris. 











BROOKLYN, NEW YORK (August 1, 2022) — Cave Canem and EcoTheo Collective are pleased to announce the recipients of the 2022 Starshine and Clay Fellowship, which provides creative and financial support to Black poets. The 2022 Fellowship have been awarded to Gracia Mwamba of California and RaJon Staunton of Missouri. They were selected by guest judge Airea D. Matthews.

Presented once a year to two poets, the fellowship offers $500, a featured LOGOS reading, a travel stipend and free lodging to attend the upcoming Wonder Festival (in 2022, part of the Texas Book Festival). In addition, fellows receive a one-to-one consultation with Airea D. Matthews, and will be published in the Autumn 2022 issue of EcoTheo Review.

The initiative is named in honor of  Lucille Clifton, and speaks to the mentorship Clifton offered Cave Canem Fellows during her tenure as Faculty at its annual Retreat. Over the past 25 years, Cave Canem has nurtured nearly 500 Black poets who have gone on to publish acclaimed works, win prestigious awards and become valued educators throughout the nation. 

Mwamba and Staunton are the second cohort of Starshine and Clay Fellows, which launched with a pilot program in 2021, and join Michael Frazier, Asmaa Jama, Oak Morse and Ashunda Norris in the honor.

Gracia “Cianga” Mwamba is a Congolese artist based in California, by way of South Africa. She was a semifinalist for the 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and NFSPS Board Award. She has also received fellowships from UC Berkeley’s Arts and Research Center, Brooklyn Poets and a residency from Atlantic Center for the Arts. While preparing her debut collection, her work can be found in Rappahannock Review, Berkeley Fiction Review and her website When not creating art, Gracia can be found streaming on Twitch, reading or consuming questionable amounts of chocolate.

RaJon Staunton is a writer and editor from Beckley, West Virginia. Their poems have been published in print and online in Foglifter Journal, wildness, Teen Vogue, and Hobart, among other places. They were recently a finalist in the Variant Literature Microchap Contest. RaJon received their BA from Marshall University in Huntington, WV, and is currently the Social Media Editor at UnCollected Press.



ABOUT EcoTheo Collective

EcoTheo Collective is an arts nonprofit whose mission is to celebrate wonder, enliven conversations, and inspire commitments to ecology, spirituality, and art. EcoTheo Collective is the  the proud home of the Starshine and Clay Fellowship — a collaboration with Cave Canem that honors the legacy of Lucille Clifton and supports the next generation of Black poets — as well as the Lorca Latinx Poetry Prize, which facilitates various trans-oceanic platforms for poets to present their work—as a way to celebrate Federico García Lorca’s legacy of friendship across borders, and to globalize Latinx poetry in the 21st century. EcoTheo Collective hosts regular in-person and online events as part of the LOGOS series, which seeks to evoke transcendence through poetry, ritual, and conversation. LOGOS has featured poets such as U.S. Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Ada Límon, along with Pulitzer Prize winners Gregory Pardlo, Jericho Brown, Forrest Gander, and Jorie Graham. EcoTheo Collective also publishes EcoTheo Review, an online and quarterly print magazine, which was recently selected as a finalist for the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize. ETR publishes original art and writing that explore intersections between nature and faith. EcoTheo Collective also hosts the annual Wonder festival, which connects participants with the sacred beauty of places along with the power of literature and the arts to inspire, heal, and transform.


Graphic announcing Cave Canem Fellows & Faculty Fund Project Grantees furthering accessibility to Black poetry"

BROOKLYN, New York (May 23, 2023) — Cave Canem is excited to announce its 2023 Fellows & Faculty Fund Project Grantees Sheila Carter-JonesMary-Alice DanielTaylor Johnson, and Arisa White.

Due to the support of donors like you and the Poetry Foundation, the fund has now been expanded to offer increased resources to Fellows and Faculty, with grants of $5,000 for projects and $500 for individual support.

(sub)Verses Social Collective
Sheila Carter-Jones

(sub)Verses Social Collective is a literary collective in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania modeled after house socials made popular during the era where “No Blacks Allowed” signs wallpapered this nation. (sub)Verses Social Collective comes from the need to create a safe and celebratory place for Black women poets and writers in the Pittsburgh community to express and share their life experiences through poetry and prose. The (sub)Verses Social Collective was established to be that “social” organization to offer a platform for Black women poets and writers to share their voices, work their strengths, continue to learn and practice the craft and art of writing, and facilitate writing workshops for all ages (especially young voices in the community). Through weekly readings in summer, The Collective’s aim is to recognize, promote, and encourage Black women poets at all levels.

Sheila L. Carter-Jones is the author of Three Birds Deep (selected by Elizabeth Alexander as the winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Book Award) and the chapbook Blackberry Cobbler Song. Her chapbook Crooked Star Dream Book was named Honorable Mention for the New York Center for Book Arts Chapbook Contest. Carter-Jones taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher. She also taught in Chatham University’s and the University of Pittsburgh’s Education Departments. She earned her BA from Carnegie Mellon University and both a Master’s in Education and PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. She is a fellow of Cave Canem, Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and a Walter Dakin Fellow of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her poetry has been published in Crossing Limits, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Pennsylvania Review, Tri-State Anthology, Riverspeak, Flights (the literary magazine of Sinclair College), Coal: A Poetry Anthology, City Paper, Cave Canem Anthology, Jewish Currents, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, several volumes of Carlow University’s Voices from the Attic anthologies and other anthologies and journals. Her newest book is forthcoming from BOA Editions in spring of 2024.

Photo courtesy of Corey Lankford

The Doors of No Return Digital Platform
Mary-Alice Daniel

A concoction of three religions, four languages, and 33 addresses across three continents has made Mary-Alice Daniel the writer she is. Grappling with these complex origins shapes her worldview. She is Black, American, African–and her poetry draws upon her erratic experiences across Africa, America, and England. From this perspective, she seeks to launch a digital platform that is positioned around the “Doors of No Return,” the gateways from which her ancestors were stolen during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, positioned at the mouths of castles standing at various slave ports. Once the enslaved crossed this threshold, it was the last they saw of home. Reimagining these doors as points of reentry in addition to rupture, her platform will bind the literary descendants of the Diaspora—ADOS, immigrants, and exiles. Her digital platform will be a generative network that stretches far beyond a website to include an experience—an interactive expedition through diasporic narratives that provides a platform to revive endangered, traditional forms of storytelling sessions.

Mary-Alice Daniel was born near the border between Niger/Nigeria, then raised in England and Tennessee. Her writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, The Yale Review, Callaloo, and Best New PoetsMass for Shut-Ins, her first book of poetry, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was published in March 2023. Last November, Ecco/Harper Collins published her first  book of prose, a migratory memoir. A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing was People’s Book of the Week and one of Kirkus’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2022.  She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and a PhD from the University of  Southern California. She is currently working on her third and fourth books as a  postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University.

Photo courtesy of Mary-Alice Daniel.

The Green Way Reading Series
Taylor Johnson

The Green Way Reading Series will center emerging Black poets and artists in interdisciplinary, intergenerational and cross-regional dialogues around the future of poetry as it is being imagined today. Readings will present three poets, including those from the Washington, DC area as well as across the country. The series will take place between June and November 2023 on the first Sunday of each month and feature a workshop earlier in the day hosted by one of the invited poets. Each reading will close with an open reflection and question session where the poets and audience members can engage with each other. The goal of the series is to continue building the local community around poetry, and is inspired by the work of emerging writers, especially Black artists and those who create outside of academia (as they re-vision the world of literature and broaden the possibilities of language). Free and open to the public, all events will focus on Takoma Park and the DC region, supporting a desire to create more spaces to share and engage poetry in a setting that is thoughtful and accessible.

Taylor Johnson is from Washington, DC. He is the author of Inheritance (Alice James Books, 2020) and a winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His work appears in Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, The Baffler, Scalawag, and elsewhere. Johnson is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and a recipient of the Larry Neal Writers’ Award from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, as well as the Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging Writers from Lambda Literary. Taylor was the inaugural 2022 Poet-in-Residence at the Guggenheim Museum. He is the Poet Laureate of Takoma Park, Maryland.

Photo courtesy of S*an D. Henry-Smith

Post Pardon: The Opera
Arisa White

Post Pardon: The Opera is an Afro-speculative opera in development by librettist and poet Arisa White and composer Jessica Jones. Set between the material and spiritual worlds, where three females’ lives intersect because of a murder-suicide, the opera is a transgenerational apology. From the afterlife, a mother attempts to heal her relationship with two daughters, one living and one dead. Post Pardon: The Opera, with its concern for gendered violence, is a lyrical and mythical world splitting open with a Black woman’s song. Adapted from White’s eponymous poetry chapbook, published by Mouthfeel Press in 2011, Post Pardon was inspired by poet Reetika Vazirani—who killed her two-year-old son and then took her own life in the summer of 2003. White was struck by these events, having met Vazirani and Jehan Komunyakaa a few weeks prior to their deaths. As a device to non-judgmentally enter the interior landscape of a woman who contemplates murder-suicide, the  libretto employs Caribbean mythologies and West African cosmologies to explore the concept of  inherited sorrow.

Arisa White is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Colby College, the author of the collections Who’s Your Daddy, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, A Penny Saved, and Hurrah’s Nest. She is the co-editor of the anthology Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart and co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice Series for young readers. Her poetry is widely published and her collections have been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, Lambda Literary Award, and have won the Per Diem Poetry Prize, Maine Literary Award, Nautilus Book Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, and Golden Crown Literary Award. As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, White curates poetic collaborations that are rooted in Black queer women’s ways of knowing. She is a Cave Canem fellow and serves on the board of directors for Foglifter Press, as well as the Community Advisory Board for Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Currently, in collaboration with the composer Jessica Jones, White is developing Post Pardon: The Opera, which will premiere in 2025.

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Penna

With the 27th annual Retreat fast approaching, we would like to invite you to this year’s Faculty Readings in Greensburg and Pittsburgh! Faculty Readings are an opportunity for the general public to hear from brilliant, contemporary Black poets.

This year’s readings will take place on June 12th and June 15th. Please find the details for each event below.

Faculty Reading at University of Pittsburgh | Greensburg 

Join us for an intimate reception and reading with our Fellows at University of Pittsburgh | Greensburg showcasing Faculty members Janice N. HarringtonDuriel E. Harris, and Frank X Walker.

Monday, June 12, 2023
7:30PM — 9:30PM ET
University of Pittsburgh | Greensburg, Village Hall
150 Finoli Drive, Greensburg, Pennsylvania 15601

In person registration 
Livestream Registration 

Faculty Reading at City of Asylum | Pittsburgh

Join Cave Canem and City of Asylum | Pittsburgh as the two organizations come together for their annual collaboration. Hear from an extraordinary array of poets in one unforgettable evening! Featuring Cave Canem Fellow and Guest Poet Remica Bingham-Risher and Faculty Major Jackson and Tracie Morris.

Thursday, June 15, 2023
7:00PM — 9:00PM ET
City of Asylum | Pittsburgh
40 West North Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15212

In person registration
Livestream Registration 









Poet Nicole Sealey, former executive director of Cave Canem, began the Sealey Challenge as a way to seriously commit to reading poetry in spite of artistic, professional, and everyday personal demands. The rules are simple: read one book or chapbook of poetry for each of the 31 days in August. Because starting and finishing a book every day for a month can seem like a marathon, Sealey encourages readers to go back and give books thorough reads after the month is over. For this year’s challenge, Cave Canem asked five Black queer poets with 2020 debut books to offer suggestions for readers who are looking for new poets to discover during the Sealey Challenge. These recommendations are, of course, in addition to their own books, which we encourage you to read or preorder.

Jubi Arriola-Headley
original kink (Sibling Rivalry Press, October 2020)

  • George Abraham, Birthright
  • Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Travesty Generator
  • Malika Booker, Pepper Seed
  • Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and
  • Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS
  • Jean Toomer, Cane

It’s been a little more than 24 hours since I learned that our lion, John Lewis, is no longer with us. I think that’s why the word trouble, from that essential John Lewis quote, is consuming my thoughts. I’m thinking about trouble particularly as it applies to poetry. How poets can trouble conventional poetic forms and/or construct entirely new ones. How poets can atomize language and reconstitute it in the most exquisitely troubling of ways. I think perhaps yesterday I might’ve had a different set of recommendations – but today is today.  I can’t promise you’ll finish any of these works in a day – only that you’ll be troubled by them, however much or little of them you read.

Tommye Blount
Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, March 2020)

  • Nandi Comer, Tapping Out
  • Aricka Foreman, Salt Body Shimmer
  • Marlin M. Jenkins, Capable Monsters
  • Tariq Luthun, How the Water Holds Me
  • Matthew Olzmann, Contradictions in the Design
  • Wendy S. Walters, Troy, Michigan

Marlin M. Jenkins gets at what I see is at the core of poetry coming out of Detroit, “someone handed you something / and told you it was valuable // what you do with it is your business.” Jenkins, Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, Tariq Luthun, Matthew Olzmann, and Wendy S. Walters make it their business to make something new with their collections. The reach of each poet is vast and varied—all finding lyric in the most unassuming places: Comer unties the luchadores masks to reveal a complicated Black identity; Foreman conjures Yoruba water deities to address communal trauma and grief; Jenkins combs the Pokémon universe in order to name America’s monsters; Walters turns stale land charters into 49 sonnets on white flight; Luthun builds his Palestine in a flattened Midwest; and Olzmann finds the deeply human, and humorous, in the bleakest terrains. Detroit is a hard city to woo, but once it leaves its impression, in the words of Foreman, “This city, always in my face.”

Chekwube Danladi
Semiotics (University of Georgia Press, September 2020)

  • Zaina Alsous, A Theory of Birds
  • Jasmine Gibson, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This
  • Thabile Makue, ‘mamaseko
  • dg nanouk okpik, Corpse Whale
  • Minnie Bruce Pratt, Crime Against Nature
  • Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, When the Wanderers Come Home

What binds these collections in my celebration of them starts with their lush and explosive lyric, each poet so attentive to song and sound. Each very pensive and self-assessing. Each communicating of their survival in states of contestation, in the wake of warfare, apartheid and occupation, ethnic cleansing, and ongoing psychic and social assaults. These are poets who do magic with their fury, who don’t sublimate shit. Their poems leave me with weird and powerful feelings.

Romeo Oriogun
Sacrament of Bodies (University of Nebraska Press, March 2020)

  • Chris Abani, Sanctificum
  • ‘Gbenga Adeoba, Exodus
  • Angel Garcia, Teeth Never Sleep
  • Tsitsi Jaji, Mother Tongues
  • Vladimir Lucien, Sounding Ground
  • Mahtem Shiferraw, Your Body Is War

I encountered my first poem in a crowded secondary school class in Benin City, my Literature in English teacher introduced us to Call Of The River Nun by Gabriel Okara, and that moment began my love for reading poetry. I believe in a poem’s ability to lead a reader through grace as I have been led through grace. The first time I read Chris Abani’s Santicificum, I realized that a poem can lead one to grace. When I read a poem, I wonder to whom it calls other than the obvious, who it speaks to other than those who see themselves in the poem.

Reading for me is a delight, it is a journey, one that I begin without knowing where it will end. I am always looking for wonder amidst despair. I am always searching for joy in a world that offers sadness at the doorpost of each morning. Perhaps poetry is a way to learn gratitude at the end of a journey, perhaps it is a way to understand that at the end of a journey there is wonder. And more than wonder, perhaps I am always searching for a poem to lead me home.

travis tate
Maiden (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, June 2020)

  • Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
  • Jameson Fitzpatrick, Pricks in The Tapestry
  • Audre Lorde, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
  • Carl Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field
  • Xandria Phillips, Hull
  • Richard Siken, Crush

I’m finding it difficult to focus on my writing at the moment. So I’m going back to reading. I find myself coming to others’ work to cull my inner restlessness, to smooth my furrowed brow, to tap the well of feeling. And ultimately, to help find my way back to the page. The poets in these books are leaping into pools of desire and showing, in different ways, how it manifests. And in these days, I’m thinking a lot about the desire of the body and the despair of longing.


Jubi Arriola-Headley (he/him) is a black queer poet, storyteller, and first-generation United Statesian whose work explores themes of manhood, vulnerability, rage, tenderness, and joy. He’s a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and holds an MFA from the University of Miami. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Ambit, Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. Jubi lives with his husband in South Florida and Guatemala.

A Cave Canem alum, Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, 2020) and What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016). A graduate from Warren Wilson College, he has been the recipient of a fellowship from Kresge Arts in Detroit and the John Atherton scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work has been featured in Magma, New England Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Ecotone, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye now lives in Novi, Michigan.

Chekwube Danladi is the author of Semiotics (University of Georgia Press, 2020), selected by Evie Shockley as the winner of the 2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She lives in Chicago.

Romeo Oriogun was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the author of Sacrament of Bodies (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). His poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and others. He currently is an MFA candidate for poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received the John Logan Prize for Poetry.

travis tate (they/them) is a queer playwright, poet, and performer from Austin, Texas. Their poems have been published in UnderblongBorderlands: Texas Poetry ReviewMr. Ma’amMiniarets, among other publications. Their first collection of poetry, Maiden, was published in June 2020 by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. They are currently a fellow in the Liberation Theatre Company’s Playwriting Residency and Theatre East’s Writers Group in New York City. They earned their MFA in playwriting and poetry from Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Find out more information at

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.

Cave Canem’s Poets Tour provides opportunities for Cave Canem fellows to share their work with diverse audiences and help sustain the nation’s premier home for Black poetry. Through the program, Cave Canem manages booking details for a sponsor organization seeking to engage participating fellows. Poets Tour fellows participate in a broad range of events, including lectures, panels, classroom visits, workshops, and more. Participating fellow Kim Marshall, who presented a reading and workshop with students at Episcopal High School last year, recalls, “I greatly appreciate being given this chance to offer students and faculty a different perspective and approach to writing, language and inclusivity.”

Each week, one of our more than 80 participating poets is featured as “Poet of the Week” on Cave Canem’s DOGBYTES blog. Interested sponsor organizations may visit the Poets Tour page for more details. Cave Canem fellows can join Poets Tour by submitting the Poets Tour Profile form to Natalie Desrosiers at [email protected].


Photo Credit: NYC Department of Environmental Protection
Photo Caption: Poets Tour fellow Samantha Thornhill presents a reading and take at the 32nd Annual Art & Poetry Celebration

This year, Cave Canem will open its fifth annual Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Established in 2015 by Cave Canem fellow and former Executive Director Nicole Sealey, in collaboration with P. Scott Cunningham, founder and director of O, Miami, the prize was launched in honor of Cave Canem’s 20th anniversary. Dedicated to the discovery of exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets, prize-winners receive $500, publication by Jai-Alai Books, 10 complimentary copies, a week-long residency at The Writers Room at The Betsy-South Beach and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival. Previous recipients include Cave Canem fellows Rio Cortez and Nick Makoha, as well as Layla Benitez-James.  

Last year, Mia S. Willis was selected as the 2018 awardee by prize judge Dawn Lundy Martin, for their manuscript, monster house. (Jai-Alai Books, 2019). Mia is a Black performance poet from Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2019, Mia has been named a Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, the first two-time Capturing Fire Slam Champion, the Young Artist Fellow at ChaShaMa’s ChaNorth residency and a collaborator in Forward Together’s Transgender Day of Resilience Art Project. They are a recipient of the 2018 Foothill Editors’ Prize for their poem “hecatomb,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and included in Best New Poets 2018 (Uni. of Virginia Press, 2019). In 2018, they ranked fourth out of 96 femme poets at the Women of the World Poetry Slam.

Cave Canem is now accepting submissions to the 2019 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize! Black poets of African descent at any stage in their career are welcome to submit. This year’s prize judge is Danez Smith. Manuscripts are accepted online via Submittable, now through September 30, 2019. Visit the prize page for guidelines.

Broken Ghazal in the Voice of My Brother

Irrefutable fact / my brother is black jewish
Kink hair & a wide nose / that’s gotta be black, jewish

He said look in the mirror / naked / if it ain’t black—jewish
If we don’t do it to ourselves / first / then they do it to us

Said he loves countin’ stacks / is that black? / jewish?
Said we loves eating chicken cause we black-jewish!

Said, you gotta keep it real / listen to black music
If you wanna keep your teeth / you ain’t allowed to act jewish

And that’s jewish / Night of the broken glass jewish
They’ll beat your face in with a bat / until its black.

They raped your great grandma, and that’s a fact, jewish
Say a prayer for the secrets your family keeps, Kaddish

See Aaron, you run / but I learned to attack: jewish
In order to survive, you gotta be black, stupid

Let ‘em tattoo my arm, that’s how I act Jewish
That’s how I be black / but that’s not what you did

Got yourself a “good job,” where nobody’s black / jewish
Cut the slang off your tongue / it’s too black; jewish

And, you never came home / Aaron / where it’s black-jewish
And not coming home / is black

Aaron Samuels’ Poets Tour Profile

Why Is We Americans

We is gator teeth hanging from the rear-
view mirror as sickle cells suckle at Big
Momma’s teats. We is dragonfly
choppers hovering above Walden Pond.
We is spinal cords shedding like the skin
of a cottonmouth. We is Psalm 23 and
the Pastor’s chattering chicklets. We is
a good problem to have. We is throats
constricting and the grape juice
of Jesus. We is Roach and Mingus in
Birdland. We is body electric, eyes
watering with moonshine, glossy lips
sticky with lard. We is half brothers in
headlock, arm-wrestling in the dirt.
We is Vaseline rubbed into knocked
knees and cracked elbows. We is ham
hocks making love to kidney beans. We
is Orpheus, lute in hand, asking do we
have a problem
? We is the backstory
of myth. We is sitting horse and crazy
bull. We is brown paper bags and
gurgled belches. We is hooded ghosts
and holy shadows roaming Mississippi
goddamned. We is downbeats and
syncopation’s cousin. We is mouths
washed out with the blood of the lamb.
We is witch-hazel-coated backs sucking
on peppermint wrappers. We is the
spiked antennas of a triangle face
praying mantis. We is barefoot
tongue-tied hogs with slit throats and
twitching bellies. We is sun tea and
brewed bitches. We is the crying
pussies that stand down when told to
man up. We is Radio Raheem and Zoot
Suit Malcolm. We is spit-slick low cuts
and fades. We is scrappy black-masked
coons and turkey-necked bullfrogs. We
is the pits of arms at stake, the clouds
frothing at the mouth. We is swimmers
naked, private parts allegedly fondled
by Whitman beneath the water. We is
late lurkers and castrated tree limbs
on the Sunday before last. We is red-
veined pupils and piss-stained knickers,
slack-jawed and slumped in the
bathroom doorway. We is whiplash
and backhanded ways of settling grief.
We is clubbin’ woolly mammoths
upside the head, jammin’ fingers in
Darwin’s white beard. We is comin’
round yonder, pigeon-toed and
bowlegged, laughin’ our heads off.
We is lassoed cowboys swingin’ in
the sweet summer breeze.

Allison C. Rollins’ Poets Tour Profile

Cow Girl

the family pictures on the wall did not resemble the little polaroid girl she was & she was not the kind of woman who froze frame or posed for any such thing & the photographer wasn’t kind to her cheekbones (anyway) making them look more chipmunk & less model & this was most certainly not acceptable for her mother who was made of ivory tower & matte & the polaroid girl had turned into a woman who liked (cheese) all different kinds & her mother said she smiled like a cow & this was frustrating because who in the hell has ever seen a cow smile & why would a mother call her daughter a heifer & that’s when she decided she would be a lady who sucked in grass shots because no one wants to be a spoiled heifer/no one wants to be a fat ass cow plopped down in the middle of a suburban lawn.

Anastacia Renee Tolbert’s Poets Tour Profile

Graham, Natalie c- Cynthia A. BrianoCave Canem is pleased to announce that Kwame Dawes has selected Natalie J. Graham’s manuscript, Begin with a Failed Body, for the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Natalie will receive $1,000, publication by The University of Georgia Press in fall 2017, complimentary copies of the book, and a feature reading in New York City.

A native of Gainesville, Florida, Natalie earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Florida and completed her Ph.D. in American Studies at Michigan State University as a University Distinguished Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Callaloo, New England Review, Valley Voices: A Literary Review and Southern Humanities Review; and her articles are forthcoming in The Journal of Popular Culture and Transition. She is a Cave Canem fellow and assistant professor of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

Honorable Mentions:

Comer, Nandi - 2016Nandi Comer for Tapping Out. Nandi Comer has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Cave Canem, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Arts. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in To Light a Fire: 20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (Wayne State University Press, 2014), Detroit Anthology (Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014), Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Pluck!, Prairie Schooner and Southern Indiana Review. In 2016, she was awarded the fourth Write A House Permanent Residency in Detroit.


Richardson, HeidiHeidi Richardson for In Praise of the Black Narcissus.  Originally from San Francisco, Heidi Richardson is a recent graduate of California State University, San Bernardino, where she earned her BA in Creative Writing. Her poetry has appeared in Ghost Town Literary Magazine and The Pacific Review. In 2014, she received a Pushcart Prize nomination for her civil-rights era poem “The Waiting Room.” She has recipient of the Edgar Valdez Writing Prize for both poetry and fiction.

Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize

Swearingen-Steadwell, LauraCave Canem and Northwestern University Press congratulate Laura Swearingen-Steadwell on receiving the 2016 prize for her second book of poems, All Blue So Late: A Collection of Poems, selected by Parneshia Jones and Jacqueline Jones LaMon. Laura will receive $1,000, publication by Northwestern University Press in 2017, and 15 copies of the book.

Laura Swearingen-Steadwell is a writer, editor and performer living in Bushwick, NY. She is a graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and the author of How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps, a book of poems.

Honorable Mention:

Flood, Reginald - 2016Reginald Flood for I Hear Em Say War Is Still Going On In the World. A native of south central Los Angeles, Reginald Flood lives with his family in a small town in southeastern Connecticut. His first collection of poetry, Coffle, was published by Willow Books in 2012.  He is an associate professor of English and Coordinator of African American Studies at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he teaches African American literature and creative writing. Reginald was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry and a National Endowment of the Humanities Summer Fellowship to attend “Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry at the University of Kansas.

The Board of Directors of Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., North America’s premier home for Black poetry, is pleased to announce that Ann Marie Lonsdale has been named the organization’s fourth Executive Director. Lonsdale replaces Sandra Bowie, who served as Interim Executive Director following the departure of Nicole Sealey in June 2019.

The Board states: “As Cave Canem approaches its 25th year, we are excited to work with Ann Marie to build on the organization’s foundation and advance our mission to cultivate the artistic and professional growth of Black poets. Her experience in arts administration, and commitment to serving individual artists, will be vital as we navigate the present and prepare for our future.”

Lonsdale will expand the organization with a vision towards the organization’s 25th anniversary in 2021 and building partnerships to further cultivate the development of Black poets.

“I am honored to lead Cave Canem through this exciting period of growth and transformation, culminating in the 25th anniversary in 2021,” says Lonsdale. “I am thrilled to have this opportunity to learn and grow with this seminal organization, and to share resources with and increase support for Black poets. It is an honor to serve this community and I look forward to our work together.”

Lonsdale is an arts worker with a background as a producer and administrator working with innovative and experimental live performance. For the past several years she has served as an administrator with a variety of organizations, including as Program Manager for the Creative Capital Professional Development Program, as General Manager at the Center for Performance Research, and as Director of Programs and Deputy Director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and holds a master’s degree in Arts Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem is a home for the many voices of African American poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of Black poets. Called “the major watering hole and air pocket for Black poetry” by 2011 National Book Award winner and faculty member Nikky Finney, the organization invites Black poets to become fellows by applying to its annual week-long poetry retreat. Since its inception, the organization has instated over 300 fellows and has named over 30 highly regarded poets as faculty. Cave Canem’s public programs include community-based writing workshops, Legacy Conversations with distinguished Black poets and scholars, cross-cultural Poets on Craft talks with writers in mid-career, a popular lecture series, and a New Works reading series. Its three book prizes, delivered in collaboration with five prestigious presses, have launched the careers of several poets, including former U.S. Poet Laureates Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith. Other preeminent poets as Chris Abani, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Harryette Mullen and Claudia Rankine number among the organization’s faculty and judges.

Check out our new partnership with La Maison Baldwin! We’ve joined forces to create the Cave Canem/Maison Baldwin Fellowship— an opportunity for an LGBTQ+ Cave Canem fellow.

Our inaugural winner is Ashunda Norris, who will be joining our June 2022 cohort for a monthlong residency in James Baldwin’s adopted French hometown. Born and raised in rural Georgia, Ashunda is a Black feminist multidisciplinary artist with creative work that encompasses film, poetry, archiving, and critical scholarship. Her art centers the complexities of Black {southern} womxnhood/girlhood, magical spiritual traditions of Southern Black folk, and Black fugitivity. A California Arts Council Individual Artist Fellow, Ashunda’s honors include fellowships from Cave Canem, Haile Germia’s Liberated Territory, EcoTheo’s Starshine & Clay and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Her writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Obsidian, Taint Taint Taint, Root Work Journal, Fence, EcoTheo Review, PANK, Trampoline and elsewhere. A country blk girl at heart, Ashunda loves hot water cornbread, stargazing, obscure cinema, and the ocean.

“Bless my heart, I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was queer back when I first picked up Giovanni’s Room while in grad school at Howard. So picture me reading this book in the heart of one of the gayest, Blackest cities in America and nearly losing my shit at the words flowing on the page. I didn’t know it yet, but I needed those words, to see a reflection I didn’t know was possible. And that’s what Baldwin gave me: possibilities, new ways of seeing, a belief that to imagine is to manifest, to live is to be a whole version of one’s truest self.” — Ashunda Norris, 2022 Cave Canem Maison Baldwin Fellow.

Cave Canem is pleased to announce our fall 2020 season! We are delighted to kick off the fall with Douglas Kearney, who will present “I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-Destruction, and the Poetry Reading” as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry. In the coming months, Cave Cavem will celebrate several new books, including Semiotics from Chekwube Danladi, winner of the 2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

In addition to our New Works and Poets on Craft series, this year we are excited to launch two new programs: First Books and Writers Worktable. First Books invites Black poets with debut books to be in conversation with a writer of color who has inspired their writing. This program offers an in-depth look at the creation of a current debut, and the creative growth the accompanying poet has experienced since their first publication. Writers Worktable showcases individuals who are involved in poetry, but not necessarily poets. This series focuses on “the business of poetry,” giving Black poets skills and insight beyond craft that will help to develop and advance their work.

We are grateful to continue our local partnerships with the New York University Creative Writing Program and the Creative Writing Program at the New School in New York City, as well as welcome new collaborations with Bowery Poetry, Kundiman, Milkweed Editions, and the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry.

Cave Canem looks forward to learning and celebrating with you this fall! As all programs and events will be virtual, reservation details will be made available in the weeks before each scheduled presentation. Please sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to remain updated on events and other exciting news.


Friday, September 25, 6:30 p.m. EST
Douglas Kearney
“I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-Destruction, and the Poetry Reading”
In partnership with the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry
Douglas Kearney‘s lecture gets into the tension between pain and its performance, comedians’ ideas of “killing” and “dying,” along with tips on how to sprint into a stone wall without getting hurt much. RSVP here.

Wednesday, September 30, 6 p.m. EST
A Reading and Conversation with Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil
In partnership with Kundiman and Milkweed Editions
A celebration of the publication of Ross Gay’s Be Holding: A Poem and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, moderated by Cathy Linh Che of Kundiman and Malcolm Tariq of Cave Canem. RSVP here.

Friday, October 2, 8 p.m. EST
2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize Reading
In partnership with NYU Creative Writing Program
Chekwube Danladi, winner of the 2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, reads from Semiotics alongside runner-up Nicholas Goodly and contest judge Evie Shockley.

Monday, October 19, 7 p.m. EST
First Books: Destiny O. Birdsong and Tarfia Faizullah
In partnership with Bowery Poetry
Destiny O. Birdsong discusses her recent debut, Negotiations, with Tarfia Faizullah, who reflects on her own first book, Seam.

Saturday, October 25, 3 p.m. EST
Black Futures, Black Pasts
Yona Harvey (You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love) and Cherene Sherrard (Grimoire) will read from recent books, followed by a conversation with Kush Thompson on writing Black futures and working with primary source materials.

Wednesday, October 28, 6 p.m. EST
Poets on Craft: Writing “The Life of…”
In partnership with The New School Creative Writing Program
Rita Dove (Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play) and Janice N. Harrington (Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin) give insight into writing poetry that envisions the lives of prominent Black artists with Natasha Oladokun.

Saturday, November 7, 12pm EST
First Books: Jessica Lanay and Bhanu Kapil
In partnership with Bowery Poetry
Jessica Lanay discusses her recent debut, am-phib-ian, with Bhanu Kapil, who reflects on her own first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.

Thursday, November 12, 7:30 p.m. EST
New Works: Cave Canem Fellows
Cave Canem fellows Aricka Foreman (Salt Body Shimmer), Dave Harris (Patricide), and Valencia Robin (Ridiculous Light) read from recent collections.

Saturday, November 14, 3-5 p.m. EST
“When Poetry Meets Memoir”: A Masterclass with Anastacia-Renee
In this masterclass, Anastacia-Renee encourages writers to take memoires and infuse two or more poetic devices to create one new piece of multi-genre, hybrid work. Participants discover new ways to achieve vivid “storytelling,” personal archiving, and point of view.

Tuesday, November 24, 7:30 p.m. EST
Writers Worktable: Criticism in Focus
Jerome Ellison Murphy (“Conspicuous Erudition: The New Black Poetry”) and Anthony Reed (Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing) discuss the role of criticism, contextualizing poetry, and the state and future of Black poetry.

Thursday, December 10, 7:30 p.m. EST
New Works: Blacqueer Debuts
Blacqueer poets Jubi Arriola-Headley (original kink), Taylor Johnson (Inheritance), and Romeo Oriogun (Sacrament of Bodies) read from recent collections.

Graphic with the words "Fall 2021" in the middle. Behind it is a black and white collage of our Fall 2021 featured writers.

We are delighted to share our virtual Fall 2021 public programs! In addition to our amazing reading series and craft talks, this season features two new partnerships and special 25th anniversary events.

The season will open on September 30th with a New Works reading featuring Aurielle Marie’s Gumbo Ya Ya, winner of the 2020 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Now in its second year, First Books features debut poetry authors in dialogue with their literary influences. Later this fall we will spotlight Quintin Collins and Shayla Lawz in celebration of their recent collections.

Earlier this year, Cave Canem partnered with EcoTheo Collective for the inaugural Starshine and Clay Fellowship. Two of those fellows, Oak Morse and Ashunda Norris, received a featured reading at Wonder in Wyoming in July. This October, Starshine and Clay fellows Michael Frazier and Asmaa Jama will be featured in EcoTheo Collective’s celebrated Logos reading series. Later, we will partner with  Royall House and Slave Quarters for Poets on Craft, where audiences can learn more about writing legacies of slavery with Kiki Petrosino (White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia), Lauren Russell (Descent), and Imani Davis

Lastly, Cave Canem continues to celebrate its 25th anniversary following the reunion in June with two engagements: an intergenerational conversation on literary citizenship featuring Cave Canem fellows and alumni; and a celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Brutal Imagination by Cave Canem’s co-founder Cornelius Eady.

Join us this fall as we celebrate, learn, and broaden our perspectives!


New Works: 2020 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
Thursday, September 30 | 7pm ET

Aurielle Marie reads from their Cave Canem Poetry Prize-winning debut, Gumbo Ya Ya, with contest judge Douglas Kearney. 

Presented in partnership with the New York University Creative Writing Program.


25th Anniversary
“with love like black, our black”: Black Poetry and Literary Citizenship

Wednesday, October 6 | 7pm ET

Four current and former Cave Canem fellows engage in conversation about the meaning of literary citizenship in their communities.


25th Anniversary
A Lucky Man Gets to Sing: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Brutal Imagination

Thursday, October 21 | 7pm ET

A celebratory night honoring the 20th Anniversary of the publication and Vineyard Theatre production of Brutal Imagination by poet and Cave Canem co-founder Cornelius Eady. The evening features Eady, cast members from the original production & Erica Hunt as moderator.


Starshine and Clay Fellowship Reading
Saturday, October 23 | 6pm ET

This featured reading spotlights inaugural Starshine and Clay fellows Michael Frazier and Asmaa Jama. 

Presented in partnership with EcoTheo Collective.


New Works: Our Intimate Making
Monday, October 25 | 6pm ET

Derrick Austin (Tenderness), Richard Hamilton (Rest of Us), and Carly Inghram (The Animal Indoors) share poems from recent books on the intimacy of everyday life and Black queer consciousness within one’s own social and personal development. 

Presented in partnership with The New School Creative Writing Program.


Poets on Craft: Interrogating Legacies of Slavery
Wednesday, November 3 | 7pm ET

Kiki Petrosino (White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia) and Lauren Russell (Descent) discuss their process of writing about family histories, legacies of slavery, and archival research methods. Imani Davis moderates. 

Presented in partnership with Royall House and Slave Quarters.


First Books: Shayla Lawz with Ada Limón
Monday, November 15 | 7pm ET

Shayla Lawz discusses her recent debut, speculation, n., with Ada Limón, who reflects on her first book This Big Fake World (2006).


An Embrace of the Erratic: Finding Poetic Evolution Beyond Refinement
Wednesday, November 10 | 6-8pm ET

While most proper instruction on poetry focuses on internalizing craft concepts and refining their execution via emulation and practice (as is true for many artistic disciplines), most working writers invested in relevancy realize that their challenge is not how to get “better” (execution-wise) as a poet—which can be a fairly linear path—but rather how to evolve, how to be a poet who continues to arrive with the times and aesthetics around them.


First Books: Quintin Collins with Tara Betts
Wednesday, December 1 | 7pm ET

Quentin Collins discusses his recent debut, The Dandelion Speaks of Survival, with Tara Betts. The two revisit Betts’s first book, Arc and Hue (2009).


an accumulation: A Workshop Reading
Tuesday, December 7 | 6:30pm ET

Participants from Asiya Wadud’s workshop, an accumulation: returning to the unwritten and the unsaid, share new work.


New Works: Mathing Memory
Wednesday, December 8 | 7pm ET

Diane Exavier (The Math of Saint Felix), Shanta Lee Gander (GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA), and Chet’la Sebree (Field Study) share poems from recent books on introspection, memory, and personal and familial histories.


Best Practices: A Workshop Reading
Thursday, December 9 | 6:30pm ET

Participants from Safia Jama’s Best Practices: A Poetry Workshop share new work.

We’re delighted to share our spring 2021 season! As we continue to add to the list of events included here, we look forward to kicking off the season with “Writers’ Worktable: From the Editor’s Desk” with Duriel E. Harris and Ashaki M. Jackson in a few weeks. Events will be updated on our website regularly, and you can also be reminded about upcoming programs by connecting with us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.



Writers’ Worktable: From the Editor’s Desk
Wednesday, February 17, 7pm ET
Poets/Editors Duriel E. Harris (Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora) and Ashaki M. Jackson (The Offing) discuss their editorial careers, the mission and work of the journals they manage, and working with and advocating for Black writers. REGISTER HERE.

Poets on Craft: Black Queer Memoirs
Thursday, March 4, 7pm
Pamela Sneed (Funeral Diva) and Arisa White (Who’s Your Daddy) discuss life writing and autobiography in recent books. Moderated by mace dent johnson. In partnership with New York University’s Creative Writing Program. REGISTER HERE.

Legacy Conversations: C. S. Giscombe and Nathaniel Mackey
Sunday, March 7, 7:30pm ET
Legacy Conversations features pre-eminent poets and scholars in dialogue about historical, aesthetic, political, and personal influences on craft and thought. In this edition, poets C. S. Giscombe, known for his meditations across geography and time, and Nathaniel Mackey, noted for his experiments with language and music, are led in conversation by Cave Canem fellow Jari Bradley. A featured event at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs 2021 Conference. A recording of the event will be made public following the presentation.

New Works: Southern Debuts
Tuesday, March 16, 7pm ET
Southern poets Steven Leyva (The Understudy’s Handbook), Rodney Terich Leonard (Sweetgum & Lightning), and Diamond Forde (Mother Body) discuss recent debut collections. REGISTER HERE.

First Books: Cheswayo Mphanza and Afaa Michael Weaver
Wednesday, March 24, 7pm ET
Cheswayo Mphanza discusses his recent debut, The Rinehart Frames, with Afaa Michael Weaver, who reflects on his own first book, Water Song (1985). In partnership with Bowery Poetry. REGISTER HERE.

New Dreams: Poems and Conversation
Friday, March 26, 8pm ET
Poets Kay Ulanday Barrett, Bernard Ferguson, torrin a. greathouse, and Khadijah Queen share new commissioned poems on the environment. This event is presented as part of the Poetry Coalition’s collaborative exploration of the theme “It is burning./ It is dreaming./ It is waking up.: Poetry & Environmental Justice.” Events in this series aim to demonstrate how poetry can positively provoke questions in communities about environmental justice and spark increased engagement with this urgent topic. In partnership with Lambda Literary. REGISTER HERE.

All that You Touch / You Change Poetry Festival
Wednesday, April 7, 7pm ET
In answer to these extraordinary and changing times, Poet Guides José Felipe Alvergue, Tamiko Beyer, Chen Chen, S. Brook Corfman, Carolyn Forché, and Aracelis Girmay will lead attendees in an offering (a meditation, a reading or a revelation) followed by a writing prompt. The audience will respond in real-time writing, creating and listening together as an act of communal power. Organized by Fordham University’s Poetic Justice Institute, in partnership with  Fordham College at Lincoln Center Dean’s Office, The Axe Houghton Foundation, Cave Canem, Kundiman, and The Ampersand and The Comma. REGISTER HERE.

Chapbook Launch: Wale Ayinla, with Mahogany L. Browne and Layla Benitez-James
Sunday, April 11, 2pm ET
Celebrate the launch of Wale Ayinla’s To Cast a Dream, winner of the 2020 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. The program features readings by Ayinla, prize judge Mahogany Browne, and 2017 Cave Canem Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize-winner Layla Benitez-James. A Q&A will follow. Sponsored in partnership with O, Miami Poetry Festival, Jai-Alai Books, and The Writer’s Room at The Betsy Hotel. REGISTER HERE.

New Works: Writing Grief
Wednesday, April 21, 7pm ET
Poets Saddiq M. Dzukogi (Your Crib, My Qibla), Natasha T. Miller (Butcher), Nikki Wallschlaeger (Waterbaby) read from recent collections that explore families dealing with grief. REGISTER HERE.

New Works: Black Womanhood and Girlhood Awakenings
Wednesday, April 28, 6pm ET
Poets Naomi Extra (Ratchet Supreme), Allison Joseph (Lexicon), and Simone Savannah (Uses of My Body) read from recent collections exploring common themes of racism and misogyny, sexuality, refusing expectation, intimacy, and celebrations of self. In partnership with The New School Creative Writing Program. REGISTER HERE.

First Books: Desiree C. Bailey and Aracelis Girmay
Wednesday, May 5, 7pm ET
Desiree C. Bailey discusses her recent debut, What Noise Against the Cane, with Aracelis Girmay, who reflects on her own first book, Teeth (2007). In partnership with Bowery Poetry. REGISTER HERE.

Writers’ Worktable: Poets on Research and Fellowships
Wednesday, May 12, 7pm ET
Poet/Scholars Joshua Bennett (Owed) and Bettina Judd (patient.) speak with Cave Canem’s Poetry Coalition Fellow Christopher J. Greggs about applying to fellowships and developing poetry projects that require in-depth research. Presented in partnership with the 2021 Massachusetts Poetry Festival. REGISTER HERE.

Writing Down the Noise: Spring Workshop Reading
Monday, May 17, 6pm ET
Participants in Cynthia Manick’s workshop, “Writing Down the Noise: “I” and Poetry,” read from new work developed during their explorations of the etymology of the self.

Portals into Language: Spring Workshop Reading
Thursday, May 20, 6pm ET
Participants in Ariel Francisco’s workshop, “Portals in Language,” showcase new and vibrant work inspired by their study of poems in translation.

Cave Canem, EcoTheo Review, and LOGOS Poetry Collective are pleased to announce the launch of the Starshine and Clay Fellowship, a new initiative providing financial and development support to emerging Black poets, and fundraising opportunities for Cave Canem.

Named in honor of Cave Canem elder Lucille Clifton (“won’t you celebrate with me”), the Starshine and Clay Fellowship was developed to speak to the mentorship Clifton offered Cave Canem fellows during her tenure as faculty at the Cave Canem Retreat. Not only will recipients receive a monetary reward, they will be provided with opportunities to work on their craft and network with other poets as a cohort.

Gregory Pardlo will serve as the inaugural judge of the Starshine and Clay Fellowship, which is now accepting applications from Black poets without a published book or a book under contract. Each recipient will receive $500, $500 for a LOGOS reading, a $500 travel stipend and free lodging to attend the upcoming Wonder in Wyoming conference, a one-on-one consultation with the final judge, and master classes and other opportunities provided by Cave Canem. The poets will also have their work published in the Summer 2021 issue of EcoTheo Review, with proceeds of the sale going to Cave Canem.

Malcolm Tariq, programs and communications manager at Cave Canem, says: “Cave Canem is grateful to EcoTheo and LOGOS for approaching us with the resources to support the work of Black poets, and for collaborating to develop a program that we hope will guide writers toward new possibilities.”

The fellowship is two-fold, with an additional objective of providing financial support and fundraising opportunities for Cave Canem, North America’s premier home for Black poetry for nearly 25 years.

Jason Myers, editor-in-chief of EcoTheo Review says, “Cave Canem has been a gift to the literary world in general and my formation as a reader and practitioner of poetry in particular. It’s deeply gratifying to be able to collaborate in a way that will extend the mission of Cave Canem while honoring a poet whose work has long been spiritual nectar. Clifton’s Good News About the Earth is a touchstone text for us at EcoTheo Review, and we are thrilled to have a small role in extending her legacy and eager to read the poems Greg selects.” 

Travis Helms, founder and curator of LOGOS Poetry Collective, says: “LOGOS is elated at the opportunity to build on its partnership with EcoTheo to establish this meaningful collaboration with Cave Canem. We feel there is no work more crucial, life-giving, and prophetic in the world of poetry and culture-making than that of Cave Canem; and we are deeply honored for this chance to help amplify the voices and careers of emerging Black poets.”

Applications for the Starshine and Clay Fellowship are being accepted via Submittable until January 31, 2021.

Cave Canem congratulates Malcolm Tariq, whose manuscript Heed the Hollow has been selected by prize judge Chris Abani as winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Abani notes that the collection “charts a neglected history, re-inscribing a loved and loving black body into a narrative of excavation. These poems are lyrically complex, charged, artfully and erotically made. It’s a rare and exciting debut.” Tariq will receive $1,000, publication by Graywolf Press in fall 2019, complimentary copies of the book and a feature reading in New York City.  Poet Hope Wabuke has been named honorable mention for her manuscript, The Body Family.

Launched in 1999 with Rita Dove’s selection of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize is a first-book award dedicated to the discovery of exceptional manuscripts by Black poets of African descent.

Malcolm Tariq is a Cave Canem Fellow from Savannah, Georgia and the author of Extended Play, winner of the 2017 Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Contest. He was a 2016-2017 playwriting apprentice at Horizon Theatre Company and is the recipient of a 2018 Ethel Woolson Lab from Working Title Playwrights. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in CURA, Vinyl, HEArt Online, Nepantla, Tinderbox, Blueshift Journal, and The Iowa Review. A graduate of Emory University, Malcolm has a PhD in English from the University of Michigan.

Cave Canem and Northwestern University Press congratulate Tsitsi Jaji on receiving the 2018 prize for her second book of poems, Mother Tongues, selected by Matthew Shenoda. The Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize is a second-book award for Black poets of African descent, offered every other year. The award celebrates and publishes works of lasting cultural value and literary excellence.

On Jaji’s Mother Tongues, Matthew Shenoda says that “With considered precision and a scholar’s lens, we [the reader] dive deep into the cultural productions of a global Africa rife with brilliance and possibility.” As an awardee, Jaji will receive $1,000, publication by Northwestern University Press in 2019, and 15 author copies.

Tsitsi Jaji’s debut collection, Beating the Graves, (African Poetry Book Fund/ U Nebraska Press, 2017), was a runner up for the 2015 Sillerman Prize. Her chapbook, Carnaval (Hudson Valley Writers Center, 2014), appeared in the first New Generation African Poets box set. Jaji is an associate professor of English and African & African American Studies at Duke University and has taught writing workshops in her home country, Zimbabwe. Her scholarly book, Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford Uni. Press, 2014), won the 2016 First Book Award from the African Literature Association. Jaji has held fellowships at the National Humanities Center, the Schomburg Center (NEH), Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell.Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Black Renaissance Noire, Jalada, New Coin, Harvard Review, Boston Review online, Poetry International, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series and elsewhere.

Dr. Irène P. Mathieu was selected as runner-up for her manuscript Grand Marronage, of which Shenoda says holds poems that “consistently dig beneath the surface of gender, culture, and memory.” Mathieu is the author of orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017) and a chapbook, the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press & studio, 2014).

Cave Canem congratulates Marissa Davis, whose manuscript, My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak, has been selected by prize judge Danez Smith as winner of the 2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith notes that “Marissa Davis is an unpredictable poet. Every time I return to her pages I was filled with a whole bunch of ‘hold up’ and ‘oh s**t!’ A voice so varied and skilled one has to step back to see that the work is not that of a great, anthologized generation but of one stellar talent singing all the choir parts perfectly, wildly. The embodied poetics found in My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak exist brightly in the canon of Black femme poets and points to unfathomably bright future for the canon. Davis is ‘prepared to swallow flame’ and anyone picking up this chapbook should be prepared to do the same.” Davis will receive $500, publication by Jai-Alai Books in spring 2020, ten complimentary copies of the book and a week-long residency at The Writers Room at The Betsy – South Beach. The following poets have been named honorable mention: rebecca brown for The Animal of Memory; Ajanae Dawkins for Heirs; Christell Victoria Roach for Rhapsody; Eric Shorter for Now Like Knew; and Jorrell Watkins for Nobody Knows My Soul.

Launched in 2015, the annual Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize is dedicated to the discovery of exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets, and is presented in collaboration with the O, Miami Poetry Festival and The Betsy – South Beach.

Marissa Davis is a poet and translator from Paducah, Kentucky, currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. Her original poems have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Rattle, The Iowa Review, Sundog Lit, Raconteur, and Peach Mag, among other journals; her translations are forthcoming in Ezra and Mid-American Review. She received a BA from Vanderbilt University and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at New York University as a Rona Jaffe fellow, where she also serves as an assistant translations editor for Washington Square ReviewMy Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak is her first chapbook.

Applications are now open for Cave Canem’s fall 2018 workshops! Since 1999, these free and low-cost community-based workshops for Black writers and writers of color have offered rigorous instruction and rare opportunities to work with accomplished poets.

This season’s two workshop offerings are Procedures, Discomforts and Retellings with LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, wherein participants will discuss what provokes/inspires them to write; and Time Keeping and Time Travel with Anastacia-Reneé, wherein participants will build poems that restructure and reimagine “form.”

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is an interdisciplinary artist and author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Her work has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the 56th Venice Biennale.  Anastacia-Reneé is the author of five books, most recently, Forget It (Black Radish Books, 2017). She is a recipient of the 2017 Artist of the Year Award, and writing fellowships from Cave Canem, Hedgebrook and VONA, among others.

Workshops are limited to an enrollment of 15 participants and are open to Black poets and poets of color in the NYC area. Applications are accepted through August 12, 2018 at 11:59 pm via Submittable. Visit the workshops page for details.

Cave Canem’s week-long retreat will be held at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Pennsylvania, June 10 – June 16, 2018. This year’s world-class faculty includes poets Chris Abani, Cornelius Eady, Evie Shockley, Amber Flora Thomas, with visiting poet Robin Coste Lewis.

The Cave Canem Retreat offers an unparalleled opportunity to study with established poets and join a community of peers. Some fellows hail from the spoken word tradition, others focus on the text. Some are formalists, others work at the cutting edge of experimentation. All are united by a common purpose to improve their craft and find productive space “where black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness (Harryette Mullen).”

Black poets of African descent, ages 21 and over, are eligible to apply. Once accepted, poets become “fellows.” Most are invited to attend two additional retreats within a five-year period. To learn more, visit our Retreat page. Applications are open via Submittable until December, 22, 2017 at 11:59 PM.

Cave Canem’s week-long retreat will be held at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Pennsylvania, June 9 – June 15, 2019. This year’s world-class faculty includes poets Cornelius Eady, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Dawn Lundy Martin and Willie Perdomo, with visiting poet Matthew Shenoda.

The Cave Canem Retreat offers an unparalleled opportunity to study with established poets and join a community of peers. Some fellows hail from the spoken word tradition, others focus on the text. Some are formalists, others work at the cutting edge of experimentation. All are united by a common purpose to improve their craft and find, in the words of Harryette Mullen, a productive space “where black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.”

Black poets of African descent, ages 21 and over, are eligible to apply. Once accepted, poets become “fellows.” Most are invited to attend two additional retreats within a five-year period. To learn more, visit our Retreat page. Applications are open via Submittable until December, 21, 2018 at 11:59 PM.

BROOKLYN, N.Y., November 10, 2022 — The application is now open for the Cave Canem Fellowship. Black poets, ages 21 and over, are eligible to apply. There is no submission fee for the Fellowship application, and the Cave Canem Retreat is free to all Fellows once accepted. The application deadline to submit is November 28, 2022.

Additionally, we are pleased to announce our 2023 Retreat Faculty: Janice N. Harrington; Duriel E. Harris; Major Jackson; Tracie Morris; and Frank X Walker.

Since 1996, Cave Canem has awarded fellowships to more than 500 Black poets. Cave Canem Fellows are among the most distinguished poets in the field, not only as recipients of the highest literary honors and critical acclaim, but also for their service in communities across the country.

Each year a cohort of 10–20 new Fellows is selected based solely on the quality of their poems. Cohorts encompass a range of different aesthetics and poetic practices (spoken word, formalism, multimedia performance, text-based composition, etc.) to ensure an equity of voices in our gathering—all are united by a common purpose to improve craft.

Recipients of a Cave Canem Fellowship are invited to attend our week-long Retreat, held annually at the University of Pittsburgh | Greensburg. Fellows receive an unparalleled opportunity to study with world-class faculty and join a community of peers at the Retreat.

The Cave Canem Fellowship includes:

  • Invitation to the Retreat
  • A subscription to MasterClass
  • Access to Fellows & Faculty fund
  • Access to scholarships for select writing residences 
  • Archival training
  • Inclusion in public programming (readings, panels, multigenre collaborations, etc.)
  • Subscription to Digest, a bimonthly Cave Canem resource containing community news, grants, fellowships, and residency opportunities


Please send all inquiries to [email protected]


The 2023 Cave Canem Retreat is supported, in part, by Heinz Endowments, Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the University of Pittsburgh.


Headshot of Ariana Benson. Her headshot is B&W. Ariana's gaze is directly toward thw camera. She is wearing chain linked earrings and a singular necklace.

BROOKLYN, New York., Sept. 7, 2022 — Willie Perdomo has selected Ariana Benson as the winner of the 2022 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her manuscript Black Pastoral. Benson will receive $1,000 and publication by University of Georgia Press in Fall 2023.

Of the winning manuscript, Perdomo writes: “If poetry is a form of prayer, then Black Pastoral is the church, pew, pastor, baptismal site, hymn, and a symphonic archive of our historical silences. This collection of poems is a transcendent appraisal of the blood that was extracted from Black bodies. In the tradition of Richard Mayhew, Ariana Benson challenges and forces us to de-romanticize the American landscape. At once tranquil and reflective, the poems in this collection—structurally innovative, formalistically demanding, lyrically fluid—provoke the reader toward a sublime reckoning.  The milieus in Benson’s poems: a Middle Passage broom jump, a stacking of “things” at Elmina’s Door of No Return, the breaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd meeting in a Rothko painting, are rendered beautifully through luscious aubades, ekphrastic poems that excavate ruins, anti-elegies, an exacting still-life, and alternative approaches to established forms.  You will never feel alone in Benson’s landscape of organic belly songs.  These poems (read pastorals, read lyrics) have a way of entering your bloodstream, re-birthing your soul, and altering your molecules until a tree is no longer a tree, but a retrospective exhibit of strange fruit bearing witness. Black Pastoral reads like a canvas where one must question goodness in the face of evil, use a swim lesson to transport through America’s violent chronology, and bask in the light of love’s ultimate mercy and grace.”

Ariana Benson was born in Norfolk, Virginia. A 2022 recipient of the Furious Flower Poetry Prize and the Porter House Review Poetry Prize, Benson also won the 2021 Graybeal Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, and an Academy of American Poets Prize from her alma mater, Spelman College. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in POETRY, Copper Nickel, Colorado Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She serves as a Helen Degen Cohen Summer Reading Fellow with Rhino Poetry and a Nonfiction Editor of Auburn Avenue Literary Journal. Benson has received fellowships and support from Poets & Writers, Breadloaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, Palm Beach Poetry Festival, The Seventh Wave, Indiana University Writers’ Conference, Oak Spring Garden Foundation, and others. Through her writing, she strives to fashion vignettes of Blackness that speak to its infinite depth and richness.

Alt Text: Head shot of Olatunde Osinaiken. His head shot is B&W. Olatunde's gaze is directed toward the camera. He has dark hair, a mustache, and a goatee. He is wearing glasses, a dark vest, and a light henley shirt.

This year’s runner-up is Olatunde Osinaike for his manuscript, Tender Headed. Originally from the West Side of Chicago, Osinaike is a Nigerian-American poet and software developer. His work was a finalist for the 2021 Alice James Award and the 2021 CAAPP Book Prize. He is the winner of the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, a Frontier Industry Prize, and an honorable mention for the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Award in Poetry. He lives in Atlanta.



Established in 1999 with Rita Dove’s selection of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize is a first-book award dedicated to launching the publishing career of a Black poet. The 2022 Cave Canem Poetry Prize will open for submissions in January 2023.


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.


Since its founding in 1938, the primary mission of the University of Georgia Press has been to support and enhance the University’s place as a major research institution by publishing outstanding works of scholarship and literature by scholars and writers throughout the world.

The University of Georgia Press is the oldest and largest book publisher in the state. They currently publish 60-70 new books a year and have a long history of publishing significant scholarship, creative and literary works, and books about the state and the region for general readers.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation. This program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Douglas Kearney has selected Aurielle Marie as the winner of the 2020 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her manuscript Gumbo Ya Ya. Kearney notes: “Some writers write poetry to flex what they can do. Aurielle Marie writes reckoning poems themselves come to work. Gumbo Ya Ya kicks with this lit lit magic, this insistent electricity, pages what sweat ink, bleed it, weep it, drip it. Aurielle Marie will cuss, but an Aurielle Marie poem can curse; that what she has seen, felt, or known, is trans-amplified in the room she gives the poem to do what it’s gonna do. Gumbo Ya Ya is Aurielle Marie’s Dirty-Dirty grimoire drawn from a vernacular trickbag at once up to something and down for whatever. These poems are spell weaving. They are bound to work you.” Aurielle will receive $1,000, publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press in fall 2021, complimentary copies of the book, and a feature reading.

This year’s runner up is Marvin Campbell for his manuscript Black Love Mixtape. Kearney selected Campbell’s manuscript for “how deftly he underscores both theory and praxis, creating a gorgeous study of performers from Aretha to Stormzy. His poems suggest new ways to hear them and think through/with what they’ve made.”

Aurielle Marie is a gender/queer and Black essayist, poet, and community organizer hailing from the Deep South. They’ve received invitations to fellowships from Lambda Literary, VONA Voices, the Watering Hole, and Tin House. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Triquarterly, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Black Warrior Review, Adroit Journal, Vinyl, and BOAAT. They’re the Lambda Literary 2019 Poetry Emerging Writer-in-Residence and the 2019 Ploughshares Emerging Writers Award winner for Poetry. Aurielle writes and speaks about all things Blackness, bodies, sex, and pop culture from a Black feminist lens.

Raised in central Pennsylvania, Marvin Campbell is a graduate of Vassar College and has a Ph.D. in African American literature from the University of Virginia. He has written on Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and is currently working on a piece on the poetic iterations of Emmett Till. Marvin is also deeply invested in poetry, developing The Black Love Mixtape with Callaloo and the Hurston/Wright Foundation. He has taught extensively.

Established in 1999 with Rita Dove’s selection of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize is a first-book award dedicated to launching the publishing career of a Black poet. The 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize will be open for submissions in January 2021.

As the Coronavirus pandemic pushed many organizations and industries to convert to online platforms rather quickly, the need to center disability and access in everyday practices took center stage. The concerns these conversations raised were not new. If anything, the pandemic made more apparent the difficulties people with disabilities encounter when trying to engage in physical and online spaces. Having to adjust to new virtual working and social environments during a public health crisis made people without disabilities understand how attention to access and inclusion benefit everyone.

Since September 2020, Cave Canem has been working with American Sign Language interpreter Cynthia Norman to address some of the needs of our audiences and to make our spaces more inclusive for presenters. Over the course of the partnership, Norman’s expertise and experience within the arts has been crucial to Cave Canem’s understanding of the value of interpretation, how subtitles cannot replace the level of communication interpreters provide, and the need to include artists with disabilities in programs in meaningful ways and prioritize their needs and experiences. Not to mention, audience members love the energy she brings and the passion she puts into her work. In this interview, Norman discusses her experiences as an interpreter and details the importance of having Black interpreters in and out of Black spaces.


How did you get interested in American Sign Language (ASL)? How long have you been an interpreter and what kind of services do you offer?

I originally started learning Sign Language before there was an American Sign Language (ASL).  I learned a very English structured Sign Language from a Deaf family who noticed that I had some issues with my hearing.  They inquired of my parents (through written notes) what was going on with me.  My parents explained that since birth I was able to hear well from my right ear, but I was not able to hear from my left ear. The Deaf family was so excited at the thought that I might one day become fully Deaf, (Most Deaf people are happy to be identified as Deaf, they take pride in their culture and language), that they asked my parents if they could teach me Sign Language.  Of course, my parents thought that would be a great thing for me to learn and they allowed me, (my parents were strict and did not let me go nowhere with nobody), to go spend time at this Deaf family’s home.  I picked up the language so fast that they quickly started asking me to accompany them to Dr visits, school appointments and other spaces to interpret for them. Back in the day you interpreted for free as a form of reciprocity for the Deaf even sharing their language and culture with you as a hearing person. While in my teens, the Deaf community took over their language and incorporated structures in the language that actually now met the needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community with their own linguistics and grammatical structures which emerged as American Sign Language.

I began truly interpreting at the age of 13, now here I am thirty-five years later still loving the culture, the language, the people, the community that took me in and made me family in their world. I offer my services in all facets of the profession. When you think of everything you do in your daily life, know that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people are doing the exact same things that you are doing. The only difference is they cannot hear and will utilize the services of an ASL interpreter to make sure that access is equitable for them to do all the same things that hearing people do. So when you think of doctor appointments, hospital stays, business meetings, performances, concerts, poetry spaces, protests, marches, an array of webinars, workshops and trainings, job interviews, interacting with customers on the job, giving birth, undergoing surgeries, getting hired, getting fired, taking classes, funerals, weddings, court, jail, immigration, federal government, working for President Obama, interpreting, you name it—Deaf people are there and utilizing the services of an ASL interpreter like me.


Cave Canem was referred to you by another interpreter, and you have also put us in touch with two other talented interpreters. Can you talk about your network of interpreters and the difference it makes when there is a Black interpreter working in a Black Space?

Understand that in most of my years as an interpreter, my sister (also a certified ASL interpreter) and I were the only Black interpreters I knew. Eventually my cousin also became a certified interpreter so then I personally knew three.  In fact, for about the first 29 years of my interpreting career I worked around no other Black interpreters. I mean I knew they existed, but I had never seen them.  It is not to say that we are not out here because we are, but not in large numbers. The certifying organization for interpreters, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, shared in their 2019 annual report that of its 14 thousand plus interpreter members in the United States, there were only a little under 600 Black interpreters. This speaks to representation. We say representation matters, and it matters for the Black Deaf community as well.

I have so many times had interpreting agencies (businesses, typically white-owned), never offer assignments to me, until Black History Month when all the Blackity Black workshops, plays, concerts, and events start popping up. Then they come out of the woodwork and hunt Black interpreters down to put us in spaces that are more culturally appropriate for us to interpret. Keep in mind they did not, and still don’t prefer to use us Black interpreters, because they felt entitled to place white interpreters in Black spaces without a second thought.  Or they feel our natural Black hair and Black skin are “unprofessional” to be front and center as an interpreter. As Black people have fought and advocated for safe spaces, and especially Black Deaf and Black interpreters, there is a growing understanding that white interpreters should not be inserting themselves into spaces based on their white privilege that really should be protected for Black people. For years, and even still today, Black children do not see themselves as or aspire to be ASL interpreters because they do not see themselves reflected in the career. The visible interpreters were, and most times still are ALWAYS white.  And there are even less Black male interpreters in the profession. The number of Black certified male interpreters in the whole United States is less than 70. Yes: 7.0. What percentage is that of the 14 thousand plus number of interpreters in the country? So, representation definitely matters.

Spaces like Cave Canem uplift the voices of Black Poets, who bring raw stories of the experience of being a Black human living, breathing, loving, playing, hurting, struggling, fighting, and feeling our way through life to life. Stories and truth that white interpreters could not possibly grasp the understanding or capture the emotion and pain of the poet because it is simply not their experience. And it does not matter if your kids are Black, or your partner is Black, or you grew up around Black people, or you have five Black Friends……YOU DO NOT COMPREHEND OUR STORY OR OUR LEGACY.  Can you imagine a white interpreter interpreting Fences with Denzel Washington?  Do you recall how many times they used the “N” word in that movie?!  Now imagine a white interpreter signing all that Black lingo and interpreting the “N” word throughout the whole performance. Imagine the impact of that on Black Deaf people who have been oppressed dually by hearing people and white people. There is vicarious trauma embedded in that experience.

I had an interpreting agency in Washington DC tell me they did not know where to find Black interpreters. Wait! What? You cannot find Black interpreters in “Chocolate City!!!” That is a whole lie! (Yes, I actually said that.) It was then that I began an inspired journey, following in the footsteps of a Black interpreter named Wanda Newman, of creating a directory of Black interpreters from around the United States. Wanda Newman created the very first in a series of Directories of Black ASL interpreters, affectionately known as The Blue Book, back in the late 1990’s. So, with her in mind and after talking with her about her journey, I sent calls through social media networks and through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, to get Black interpreters represented in what will now be an international directory of Black interpreters. Currently I am looking for sponsors and donors to support the creation of this history book in the making. This directory will show not only that Black interpreters exist in this profession, but will declare the relevance of the Black Deaf experience through Black interpreters and in some places showcase the need to view the Deaf as deserving of equal access and to see ASL interpreting as a viable career for the purpose of creating access to equal citizens whose only difference is they cannot hear. I have a lot of organizations and spaces that reach out to me for interpreting assignments, and I cannot be everywhere at the same time, but I can provide access to hundreds of Black interpreters from around the world who are outstanding, qualified, certified and “get” our people. So, if you are an organization that is interested and able to donate towards my work, I would love to connect with you and can make sure that your donation is noted as a donation to a 501c3 organization. If you are looking for Black interpreters in your spaces, please reach out to me and I can help you to provide access without you having to pay overhead costs to white owned interpreting agencies by connecting you directly with Black interpreters. If you would like to learn about making your spaces more accessible to Deaf people, I am happy to point you in the right direction. You can reach me at [email protected].


Are there any challenging parts to being an interpreter? What has been some of the most rewarding moments?

Wow! Great question. The challenge as an interpreter is to remember why we do this work.  That it is never about us as hearing interpreters. It is about Deaf humans having the right to be in any space they choose to be in and have not just access, but seamless access. See, you cannot just put someone who knows ASL in as an interpreter and think that you have done your duty. Take Cave Canem, for example. This is a rich and deeply moving Black poet space. Poetry has twists and turns in words, thought, meaning, symbolism, abstract and compelling speeds and forces and ranges. For example, when the poet says, “I lay on the ground so deeply consumed by earth that I no longer existed” (whew I just made that up!!), the poet is not talking about laying down on the ground, the poet is describing the act of seeing yourself be dead and buried. As an interpreter I cannot just start signing the words I hear. I must understand the meaning and I have a duty to convey that meaning so the Deaf audience can be moved and compelled to leave their physical way of thinking and be transformed to where the poet is now buried. So, it takes some love of poetry, some love and understanding of the play on words and the deeper meaning of EVERYTHING that a poet has at their fingertips to force you to feel what they are sharing.

Some of my most rewarding moments are when Deaf people receiving access from me are smiling, laughing, crying, angry, pissed the fuck off, depressed, hysterical, inquisitive, pensive and all the other feelings at the exact same moment as the hearing audience. Then I know equal access has been provided.


Many of our presenters love working with you, and our audiences enjoy seeing your work in the space. What has been your experience working with Cave Canem and its audience?

First, thank you to the presenters, the audience and especially Malcolm Tariq for making my journey with Cave Canem such a smooth and beautiful blessing. I am grateful to be able to share space with amazing poets and members of the Cave Canem team. I truly enjoy each and every event with Cave Canem.  I get to stretch my mind and my ways of interpreting in ways that I love and that make me a better interpreter. This is a very deep space and for that reason I am very selective when I select interpreters to replace me when I cannot be here. That is the honor that I give to Cave Canem space.

Also know that I do see your messages in the Zoom chat and appreciate seeing the love from the audience when I am working. It lets me know we are all connected, and I really do appreciate that.


Do you have a relationship with poetry?

Yes! I have always been the type of person who loved words. Having a dad who was always a public speaker, I’ve always loved listening to how words are arranged and the interplay they have with each other. I am that girl at the poetry slams with my eyes wide shut imaging and intensely feeling the words the poets spit in the mic. I snap so much my fingers are numb. I used to write a lot of poetry when I was young, journal in poetic ways, or read poetry. So, when Cave Canem asked me to work with your organization as an interpreter, everything in me said Yeeeeessssssssss!!!


What do you wish more people knew about ASL and accessibility?

That ASL accessibility is not just about having an interpreter. We are only one piece of a much larger puzzle. If you provide an ASL interpreter but you do not reach out and connect with the Deaf community, invite them to the table, what have you really accomplished? If you invite interpreters to do their work, but do not invite Deaf people to be at the table as the presenters, the poets, the dreamers, the planners, the facilitators, can you say you are truly being accessible? There are some talented, “drippin with everything” Deaf people in this world and without them at your tables, wow how much you miss. How much you miss. So while it is commendable that any space has ASL interpretation, connect with me about how to welcome a Deaf audience and let them know that not only are you here making your spaces accessible to them, but that their collective voice matters so much to you that you want them present in all facets. ASL interpreters also voice interpret when Deaf people have something to say, and they definitely have so many amazing and empowering things to say. See that side of my interpreting skill.


In your experience, how can arts organizations better incorporate ASL and other accessibility needs into our programs and services?

Incorporate more Deaf people. Plain and simple. In whatever spaces you put a hearing person, look to include Deaf and Deaf Blind stakeholders.

Also, Malcolm does an amazing job of connecting with me, getting me the names of the poets and often their list of poems that they will be reading. This is so crucial to the interpreting process in a poetry space. I am a highly skilled interpreter, but without seeing what the poets will say, it can be difficult to quickly pick up the meaning of a particular reading, especially when so much can be symbolic or interpretation. When Malcolm provides me the poets’ names, I can go find them on YouTube or Facebook and listen to their work and get in touch with their vibe, style, pace, mood. I can become the poem so to speak. I can course the rhythm with the reader and get inside the words and meaning and produce not just a series of signs, but I can become the story so that your Deaf audience is impacted in the same way as your hearing audience.

I would also say let people know that you are providing ASL interpretation. Put the interpreter logo on your promotional materials and reach out to Deaf spaces and share your flyers for upcoming interpreted events. Offer Deaf people the mic. Brilliance is everywhere, search for it and invite it to commune with you. Just like there is a vast array of brown colors in our people, Deaf people hear at varying levels so participation in arts programming can look different for everyone. Be open to holding that conversation about what access looks like to each Deaf person. It could look like an interpreter, closed captioning, CART services, voice interpreters. There are so many crayons in the crayon box, and the 120-count crayon box has colors you did not know even existed. Buy the bigger crayon box and see what beauty and art you can create.

Thank you again to Cave Canem for having me in your space and in your face. I truly love the work I do and working with Malcolm and the whole Cave Canem team is an experience that will live with me for a lifetime.


Cynthia Norman is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter with more than thirty-five years of experience in all facets of interpreting. She has worked in numerous spaces as a freelance interpreter and served for four years as a center director for a nationally known video relay interpreting call center where she gained valuable skills in leadership. Cynthia is a leader and works diligently to support the hearing and interpreter community that she is a part of through hosting interpreter events, creating an international Black interpreter directory, mentoring emerging ASL interpreters and creating safe spaces for interpreters to talk about the work of providing access to Deaf people. Cynthia is also the mother of three incredible children, a sister, an auntie, a cousin, and friend to many.

Cave Canem’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce its recently elected executive officers. Tyehimba Jess will serve as president, Novella Ford and Cornelius Eady as co-vice presidents, Allen Drexel as secretary, and Hao Wang as treasurer. The Board of Directors is delighted to welcome Jess, Ford, and Wang into their new roles, and is grateful to Eady and Drexel for continuing in the roles they’ve assumed since last year’s election. The organization extends tremendous thanks to former President Amanda Johnston for her service, and to Robert Polito for his extensive tenure as treasurer. As Cave Canem continues to expand its staff, programs, and services, so does its executive committee, which now has two vice presidents. The Board of Directors is eager to continue furthering Cave Canem’s mission, and looks forward to celebrating the organization’s 25th anniversary this summer. Please read more about our executive officers below.


Tyehimba Jess (President) is a Cave Canem alumni whose first poetry workshop experience was at Cave Canem’s second summer retreat in 1997. He also served as a Cave Canem retreat coordinator for three years (2002-2004). His first collection, Leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. His second, Olio, received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry, and an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Jess, a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2004–2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. He received 2016 Lannan Literary Award in Poetry. and a 2018 Guggenheim fellowship. Jess is a Distinguished Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

Novella Ford (Co-Vice President) is a cultural producer who loves poetry in all its forms. She connects diverse audiences to the archives and engages history through dialogue, performance, literature, and visual arts. She currently serves as the Associate Director of Public Programs and Exhibitions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research division of The New York Public Library. Ford was first exposed to poetry in her grandmother’s library and grew to love it even more when she studied Gwendolyn Brooks as a student at Howard University. Her copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets is always nearby. She has served on Cave Canem’s Board of Directors since 2019.

Poet/Playwright/Songwriter Cornelius Eady (Co-Vice President) was born in Rochester, New York in 1954. In 1996, he co-founded Cave Canem with poet Toi Derricotte. He is the author of several poetry collections, including Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, winner of the 1985 Lamont Prize; The Gathering of My Name, nominated for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; Brutal Imagination; and Hardheaded Weather. He wrote the libretto to Diedra Murray’s opera Running Man, which was short listed for the Pulitzer Prize in Theatre, and his verse play Brutal Imagination won the 2001 Oppenheimer Prize for the best first play from an American Playwright. His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing and Professor in English and Theater at The University of Missouri-Columbia. Eady is currently Professor of English at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton.

Allen A. Drexel (Secretary) is a partner at the New York City law firm Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, LLP, where his practice concentrates in family/matrimonial law. An avid lover of poetry and fiction, Drexel was introduced to Cave Canem by Cave Canem fellow Charif Shanahan. He joined the Board of Directors in 2018 and has served as secretary since 2019. Outside his law practice and board service, Drexel is a fan of theater and modern/experimental dance, and he is a photographer whose work focuses on street and urban landscape photography. Drexel previously served on the board of HMI, the oldest and largest provider of services to underserved LGBTQIA youth.

Hao Wang (Treasurer) is a machine learning product manager at Capital One, with previous experience in finance and tech startups. He grew up in Kentucky, where he was blessed in becoming a member (and student of) the Affrilachian Poets. He is a graduate of the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been on Cave Canem’s Board of Directors since 2019. Wang and his family live in Jersey City, New Jersey.

On the left, there is a black and white photo of author and new Cave Canem Board Member Terri Ellen Cross Davis smiling and looking directly into the camera. She has short dark hair, and is wearing large hoop earrings, a necklace chain, and a brightly colored scoop-neck top. To the right, there is a black and white photo of author and new Cave Canem Board Member Kwame Dawes smiling softly and looking off to the left. He is bald and wearing glasses. He has a gray and white beard, and is wearing a dark scarf and a black coat.

Cave Canem is pleased to announce Teri Ellen Cross Davis and Kwame Dawes as the newest additions to its Board of Directors. As we continue to grow our community and strengthen our commitment to Black poets, we are delighted welcome these two esteemed authors to our Board. 

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union (winner of The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize) and Haint (winner of the Ohioana Book Award for Poetry). She is the recipient of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Prize. She has received fellowships and scholarships to Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and more. Her work has appeared in print, online, and in many journals and anthologies including: Harvard Review, PANK, Poetry Ireland Review, and Kenyon Review. She is the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series Curator and Poetry Programs manager for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. and lives in Maryland with her husband, poet Hayes Davis and their children.

Of her appointment, Teri shared the following passage from “speaking of loss” by Lucille Clifton:

“I am left with plain hands and

nothing to give you but poems”

Kwame Dawes is the author of numerous books of poetry and other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His most recent collection UnHistory, was co-written with John Kinsella (Peepal Tree Press, UK). Dawes is a George W. Holmes University Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. He teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is the Series Editor of the African Poetry Book Series, Director of the African Poetry Book Fund, and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Kwame Dawes is the winner of the prestigious Windham/Campbell Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Dawes is a recipient of the Order of Distinction Commander class by the Government of Jamaica.

“It’s a tremendous honor and joy to serve on the Board of an organization that has impacted black poetry in the most positively transformative ways,” remarked Dawes of his appointment to the Board of Directors. “In so doing Cave Canem has reshaped the landscape of American poetry in necessary ways.  I look forward to being a part of this visionary organization as it continues to be relevant to the poetry world.”

In honor of the celebratory news, Cave Canem President and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Tyehimba Jess notes:

“As Cave Canem enters its third decade with new guiding principles and an ever-growing offering of programs to support an ever-growing community Black poets nationwide, it could not be more timely to welcome Teri Cross Ellen Davis and Kwame Dawes to the Board of Directors. Davis and Dawes have played active roles in Cave Canem and their service to the organization as Board members underscores Cave Canem’s value for being community-led. It’s an honor to move Cave Canem into its next chapter with the keen level of expertise, passion, and integrity of Davis and Dawes.”

Notes on a Myth of an Invasive Species

“The African bee has the reputation of being more aggressive, and more deadly, than any other bee in the world. But farmers there know that the honey the bees produce is worth a million stings.”- Gwen Thompkins, NPR, 2007

they made their way. traveling north. growing in frequency. expanding populations. a biological change. hybridized in attempt to create a better suited bee for colder climates. they spread to a new territory. encountered people who were not accustomed. more aggressive than European honeybees. negative impact on production. negative impact on industry. mixed mating will taint the pedigree. permanent impact. mistake. their defensive behavior is an evolutionary response to their many biological competitors. the venom is not more toxic. they are likely to pursue the source of disturbance more consistently. African virgin queens are more successful fighters. bee venom is a cocktail designed to inflict swarm attacked a couple in Texas on their ranch. one of the horses jumped into the pool. the stings. so many. the sky turned dark. five hens died. extermination efforts failed. you can’t escape the fatalities. they are a mixed breed. African and European. not here for honey. tainted. unprovoked. unwelcome. they’ve been in this country since the 17th century. long time. learning still to steer clear of killers.

Breauna L. Roach’s Poets Tour Profile

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon has selected Brionne Janae’s Blessed are the Peacemakers as the winner of the 2020 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. The biennial award is for a second book of poetry by a Black poet. Janae will receive $1,000, publication by Northwestern University Press in spring 2022, 15 copies of the book, and a feature reading in New York City.

Of Blessed are the Peacemakers, Van Clief-Stefanon says, “Drawing the monster of inheritance as it shapeshifts, these poems illustrate how our fathers’ sins can make fugitives of us. When an insistence on ‘holding up the blood-stained banner’ has led to autophobia, what then to make of our mother’s tear-stained face in the mirror, her ‘breathing like a gazelle run down?’ Saved in moments by something as simple as the sight of the lemons growing in grandmother’s yard, abandoned in others to ‘don’t touch me’ seeping through the wall, the speaker in this elegiac collection finds in the fact of flesh the hope of praise.”

Brionne Janae is a poet and educator living in Brooklyn. They are a recipient of the 2016 St. Botoloph Emerging Artist award, a Hedgebrook alum, and a proud Cave Canem fellow. Their poetry has been published in PloughsharesThe American Poetry ReviewThe Academy of American Poets Poem-a-DayThe Sun Magazine, jubilat, Plume, and Waxwing, among others. Brionne’s first collection of poetry, After Jubilee, was published by Boaat Press. Off the page, they go by Breezy.

The runner-up is Shayla Hawkins, for her manuscript Exquisite by September. Hawkins is a Detroit native, poet, and writer whose works have been in Calabash, tongues of the oceanThe Taj Mahal Review, and Poets & Writers, among other publications. Hawkins has been a featured reader at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Library of Congress. She is a winner of The Caribbean Writer’s Canute A. Brodhurst Prize in Short Fiction and an Archie D. & Bertha H. Walker Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her first book, Carambola (David Robert Books, 2012), was cited by National Book Award-winning author Charles Johnson as “Deliciously sensuous, smart…vivid, and luminous with the life of the spirit.…” She lives in Michigan.

The Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize was launched in 2009 with Reginald Gibbons, John Keene, and Parneshia Jones’s selection of Indigo Moor’s Through the Stonecutter’s Window. The competition will open for manuscripts again in 2022.

Theory of Motion (6), Nocturne

for them all

I’ve tried not to write about these ghosts.
As if this too does not turn a child

to narrative. As if this too does not
demand a kind of work. But boy

after boy after boy after boy after
girl after sweet shadow of a boy—

& have you ever known a body
to not be haunted? Ever known

a black body to not be riddled
with light


We buried my great-grandmother in 2008.
She was 95. She survived so much.

If I have to tell you what I mean, then she’s
not yours to carry. If I have to tell you, well,

here’s a door opening in the poem.
Here’s an exit. Walk through.


My great-grandmother was named Violet.
Violet. She had six sisters, a garden

of black girls. Imagine naming your girl-
child for a flower. Imagine doing this

over & over again. Imagine a flower, how easy
to ruin for want of a little color

to decorate the kitchen. Imagine tearing up
handfuls of blossoms. Imagine pressing them

into a girl’s dark shape, to say this is you.
This is what the world has made of you.

Now imagine she lived
& she lived.


Once, I was a girl
who took a black boy’s name

into her mouth. I don’t know a thing
about bullets, but I sure do know

about holes.

Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Poets Tour Profile



The last decade has given rise to many conversations about African American contributions to the national cuisine, so the opening of African American Garden: Remembrance & Resilience is timely; especially as we embed Juneteenth as a holiday for the entire country to celebrate.

When I was asked to curate the Poetry Walk, I immediately thought of my UpSouth grandmother, Willie Mae, and the garden of collard greens, tomatoes (and possibly even corn!) that she cultivated behind a typical row house, in the predominately-Black city in which I grew up. Then the images, from the family albums, of my great grandparents—all of whom were sharecroppers—came to mind. And beyond them, the generations of my enslaved ancestors whose toil seeded the great wealth from which we benefit today. That complicated history has long produced associations between African Americans and the fieldscapes, and kitchen scenes of our art, so this garden is well-placed in the larger exhibition, Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love.

What, however, does our poetry say about the Black presence in America’s gardens and, more widely, a post-Emancipation relationship to land beyond ownership? Anne Spencer (1882–1975), poet and doyenne of the Harlem Renaissance, was a meticulous gardener, and her poems often reflect having been composed within sight or among the flowers and herbs she grew. The excerpt from my own poem, “Pelham” braids a biography of my maternal great-grandmother and her foraging skills, with historical narratives of the enslaved; Lucille Clifton’s “cutting greens” is a philosophical spatial-warp from the microcosm of her kitchen to the macrocosm of the universe; while Thylias Moss’ “Sweet Enough Ocean, Cotton”, offers a deep meditation on a small field; LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, throws open the doors of the wide celebration that is the African diaspora, and Ross Gay allows a glimpse of the symbiosis that exists between a human and a tree; until Camonghne Felix returns us to the grandmother—and the perennial gift of her wisdom.

Perhaps, with her groundbreaking anthology Black Nature (a temporal sweep of Black poets examining individual environments and questioning shared geographies), Camille T. Dungy extends the perfect invitation:

Only now, in spring, can the place be named:
tulip poplar, daffodil, crab apple,
dogwood, budding pink-green, white-green, yellow
on my knowing. All winter I was lost.
…But now, in spring, the buds
flock our trees. Ten million exquisite buds,
tiny and loud, flaring their petalled wings,
bellowing from ashen branches vibrant
keys, the chords of spring’s triumph: fisted heart,
dogwood; grail, poplar; wine spray, crab apple.
The song is drink, is color. Come. Now. Taste.
–Camille T. Dungy


—Dante Micheaux
June 1, 2022
St. Ratford Cottage


Featured Cave Canem Poets on the Poetry Walk

Camonghne Felix, poet and essayist, is the author of Build Yourself a Boat (Haymarket Books, 2019), which was long-listed for the 2019 National Book Award in Poetry, shortlisted for the PEN/Open Book Awards, and shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Awards.

Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Academy of American Poets, Harvard Review, LitHub, The New Yorker, PEN America, Poetry Magazine, Freeman’s, and elsewhere. Felix’s next book, Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation, is forthcoming in February 2023 from One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


Dante Micheaux is the author of Amorous Shepherd (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010) and Circus (Indolent Books, 2018), which won the Four Quartets Prize from the Poetry Society of America and the T. S. Eliot Foundation.

His poems and translations have appeared in African American Review; The American Poetry Review; Callaloo; Literary Imagination; Poem-A-Day; Poetry; Poetry London; PN Review; and Tongue—among other journals and anthologies. Micheaux’s other honors include the 2020 Ambit Magazine Poetry Prize, and a fellowship from The New York Times Foundation. He is a recipient of the 2022 Amy Clampitt Residency.



A writer, vocalist, and sound artist, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Her interdisciplinary work has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Poesiefestival in Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art, the International Poetry Festival in Bucharest, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, Beijing, and Leeuwarden.

As a curator and director, she has staged events at BAM Café, The David Rubenstein Atrium, The Highline, Poets House, and El Museo del Barrio. LaTasha is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Barbara Deming Memorial Grant, the National Endowment for the Arts, LMCC Workspace AIR, Creative Capital, and the Whiting Foundation Literary Award. She lives in Harlem.



Lucille Clifton (1936–2010) was an award-winning poet, fiction writer, and author of children’s books. Her poetry collection, Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems 1988–2000 (BOA, 2000), won the National Book Award for Poetry.

In 1988 she became the only author to have two collections selected in the same year as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir (BOA, 1987) and Next: New Poems (BOA, 1987). In 1996, her collection The Terrible Stories (BOA, 1996) was a finalist for the National Book Award. Among her many other awards and accolades are the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Frost Medal, and an Emmy Award. In 2013, her posthumously published collection The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010 (BOA, 2012) was awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry.


Ross Gay is interested in joy.
Ross Gay wants to understand joy.
Ross Gay is curious about joy.
Ross Gay studies joy.
Something like that.




Thylias Moss is Professor Emerita in the departments of English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan. Her eight previous booksof poetry include Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; Slave Moth, named Best Poetry Book of 2004 by Black Issues Book Review; and Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code. Moss is a recipient of the fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations, among other honors. She lives in Michigan.

For Cave Canem Foundation and the two hundred attendees visiting Weeksville Heritage Center over this past Memorial Day weekend, Cave Canem 20/20: A Panoramic View of Black Poetry marked a deeply reflective and joyous occasion. An overall success, the two-and-a-half day poetry forum and fundraiser commemorating Cave Canem’s past, present and future raised nearly $13,000 in sponsorships and ticket sales.

The evening of Friday, May 26, opened with remarks from and a keynote by Honorary Directors Elizabeth Alexander and Terrance Hayes, respectively. Alexander shared new work and recited her inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day,” while Hayes offered a selection of poems entitled “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin.” The night concluded with a reception deejayed by Communications and Marketing intern, Della Green (aka DJ RIVERA). Read Kyle Lucia Wu’s write-up of Friday’s events on LitHub.

Saturday, May 27, began with a panel on publishing presented by Well Read Black Girl founder Glory Edim, which featured editors Tracy Sherrod, Rakia Clark and Rio Cortez. The conversation engaged readers, writers and publishers alike, as Edim aptly notes: “There is a hunger for books. We have to pull from what people are doing individually and translate it to publishing.” For panel highlights, read this Well Read Black Girl tweet thread.

Weeksville Heritage Center is Brooklyn’s largest African-American cultural institution and the site of one of America’s first free black communities.  On Saturday and Sunday afternoon, guests—many of whom were first-time visitors—were able to explore the historic grounds with Weeksville’s Tour Educators. One attendee noted that tours allowed them to see into the lesser-known histories of black Americans and “to visualize the community that had been so vibrant and thriving.”

Guests also had the option to attend a grant writing workshop led by poet and arts administrator DéLana R.A. Dameron, which focused on relaying tools to those who seek funding for their personal artistry. “Motionpoems,” a collection of short films based on work by Cave Canem poets, were running throughout the day on both Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, Walter Mosley addressed the crowd with a lecture entitled “On Being Black, Being a Writer, and Cave Canem,” which spoke to the organization’s twenty-year evolution and future growth. The entirety of his remarks can be found on LitHub.

Saturday closed with readings by Cave Canem Poetry Prize winners, Major Jackson, Donika Kelly, Rickey Laurentiis and Tracy K. Smith. Several of the poets, including the recently appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, shared new and unpublished works.

On the morning of Sunday, May 28, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and John Murillo read their poetry and engaged in a conversation on craft, moderated by #LiterarySwag pioneer Yahdon Israel. Van Clief-Stefanon presented her work accompanied by double bassist Desmond Bratton, and Murillo shared his epic poetic saga about “Stagolee.”

That afternoon, Black Poets Speak Out co-founders, Mahogany L. Browne and Amanda Johnston, and poet Kyle Dargan, participated in an afternoon reading and dialogue moderated by artist Kenyon Adams. A dynamic conversation with the audience followed, as presenters and attendees discussed methods of action in today’s political climate.

The weekend came to a close with Cave Canem co-founder Cornelius Eady offering closing remarks and reciting his poem “Gratitude,” which reads, in part: “I’m 36 years old, / a black, American poet. / Nearly all the things / that weren’t supposed to occur / Have happened, (anyway).”


Kenyon Adams, Elizabeth Alexander, Desmond Bratton, Mahogany L. Browne, Rakia Clark, Rio Cortez, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, DéLana R.A. Dameron, Kyle Dargan, Cornelius Eady, Glory Edim, Tia Powell Harris, Terrance Hayes, Yahdon Israel, Major Jackson, Amanda Johnson, Donika Kelly, Rickey Laurentiis, Walter Mosley, John Murillo, DJ RIVERA, Tracy Sherrod and Tracy K. Smith


New York City Department of Cultural Affairs  in partnership with The City council; Alice James Books; Association of Writers & Writing Programs; Bennington Writing Seminars; Center for African American Poetry & Poetics; Copper Canyon Press; Four Way Books; Graywolf Press; Grove Atlantic; HarperCollins; Jack Jones Literary Arts; Marie-Elizabeth Mali; NYU Creative Writing Program; Poetry Northwest; and Poets & Writers

Event Photographers

D’anna Brown and nívea castro

Volunteers & Interns

LeConte Dill; Della Rivera Green; Tara Jayakar; Renee Kydd; Charles Lynch; Nkosi Nkululeko; Gabriel Ramirez; Jayson P. Smith; and Yolanda Watson

Cave Canem Staff

Elizabeth Bryant; Sharlene Piverger; and Nicole Sealey

A graphic that reads "Cave Canem's Cultural Preservation Project."

BROOKLYN, New York (February 2, 2023)—

In celebration of Black History Month 2023, Cave Canem and the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) are pleased to announce the Cultural Preservation Project—an extension of the Cave Canem Oral History Project interview collection.

The project underscores the spirit of cultural collaboration and conversation at the core of CAAPP’s mission and Cave Canem’s aim to democratize the archive for the public. Jointly sponsored for two years, Yona Harvey will lead the project. This partnership is made possible thanks to the generosity of the Mellon Foundation.

Harvey and a team of Cultural Preservation Fellows will begin the project by conducting in-depth interviews with the living members of Cave Canem’s inaugural cohort. Plans to mark the project’s culmination and make the interviews available for study and general interest are underway for 2025.

Cultural Preservation Project Team

Yona Harvey is the author of the poetry collections, You Don’t Have To Go To Mars for Love (Four Way Books) and Hemming the Water (Four Way Books), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She co-wrote Marvel Comics’ World of Wakanda and Black Panther & the Crew. In collaboration with Creative Nonfiction magazine, Harvey has worked with teenagers writing about mental health issues. She earned her MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh.

Sheila Carter-Jones is the author of Three Birds Deep, winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Book Award, and Blackberry Cobbler Song. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s and doctorate degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Carter-Jones has taught in Pittsburgh Public Schools and in the education departments of Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Reginald Harris won the Cave Canem/Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for Autogeography. A Pushcart Prize Nominee; recipient of Individual Artist Awards for poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council; and a Lambda Literary Award and ForeWord Book of the Year finalist for 10 Tongues: Poems; his work has appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and online. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he now lives in Brooklyn. Harris is an experienced and practicing librarian.

Gary Jackson is the author of origin story (University of New Mexico) and Missing You, Metropolis (Graywolf), which received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He is co-editor of The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry (Blair). His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Callaloo, The Sun, Los Angeles Review of Books, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. He has been published in Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology; was featured in the New American Poetry Series by the Poetry Society of America; and is the recipient of a fellowship from Bread Loaf. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

Tracie Morris is a writer/editor of several books and is a poet, professor, performer, voice teacher, and theorist. She has presented her work extensively throughout the world. Morris holds an MFA in poetry from CUNY Hunter College, a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University, and studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Dr. Morris was designated an Atlantic Center for the Arts Master Artist and served as the Woodberry Poetry Room Creative Fellow at Harvard University. Tracie was the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Professor of Poetry at The Iowa Writers Workshop before joining the faculty as Professor.

Alison C. Rollins holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Howard University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She was named a National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellow. She is the recipient of the Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction. Her work, across genres, has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Iowa Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. A Callaloo fellow, she is a recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. Rollins has been awarded support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award and a Pushcart Prize. Her debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press), was a Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award nominee. Rollins has held faculty and librarian appointments at various institutions, including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Colorado College, and Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Since 2016, Cave Canem and the Brooklyn Museum have partnered to produce readings that bring together lovers of poetry and visual arts alike. Offered as part of the Museum’s First Saturdays, attendees enjoy lively, multi-media programs held in the Museum’s galleries. With feature readings from Cave Canem fellows and friends, the program attracts a large and diverse crowd. As one audience member expressed, “Listening to the seamless lines filled with rhythm, empathy and inquiry soothed my soul. I felt a sense of pride as a Brooklyn native at how the Brooklyn Museum audiences have grown.”

This year, in association with the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Cave Canem’s partnership with the Brooklyn Museum expanded to feature events each month from October 2018 to February 2019. Soul of a Nation, which showcases Black art produced in the politically turbulent time from 1963 to 1983, features a broad range of aesthetic and cultural traditions that simultaneously celebrate, memorialize and critique the era in which they were created.

Join us on October 6th, 2018 at 7 pm as the program’s expansion kicks off with poets María Fernanda, Roberto Carlos Garcia and Gabriel Ramirez. Stay up to date about our upcoming events with our online calendar and social media announcements!

Cave Canem 25th Anniversary March 23-25, 2022


Join us at the 2022 AWP Conference & Bookfair March 23-26, 2022! We are excited to bring our year-long 25th Anniversary Celebration to Philidelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you plan to be at AWP, stop by Booth #748 and say hello!

With the exception of our off-site event, attendees must be registered at AWP.

We look forward to seeing you at our AWP events, below:


Off the Chain – A Cave Canem Fellows Reading
Wednesday, Mar 23, 2022 at 7:00PM (EST)
$20 Food and Drink Minimum
Proof of Vaccination and State ID Required for Entry.


Hosted by Darrel Alejandro Holnes
at Chris’s Jazz Cafe
1421 Samsom Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102


Experience our annual Off-Site Fellows Reading at AWP 2022 in Philadelphia! This year’s event, “Off the Chain” features Cave Canem fellows Saida Agostini-Bostic, Richard Hamilton, Aaron Coleman, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Hayes Davis, YC Harvey, Vida Cross, CM Burroughs, Kay Henderson, Steven Leyva, Nick Makoha, Alison Rollins, and Nzadi Keita who will share their work in four-minute, rapid-fire intervals. Open to the public.


#AWP22 Keynote Address: Toi Derriotte
Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 at 8:30PM (EST)
(Convention Center: Terrace Ballroom I & II)

Toi Derricotte, cofounder of Cave Canem, is the recipient of the 2020 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. Her sixth collection of poetry, “I”: New and Selected Poems, was published in 2019 and shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Award. Other books of poetry include The Undertaker’s Daughter, Tender, Captivity, Natural Birth, and The Empress of the Death House.

Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her numerous literary awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She was awarded the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, a Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. With Cornelius Eady, Derricotte cofounded the Cave Canem Foundation in 1996. They are co-recipients of the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, the City of Literature Paul Engle Prize, and the MLA Phyllis Franklin Award. She is professor emerita from the University of Pittsburgh and a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

This event will be in-person. ASL interpretation and live captioning will be provided.

Sponsored by Wilkes University Creative Writing.


Honoring the Endeavor!
Friday, March 25, 2022 at 12:10PM (EST)

25 years ago, Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady came together in friendship and solidarity, and Cave Canem was born. Since that time, Cave Canem has grown into a fellowship of more than 500 Fellows, an eminent roll of Elders, and a dedicated Faculty, who—in community—have worked to build a foundation for poets now and in the future. Join Derricotte, Eady, and guests for this celebratory reading, to honor the work of their minds and hearts.


Poetry & Disability Justice
Saturday, March 26 at 10:35AM (EST)

“Adapted from Patty Berne’s ‘Disability Justice – A Working Draft’, a disability justice framework understands that: all bodies are unique and essential; all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met; we are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them; and all bodies are confined by ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation-state, religion, and more, and we cannot separate them. Disability justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance.” Cave Canem and Zoeglossia invite you to join Raymond Antrobus, Khadijah Queen, and L. Lamar Wilson in a discussion on how poets of colorwork within and without that framework, including readings from the poets. This panel is presented as part of the Associate Writers Program Conference on March 26, 2022, and is a virtual event.

Alt-Text: The text graphic reads "Cave Canem at AWP Mar 8-11, 2023.

Cave Canem is attending the 2023 AWP Conference in Seattle, Washington! This year, the conference runs from March 8-March 11, 2023. If you plan to attend AWP, say hello at Booth #929.

Except for our annual off-site reading, attendees must be registered at AWP to attend in-person events.

You may register for the conference here. This year, AWP is offering in-person and virtual-only registration options.

We look forward to seeing you at our AWP events! Details below:

Alt-Text: An event poster for Off the Chain: A Cave Canem Fellows Reading off-site event featuring Cave Canem Fellows with more information detailed below.


Off the Chain — Cave Canem Fellows Reading
Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at 6:00-9:00 p.m. (PT)
Town Hall Seattle
1119 8th Ave., Seattle, Washington 98101

Register for in-person
Register for livestream

Experience Cave Canem’s signature off-site reading sponsored by Poetry Foundation. Featuring:Quenton Baker; Malika Booker; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Yolanda J. Franklin;Darrel Alejandro Holnes; Elisabeth Houston;Bettina Judd; Aurielle Marie; Maya Marshall; Nate Marshall; Saleem Hue Penny; Alison C. Rollins; Christopher Rose, and more! Open to the public.


Alt-Text: Graphic of Cave Canem Fellow Bettina Judd's black and white headshot to the left of their book FEELIN: CREATIVE PRACTICE, PLEASURE, AND BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT. Bettina is wearing dark-rimmed glasses, a dark top, and dark lipstick. She has long dark locs and is looking into the camera with their head tilted.

AWP Book Signing With Bettina Judd
Feelin (Booth #929)

Friday, March 10, 2023
1 p.m. (PT)
Seattle Convention Center
AWP Bookfair Booth #929
705 Pike Street
Seattle, Washington 98101

Stop by Cave Canem’s AWP Bookfair Booth #929 to meet Cave Canem Fellow Bettina Judd as she signs copies of her new book Feelin: Creative Practice, Pleasure, and Black Feminist Thought (Northwestern University Press).

Open to AWP registrants.

Alt-Text: An event poster for Duende & The Harlem Arts Salon. The graphic has the black and white headshot of Margaret Porter Troupe to the left of the black and white headshot of Quincy Troupe. Margaret is smiling with her in her palm. She has horn-rimmed glasses and dark locs. Quincy is smiling. He is wearing a dark button-up shirt and has dark locs.


Duende & the Harlem Arts Salon

Saturday, March 11, 2023, at 3:20-4:35 p.m. (PT)
(Seattle Convention Center, Summit Building)

AWP Conference registration

Cave Canem honors the prolific art gallerist Margaret Porter Troupe, her husband, the award-winning poet Quincy Troupe, and their historic Harlem Arts Salon. Inviting their extensive, international circle of friends as featured guests, Margaret opened their historic Harlem apartment to the public. Those fortunate enough to gain entrance would find themselves at the most exciting gathering of writers/artists since the early twentieth century. 

This program features Margaret in conversation with our Director of Programs, Dante Micheaux, on the history of the Harlem Arts Salon and Quincy reading from his recently published collected works, Duende: Poems from 1966—Now.

Cave Canem is privileged to host The Troupes in celebration of their contributions to literature and culture.

Quincy Troupe is the author of twelve volumes of poetry, including Duende: Poems, 1966—Now (Seven Stories Press). His writing has been translated into more than thirty languages. Among his many honors are the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the Milt Kessler Poetry Award, three American Book Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Furious Flower Poetry Center, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History Award.

Margaret Porter Troupe is a writer, editor, curator, and the Founding Director of THE GLOSTER ARTS PROJECT, a multidisciplinary arts camp for youth without easy access to the arts, and the Harlem Arts Salon, a series of talks, book signings, performances, and exhibitions (established in the tradition of the salons of Harlem Renaissance) which provides a forum for artists, especially those of African descent, to meet and commune with their audience.

This past March, Cave Canem joined hundreds of literary institutions and thousands of writers for the AWP conference in Portland, Oregon. Cave Canem’s first stop on March 27 was at Literary Arts, where we hosted our Fellows Off-Site Reading. Emceed by graduate fellow Samiya Bashir, the program attracted nearly 100 attendees and featured 15 fellows, who each read original work in rapid-fire intervals. One audience member said that the reading “took my breath away…”

​On March 28th, Cave Canem’s AWP event featured Dawn Lundy Martin, Morgan Parker and Evie Shockley for a reading, followed by a conversation with poet Fatimah Asghar. Of the event, which drew an audience of more than 270, one attendee noted, “the entire program felt loving and inviting.”

Throughout the conference, Cave Canem’s book fair booth was lively—attendees perused Cave Canem prize-winning titles and connected with fellows and staff!

Enjoy highlights from AWP 2019 below!

Black and white photos by Cave Canem fellow and photographer Marcus Jackson.

Earlier this month, Cave Canem joined hundreds of literary institutions and thousands of writers in Tampa, Florida for the annual AWP conference. Cave Canem kicked off the week with its Annual Fellows Reading on March 7. Headlined by Florida-affiliated fellows Yolanda Franklin, Natalie Graham, and Breauna L. Roach,  fellows shared their work in rapid-fire intervals. On March 9, Cave Canem hosted a reading and conversation with Tyehimba Jess and Shara McCallum. Moderated by Clint Smith, their conversation explored complex issues of identity.

Cave Canem’s booth in the convention center’s exhibition space never saw a dull moment. It became a first introduction for those new to or curious about Cave Canem, a place for fellows who have never met to begin new friendships, and for Cave Canem friends to reunite.

Below we document memorable moments from AWP 2018!

Cave Canem fellows gather for a group photo at the Fellows Reading.

Fellows gather for a group photo after the Annual Fellows Reading.

Camonghne Felix and Natasha Oladokun embrace after the Fellows Reading.

Fellows Camonghne Felix and Natasha Oladokun embrace after the Annual Fellows Reading.

awp booth

AWP attendees were greeted with brochures, fliers, and buttons at the Cave Canem booth.

Fellows managing the booth (1)

A handful of fellows like L’Oréal Snell (top right) and Donika Kelly (bottom) committed their time to managing the booth and talk with conference attendees, such as fellow Aaron Coleman (top left).

Board Pres. and fellows a Booth

Cave Canem Board President Parneshia Jones (top) stops by to browse prize winning books. Cave Canem fellows, faculty and friends catch up with one another at the booth.

2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner, Julian Randall, stops by the booth and gives an impromptu reading from "Spit Back a Boy: Poems" by Iain Haley Pollock.

2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner, Julian Randall, visits the booth and gives an impromptu reading from Spit Back a Boy by Iain Haley Pollock.

Tyehimba Jess and Shara McCallum sign books after their reading and conversation.

Tyehimba Jess and Shara McCallum sign books after their reading and conversation.

We’re pleased to announce that Cave Canem has been awarded the National Book Foundation’s 2016 Literarian Award, a $10,000 prize for outstanding service to the American literary community. The award will be presented to the organization at this year’s National Book Awards ceremony on November 16, 2016. Read the full citation on the National Book Foundation’s website, and news of the award, with quotations from Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, and Elizabeth Alexander at The Washington Post.

Dear Friends of Cave Canem,

I am writing to inform the Cave Canem community that I will be passing the honor of serving as the President of the Cave Canem Board to Amanda Johnston, Cave Canem graduate fellow and Black Poets Speak Out cofounder, by the end of this quarter, March 31, 2019.

As Cave Canem builds momentum toward its 25th Anniversary year, the board is charting ambitious goals to expand the team and raise more money to sustain and grow our programs and outreach. As I have just accepted a faculty position with Vermont College of Fine Arts, in addition to my full-time role as Sales and Community Outreach Manager and Poetry Editor at Northwestern University, I wanted to yield the Presidency to someone with more time and likewise devotion to continue on this path of exciting growth. Selected by the board, Amanda Johnston has enthusiastically served on the Board of Directors since 2017, and will assume the role of President on an interim basis until June 30, 2019. Before which, the board, which expects to add new members in the coming months, will formally elect a permanent Board President and a new slate of officers.

I am especially proud of Cave Canem’s accomplishments during the time I have had the privilege of serving as Board President. My fellow board members, in partnership with our talented Executive Director Nicole Sealey and her hardworking staff, have reached a number of milestones, including:

As we work through this transition period, Amanda has already demonstrated her desire to see the board grow with ambassadors who can help us expand our national and international reach to individuals who and institutions that will support our commitment to cultivate the artistic and professional growth of Black poets. She will also lead the conversation about our goals for our 25th year, and soon we will seek to engage each of you, as members of our community with distinct talents and resources, to participate in building our next decade together. Please join me in congratulating Amanda as she assumes leadership at this inspiring time.

Parneshia Jones
Board President

Black and white headshots of Jacqueline Trimble, Danez Smith, and Falú.

With support from the Poetry Foundation, Cave Canem’s 2023 Regional Workshops are now available to participants outside of New York City.

This year, Spring 2023 workshops will take place in Montgomery, Alabama; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and of course, at the Cave Canem headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.  Fall 2023 workshops will take place in Oakland, California; Greenville, South Carolina; and Houston, Texas.

Regional workshops are in-person, tuition-free, and free to apply. To be considered, please submit a cover letter and five original poems to our Submittable.

Regional Workshop (Alabama): “The Self as Inspiration:” Looking Inward to Explore the Larger World with Jacqueline Trimble
March 9th – May 11th
Thursdays, 5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. (CDT) | Public Reading May 8th
Armory Learning Arts Center
1010 Forest Ave

Visit our Submittable Page to Apply by February 6, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. EST

Submissions to this workshop are free and open to Black Montgomery residents.  

Applications close on February 6th at 11:59 p.m. EST. 

Jacqueline Trimble lives and writes in Montgomery, Alabama. She is a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow and an Alabama State Council on the Arts Literary Fellow. Her poetry has appeared in various journals, including Poetry, The Offing, and Poet Lore, and has also been featured by Poetry Daily. Trimble’s writing has been anthologized in The Night’s Magician, Southern Writers on Writing, and most recently, The Beautiful: Poets Reimagine America. She has also written 13 episodes of Die Testament, a South African soap opera. Her debut poetry collection, American Happiness, was named the Best Book of 2016 by Seven Sisters Book Awards and won the Balcones Poetry Prize. Her latest collection, How to Survive the Apocalypse, was published in 2022. Trimble is a Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University. 


Regional Workshops (Minnesota): “Laboratory Poetics” with Danez Smith
March 15th – May 17th
Wednesdays, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. (CDT) | Public Reading May 17th
Loft Literary Center
1011 Washington Avenue South

Visit our Submittable to apply by February 12th at 11:59 p.m. EST

Open to Black Minneapolis residents.  

Applications close on February 12th at 11:59 p.m. EST. 

Danez Smith is the author of three collections, including Homie and Don’t Call Us Dead. For their work, Danez won the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and have been a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Poetry, the National Book Critic Circle Award, and the National Book Award. Danez’s poetry and prose has been featured in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, Best American Poetry, and on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Danez is a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Former co-host of the Webby-nominated podcast VS (Versus), they live in Minneapolis near their people.


Regional Workshop (New York City): “LOVE, Above All Things” with Falú
March 22nd – May 24th
Wednesdays, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. (EST) | Public Reading May 24th
Cave Canem
20 Jay Street, 310A, Brooklyn, New York 11201

Visit our Submittable to apply by February 19th at 11:59 p.m. EST.

Open to Black New York City residents.

Applications close on February 19th at 11:59 p.m. EST.

A graduate of Pratt’s MFA Writing in Activism Program and a Master of Social Work student at Stony Brook University, Falú works as a Social Worker, as well as a traveling teaching artist. An International Slam Champion and Cave Canem Fellow, she has been published in several anthologies and uses her writing as activism work for several organizations. Falú’s other projects include “Niggas Die Everyday,” an art gallery and exhibit she co-curated, and her one-woman show turned writing workshop, “Love, Above All Things.” She is a mother of two, a loyal Brooklynite, and believes in fashion. Seriously.


These programs are supported by the Poetry Foundation.

CNN Style logo

October 17, 2021—Cave Canem was featured in the CNN Style article titled “Poetry is experiencing a new golden age, with young writers of color taking the lead”

Cave Canem Foundation, Inc. was represented by Board President Tyehimba Jess. 

Read the article in full here.

Notebooks & Pens is a passionate community of recurring donors that help to

  • transform the literary arts into a field where Black poets thrive, and
  • impact the lives of readers through the power of Black poetry.

Recurring donors receive a monthly recording of an original poem by a Black poet and will be able to experience gatherings throughout the year, bringing them closer to Cave Canem’s programs and more.

Notebooks & Pens provides vital and sustainable support for the advancement of Cave Canem’s mission and allows us to foster deeper engagement with recurring donors, where together we can broaden our impact on the lives of readers nationwide and Black poets in search of a literary home.


Brooklyn, NY  (12 May 2016)—Cave Canem Foundation, North America’s premier home for black poetry, congratulates seven recipients of prestigious national awards: fellows Rio Cortez, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Ross Gay, Duriel Harris, Airea Dee Matthews and Danez Smith, and faculty member Ed Roberson.

Rio Cortez, a Pushcart-nominated poet and recipient of a 2012 Amy Award from Poets & Writers, was selected by Ross Gay in January 2016 as winner of the inaugural Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize  for her manuscript I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space between Mountains. The prize confers $500, publication by Jai-Alai Books, 10 copies of the chapbook, a one-week residency at the Writer’s Room at the Betsy Hotel in Miami, and a feature reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, author of TwERK and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, has been awarded a 2016 Whiting Award, which confers $50,000 in recognition of “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.” Of TwERK, the selection committee writes, “In this heteroglot echo chamber a wide range of idioms—and their attendant forms of consciousness, of politics—collide and recombine.”

National Book Award finalist Ross Gay has won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. The award is given annually to honor a poet at mid-career, providing $100,000 and resources that allow the artist to continue working toward the pinnacle of their craft. Of Gay’s work, Chief Judge Chase Twichell says, “Although modest and unpretentious, Ross has an authority that allows him to speak directly into the ear of the reader with a disarming intimacy, one that makes us feel that each poem turns directly toward us as we read.”

Duriel Estelle Harris, co-founder of the Black Took Collection and author of three previous collections of poetry, has won the Nightboat Poetry Prize for No Dictionary of a Living Tongue. Competition judge Kazim Ali says: “Harris’ book is incredibly ambitious in its explorations of art, citizenship, life as a body amid all the social, political and electronic networks that define us, hold us together, even bind us.” Harris receives $1,000, and her collection will be published Spring 2017.

Airea Dee Matthews, a 2015 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow, has received the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for simulacra (Yale University Press, April 2017). Judge Carl Phillips writes, “Rebellion is the first word that comes to mind, when reading simulacra, Airea Matthews’s rollicking, destabilizing, at once intellectually sly and piercing and finally poignant debut.” Matthews will receive a fellowship to complete a residency at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT.

Shelley Memorial Award winner Ed Roberson has won both the PEN/Voelcker Award, which confers $5,000 upon a poet “whose distinguished and growing body of work to date represents a notable and accomplished presence in American literature”; and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which confers $100,000 and “honors a living US poet for outstanding lifetime achievement.” Wrote Poetry editor Don Share:Roberson’s ten books of poetry take readers, as they have taken the poet himself, to every corner of the vivid labyrinth of life.”

Ruth Lilly Fellowship recipient Danez Smith has won the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, “presented annually for a first book by a poet of genuine promise,” for his manuscript [insert] boy (Yes Yes Books, 2015). Of the work, Chase Twichell writes, “[insert] boy is an unforgettable debut. I can think of no other recent first book of American poetry that packs a punch of this force.”

Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, 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. Called “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry” by 2011 National Book Award winner and faculty member Nikky Finney, the organization’s programs include an annual week-long retreat, three book prizes delivered in collaboration with five prestigious presses, community-based writing workshops, Legacy Conversations with distinguished black poets and scholars, cross-cultural Poets on Craft talks with writers in mid-career, a popular lecture series,  a New Works reading series, and a Poets Tour representing over 70 fellows. Such pre-eminent poets as Chris Abani, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine and Natasha Trethewey number among the organization’s faculty and judges. For more information, visit

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.

Media Contact:
Kyla Marshell, Development/Marketing Associate, Cave Canem Foundation: 718.858.0000; [email protected]

Cave Canem Foundation seeks an Executive Director to build on our successful 20-year history and lead our organization to continued cultural advancement. Applications accepted through October 10, 2016. Visit our Employment page for more information.

Cave Canem Foundation seeks a Grants Manager to maintain a portfolio of current corporate, foundation, and government funding, and to research, identify and procure new sources of funding in all three areas. Applications accepted through October 6, 2016. Learn more on our Employment page.

Kwame Dawes

Cave Canem South

In the mid-2000s, I put together a proposal for Cave Canem to consider the establishment of a series of short workshops that focused on the poets working in the southern states of the U.S. The flagship annual Cave Canem Retreat, had, as I understood it then, been supplemented by a series of short term workshops for poets—many of them who were not fellows of Cave Canem but were Black poets seeking to benefit from the spirit, community, discipline, and network)— taking place in New York City where Cave Canem was headquartered. By the time I became familiar with these occasional workshops, Cave Canem’s brand as a powerful force for Black poets in the country was well established and unquestionable. At the same time, there did exist some backlash generated by those who were not “a part” of Cave Canem either as faculty members or beneficiaries of the annual retreat. Some of these poets had applied to attend Cave but were not selected, others were already established as poets but felt as if Cave Canem was creating a divide that made it easy for them to talk about the organization as an exclusive community. These were perceptions and brought with them the limitations of such perceptions. At the same time, they were strong perceptions driven by the evident success that Cave-associated poets seemed to be having. Some argued that Cave Canem’s success had led to many white organizations using the organization’s endorsement as a basis to assess the relative value of Black poets trying to enter those organizations—publishers, journals, MFA programs, reading groups, and multiple awards.

I was living in South Carolina and embarked on a mission to create an environment for poets that was supportive, that was reflective of the state’s history and tradition in the literary arts, and one that would seek to create a more inclusive space for all poets. A central part of that effort was to give special attention to the experience of Black poets in the state. The South Carolina Poetry Initiative foregrounded at the center of its efforts, a deep awareness of the history of exclusion and lack of support, training, and opportunity for Black poets in the state. It was my determination to ensure that even as we opened doors for poets in the state, increased the publishing of South Carolina poets, and expanded the approach to poetry in the education system and in the larger culture world of the state, that we would do so in a manner that ensured that Black poets would thrive and grow and be supported in their efforts. This would happen proactively and was aggressively necessary.

It was clear to me that Cave Canem would be an important part of this effort for Black poets in South Carolina and in the south in general, but because of the lack of local support, training, and opportunities for many aspiring Black poets, it would be challenging for them to be at the place where they could successfully apply to be fellows for the Cave Canem annual retreat. My logic was to see what we could do in South Carolina to allow our black poets in the state and in the adjoining states to become a part of a greater initiative of training and exposure that Cave Canem provided its fellows.

At the same time, Cave Canem had done significant work, much of it challenged and questioned, in holding to the view that it remained committed to exclusively Black writers. Much pressure had been exerted to “diversify” Cave Canem, and no small amount came from white liberal individuals and establishments, who obscenely labeled the Black-only principle, racist. Its staff, board, and founders were steadfast and articulate about the importance of this strategy and in challenging and debunking the false charges. In so doing, they served as a well-established model for that kind of racially focused work in other places around the country. My desire to create a space for Black poets to work together, to learn from each other, and to do so free of the scrutiny and pressure of the white gaze—in a safe environment in other words—made me start to think of ways to achieve this in South Carolina and the south. My decision to propose to Cave Camen that they establish a “Cave Canem South” initiative grew out of this desire. And the model, as far as I recall, was to simply establish a series of short-term workshops that made use of the fundamental principles of Cave Canem—namely to have Black poets teach and mentor Black poets with a full understanding of the importance of the aesthetic value of this arrangement. It was clear to me that Cave Canem had created not just an amazing and visible roster of excellent teachers of prosody in the Black tradition through its faculty list, but that it had also engendered a spirit of communal solidarity and generosity among these writers, and a commitment to the collective advancement of Black poetry through mentoring and teaching. Simply put, as a programmer of workshops for Black poets, I had been given access to a roster of some of America’s great poets to draw upon. Finally, I understood the value of the Cave Canem brand, and while it was possible for me to start a series independent of the organization while borrowing from its model, I wanted to avoid the ingratitude of not crediting it for the “inspiration” in making this happen. I also believed that having Cave Canem’s name would benefit the organization because it would open up the possibility for more poets from the South to take advantage of what it had to offer. Cave Canem’s reputation also brought with it a certain credibility, and I believed that this would ensure that we would be successful.

The plan I presented was committed to engaging Cave Canem directly in decision making and practice, and to consider Cave Canem South a model that could be replicated in other parts of the country and around the world. The process was involved. I met with the staff and founders of Cave Canem, we exchanged many emails, and we discussed the process. At the same time, there was a cadre of poets in South Carolina who were part of a southern Black poetry network that were excited about this prospect and this idea. It was agreed that we would do this on a one-time basis, and I proceeded to use my small team of The South Carolina Poetry Initiative (myself and Dr. Charlene Spearen) to plan this event, to secure the funds to cover travel and accommodation for the faculty, and to try to ensure that the faculty were Southern poets who had taught with Cave Canem. The event was held at the Columbia Museum of Art. Over the course of the first weekend in February 2010, poets Nikky Finney, Patricia Smith, and Frank X Walker hosted two-hour workshops and I led a shorter workshop on ekphrastic poetry. Participants also attended craft talks, had one-on-one critique sessions with faculty poets, and engaged with an exhibit at the museum. In June 2011, these same faculty members returned for a second year. It was a rich and beautiful experience, and, in many ways, one does wonder why it never repeated itself beyond these two years, and why it has now been relegated to an important footnote in the history of Cave Canem. The truth is that without this event, the Watering Hole—a South Carolina-based retreat similar in scope to Cave Canem’s—would not exist, and many Southern poets who would become Cave Canem fellows may not have emerged.

But it is important to place Cave Canem in a context of how it came to be a part of my own ideas about literary activism and my work as a writer committed to the development of the Black literary community. Cave Canem South was part of a broader way of thinking, and the fact of its impact and disappearance is directly related to what came before it and what has come after.

There are a few key markers to my life as a poet in America. Being a poet in America is, I suppose, something that American-born and raised poets may take for granted, but a man who arrived here, already fairly convinced that making poems was going to be a major part of my life, the challenge was going to be significant. Apart from how a poet perceives and understands his or herself in the world, there is the less controllable matter of how they are perceived and received by those around them. I am a Black man. I am a Black man with a noticeable Jamaican accent. I am a Black man with a Ghanaian first name. I am a Black man living in the deep south. I am a Black man living in a deep southern small town. Cave Canem was transformative for me. It brought me directly into the community of Black poets in this country, a community that at the time, had no collective presence since the Black Arts Movement of the late sixties and seventies. In addressing the experience of young Black poets, Cave Canem effectively reactivated a community of poets who galvanized around the shared experience of writing under the pressures of white supremacy. The unspoken power of Cave Canem was its capacity to bring together the remarkable cadre of experienced African American poets working in this country, many of whom did not have opportunities to be in conversation, to be in contact in a full way. The leaders of that organization understood something significant that helped to ensure that the conversation was broad-based, was not aesthetically defined, and didn’t seek to create a discourse of poetry, a School of Poetry, so to speak—around Black poets in America. Instead, it presumed that those who self-identified as Black and African American in this country, and who self-identified as poets, could bring a rich store of knowledge and experience to bear on the lives of the equally varied group of younger or less advanced poets who would form the fellows of the project. I have little doubt that the push to create a wider tent than might normally happen was not casual or accident, but came out of many conversations, and even quarrels. Indeed, the principle of a recognition of the varied experience of Black people in this country, guided much of what I perceived to be happening with Cave Canem. By inviting me to be a faculty member at the retreat, the organization gave me a gift for which I am grateful. It embraced an immigrant poet and welcomed me into the community of Black poets in America. I had received a similar welcome in my life as a Black man in South Carolina, and here, with Cave Canem, I was being given a point of contact and reference, and in this gesture we had enacted the important principle of the African Diaspora and Pan Africanism that is as elemental to African American discourse as it is Pan Africanism. The truth is that my arrival in the United States added a certain critical dimension to my core identity as a man of the African Diaspora. I had my immediate roots in Ghana, my visible identity and cultural state located in Jamaica, my growing professional connection to Black Britain, and then the fourth cardinal point, my North American Black experience. I have seen myself as an artist of these spaces. Cave Canem gave a stamp of credibility to my presence in America as a Black poet. This, obviously, had less to do with my sense of self, than it had to do with the way those around me saw me, how the poetry world perceived, and how the Black poetry world perceived me. In practical terms, I was able to meet poets who I would not normally have access to. I also began to connect with poets and writers with whom to share ideas and strategies for the expansion of the experience of Black poets. None of these poets were strangers to me in terms of their work, and in many cases I was meeting poets whose work I had been reading for many years. Cave Canem was important for me, in that regard.

For the four years that I was present as a faculty member with Cave Canem, and for the years after, I studied carefully the remarkable aesthetic range of poets brought into the program. There seemed to be no clear rhyme or reason, no easy clue as to why this poet versus that poet would be accepted. And it was competitive. No doubt poets discussed the process, wondered if there was a code to be broken. As if to defy such efforts, the Cave Canem team appeared to hold to the view that a wider tent was better and more effective than a tighter tent. Co-founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady were poets with distinctive voices and inclinations, and it would have been tempting to imagine that they invited clones of themselves to be part of the program. But they obviously did not. Indeed, what guided them, it seemed to me, was their own experience as teachers and readers of poetry. They understood that one of the most important hallmarks of good teaching is to allow artists to find their way to voice, the singular and peculiar imagination, while holding to some fundamental principles of clarity of vision, formal competence, and passion for the work. I have never discussed the process with any of those who have been in charge of selecting poets for Cave Canem, but it is clear to me that somehow, these core values were evidently guiding the way the selections were made. The principle was easier to exercise with the choice of faculty. And my clear sense is that faculty were chosen to help broaden the tent of aesthetic value. A complex was being created. The faculty found solidarity not in their aesthetic confluence, but in the fact of their blackness in the face of white supremacy and in the long legacy of exclusion and isolation that haunted the experience of Black poets in this country. Cave Canem also achieved a most critical function in the business of the arts, something that white culture had long taken for granted: the value of mentorship, and the critical value of giving poets immediate access to the tradition and to the top proponents of the tradition. The fact is, many poets who became Cave Canem fellows had absolutely no access to Black senior poets in the country. Cave Canem gave them this. And has been doing this in spades.

When I was invited to be a faculty member, I had long been thinking about these issues of modeling the practice of how to create and advance a tradition in poetry. My personal history of teaching, institutional development, and strategies of literary activism prior to Cave Canem were important to me, and certainly made me able to derive a great deal from the Cave Canem experience—the Cave Canem model. In the nineties, I devoted a great deal of time to developing a project in the UK that had a similar context to that which gave birth to Cave Canem. I won’t rehearse all the details, but I joined an effort, at the time led in the UK by Bernardine Evaristo, a gifted a talented Black British poet, playwright, and actress, and Ruth Borthwick, a white British arts administrator, who has continued to spearhead efforts to ensure the presence of Black British writers in the broader British literary world. With Spread the Word, the organization formed in the early nineties to do this work, these women sought to address the lack of opportunities and support for Black poets working in the UK. It was a quest for greater education and experience and a quest to create a community that could challenge the status quo or the establishment which was systematically complicated in the lives of Black poets in the UK either by excluding them from the conversation, or limiting their impact by pigeon-holing them, tokenizing them, or creating divides between them through the limiting of resources to support them. The system ensured that there was not a vested interest in a collective approach to Black poetry in Britain and engendered divisions and competitiveness. More alarmingly, it undermined the inclination towards a mentorship system that was predicated on the fruitful exploration of the literary history of Blacks in the UK, or even more critically, the value of mentorship across generations.

Crudely put, the system ensured that an “each one for themselves” mentality operated. When the spoken word movement engendered by the hip-hop explosion of the late eighties and early nineties appeared to be overtaking the Dub Poetry movement of the seventies, a generational divide began to take shape. A cadre of young, dynamic, hip-hop inclined poets began to form a new force on the poetry scene that, frankly, was being exploited for its popularity by the white establishment. These poets were embraced not for their value as part of the establishment—poets who produce books, appear in journals, and form the elite of the poetic class in the UK—but were seen as a die-show, a parallel group, defined by the fact that they traded in records, in videos, and in live performance. A generational divide ensued. Yet many of these emerging poets recognized that they did not have access to the mentorship, training, or education in the practice of poetry and in the business of poetry to genuinely thrive. Thus, the movement that I became a part of was driven primarily by these writers who wanted to create systems that would allow them to learn how to develop as writers. Some had seen what Cave Canem was doing in the US, and others had benefited from workshops in the British community, and like many Cave Canem people, had discovered that these workshops and programs were not especially suited to support their own experiences as writers and people because of cultural ignorance or barely veiled systemic racism. What would become the Afro Style Poetry School, would emerge as a series of workshops that continued for almost seven or eight years. It is hard to explain the impact of this enterprise given the fact that it emerged primarily in London, and that it involved a series of five-day all-day workshops that happened twice a year over a period of about four or five years. Yet almost twenty years later, the result is that one would be hard-pressed to name a major published Black poet in the UK today who did not come out of the Afro Style Poetry School or emerge from some of the direct offshoots of that project. I shaped the agenda and curricula of the “school.” My view was that Black poets should understand the broader western traditions of poetry, not so as to imitate them, but to have the confidence to challenge and complicate those traditions. But they also had to understand that there has long existed a tradition of Black poetry from around the world; that is their inheritance, and in many ways, their legacy and their permission. They could be a part of the expansion of that tradition and they could be tutored by it. So we studied, and studied Black poets and Black poetic traditions that went as far back as the ancient griot practice of North Africa, that engaged blues, hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and much else that offered us a chance to wrestle with something called a Black aesthetic. I threw myself into that work, and I sought to create bridges between the established Black British poets of that time, and this new emerging group of poets, either by direct contact, or by studying and valuing their work. What I knew in the nineties of Cave Canem was limited, but enough for me to see the value of a basic concept of the idea of a community of artists with a common connection coming together to grow and to develop a living tradition. I also believed that it would take this kind of attentiveness to tradition and study to mount an assault on the then closed poetry establishment. We needed manuscripts by Black poets to force white editors to seriously rethink their idea of what is valuable in poetry, and to then face the fact that a rich and varied body of work was pressing into altering their understanding of Britishness and Americanness. For me, these efforts were practical, they were tied to strategies for publishing and for critical reception. I have always felt that such movements have to be carefully plotted and have to mount their campaigns with a clear understanding of how systemic racism works in the publishing industry.


From Reggae, to Calabash, and Back Again

I should say that part of my authority as a poet in the UK was derived, admittedly, from having won one of the earliest Forward Poetry Prizes. It was not lost on me that on the panel that selected my work over a roster of entirely white and British poets, (all of whom have gone on to have careers of some accomplishment) was a Jamaican/ British poet, Jean “Binta” Breeze. I did not know Jean Breeze personally at the time. It was clear to me then that her presence on that panel was responsible for my work to get a fair shake, where it might not have for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of my work. My record as a poet since then proves that no mistakes were made there, but I also took note of the fact that there is ample evidence to show that book prizes, like editorial choices and literary awards, are not defined by objective criteria, and that race or gender on such panels do factor into the decisions that are made. White liberal arrogance is determined to retain power by denying racial bias in these matters. In fact, they propose a “universalism” of excellence that is not just ignorant, but willfully so, largely because it allows them to retain power and control. For many of these people, without having the slightest knowledge of or familiarity with rich and complex literary traditions that are not their own, they presume to have the knowledge and understanding to make decisions about aesthetics and accomplishments of all poets, no matter their background or experience. When I won the Forward Prize, my first thought was not “I am in”—I knew better—but “How am I going to use this to ensure that more poets can have this opportunity?” I genuinely understood that singular success for me was not what made a tradition. A tradition is driven by the work of an army. Recently I heard the Jamaican DJ Bounty Killer describe the core principle of this idea in an interview in which he was reflecting on his early career and his realization that collective success did more for him than his individual success.

Bounty was articulating something he saw then, and in many ways, this principle was what guided me towards formulating a concept of literary culture that was predicated on what I would come to call “the reggae aesthetic.” My book on the Reggae Aesthetic, Natural Mysticism, tended to focus on more classical notions of aesthetics, but in practice, I was formulating an approach to the business and practice of Black literary culture that derived its principles from the remarkable patterns of the reggae music industry. In a sense, I wanted to understand how this industry and creative culture evolved and how it became one of the most remarkable engines for creative production in the world. I was aware that it was a remarkable force, especially because this phenomenon emerged out of a small island in which economic power was not its hallmark. How does a culture make its artists? How does it allow its artists to grow? How does it create a tradition? How does it allow for artists to thrive creatively in a system that can be so challenging? Reggae offered the model. In long conversations with my good friend Colin Channer in the late nineties, we discussed this. We thought about the shape of the reggae industry, the recording industry, the rituals of mentorship, of success and failure, the veritable shrine of creative magic that was the studio, the physical studio with its many concentric circles of influence. How was talent found? How was talent nurtured? How was talent framed? How was talent and performance assessed? How did artists grow? How did artists decline? What was the meaning of tradition in a relatively young art form? Reggae offered tremendous lessons, and we spent a great deal of time studying these and then started to think of ways to apply them to a Caribbean/ Jamaican literary scene that by the nineties, had not shown itself to successfully achieve what reggae had. Our question was, is there something to be learned from reggae music, fully understanding the differences of genre or practice and much else? The answer, simply, was yes.

During that same time, I was considering similar questions in the Caribbean. The founding of the Calabash International Literary Festival and Trust had everything to do with the swirling of these considerations, and it emerged from the work in the UK and the work in South Carolina. I also knew what Cave Canem was doing from the outside and some of those ideas helped shape the vision that merged with the vision of Colin Channer that came together to create Calabash. Our ideas were about creating a model of literary community and a developmental strategy for the literary arts in the Caribbean starting in Jamaica. The Calabash history has been told in various places, so I won’t rehearse it all here, except to say that what we have achieved and what we have developed in the Caribbean and the world has been enhanced by the lessons (both good and bad) learned from Cave Canem and the Cave Canem South experiment.

It should not surprise anyone that my next big adventure was to locate itself in Africa. Nearly a decade ago the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF) was founded, and the record of that entity speaks volumes of what can be done when drawing again from the various models of Black activism in the arts, to address inequities and failures born of the complex histories of colonialism in Black spaces and for Black artists. While I have a nuanced and quite sharply constructed understanding of the distinctions between the various enterprises that I have been part of over the years, I am also aware that there are some general principles that exist, and the form part of my approach to this work and that explains much of what has been successful about it. In less than a decade, APBF has targeted the publishing of African poets as a critical aspect of its work, and we have been able to judge our effectiveness and success on the basis of this work. In many ways, therefore, what we do is building on the work of organizations like Cave Canem, but we believe we are doing work that has long been needed for Black poets and the world over.

The Africa Poetry Book Fund’s impact on American poetry, and especially Black American poetry and poetry of people of color in the US, is unprecedented and worthy of a great deal of mention here. Of the 78 writers we’ve published so far, 39 of them are currently based in the US. It should be worth noting that a decent contingent was based in African nations and has moved here for school since publishing with us, strengthening the diversity in many writing programs in the US with gifted writers from Africa. Of the 60 chapbook solicitations that we have made in 2020 alone, about one-third are writers based in the US. These solicited writers are among the 50-60 names we receive annually through recommendations from multiple key contacts of writers, editors, scholars, and critics from around the world. And, finally, 12 percent of the total number of submissions for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets represents writers based in the US. The APBF has worked hard to ensure that Africa-based authors have access to the Sillerman Prize, and while that has and continues to be a priority, we understand that our impact in America is significant.

The African Poetry Book Fund’s impact on the publishing of Black poets in the US is also demonstrated by our role in enhancing the diversifying of publishing in this country. Both our publishing partners, the University of Nebraska Press and Akashic Books, are based in the American publishing ecosystem, and the work that we have done for American publishing as it pertains to Black poets must not be underestimated. Our institutional partner, Prairie Schooner, is one of the oldest literary journals in America, and is based in a Midwest American university that has benefited greatly from this partnership in publishing, scholarship, digital humanities, and much else. The APBF has partnered with major American institutions like the Library of Congress, the Ford Foundation, Brown University, and the Poetry Foundation in various ways. It is committed to creating a context for Black writers in America, and this work happens no other way but through the promotion, celebration, and exploration of African writing.

I am rehearsing this record to point to the fact that Cave Canem is a part of the context for understanding the work that organizations and initiatives like APBF have been doing, and it is to the credit of Cave Canem that it has succeeded in opening its doors to the African Diaspora—to the global African poetic community. Many of the poets that APBF has published were nurtured by Cave Canem. These fellows have benefitted greatly from this association and have learned a great deal about the value of collectives and communities. Many of the poetry workshops and poetry publishing ventures happening in Africa today have been influenced greatly by the core spirit of Cave Canem. A case could be made that this is exactly how Cave Canem wanted to create its influence. According to this argument, Cave Canem South, while noble in principle, was taking Cave Canem outside of its carefully constructed remit. Thus, the fact that Cave Canem South was short-lived and that the Watering Hole emerged out of it is not a bad thing, but a good thing. The Watering Hole preserved the resources and focus of Cave Canem while inspiring new ventures that were relevant to the South. I can understand this as a vision. But I also understand that this discussion is a useful point of discussion as Cave Canem examines its role. My view then and now is that Cave Canem South might have created very important opportunities for Black poets in the South, opportunities that were delayed and, in some ways, expunged because the venture did not continue. This can happen.

I venture to say that it is not too late for the idea of Cave Canem South. I wish that Cave would return to the idea, as I can lay out so many reasons why this is a good time to return to the model. America’s regionalism has not changed at all, and Cave Canem has remained largely an organization constrained by geography to the Northeast. Its impact has been national, international even, and this is impossible to deny. At the same time, however, the evolution of the movement could benefit from the expansion of its ideas for Black poets around this nation.

I should say, in closing, that I know for a fact that there are many brilliant and forward-thinking people associated with Cave Canem who have been thinking about these matters and working hard to create innovative ways to expand the work. And for each one that I am aware of, there are likely many more that I do not know about. I think of the efforts of Terrance Hayes and Dawn Lundy Martin and others at the University of Pittsburg who have found ways to associate Cave Canem with the exciting new endeavor The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. Cave Canem has partnered in strategic ways with organizations like Furious Flower.  These connections are not insignificant and not isolated. Indeed, while going through the editing process of this essay, some dialogue has opened up with some of the new leadership of at Cave Canem about some of the initiatives that are being attempted which, in many ways, are starting to address some of the issues that I have identified as challenges. I am happy to learn that the organization is trying to engage writers outside of New York City with its virtual programs, and that it is intent on working with poets who are not Cave Canem fellows. I look forward to seeing how Cave Canem expands on the work it has done so far to bring more poets into its realm and deepen its commitment to creating opportunities for Black poets across the US and throughout Africa and her diaspora.


Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty-two books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His collection, Nebraska, was published in 2020. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. Dawes is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His awards include an Emmy, the Forward Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize for Poetry. In 2021, Kwame Dawes was named editor of “American Life in Poetry.”

Fall of 2014 marked a critical moment in Cave Canem’s institutional history: the organization’s archives—which contain a number of print and digital materials documenting Cave Canem’s history, growth and impact—were acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Cave Canem’s records are a significant addition to the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection (JWJ Collection), a vast and essential archive of African American history and culture. The collection is home to distinguished writers and intellectuals, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Chester Himes and Claude McKay, among others.

In late January, as an extension of the working fellowship lunches with arts professionals, the Cave Canem team visited the Beinecke to connect with the institution where our papers are housed. The team was introduced to curators, librarians, archivists, art conservators and scientists, who offered Cave Canem’s working fellows and interns a broader understanding of the many working opportunities in the arts. Nancy Kuhl, Curator of Poetry at the Yale Collection of American Literature, and her colleagues, graciously guided the Cave Canem team through the Beinecke library, including their technical services headquarters, where collection materials are processed and cataloged.

Among the trip’s many highlights was an intimate showcase of archival materials from the JWJ Collection, presented by Melissa Barton, Curator of Drama and Prose at Beinecke’s Yale Collection of American Literature. The team had the opportunity to see (and handle!) the original handwritten manuscript of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; original photographs taken by James Van Der Zee and Carl Van Vechten; stories and letters by former Black Panther Ericka Huggins, handwritten during her time of imprisonment; a copy of Langston Hughes’ collected poems with handwritten marginalia; and, among the ephemera from a party hosted by James Weldon Johnson, a guestbook signed by a number of Harlem’s greatest, such as Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson.

Cave Canem is so grateful to the staff at the Beinecke Library, Yale Art Gallery and the Institute for Preservation! Below, enjoy a brief photo gallery documenting Cave Canem’s time at Yale.



The Board of Directors of Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., North America’s premier home for Black poetry, is pleased to welcome Lisa Willis as the organization’s first full time Development Manager. She will build upon Cave Canem’s existing revenue streams that include individual donors, a diverse portfolio of foundation and government grants, as well as corporate sponsors and institutional partnerships. As Cave Canem nears its 25th anniversary, Willis will aid in growing the overall budget and moving the organization towards one that is as financially strong as its reputation and impact on the literary and poetry fields.

About working with the organization, Willis says, “It is a privilege and delight to join the Cave Canem team and I look forward to making a significant contribution towards securing long standing financial security and greater resources in support of Black poets.”

Willis joins Natalie Desrosiers, who was recently promoted to Development Coordinator. Desrosiers joined the organization in 2017 as a Programs and Communications Working Fellow and was most recently a Programs and Communications Assistant.

Lisa Willis is a passionate artistic administrator who has managed and supported the development of a variety of multidisciplinary projects in the classical and commercial performing arts sectors. She comes to Cave Canem from New York Live Arts, home of the Bill T.  Jones/Arnie Zane Company, where she served as Institutional Giving Manager, securing support for general operations, programs, and special projects from government agencies, private foundations, and corporate sponsors. As a freelance development consultant, Willis has provided long term support to small nonprofit performing arts groups in the areas of grant writing, individual donor cultivation, and special events. Prior to her shift into fundraising Willis was the founding Operations Manager for CAMI Music, establishing and managing the daily protocols for the company in addition to overseeing the touring and managerial logistics for Lang Lang, Tan Dun, Savion Glover, American Ballet Theatre, Cirque Eloize and the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández. Her work as an administrator includes multiple programmatic and artistic management roles at the Kimmel Center, Mann Center, Brian Sanders’ JUNK, and Jazz Reach. Willis earned a B.A. in Music Composition and Theory from New York University and has trained extensively in both ballet and modern dance.

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 is a home for the many voices of Black poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of Black poets. It has grown from a gathering of 26 writers to an influential movement with a renowned faculty and an international fellowship of over 500. Cave Canem’s programs and publications enlarge the American literary canon; democratize archives; and expand for students, poets, and readers the notion of what’s possible and valuable in poetry. Its programs include an annual retreat, community workshops, lectures, and reading and panel series. Its three book prizes, delivered in collaboration with five prestigious presses, have launched the careers of several poets, including former U.S. Poet Laureates Natasha Trethewey and Tracey K. Smith.

Cave Canem is part of the Poetry Coalition, a national collective 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 the Poetry Coalition.


Cave Canem Foundation has been named a recipient of Brooklyn Community Foundation’s annual Spark Prize, a distinction that includes a grant award of $100,000 in general operating support. Now in its second year, the Spark Prize honors “outstanding organizations that stand for and build equity and strength in Brooklyn’s communities.”

Named for its mission to spark lasting change in Brooklyn, the Spark Prize provides recognition as well as meaningful support to organizations that demonstrate strong values, a commitment to equity and racial justice, and a dynamic vision for the future. “Brooklyn Community Foundation’s investment in Cave Canem is an important validation of the necessary work we do in Brooklyn and beyond to expand and democratize the field. This honor, this grant award, the largest single-year grant in Cave Canem’s history, is a game changer for our small but mighty organization,” said Nicole Sealey, executive director of Cave Canem. “Receiving the Spark Prize,” Cave Canem grants manager Isissa Komada-John said, “highlights our influence beyond the literary arts—Cave Canem is also a service and justice-oriented organization for the people of Brooklyn.”

The Spark Prize is the only honor of its kind celebrating excellence and impact in the borough’s thriving nonprofit sector. Organizations were selected from a competitive pool of over 130 applicants by a distinguished committee of 30 members representing Brooklyn’s civic, business, and philanthropic communities. Cave Canem congratulates fellow recipients of the prize: the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, Exalt Youth (exalt), GRIOT Circle, and Red Hook Initiative.

For more information about the Spark Prize, visit Brooklyn Community Foundation’s website.

The New Year brings with it reflection on the past and anticipation for the future. As we welcome what’s ahead, we also take the time to both acknowledge and celebrate the organization’s 2018 achievements.

At the top of the year, Cave Canem was named a recipient of Brooklyn Community Foundation’s second annual Spark Prize, a distinction that includes a grant award of $100,000. The prize was awarded to five Brooklyn-based organizations committed to equity and racial justice. As the largest single-year grant in Cave Canem’s history, this was a distinguished and impactful honor.

The organization also received generous awards from the New York Community Trust and LitTAP. Support from the New York Community Trust will enable a smooth migration of the organization’s internal databases to the Cloud, while funds from LitTAP will allow Cave Canem to outfit the office with new technology.

Cave Canem elected Kelly Davis and Allen A. Drexel, Esq. to its Board of Directors, and welcomed Zora Howard as the organization’s new Development/Administrative Assistant. Additionally, our working fellowship program for aspiring arts professionals expanded to include monthly lunch meetings with administrators in the field.

As a founding member of the Poetry Coalition, Cave Canem joined a host of cultural organizations across the country in March to present programs on the theme “Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body.” Fellows and faculty were invited to submit a poetic line inspired by the body for inclusion in what ultimately became Cave Canem’s Fellows & Faculty Exquisite Corpse. In tandem, Cave Canem hosted its first-ever open mic. Emceed by fellow t’ai freedom ford, participants were encouraged to read work inspired by the body.

Cave Canem’s Anti-Oppression Series, inaugurated in 2017 with the organization’s first-ever anti-racism workshop, offers workshops that encourage conversations that challenge institutional oppression. In 2018, the series continued with licensed psychologist Dr. Nicole Jackson, who facilitated the much-anticipated workshop: “Self-care, Vulnerability and Resilience: Disarming Intersectional Microaggressions.”

In partnership with the Brooklyn Museum, Cave Canem expanded its Cave Canem at the Brooklyn Museum series to include readings every month from October 2018 through February 2019. (Join us Saturday, January 5, 7:30pm as Cave Canem fellows S. Erin Batiste, Ama Codjoe and Kyla Marshell read in celebration of new beginnings and social justice advocacy!)

Thanks to all of our fellows, faculty and friends for making 2018 another incredible year!

Last fall Cave Canem hosted its first ever anti-racism workshop facilitated by poet, social justice advocate and fellow Ama Codjoe. As part of our Lecture & Master Class series, “Walking the Walk: Poetry, Equity & Anti-Racism in the Literary Arts” marked the launch of Cave Canem’s Anti-Oppression Series, which offers workshops that facilitate conversations about institutional oppression and how to challenge it.

This past October, licensed psychologist Dr. Nicole L. Jackson facilitated “Self-care, Vulnerability and Resilience: Disarming Intersectional Microaggressions,” a workshop focused on the factors that buffer against and dismantle the impact of microaggressions. The workshop with Dr. Jackson included everything from a “loving kindness meditation” and discussion of Lucille Clifton’s triumphant poem “Won’t You Celebrate with Me” to conversations about trauma and vulnerability in relation to microagression theory and explorations of self-care strategies. One participant expressed that overall, “It was a deeply valuable workshop,” while another noted that the facilitator was “very effective at making space for a range of ideas.”

The next installment of the Anti-Oppression Series will welcome back Ama Codjoe in February 2019 for a second anti-racism workshop. Stay tuned for upcoming announcements on our website and social media platforms!

In preparation for #Juneteenth, read the work of Black Authors curated by Cave Canem poets, a member of the historic Getting Word Coalition!

10% of your purchase will be contributed to Getting Word, in support of the Black Literary organizations guiding today’s leading, emerging, and aspiring Black writers.

Getting Word and Book Shop are proud to collaborate this Juneteenth to #FundBlackLiterature!

Cave Canem’s Booklist was inspired by the diversity of Black poetic voices they have cultivated over their past 25 years. This Juneteenth visit our Bookshop page to support the work of Black authors.

An overflowing room of more than 65 attendees gathered in Cave Canem’s Brooklyn loft on August 13, 2019 for Cave Canem’s first event of the fall season: an intimate and lively reading with Poets at the End of the World. A collective comprised of Cave Canem fellows and acclaimed poets Ama Codjoe, Donika Kelly, Nicole Sealey, Evie Shockley and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Poets at the End of the World (PEW) dedicates itself to service and social justice. PEW is influenced by the work and lives of legendary poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan and Audre Lorde to turn literary work into action by donating collective honoraria to contribute tangible support to institutions dedicated to a more just and equitable world.

Featured readers shared newly written poems as well as crowd favorites. Of the reading, Cave Canem faculty Evie Shockley expressed, “I was deeply affirmed by the amazing turnout (a full-to-overflowing room!), [and] the generous attention to my reading. It was a wonderful opportunity to share some new work with an ideal audience that not many spaces besides Cave Canem can provide.”

We’re thankful for the generosity of Poets at the End of the World and The Fringe Foundation, whose support has made this program possible.



Photo Credit: Nicholas Nichols

Throughout the month of March, Poetry Coalition members will present multiple programs on the theme “Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body,” which borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s poem “Flores Woman.” As a founding member of the Poetry Coalition, Cave Canem invited fellows and faculty to reimagine our collective voice as comprising one body by submitting a poetic line inspired by the body for inclusion in an exquisite corpse, a fully formed poem made of independently formed fragments.

On March 23, 2018, Cave Canem will present the second installment of our Poetry & the Body programming with the organization’s first-ever open mic! Emceed by fellow t’ai freedom ford, participants will read work inspired by the body. The evening will conclude with a feature reading of Cave Canem’s exquisite corpse poem, included below in its original format.*

Cave Canem’s Fellows & Faculty Exquisite Corpse

Sovereign each day in this flesh house, this castle of bone, I am fluent in the language of miracles.
Sweet skin, so dissonant,
My long-armed disillusionment walks shirtless down the night street.
Hands: black swans toward heaven gripping gold or grains or flecks of God’s glory.
gravesites filling with rain water, hum corpses into songs
Let not this cavernous ear hear the wind of trouble, oh outdone soul, auric heart
I keep myself from my place as I place my neck upon your autumn
Urging the soft tissues to abandon seizing, the body slows its breath
The wrist serves hands, serves fingers, flexes an elegant twist; tiny bones break a fall.
How else can a boy’s body know where it’s been?
the bridge between corpse and the not yet born
I held him, shrunk and beheaded, in the palm of my hand
I am held together by miraculous means
In quiet, my chest lifts, listens harder
i whisper into my palms the words i fear most to speak
This body is an impersonator of the living world, an improvisation—a perfect abyss of sanctified
This body—this antique, stained glass door.
When did I stop looking at myself in the mirror?
My limbs, liminal and longing for something to grasp
Me & my delicious appendages, as almost there as a drum solo.
Temple—any redemption detained; maxi-phonic harmony ain’t shit to this—
My throat an axe, playing its music in cool words, hot beats.
Invented form, my body makes sounds only I hear.
my spine: skeletal trellis linking the upper and lower worlds of my flesh
Holy the spine’s song, holy these plummy lips, holy the two choirs of eyebrows raised in joy.
my bovine heart understood only by teeth
sometimes the breath and back isn’t graceful
The belly is full, her womb / a symphony.
The uneven geographies of shadows and light.
Smart in the dark arts of policing my body, I become this line.
this ceaseless call to temple
cashiered bodies currency’s sugared grove, inscription a matter of flesh
song implied at nearness, a melody of touch, never a full-blown aria
but I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new.
Is an autopsy report a eulogy?–especially when the autopsy of a Black body is read aloud for
+++“unpoetic effect” to white academics attending a poetry reading on an ivy league
+++campus and the genitalia of a Black body is still the last line.
Ain’t a funeral another way of saying we all gather here to bear witness to a blk body in holy
+++matrimony to de ground we walk on?
My uncle will come back as a cardinal, / this isn’t the only body I’ll have to care for.
You let him rot, the man who loves you most
my body heals the sealed-thin lips of a wound. Black is a thread drawn tight
This skin binds and unbinds, stitching poorly sewn
This body twists, turns with age—I listen, I obey
today they tell you that your body / may cost them the election
my body is lunacy sainted, an unbroken womb.
come on tarzan | u know dis king-kunta-stic(k) be transcendental
Learnèd astronomer / under which bright constellation / might these drums cease / to summon
+++those Calypso lips / glossed to lapse all logic,
Granulated, my body whispers secrets in ochre and sepia marrowed from the bones of birds.
Often, my tongue whittles lines to sip the ink.
At what point did the leg, the arm wilt, lean into tongue?
How my tongue grew heavy with silence
The breath: the sharpest sweetest seduction
Of the belied mouth, the silence further discusses it —
throat: a soft outcry, my body open like lotus
the globe burning its siren above, the bodies brown & blistering below// our mouths upturned
in prayer
Praise this body and how it holds onto the memory of our last kiss.
We are twins of the opposite same.
shadow of ballpoint between thumb and forefinger
The argument of your body: soaring, well measured
A ravish of flamingos swooning out to sea
Your face is like the sky, both clouds and light
My eyes speak from the voice watching in yours
A denuded clarity results, like a shed layer of skin.
My body now overripe with life / a loose peel waiting
am body. embody! i’m body. om ((body)). um, body?
grinning and thumping and promising something
Until the sequence of breath became change, became life inside the blood
soothing not seething, a change
My eye has seen forever; my foot walks the way of a new world
My lineage, the moles and freckles on my face.
Fate is my flesh: skin alive with a knowing that rises from blood, bliss and a bit of blues
how i hold my fingers is a promise to my people after all this time that i still know
the freedom of the old dance / flowers at your feet / a body that obeys your commands
Phillis’s last breath, / phantom / babe suckling at her breast.
My body, ensouled in Africa’s, Scotland’s, Ireland’s, the Americas’ deep core.
My body rushes to keep up in a race I did not willingly enter.
In my daughter, I admire the underappreciated: a small fold of skin just inside her ear.
Pass through her room at full stride
The marble floor. Back to center she cants fidelity. A ruined place.
What living, breathing thing is this: born of breast and bearing
clitoris infinite
And, if not my parts, who can help me find my whole
When lightning strikes my heart I will split open.
Heart-broken, I open up.

*The poem is comprised entirely of lines by the following poets (in order of appearance): Lauren K. Alleyne, Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Marcus Jackson, F. Douglas Brown, Andre Hoilette, Tameka Cage Conley, Keith S. Wilson, Duriel E. Harris, Jadi Z. Omowale, Natalie J. Graham, Randall Horton, Ama Codjoe, Nicholas Goodly, Rachel Nelson, Melanie Hope, LeRonn P. Brooks, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, Morgan Parker, Kyla Marshell, Adrian Matejka, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ana-Maurine Lara, Nicole Sealey, Shayla Hawkins, Major Jackson, Safia Elhillo, Cynthia Manick, Stewart Shaw, January Gill O’Neil, Rickey Laurentiis, Valencia Robin, Herman Beavers, Mary Moore Easter, John Murillo, Yolanda J. Franklin, Rico Frederick, Tyree Daye, Jericho Brown, Lynne Procope, Iain Haley Pollock, Teri Elam, Anastacia Renee Tolbert, Ashunda Norris, avery r. young, Joel Dias-Porter, Carmen R. Gillespie, L’Oréal Snell, Nandi Comer, Amanda Johnston, Metta Sama, Michelle Whittaker, Rose M. Smith, Mahogany L. Browne, JP Howard, Arisa White, Myron Hardy, Donika Kelly, Ross Gay, Erica Mapp, Carolyn Joyner, Chiyuma Elliott, Alyss Dixson, Evie Shockley, James Cagney, Aaron Coleman, Marwa Helal, Nagueyalti Warren, Kateema Lee, Linda Susan Jackson, Nate Marshall, Colleen J. McElroy, L. Lamar Wilson, Gloria J. Burgess, Breauna L. Roach, Katy Richey, Toni Wynn, Marie-Ovide Gina Dorcely, Remica Bingham-Risher, Karma Mayet Johnson, Willie Perdomo, Sheila Carter-Jones & Safia Jama.

Them Ghosts

them ghosts gonna
respect no privacy or tenderness
hobble they tires like runaways
pick out suspension busting potholes
cut strings like ham
sing the stillborn song holler down

holy hell them ghosts gonna
sprinkle glass in they food
rub fingernails on they larynx
bite out they tongues
burn up they dinner in they belly
break they fingers suck marrow
out they phalanges ‘n metatarsals
put brambles on they eyeballs

suffocate they them ghosts gonna
be in the shower, in the mirror steam
playing thorns on they eardrums
yank they arm hairs out
salt paper cuts
brand they tastebuds
rub on they like they was

rub on them ghosts gonna
ride the wails of they skinned knee children
watch they young sold far
push say please up they nose to they brain
chop down they money tree
confetti they money times
five generations them ghosts

never forget

Christina Springer’s Poets Tour Profile 

Since Cave Canem was established in 1996, its model of mentorship and fellowship has inspired a host of other organizations dedicated to the development of poets of color. In light of the upcoming Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion, we are reflecting on our past and thinking about what’s next in poetry and with these literary spaces that many poets call home. On Friday, June 18 at 7pm ET, María Fernanda (CantoMundo), Aurora Masum-Javed (Kundiman), Robert Randolph, Jr. (The Watering Hole), and El Williams III (Cave Canem) will read poems and discuss writing communities and the future(s) of poetry. Here, they have each selected one poet who they feel best represents or writes into this future. Noting that there are many futures, we invite you to work with us in building a world that encompasses them all.


María Fernanda on Safiya Sinclair

Safiya Sinclair’s poetry collection Cannibal opens, “Have I forgotten it—”. There, the em dash appears to exemplify what forgetting may even look and feel like: our immediate consciousness squeezed into a flatness in order to survive our surroundings of continued colonization. The reader finds it is not a flatness. It is one small mixing a part of an expansive, strong palette. A painter’s motion to continue, to create a new color, a new depth.

Cannibal creates a vast palette of the influx of light (otherwise, dawn). Sinclair’s vibrancies—fire, gold, autumn, and more—brace such a strength. A flame’s coloring so intense, it bears blue. Readers experience nuanced blood hues, “my great-grandfather’s blood was clotted thick with sugar cane and overproof rum; when he bled it trickled heavy like molasses, blotted black […]”.

Sinclair’s palette transfigures into a motif of multiplicity, materializing as disease, “supernova,” unstoppable disaster, and more. Each instance, conscious and conquering historical colonial narratives, records how colonial disaster affects us (“proof of us”) and, simultaneously, Sinclair envisions herself as several new inextinguishable, massive disasters.

This personification of catastrophe is a reclaiming, “I swallowed anchor,” “Already, I have been a miracle,” “I will take your name. / I will take your home,” and those who have maintained, “the chicken wire of my sex,” will, “finally choke.”

This re-envisioning, through Sinclair’s palette, opens a particular collective future, where all of us can consider another way to move forward together. We, her readers whom identify, possess “the world’s red mecca,” even spiritually. The “pillars of coral carved into weapons by the Caribbean Sea […]” teach us.

It is in Sinclair’s piece “Hands” where multiplicity does not necessary connote immortality of one being, but, more impressively, through the blends of our differently-imbued blood, whether “blotted black” or “rusty sunset,” “our bloodlines of what once lived […] will live and live again.”

Aurora Masum-Javed on Muriel Leung

What does it mean to hold the future in your mouth, to curl the page and listen until it sings, until it weeps? Muriel Leung’s Imagine UsThe Swarm envisions through memory, through reckoning. “I dream my ancestors alive, willing them to the table. How the thread of harm extends both ways.” Then later, “From the caverns of a war, I wait.” In this book, the past blossoms within us—sometimes radiant, sometimes cancerous. Grief carried like history in our bones. What do we do but construct a hope from the smoke?

“Even locked within the room, I poured out of it.” These poems pour—their forms breaking and remaking what is possible on the page—this, too, an act of futurity. Alongside the haunting, tenderness and longing in every line—the book is an embodiment of how love alters. Just as Leung builds radical, queer community everywhere she goes, this book dreams for the collective, ending with a swarm of resistance filling the sky. “We can write our origins / sacred here and renounce the country of our fear.”

I want to live in Leung’s imagination, the future she builds. There is space there—for the sadness, for all that we’ve done, for all we might still be. Like her previous collection Bone Confetti, this extraordinary book gives language to the impossible—what the body holds but so often cannot speak. “In the dying field, pointing to my own body, / I saw that it was mine was always there / and it spoke when I spoke / a language of two / hardened places / and there I lived / despite it all.” And there I lived. And there I live. We live.


Robert E. Randolph, Jr. on JoVan O’Neal

One is tempted to say that the future never announces itself, that it just shows up like the misery Toni Morrison warns us about in her novel Home: “Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake—otherwise it just walks on in your door.” Indeed, misery walked through our doors in 2020. And it did not show up alone. Misery also brought loneliness, alienation, despair, loss, and grief. Who among us have not entertained one or all these affects during the past year?  In this space, poets have sought words to snatch our collective minds and spirits back from the carnage of our suffering. In the past, I have seen them tap into the memory of suffering so sweet and thick, they had no other choice but to witness. And, for me, therein lies the future of poetry.

I want to proffer a modest supposition, one that may seem more likely upon a second or even third thought: Within the next few years, we will see an explosion of new poets. I would like to imagine that there are throngs of writers who discovered poetry for the first time during the pandemic, who began to sift through the words not as a hobby but out of necessity. Perhaps, the future of poetry belongs to the poets who did not see themselves as such before the pandemic but claim the moniker now. The future of poetry may be the providence of those born in a particular weariness who will help us process the grief of the current moment. Jo’Van O’Neal is one such poet.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, O’Neal’s work can be found or is forthcoming in the Foundry Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, Anomaly, New Delta Review, and Bayou Magazine. To encounter the rue and romanticism of his pen, check out this offering, “The Binding.” Once you read it, how could you not understand my parting question: “What then is poetry, if not the future persevering?”


El Williams III on Harryette Mullen

As a person who lives in the present or operates on a day-to-day basis, the mystery of the future is often oblique. I view it from many angles and recognize that it (the future, which includes the present, and the past) is not linear. As such, I consider my interaction with poetry in this way; the future of poetry is the present of poetry is the past of poetry…or poetry will as it does as it did: inform, enlighten, entertain, breakthrough, breakdown, behold, revisit, reimagine, release. As the supreme genre, it carries all others and will continue to do so. On a sociopolitical note, it is my wish that poetry becomes more accessible to all, especially children, and that the amplification of marginalized voices continue to find and/or make/break space. Ultimately, the future of poetry is here, but should always and will always (if we, poets, hold ourselves responsible) learn new ways to blossom into a beauty that holds many narratives to be shared by all. Though I could say that all poets write into the future or represent the future, I’ll recognize, here, Harryette Mullen, a genius-poet who has me thinking heavily about the future-past, craft, the disruption of language, and Blackness. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how her work centers my thinking on Black womanhood. I name her, specifically, because of all the poetry (collections) I’ve read in the past year, her book length poem, Muse & Drudge, continues to call my name. In a 1996 interview with Calvin Bedient, he states, “there’s a great deal of mobility [in the poem]…it improvises and metamorphoses.” Mullen responds with the idiom, “it grows like Topsy” (Mullen 664), and that’s very true, because here I am learning from it, from her, as her work grows into the future.


Works Cited

Mullen, Harryette. “The Solo Mysterioso Blues: An Interview with Harryette Mullen.” Interviewed by Calvin Bedient. Callaloo Vol. 19, No. 3, 1996, pp. 664.



María Fernanda’s poems “invokes sea crossings with […] the breaking and making of family,” as described by OkayAfrica. Her poems and translations appear in The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext, The Wide Shore, The Acentos Review, and more. María Fernanda is a published contributor of The Library of Congress’ Publishing Office. Awarded the Andrea Klein Willison Prize for Poetry and a finalist for The Hurston/Wright Amistad Award, María Fernanda is an Academy of American Poets’ 2020-2021 Poetry Coalition Fellow. She has presented her poems at The Ecuadorian American Cultural Center, Arizona’s Phoenix Art Museum, Philadelphia’s historic Kelly Writers House, Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays, and more. María Fernanda serves as the Black Artists and Designers Association’s Secondary Advisor at Arizona State University. 

Aurora Masum-Javed is a poet and educator. A former public school teacher, she received her MFA from Cornell University, where she also served as a lecturer. Her work can be found in Aster(ix), Frontier, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships from MacDowell, Caldera, and Kundiman among others. A former Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing and Hub City Writer in Residence, she is currently working on her first book and teaching in South Carolina. 

Robert Randolph, Jr., is a writer and scholar from Down East, North Carolina. His research and teaching interests include 20th- and 21st-century African American literature and cultural production, educational theory and philosophy, and Black feminist/queer rhetorics. His work has appeared in several academic journals including The Journal of Black Masculinity, Composition Studies, Praxis, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, Black Youth Project, and Wear Your Voice Magazine. He is currently working on a book titled What Moves at the Margins: Black Queer Poetics and the Critical Pedagogical Imagination. Randolph holds a PhD in educational and cultural studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a Graduate Poetry Fellow of The Watering Hole. You can find him on Twitter: @rrandolphjr.

El Williams III‘s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ploughshares, River Styx, Vinyl Poetry & Prose, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem, Community of Writers, Tin House, and The Watering Hole. A St. Louis native, he currently lives in Bloomington where he is a dual MFA/MA candidate in poetry and African American & African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University.

Poster announcing the 2023 Cave Canem Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 10, 2023. On the left of the poster is a black and white headshot of judge Colleen J. McElroy. She is looking off camera. She has multiple earrings in her ears, a nose ring, a ruffled dark scarf, and a dark colored top. She has dark hair in a crown braid and smaller braids.

Submissions are now open for the 2023 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, to be judged by Colleen J. McElroy. The annual contest is dedicated to the discovery of first books by Black poets. The winner receives $1,000, publication by University of Pittsburgh Press in fall 2024, 15 copies of the book, and a feature reading. Black poets who have not had a full-length book of poetry published by a professional press are encouraged to apply by May 10. The contest is free to enter. Complete details and submission guidelines may be found here.

Colleen J. McElroy is the author of nine poetry collections, including Blood Memory; Sleeping with the Moon, winner of the PEN Oakland National Literary Award; Travelling Music; What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988; Queen of the Ebony Isles, winner of the American Book Award; and Winters without Snow. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Fulbright Program; and the Rockefeller Foundation. A DuPont Distinguished Scholar and former editor of The Seattle Review for more than a decade, McElroy is Professor Emerita at the University of Washington.

The Cave Canem Poetry Prize was initiated in 1999 with Rita Dove’s selection of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work. Most recently, Willie Perdomo selected Ariana Benson as the 2022 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner.

Cave Canem’s prizes are supported, in part, by Amazon Literary Partnership Poetry Fund in partnership with the Academy of American Poets; Ford Foundation; Heinz Endowments; Lannan Foundation; Mellon Foundation; New York State Council of the Arts; Poetry Foundation; and Rona Jaffe Foundation. 

Cave Canem is grateful to its community of institutional supporters and individual donors, listed on our website, here.

This is a Black and white headshot of Courtney Faye Taylor. She sis seated beside a house plant and in front of lit window. She is wearing a white dress and hoop earrings. Shis is looking directly at the camera and has dark hair.

2021 Cave Canem Prize Winner 
Fellow: 2022

Rachel Eliza Griffiths selected Courtney Faye Taylor as the winner of the 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her manuscript Concentrate, published by Graywolf Press in fall 2022.

Why Concentrate as the title of this manuscript?

Latasha Harlins was killed in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice, so I was thinking about concentrated orange juice when I chose the title. In earlier versions of the manuscript, I was exploring the history of orange juice, trying to sit with its symbolism as an American beverage.

But over time, “concentrate” came to be a direct plea to the reader. The book is written in a collage style, so I’m asking the reader to concentrate on all the spiraling and journeying the book embarks on. 


Can you take us to the first time you heard Latasha Harlins’ name? Can you discuss her significance to the collection?

I can’t remember when I first heard Latasha’s name, but I, like most of us, only knew of her in the context of her murder. Latasha was not presented to me in the fullness of her childhood, which is a fullness she deserves. I became interested in undoing this erasure, not just of Latasha but of all Black girls lost to violence. As I say in the collection, “I’ve entered LA to anti-erase, which is the work of resistance.” Concentrate is that anti-erasure.


What were you considering as you approached the sequencing for Concentrate?

I start the book with a dialogue between an aunt and her niece. The aunt is giving her niece “the talk,” the conversation where race and the dangers of white supremacy are explained to a child for the first time. This conversation being placed at the beginning of the book mimics the way “the talk” happens toward the beginning of our lives. And the rest of our lives are defined by how we engage with the lessons of that talk. Likewise, the rest of Concentrate is a navigation of those teachings. 


There are a number of poems that leverage visuals as a part of their project. Can you speak to the instinct behind these poems and what they accomplish that a “traditional” poem, with only text, could not?

I turn to visual art when I need the reader to see what I’m saying in a very literal sense. A photo of Latasha’s name etched on the sidewalk outside her middle school, a collage of missing Black girls and women, clippings from a scholarly text—these visuals are a language themselves. My writing works in tandem with the images to present a perspective that wouldn’t be possible with one medium alone. 


There are a number of images that repeat in the manuscript. The orange slice, for example. How do imagistic refrains operate in your work?

Repetition roots the reader. When you can say, “I’ve seen this before,” you can say, “I know where I am.” I repeat the orange slices and phrases like “forever” and “should be considered.” There’s a reason those need to reappear. I hope each instance takes readers further in their understanding of the text. 


You included poems with blacked-out pages, others with the structure of a Yelp review, and timeline poems. May you take us further into your formal decisions in this collection?

Poetry can be a notation on a timeline. It can sing when cast against a black background void of white space. In Concentrate, I play at these intersections.

The Yelp review was an interesting form to explore. When I wrote those poems, I was considering the ways Black and Asian American conflict is presented on a large scale through national media—news, music, and film. But there are also the day-to-day interpersonal experiences of prejudice. How do those micro-level stories get passed around? Yelp seems to be a popular vehicle for them. 


What does it mean for you to see Concentrate in the lineage of the Cave Canem Book Prize?

To be in the lineage of other Cave Canem Poetry Prize winners—poet laureates like Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Trethewey, and talented friends like Malcolm Tariq. I have no words for that pride. And to be a Cave Canem fellow, standing in spaces once occupied by Kamilah Aisha Moon and Lucille Clifton. The feeling is overwhelming in the best way. Concentrate is covered by the entirety of Cave Canem’s legacy. I can’t imagine a better birth for this collection.


Advanced Praise

“Breathtaking, brilliant, and radical –– Concentrate is the mouth that refuses to swallow America’s blackest desires, which have too long centered their wealth on the lives and deaths of Black girls and women. Taylor’s debut is a deftly woven journey that offers us historical and psychic perspectives that are intimate and expansive, as these poems drag us, by syntax and grace, to our nation’s threshing floor, which must be the page and the body. These poems guide readers through graphic meditations on guilt, innocence, innuendo, and how the constructs of form construct, and often destroy, any easy recognition of justice, or Self. Instead, we are seated, with bent heads, between the knees of an unbroken voice that demands to be heard and heeded. Extraordinary in craft, Taylor’s fearless poems appraise the arc of bullets and bodies devoured by America’s great hard dream. Incandescent in her excavation of language, and the perils of its erasure, Taylor breathes through every side of this wound. Concentrate is a tongue that fiercely grips the edges of love and memory before all is ripped loose. How fortunate to discover Taylor’s imagination, and her uncompromising heart, in such a world.” Rachel Eliza Griffiths, 2021 Cave Canem Prize Judge and Cave Canem Fellow

“Courtney Faye Taylor writes a syntax vexed by memory and grief in zone upon zone of language, history, and feeling. . . . This book radiates a cry, a name, ‘an incendiary grief’ so ablaze it touches everything. Concentrate is a riotous, gorgeously unruled text forged by sisterhood and resistance, across time.” Aracelis Girmay, Cave Canem Fellow

“[Courtney] has a rich and critical gaze at her own life and the lives of her cultural peers.” Dante Micheaux, Director of Programs and Cave Canem Fellow


Courtney Faye Taylor is a writer and visual artist. She is the author of Concentrate (Graywolf), selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Courtney earned her BA from Agnes Scott College and her MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program where she received the Hopwood Prize in Poetry. A recipient of the 92Y Discovery Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize, Courtney’s work can be found in PoetryThe NationPloughsharesBest New Poets and elsewhere.

Black and white photograph of Courtney Faye Taylor (smiling, right hand resting on head, left hand resting on collar, light colored dress, long earrings, dark hair)

Rachel Eliza Griffiths has selected Courtney Faye Taylor as the winner of the 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her manuscript Concentrate. Taylor will receive $1,000 and publication by Graywolf Press in fall 2022.

Of Concentrate, Griffiths notes: “Breathtaking, brilliant, and radical –– Concentrate is the mouth that refuses to swallow America’s blackest desires, which have too long centered their wealth on the lives and deaths of Black girls and women. Taylor’s debut is a deftly woven journey that offers us historical and psychic perspectives that are intimate and expansive, as these poems drag us, by syntax and grace, to our nation’s threshing floor, which must be the page and the body. These poems guide readers through graphic meditations on guilt, innocence, innuendo, and how the constructs of form construct, and often destroy, any easy recognition of justice, or Self. Instead, we are seated, with bent heads, between the knees of an unbroken voice that demands to be heard and heeded. Extraordinary in craft, Taylor’s fearless poems appraise the arc of bullets and bodies devoured by America’s great hard dream. Incandescent in her excavation of language, and the perils of its erasure, Taylor breathes through every side of this wound. Concentrate is a tongue that fiercely grips the edges of love and memory before all is ripped loose. How fortunate to discover Taylor’s imagination, and her uncompromising heart, in such a world.”

Courtney Faye Taylor is a writer and visual artist from the Midwest. She is the winner of the 92Y Discovery / Boston Review Poetry Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Best New Poets 2020 and published in The Nation, Poetry, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Taylor is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program where she received the Hopwood Prize in Poetry. She is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Mae Fellowship.

This year’s runner up is Justin Danzy for his manuscript Run in such a way. Griffiths says: “Run in such a way is a vision of snare, thorn, tongue, and the endless rhythms through which language skims its wings across the darkened faces of history, memory, and body. Danzy’s charged voice, which is lyrical and bold in its clarity, flays truth alive and offers us a singing blaze. These startling poems are immediate and revelatory, resurrecting both the past and the future into our Now.”

Justin Danzy is from Southfield, Michigan. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri. A full list of semifinalists can be found here.

Established in 1999 with Rita Dove’s selection of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize is a first-book award dedicated to launching the publishing career of a Black poet. The 2022 Cave Canem Poetry Prize will open for submissions in January 2022.

Scant days after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020, I received an email from an editor of an online magazine. The email was a request to respond to the murder, calling upon—roughly—my expertise in antiblackness, my stature, and my proximity “on-the-ground” (an unfortunate choice of words) in the Twin Cities. Instead of producing an exclusive comment, I posted a version of this statement on my Facebook account on June 5, 2020. It was late in the morning. Almost noon.

I have made very few revisions.—DK


Dear Editor,

I thank you for this invitation. Funny, I composed a poem about the historic Watts uprisings on Sunday, May 24, before the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd.

There’s a part of me that wants to simply send you all of what I’ve already written. Not as some authority, but to point out simply that this is a changing same. That I—and many others—are always thinking about the conditions under which George Floyd and so many, many others are subject, the combination of these as features, not bugs, in systemic modes of violence that are a part of the purview of policing. As my wife and I explained to our 10-year-olds (who learned explicitly about a then contemporaneous application of this constant, historic killing when St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez murdered Philando Castile): it isn’t that law enforcement is simply disinterested in protecting Black people, but that US Culture/Law dictates that our very presence is the thing they are meant to protect against.

That white comfort has come to define itself as dependent on methodical control of everyone they deem “other” is true—settler colonialism, slavery, racism, forced displacement within the country, deportation, xenophobia, lynching, segregation, official exclusionary acts, internment, redlining, underemployment, food deserts, compromised healthcare access, the prison industry, genocidal wetworks, and on and on. In this, Black people have the horrifying under-privilege of being mass mediatization’s most consistent public face of a comfort-control equation involving law enforcement and murder; and, as such, we—along with everyone else—see Black people murdered and assaulted by police and parapolice vigilantes again and again across the country’s news cycle with a sure shot frequency.

That White Supremacy put me in a position to make this a reasonable conversation to have with my then six-year-olds is a violence I will never forgive. I will go to work carrying it. I will share social space carrying it. I will form friendships carrying it. Yet I will not forgive it.

But back to the invitation. I’ve grappled with your request. Because, you see, I wonder: at what point does another piece triggered in response to the changing same become a part of the control-comfort ecosystem? This is complex in that writing such things is not cathartic for me, and I’d imagine, many others. Many different kinds of people could read what I’ve written, including people who are on the short-end of the control-comfort stick. I wonder, and I wonder this honestly, when is writing about violence against Black people not a prediction, by which I mean: This violence is always happening, so when I wrote the poem I mentioned above, was I reacting to Watts, refracted through the historical pattern of the changing same? Was I acting in anticipation or response to the same thing happening again? Or was I, like the pastoral poet, not set on waiting for the Event of Fall in order to write about the redness in the arbor, but simply looking out my window, in some October, and watching a cycle continue?

Understand, I am angry, Editor. Not with the invitation, precisely. I am angry that a policeman murdered George Floyd. I am angry that members of my community must risk their safety—from more violence and a pandemic—to demonstrate against this changing same. But for this letter, dear Editor, I am angry that despite all I’ve written, alongside contemporaries who have written even better, adding to a tradition we carry on because it is the cycle in which our ancestors fell, suddenly red, to the ground and those who could, wrote about it also better than I; that what seems to be the case is that maybe if WE try again, maybe if WE write it more clearly and passionately, but not TOO passionately, or perhaps more passionately, or with more nuance, or perhaps with unequivocal statements, or more musically, maybe with greater eloquence, no, no, plain speech—that maybe if WE do that, juuuuuuust right and do it new and do it now with speed and urgency for those moments they are paying attention, white people will finally realize that they are responsible for changing themselves. And —via their massive, more sacrosanct, voting power; disproportionately large economic resources; gross overrepresentation in positions of power; and, most importantly, prime access to their own psyches—speedily and urgently dismantling the systems that exist for them and their privilege. And yes, class is critical to this, but more fluid than perceived race. Police don’t check your credit rating before they shoot, club, rough-ride, or strangle your life away because, you see, they already know what they think you’re worth.

So, I don’t know what to write about this other than George Floyd was murdered by a police officer named Derek Chauvin, who apparently didn’t do anything so unbecoming of an officer as to be permanently relieved of duty prior. Who, because several other police officers were present as he murdered George Floyd over the course of about nine minutes, apparently didn’t seem to be doing anything unbecoming of an officer on Monday, May 25th, either.

I will write that Black people are being asked to be patient again and show faith that maybe this time will be the one that really makes a difference, even as the same old narratives about property damage roll out from the owners of stolen land.

I will write that again, my children are terrified, because this is terrorism. I will write that the president’s vile White Supremacism doesn’t let the brakes off of White Supremacy at-large, for to suggest so would require the ridiculous fancy that the train was built with any thought that it should ever have to stop.

I will write that if Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s murderer, is acquitted, the jury has agreed that $20 is the price of Black life. I will write that police will murder other Black people: some will be named Breonna, and some will be named Tony. Some will be children. Some will be elders. They will fall across the spectrum of gender identities. Many will be poor and almost all will be poorer than their white counterparts. The police will do this on and off-camera. They will do it on the street and in the victims’ homes. In parks and parking lots. They will do it, Editor. And they will do it for white people. Whether white people claim to want it done or not.

I would like to invite more white people to do something material about not wanting it. I would like to invite more white people to critically-engage their sabotaging of our efforts through thoughtless, opportunistic acts of catharsis and self-serving gaslighting. I would like to invite more white people to stop preferring that we keep producing new work when it’s they who have work to do. Isn’t that desire the very condition that sailed many Black people here?

Douglas Kearney
St. Paul, Minnesota


Douglas Kearney has published six books, including the award-winning poetry collection Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2016); libretti, Someone Took They Tongues. (Subito, 2016); and criticism, Mess and Mess and (Noemi Press, 2015). His seventh collection, Sho, is forthcoming in spring 2021 (Wave Books). A Whiting Writer’s and Foundation for Contemporary Arts Cy Twombly awardee with residencies/fellowships from Cave Canem, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and others, Kearney teaches Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.

This is a portrait of Demetrius Buckley. He is illustrated in black and white. His bust is positioned in front of a dark gradient background. He is wearing a white shirt. He has short dark hair and a focused look.

We are honored to announce that Lillian-Yvonne Bertram has selected Demetrius “Meech” Buckley as the winner of the 2021 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Cave Canem Chapbook Prize for his manuscript Here is Home. Buckley will receive $500, publication by Jai-Alai Books in spring 2022, copies of the chapbook, a residency at The Writer’s Room at The Betsy Hotel in Miami, and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival. The following poets have been recognized as finalists: Mike Crossley (to be young black and gifted), and Kameryn Alexa Carter (Confessional).

Meech is a prolific poet and essayist, whose work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, PEN America, RHINO, and elsewhere. Meech is currently incarcerated in Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan. In lieu of a headshot, Demetrius is represented in this portrait drawn by Daniella Toosie-Watson.

In his own words: “My name is Demetrius Buckley. Writing has always been a playground for my imagination. It took me a few wrong turns to understand my calling and with those wrong turns, I still ended in the beginning of my purpose, or direction of it. My reflection is to the people I desire communion with, to those upbringings unchosen to the child which dilutes the imagination with a speedy growth. It’s hard to dream while fighting at a young age. Without art we are nonexistent; without life, we are nothing more but a rock waiting to be sand.”

Launched in 2015 with Ross Gay’s selection of Rio Cortez’s I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space Between Mountains, the annual Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize is dedicated to the discovery of exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets. It is presented in collaboration with the O, Miami Poetry Festival and The Betsy – South Beach. The 2021 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize will be open for submissions in summer 2022.

At the VA

The man who shares
a room with my father
titters and jerks
under the covers of
his bed.

His hair is wet and silver
corn silk slivers against the
pillow. He dances under those
sheets like a thick cut
piece of bacon on a
skillet lacquered with grease.

He calls for his Mama.

This scares me and I watch
him from my chair where
I sit with Daddy.

Daddy barely notices.
I’m scratching the back
of his head, applying
lotion to his scalp
because his hands
don’t work.

I turn away from the man
in the bed who moans
“Cover me”
“Cover me”

And I don’t know if
this is meant for
the mother
or platoon
he keens foras his dream caught
legs churn his sheets
into white cloth froth.

I focus on Daddy’s scalp
and make this ritual my
sole duty. I watch his
eyes close. His creased
brow smooth. This is my
way I bring Daddy home
from war.

Derrick Weston Brown’s Poets Tour Profile

Karisma Price is a Cave Canem fellow and 2018 Best of the Net Nominee. Born and raised in New Orleans, LA, she holds a BA in creative writing from Columbia University and is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at New York University where she is a in the Public Schools Fellow. Her work has appeared in Four Way Review, Narrative Magazine, Wildness, Glass, Cotton Xenomorph and elsewhere. In 2018, Karisma was named one of the writers on Narrative Magazine’s “30 Below 30” list of new and emerging authors. Karisma lives in Brooklyn and is a reader for Winter Tangerine. Along with Kwame Opoku-Duku III, she is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. In celebration of the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, hear Karisma Price read work alongside Cave Canem fellows Naomi Extra and Stephanie Jean on February 2, 2019, 7pm at the Brooklyn Museum.


What kinds of research and/or other forms of influence are informing your current writing project(s), and how?

History is an important influencer for me and I think if I weren’t an artist, I’d probably be a historian or an archivist. Much of the work that I’m currently writing is centered on the ideas of family and kinship in the personal, historical, and mythical sense, and black culture in America—specifically Louisiana. I am big fan of documentary film, historical fiction, and street photography. Currently, I am reading and watching things that deal with the history and culture of New Orleans and how so much of my hometown’s culture exists because of its black inhabitants.

Is there a life experience you may share that has significantly shaped you as a writer?

I think it was in the months following Hurricane Katrina that I was really interested in finding ways to capture the feelings and events going on around me. I was 10 when it happened and after evacuating to Dallas, my family moved back to New Orleans and we were homeless during my 6th grade school year. We spent all the money we had paying for a hotel so we’d have a roof over our heads and I don’t think we’ve ever fully recovered. New Orleans was and still is seen as one of the best vacation spots for tourists because the city is thought of as being joyous and full of light because of the food, music, and festivals, however, during that time, I didn’t see it in that regard because the people I loved were struggling to live. English had always been my favorite subject and I liked to write and read, however, I think it was because of how devastating Katrina was to my city and family that I thought I had something worth saying and sharing.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Heavy by Kiese Laymon. #blackabundance

As a practitioner in photography, screenwriting, film and other genres of creative writing, why do you choose to also be a poet? What does poetry offer that it is also part of your artistic practice?

To me, poetry is prayer. It’s ritualistic and meditative and I feel seen when I write (although I do most of my writing in solitude). Poetry was also the first art that I practiced and took seriously. I’ve wanted to be a poet since the 7th grade, but at that age, I didn’t know any living poets besides Maya Angelou and didn’t think I could make a living from poetry. About a year later, I taught myself how to write screenplays after realizing that although I was such a lover of watching films, I found myself sometimes being more interested in watching the “Making Of” and “Behind the Scenes” options on DVDs because I was so interested in the process of making things and not just the final product. All the mediums I practice allow me to create narratives, but I think what I really appreciate about poetry is that what I write does not have to always be told in linear time.

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I spend most of my money either buying new books or food. It’s a problem. I’m a big fan of hot wings. I also love music and spend a lot of time buying new headphones.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

Read. Read. Read. Write. And then read again. Read widely. But honestly, read when you have time because I know we all have work and lives and families that are also a priority.

Find a writing community or group of friends that will support you and be pleased to watch you succeed.

Trust yourself and your intuition. If an opportunity, situation, or person comes along and it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it (This is more so life advice rather than just poetry advice).

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

(1) Karaoke and (2) saying “no” to people when I need to.

What motivated you and Kwame Opoku-Duku III to create the Unbnd Collective? How do you see yourselves as part of or apart from other emerging Black artistic collectives that are curating spaces where the literary arts can thrive? (I think of the Black Took Collective, EMPIRE Reading Series and the Black Ladies Brunch Collective to name a small few.)

I met Kwame in 2016 in a creative writing class at Columbia University. He’s one of my closest friends. Kwame and I wanted to create a collective whose mission included creating a reading series and leading workshops to help connect writers of color with their communities. As black poets, we know that there are spaces where artists of color don’t feel fully valued or welcomed, and we didn’t want to sit and wait for another person or group of people to create an environment that would make us feel apart of a community. Seeing other poetry collectives come to fruition inspired us to create an environment where we felt comfortable and didn’t feel like we had to censor our work or ourselves.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

What has remained the same is my constant questioning as to why things are the way they are. I’ve always tried to see the best in people and situations. As humans, we are responsible for each other and I think my child-self still lives in the empathy and patience that I show to other people and the empathy that is present in my poems. My adult-self takes this field very seriously and I think it’s important to represent people in a holistic manner.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2018 was my first time at Cave Canem and it was something magical. One of my favorite moments from the retreat was having Chris Abani as a teacher. I’d never met him before and the day he was our workshop leader, we went around in a circle and he said, “when I get to you, you should be able to tell the class where you fit in the poetry tradition, who you are writing to or against, and what are your driving concerns/questions in the poems you write.” He really made me think. Another great, great memory was when I finally learned how to play spades on the last day of the retreat. It was one of the blackest moments of my life because we took a break from spades to do the electric slide.


A Cave Canem Fellow and Fulbright Scholar from Metro-Detroit, Aaron Coleman is the winner of the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, The Cincinnati Review Schiff Award, and the American Literary Translator Association’s Jansen Memorial Fellowship. His chapbook, St. Trigger, won the 2015 Button Poetry Prize, and his work can be found in ApogeeBoston ReviewFenceNew York Times Magazine, and elsewhere.  Currently, Coleman is a PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis. Hear Aaron Coleman read from his debut collection, Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018), alongside Camille Dungy and Shane McCrae on April 10, 6:30pm at The New School.

How does your debut, Threat Come Close, challenge the way American discourse thinks and talks about black men?

Whew – this question makes me feel so many things! But first, thank you for the opportunity to chat about Threat Come Close with the Cave Canem family. I’m so grateful to add my voice to the collective.

When I think about black masculinities, and masculinities in general, I sense a desperateness. There is beauty, strength, and joy alongside it, but I want to talk about a sense of desperation born from being alive despite all the ways we are policed in the United States and elsewhere. I mean “policed” in the literal sense but also in psychological and cultural senses of that word: I’m thinking of how we are policed by all the myths, exoticisms, “shoulds,” and social scripts that try to cage what blackness and masculinity can be.

As black men, in all our different forms and origins and orientations, I think we often feel forced to cobble together a kind of makeshift armor. Threat Come Close asks: what kind of life is possible when I see my armor for what it is? Not necessarily throwing it aside but also not clinging to it—just compassionately, vividly seeing it. As a black man, what comes to life for me and my relationships when I vividly see my histories, memories, and imagination; my pain, my privilege, my vulnerability, my tenderness? What happens to me (to any of us) when I listen closely to my own strange music? Threat Come Close opens spaces for seeing, feeling, and living with the complexity of belonging and wandering, of sexuality and desire, of rage and faith…

This question is so important to me – Let me go a bit further by focusing on the title: the odd phrasing of Threat Come Close wouldn’t leave me alone – and I hope black men and everyone, as they sit with it, can get a feel for its valences. Firstly: what happens when we ask the threat, the risk (in whatever social, racial, or personal form or context), to come closer, when we see it up close, beyond the stories around whatever that threat is? At levels of urgency, compassion, and insight, what does that proximity make possible? Secondly: what happens when I or any black man is seen as a “threat [that has] come close” a threat in the midst of American cultures’ realities and mythologies, or as an “I” that was nearly a threat, almost a threat, and survived – is surviving – and lives to tell about it.

I just hope Threat Come Close opens space for all black folx to be and see our whole, intricate selves.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

John Keene’s short story collection  Counternarratives (New Directions, 2016) has just stayed on my mind. I’m floored by the way each story opens new layers into worlds that mainstream American culture likes to assume are devoid of blackness. The shockingly vibrant yet ephemeral opening story is about a person of color (who has lived all over the world trying to find a way to survive) who is a scout on one of the first ships to reach what is now present-day Manhattan—in 1613. I’m looking into the history of this now and just discovering it’s a fictional story born out of a reality so few of us are aware of! It’s in this sense (and various others) that Keene’s stories – set in locations as various as Brazil, Haiti, DC, and Kentucky – counter reductive narratives that lull us to sleep about the complexity of the past as much as the present. I could go on….lol

What was the most memorable experience that came out of your time as a Fulbright Scholar?

Whew, I could name so many things, but thinking about this chance to connect with the Cave Canem community, I want to highlight a connection I made with a middle-aged black man from Senegal who lived in a neighborhood adjacent to mine in Madrid. One late night we got to talking about the African diaspora (in a mix of Spanish, English, and French), and at one point he says to me, “you black Americans are the fruit of Africa,” and something along the lines of how we’ve slipped so far away but still we shine back on the potential of the continent. It shook me. I didn’t really know how to feel about being called the fruit in that way – and of course Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” also clanged in my mind…I’m still trying to write about it. I wonder if I can create a poem that goes beyond narrative and really does the complexity of that moment justice.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

First things first, I’d say Andre 3000 is someone I’m always reflecting on (their music as much as their public persona), but that’s still pretty close to art. I played a lot of sports up until my early twenties (I finally stopped playing football seriously about mid-way through college) and I think the deep need for faith in your team and yourself (in losses and in wins), the speed and agility of improvisation that takes place while competing, and my own relationship to how I can be in my body…all of those things have stuck with me. I also was a lineman when I played football, so I have this deep respect for what goes on in the trenches and isn’t so easily seen or celebrated. I like the deep mechanics of strategy and technique in sports, too (from football to discus to basketball).

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

After looking at what I wrote above: damn, I watch too many sports! I’m also really into plants; my uncle and I both have a bit of a green thumb (his is serious, mine is on the way) and my first plant was from my grandmother’s funeral. I have a mentor who still has a houseplant that belonged to her mother who passed away years ago. I love how plants have a different sense of time, so you might catch me taking care of my twenty-some house plants or strolling in public parks or gardens in St. Louis. I feel a bit ridiculous writing this, but I could spend a very long time just looking at and lounging underneath trees.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

Advice is so hard because I don’t know if there are one-size-fits-all things. But still: I think one of the most important things for me has been to actively and doggedly seek out the creative people and works that feed me, no matter how strange or overlooked those people or books (or music or art or whatever) might be.

Both in my life and writing I find myself drawn to authenticity, vulnerability, and compassion – and the poems that have shook me the most are the ones that risk not being the hero, that refuse the easy conclusion, that open new insights and emotions in me because they are open to courageous vulnerability and the complexity of being real.

And a final note of advice I think is just to try to cultivate the ability – maybe the empathy – to sit with any idea and see it for what it is – whether I reject or take any advice (say in a workshop or even in a relationship) I want to be able to listen to it clearly before making a knee-jerk decision of whether it is or isn’t for me.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

The nicest surprise via a new experience came out of the fact that one morning this winter my partner and I couldn’t find parking to go to the gym at the university we attend. So we ended up checking out the local community center that’s actually just as close to us as school is… That place is a celebration of blackness: from the kind aunties that work the welcome desk to the elderly folks walking and humming (or straight-up singing old spirituals) as they power walk on the elevated track above a basketball court full of teens and little kids. This community center is going to get me through my PhD – returning to my first piece of advice above: it’s the overlooked element that sows so much lightness and joy and intergenerational community reflection in my life. So, hitting the track at the local community center is my recent new thing!

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

I love this question. My first thought here is that my child-self remembers and loves silence. As a young child I spent a fair amount of time by myself, entertaining myself, playing make-believe, drawing, and watching the adults around me…so I think my child-self knows how valuable silence and rhythm and momentum are, how a poem’s pace (how it develops) can transform its energy, and the energy of its readers or listeners.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Damn these are getting hard! …I think it’s been all the things I’ve said no to. The things I’ve stepped away from have allowed me to be quiet enough with myself to see myself and my environments with a nuanced clarity. It may be strange to point to saying no, but I think the relationships I’ve walked away from (from people or when I stopped playing organized sports, or walked away from a job), I think the fear of leaving an opportunity has focused and fueled me; it’s made me get real clear about how much I care about writing, and how I need to make sure that I’m surrounding myself with loving, creative energy and people.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I’m just coming up on my second year at the retreat and I can’t wait for it. Two of my favorite memories from summer ’16 were, first: the fish fry/dance party/spades tournament wherein “Knuck if You Buck” came on and the turn up was real – it was a peak black moment in my life! I even saw Willie Perdomo starting to vibe a bit as he stood between the edge of the heavy dancing and the folks that were playing cards…so many of us just joyously talking and laughing. It was a real celebration.

The other moment was when a few of us fellows went across to the cemetery on the hill adjacent to campus to watch the sunrise, I think it was the last morning of the retreat. The experience of writing each night was one of pushing through barriers of creativity and emotion, and to stand with a crew of brilliant black poets that had all spent a week diving into themselves was a powerful thing.

Ama Codjoe has received fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation and Callaloo Writers Workshop. Her Pushcart Prize nominated poems have appeared in African VoicesTidal Basin ReviewPluck!Washington SquareApex Magazine and are forthcoming in Callaloo. As the former director of the DreamYard Art Center in the South Bronx, Ama has taught and directed arts and social justice programming for young people as well as professional development for educators and administrators. She is a highly skilled facilitator who has conducted anti-racism workshops for numerous organizations, among them, National Guild for Community Arts Education, Pratt Institute and The Met Museum.

Friday, December 8th, 2017, “Walking the Walk: Poetry, Equity & Anti-Racism in the Literary Arts” marked Cave Canem’s first ever anti-racism training for leaders in the literary arts, graciously facilitated by Ama Codjoe. In the vein of Cave Canem’s commitment to cultivating environments where Black poets and poets of color may advance their artistic and professional pursuits, the five-hour workshop aimed to impact the programming and work environments of arts institutions in ways that combat and address racism. Ama Codjoe’s DOGBYTES interview is published in reflection of the workshop that took place in December, and of ongoing efforts to think critically about ourselves in relation to equity, the arts and one another.

How does your work as a facilitator inform your work as a poet and vice versa?

Both are inside the other: in poetry even if I’m writing in solitude, I’m writing with the awareness of community, a relationship to memory and the past—my former and future selves—a sense of legacy and tradition; ultimately I am writing as a social being. In my work as a facilitator, which is more outwardly focused, I strive to be conscious of my own social identities and the privileges they may or may not carry and how the expression of those identities, through language, impacts what’s happening in the room.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Well, I am posing the question to myself first. I define social justice as being attentive to the “social” as well the “justice.” In other words, social justice is most immediately about relationships. It’s important for me to be mindful of my interactions with people in terms of equity and interrupting injustice alongside the social justice work I participate in, envision, or pursue. As Toni Cade Bambara writes in The Black Woman anthology published in 1970: “If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.” Challenging white supremacy, heterosexism, transphobia, patriarchy . . . begins and ends with how we relate to ourselves and each other. Poets are people moving in the world. In answer to the question, we can start with how we treat each other, particularly across difference, because the person who is editing a journal, recording a literary podcast, or composing a poem is the same person who exists in the world that radically needs change. We can wear buttons, make social media posts, and carry signs to the protest, but what Bambara is challenging us to consider is our intimate relationships at school, at work, and at home.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Outside of the remarkable books published by Cave Canem fellows, Whereas by Layli Long Soldier floored me with its ability to deftly weave the intimate with the social; I found Long Soldier’s attention to language itself, as a subject of investigation, to be deeply rewarding and compelling.

Have you done anything recently that scared you?

Well this is gross, but it’s the last scary thing that happened to me. At a retreat, a fellow resident knocked on my door and asked me to remove a tick from her ear. I was scared, but I had to do my best to stay calm and handle it. Which I did.

Name a major influence outside of literature or art.

My people.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Those are certainly the activities that take up most of my time in addition to sleeping, commuting, and socializing. It’s my hope that outside of this I am conserving my energy by doing yoga at home, taking walks, and just being—all of which doesn’t cost a penny.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

These are some practices that I have found useful:

  1. Keeping a commonplace book or journal with quotes, handwritten poems, and notes from books I am reading as well as a running list of books I want to read next.
  2. Insisting that the reading informs my writing in some way—which is advice I got from Terrance Hayes.
  3. Finding kindred spirits and committing to what feeds me. For me that may mean protecting my writing time or attending an art exhibit, for others that might mean starting a writing group or making goals to send work to journals. Whatever it is, we can commit to finding it and doing it, even if we have to create it ourselves.

What music should we be listening to inspire, heal and uplift ourselves?

These are songs I’ve played on repeat in the face of collective grief:

Calle 13 “Latinoamérica”
Cole “Be Free”
Mos Def “Umi Says”
Lauryn Hill “Rebel”
Sweet Honey and the Rock ft. Carole King “Freedom Song”
Talib Kweli “Get By”
Dead Prez “Wolves (Intro)”
Solange ft. Lil Wayne “Mad”
Lizz Wright “Freedom,”

What experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

The workshop in its many forms taught me how to be a writer, and perhaps more importantly a reader. I have too many wonderful teachers to name here, but my first poetry workshop was with Jacqueline Jones LaMon through a Cave Canem regional workshop. Since then I’ve been fortunate to study with incredible instructors through Cave Canem, Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Community of Writers, and NYU’s Creative Writing Program.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I participated in the 2009, 2011, and 2013 retreats. I took many long walks with Donika Kelly which will remain dear to me. On one walk, during the summer we both graduated, I heard “Cha Cha Slide” or “Wobble” playing and took off running for the dance floor which to this day makes us laugh. I love a good line dance. And of course, all of the fellows’ readings were phenomenal, energy-giving, and inspiring. Every day of the retreat there was kindness and generosity to be found.


Aricka Foreman‘s poetry and prose have appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, RHINO, Day One, Phantom, shufPoetry, James Franco Review, thrush, Vinyl, PLUCK!, and Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation by Viking Penguin, among others. A Cave Canem and Callaloo alum, she is the author of Dream With A Glass Chamber (YesYes Books, 2016). Originally from Detroit, she currently lives in Chicago. Catch Aricka Foreman and fellow recipient of the Cave Canem residency to Millay Colony, Lauren Russell, read their work on October 16, 2017, 6:30 pm at Cave Canem.

Tell us about your chapbook Dream with a Glass Chamber. What, for you, are the major themes of the work–and how did you conceive of the title?

Dream With a Glass Chamber deals with loss and the slippery terrain of grief—though largely, I think it interrogates being inside of/despite/resistance to that grief, and so, acceptance. Love. Healing. How the self seeps in and out of mourning and our expectations of it. It was also a play of praxis, wherein I didn’t really understand my grief until I made the book, and so I was able to go back with a certain level of fervent dis-understanding. I could trust that I didn’t trust it. I could trust that I could live with it even during the moments I felt like I couldn’t. The initial title was Dream with an Empty Chamber, but my editor KMA Sullivan noticed the equal amount of light weaved throughout the darkness of death’s landscape, and suggested I reconsider that in the book’s title.

How does your work as an editor inform your work as a writer?

There’s a really beautiful, collaborative exchange between an editor and a writer that changes and enhances the way I see. I’m not interested in “fixing” anyone’s poems as much as I am in engaging a dialogue where we’re thinking/asking through the work. I hope that I can support their intention and their vision. To wrangle something and fail and then get it “right” for them. I’ve been really lucky with my own readers/editors in that respect. The ego is what it is, and we need as much rigorous generosity in the editing phase as we do for ourselves in creating. Anyone who came from and continues to engage in the performance tradition understands the importance of the ear as you’re reading your work, someone else’s. My earliest consistent editorial work was with Muzzle Magazine, and its founding editor Stevie Edwards has a great respect and appreciation for all the layered ways MM’s readers enter poetry. It was a great experience, and helped drive me toward this strange and wonderful synthesia I experience when I read new work.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Plenty, no matter how quantitative. We can break bread. We can keep up a group text. We can call and check in and pick up when our beloveds need more than an echo chamber. We can take care of ourselves. We can advocate through book reviews, plan publication budgets with intention and vision, donate a little bit here and there. We can shade politicians/editors/institutions through writing, social media, and alternative spaces. We can call politicians. We can actively love kindred who have been othered and tell them that we love them to their face. And mean it. We can be loud in spaces that demand our silence. We can make sure our archives are living ones: black art, queer art, poor art, whatever the nomenclature. We can break the linear/hierarchal system of that naming. We can continue to be brilliant, multifaceted, petty with purpose, have no chill and keep shouting the praises of these traditions that have made a way for us to be bold and free(er). Sometimes just making space to sit quietly can help us save ourselves a little at a time: we can do what we’ve always done. I understand the impetus to hybrid ourselves in the face of the narrow boxes the world tries to shrink us into: poet-activist, writer-educator, curator-scholar, etc. But there are plenty of things that activists who are not poets do on the daily that I cannot. And they need fuel, too. So perhaps we can write how we walk through the world, and they’ll see themselves reflected in that.

Just as important, poets can stop telling other poets how they should be activists. Dismantling the master’s house is not checkers. Or chess, for that matter.

What’s the last great book you read, and what inspired you to read it?

I’m usually between several books, but I just finished Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake and it wrecked me open; I found a language for the work I didn’t know I was doing, just beyond articulating cultural melancholia. Finishing Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman (another incredible book), led me to Sharpe. Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is out here teaching us all how to be present with our shadows and dig for a whole kind of love that makes room for the digging. I just started Michelle Whittaker’s Surge, and I can’t render how much, for how long, I’ve needed those poems; the landscape is truly not ready, but it better hurry up!

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Saying no when I need to. It’s a journey, and can be especially difficult when it comes to blood-kin, but we know love needs time to turn back into itself to grow.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

It really depends on my season. I find as much inspiration from Santigold as I do Nina Simone. I’m interested in film, and the multiple opportunities available to tell a story, and then the story behind it. I’m invested in vantage point and vulnerability. I carry my grandmother’s stories that span American Reconstruction, Black radical movements, Civil Rights, Reaganomics, until now. I’ve shed a tear or two before the works of Kerry James Marshall, Sherin Neshat, Maria Tomasula, Tylonn J. Sawyer, and Sydney G. James. I’m fortunate to share space, near and far, with a coterie of amazing artists, thinkers, curators, and scholars who are gracious with their time and gifts.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I spend four days a week slinging cocktails and educating patrons about whiskey, wine, and beer; three days on my writer/educator/teaching/administrative-for-me/for-us grind. But then I find myself beneath a tree with my lover in quietude, snapping photographs and feeling the sun on my face. I spend a great deal of time exploring the food and wine culture of Chicago and beyond, trying to taste where I am in the world. I love travel but hate flying. I work, way too much, if you ask my close friends. But when I can break away, I try to make the most of it. I enjoy a good game of Farkle or Spades or Scrabble; lounging in a hammock in my backyard watching the sky do the magic that it does. I like to water and tend and harvest my garden. I call my mom on Sundays. I spend my money on black-owned hair care products, wine and books. I’m just trying to live my best life.

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

This is always difficult, since what, exactly, is emerging? But I’ll pass along these little gifts folks have given to me:

  • Read everything. Reading more than poetry. Read beyond the canon and read beyond American contemporaries. Read at least three times more than you write. Make reading a daily intake of sense, inquiry, and designation if you can. I had a former mentor tell me once, “I can’t give you anything else to read because you just won’t stop reading everything” and it was one of many instances that I felt like I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing: my work.
  • Be generous. With what you read. With what you write. With what you think. Allow yourself generosity: to fail. To thrive. All of which, you can do on your own terms. Poets and artists spend an inordinate amount of time pummeling ourselves for not doing it right enough, fast enough, good enough based on somebody’s institutional standards. HOW SWAY? But what you are and where you are is exactly where you’re supposed to be. And it’s gorgeous. Keep going.
  • Don’t be afraid of what you think can’t fit into a poem but what can fit into poetry: you can make essays, and video games and lyric-video poems. You can start a bar whose chief concern is to *also* feed the literary arts community around you (The Spirit Room). You can hold workshops and literary salons and book releases in your basement. You can create podcasts (Rachel Zucker, The Poetry Gods, VS). You can get an MFA or not; publish in major literary publications or not. You can do you. Take you into the world and it will respond accordingly. And if it doesn’t, whatever: “therefore, ain’t no invite.”
  • Do the most. Do it with integrity. Do it without (too much) ego. Do it without the expectation that anybody owes you anything. Do it with your therapist/faith leader/family/coterie/cohort/community, if that’s your thing. There are so many ways to raucous.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I was a serious child, and very sensitive. I suppose not much has changed, but I remember thinking how difficult and complicated adults made things—now I see how difficult and complicated we are, and how we sometimes only see those complications for their difficulty. I didn’t understand whiteness or supremacy, but I had a framework of understanding through the stories of my grandparents and my mother. What’s changed? I’m more equipped. I have a language for what Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves calls “a corporeal wisdom.” It helps in the work, and it helps in the living.  I assumed by now I’d stop believing in what’s possible, that eventually I’d give up on my own vivid imagination. I’m glad I didn’t know then, and there’s so much I don’t know now. It’s overwhelmingly exciting.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2008, 2010, and 2012. Ed Roberson imploring to fellows in the opening circle how fortunate he was to see and take part of history. We were/are the history. It’s important to see a working poet who has lived through and worked and continues to thrive on his own terms, take you and your handful of poems and say yes, yes, you’re driving toward something here. And he can cut rug. Carl Phillips visiting with us second-year fellows in 2010 while we curated the graduation ceremony for the third-year graduates, and putting me up on Kelis’ “Acapella” video. And him telling me in no uncertain terms that if I was going to use “antedilluvian” in a poem, the rest of the language better rise to the occasion. I’m so grateful he saw my high/low vernacular walk and encouraged me to embrace it. Nikky Finney’s energy and spirit pulling us toward that watering hole, into the lean-in, into the border walking. 2012 was a serious year and no one was here to play though we could play/risk/be. It was some other kind of fortuitous holy. Claudia Rankine’s 2008 reading from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which transported me into some ethereal that I still am not able to articulate fully. And her unbounded, unrelenting kindness. Toi Derricotte is a king of love. Serendipitously meeting Phillip B. Williams at the printer between 3-5 am, while casually sliding poems to one another over the course of that first week, though we weren’t in the same writing group; and subsequently becoming dear friends. Colleen J. McElroy introducing me to the “Milk of Sorrow” film, and her humor and openness in reaching for the largess I was attempting, then, now, always. All of Us in Village Hall sharing music while working, in quietude while we paced, or quietly wept or let out a laugh while we furiously wrote together without writing together. And then there was that time we stole a Tea Party sign (or two) from somewhere while on a Walmart run and ran amok like the smartest unruly kids in your 5th period class.

The rest is still come.

Kyla Marshell’s work has appeared in Blackbird, Calyx, ESPNw, Gawker, The Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and on the Poetry Foundation. Her work has earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, two residencies to the Vermont Studio Center, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. In 2013, named her one of “7 Young Black Writers You Should Know.” A Spelman College graduate originally from Boston, she grew up in Silver Spring, MD, Morehead, KY, and Portland, ME, and now lives in New York. To view Kyla’s previous interviews, visit the DOGBYTES blog.

Camille Rankine’s first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is a visiting professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s MFA for Poets and Writers, and lives in New York City.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I think there are a lot of ways to be in the world as a poet who promotes social justice. Not just through one’s own writing, but through community, and by helping to create and enrich spaces for people to connect and share their words. The possibility for connection through poetry is a powerful thing. I’ve heard the argument made that literature isn’t an effective avenue for social justice, and I couldn’t disagree more. Even if poems don’t conspicuously engage with social issues, they’re the work of one mind speaking out to an imagined other. There’s a reaching act there. A desire to be heard, to communicate. Too often we remove ourselves from what we think of as foreign, as other, as apart from us, irrelevant to our lives, our reality. And in this distance we become less and less human to one another. That makes the injustices we enact and enable that much easier to allow, to carry out. To me, literature is one way of shrinking the distance between individual experiences and helping us to understand each other as human, making the fact of another’s humanity felt and unmistakable, making it harder to ignore, harder to forget for our own comfort or convenience. I believe that’s an essential part of any effort toward social justice.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

This is supposed to be an easy question, I think, but for me it’s always a challenging one. I have a hard time with the concept of “best” anything, especially books, which have so many different ways of being good. I’ve mostly been reading for work, for teaching, and that makes my reading life is a bit of a blur. When I’m preparing a syllabus, there’s a whirlwind of texts moving through my hands and not everything ends up in the class. But I’ve spent time with some incredible books this way over the past year. The Racial Imaginary, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. Audre Lorde’s essays in Sister Outsider. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. TJ Jarrett’s Zion. The Gorgeous Nothings, a collection of facsimiles of poems Emily Dickinson drafted on scraps of envelopes. Cynthia Cruz’s Wunderkammer. Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You. So much goodness. But this summer I’m spending more time reading purely for pleasure. I want to read all the novels.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Driving in the snow. And parallel parking in New York City. The key is: don’t panic.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

BBC World Service. I listen to the radio every day.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I do a lot of service work in the literary community. I serve as Membership Director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, I’m Chair of the Board of The Poetry Project, and I help organize programming for the Brooklyn Book Festival in my position as co-chair for the Brooklyn Literary Council’s Poetry Committee. In between all the work, I like to binge-watch TV to turn my mind-noise down a bit. And then I have other creative pursuits I pick up when I have the time – mostly music and photography. Also, I like to cook. And I try very hard not to spend my money because I don’t have a lot of it to spend, but New York makes that difficult. This city is a talented pickpocket.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

  1. Don’t let rejection silence you.
  2. Take your time.
  3. Define success for yourself, and don’t try to be any other poet but the poet you are, the poet that you have the potential to be.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I don’t know. I guess I tend not to make assumptions—my attitude about whatever’s to come seems to be “we’ll see!” I will say that in the 90s spending all night in internet chat rooms, I never anticipated that acronyms like LOL would become such a widespread mainstay of our everyday communication that even my mom would be using them. Hi, Mom!

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was never at the retreat as a fellow, only as Cave Canem staff, so my experience of it was different from those who were there as writers. The two retreats I attended—in 2010 and 2011—were the hardest work weeks of my life. But they were also two of the most beautiful. It was a privilege to witness this community of artists listening to each other, loving each other, and lifting each other up. And the time I spent with the retreat staff was incredibly fun, in a sort of delirious way. Working with Amanda Johnston was magic. And Hallie Hobson. And Marcus Jackson. And Yezmin Villarreal, a most talented intern who is now a most talented journalist in LA. I’ll love them forever. Cave Canem is all about the people. The fellows are the heart and soul of the organization. And even though I had to be up and in the office by 8 am every morning, I couldn’t help but stay up way too late every night and talk and drink and laugh. I was so fed by that time. And I was exhausted every day, but it was absolutely worth it.

Christopher Rose is originally from Seattle, Washington. His poems have appeared in Crabfat, Chelsea Station, Fjords Review, The Pariahs Anthology, Yellow Chair Review, TAYO Literary Magazine, The Hawaii Review, Drunk in a Midnight Choice, Cha Literary Journal and elsewhere. He is a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum, who teaches creative writing, composition, African American Literature and Science Fiction at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. Hear Christopher Rose read alongside Quenton Baker, Ashaki M. Jackson, Bettina Judd, Anastacia-Renee and more at the Cave Canem Fellows Off-Site Reading, March 27, 2019, 7pm at Literary Arts!

As a professor and poet, how do your academic research and interests both support and pose challenges for your writing process?

I’m more administrator than professor these days, but I learned a long time ago to let my writing fuel my scholarship. My tendency is to separate scholarship from poetry, but I was able to attend an National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on African American poetry that had both poets and scholars in the room, and it was clear that something that has been lost over time is the poet-scholar. Poets are some of the best people to write scholarship on poetry and to help revive and bring attention to poets that have been lost overtime.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I recently finished An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and that has made me reflect on the indirect ways to deal with difficult subject matter.

As far as poetry, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here was one of my favorites.

How does your writing on both Filipino and Black Diasporas help to challenge or complicate popular discourse on mixed raced experiences?

Mixed race is such a loaded term today. “Mixed” defaults to referring to someone with a parent of color and a white parent, and it’s dominated by a discourse that hasn’t changed in over a century. I prefer to say I’m Black Filipinx because that’s more accurate.

I find it interesting how my experiences deconstruct the narrative of race in America. In the Philippines, I pass as Filipinx and it highlights the lack of discussion around Filipinx and Blackness. Colorism manifests in very blatant ways in Filpinx communities, and my own background makes it that much more egregious. At the same time, we overlook how the Black Diaspora encompasses Asia and the Pacific Islands, and at some point I would hope we can come to a place where we really begin to discuss that.

Writing allows us to complicate a narrative. I recently did a reading with F. Douglas Brown, and despite both being Black-Filipinx writers, our work is also very different and that’s the beauty of it all.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

I’m very fascinated by different communities: Black communities, Fililipinx communities, subcultures, churches, small towns, islands, etc. I’ve moved through so many different communities in my life that I’m fascinated by how humans function in collective spaces.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I was into comic books before they were mainstream and hip, and I feel very at home in a comic book store or a comic convention. I’ll be trying cosplay for the first time at the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle. 

What is the importance of poetry to social justice activism?

I’ve always hated the “all poetry is political” answer because that tends to dismiss poetry with overtly political agendas or any work that focuses on social justice. With that said, poetry offers a lot of different modes to explore an issue, and I’m a fan of indirectly examining a subject.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

First, everyone’s path is different. Second, don’t quit. Third, sometimes what we think we should be writing isn’t what we should be writing.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

At times, I still have that sense of excitement that comes from writing poetry. I began writing stories when I was eight, and I didn’t care about things like process or schema or intention. I wrote because I enjoyed it and it’s easy to lose sense of that in the poetry world.

Is there a life experience you may share that has significantly shaped you as a writer?

I grew up on military bases moving around every three years. There was a cyclical period of losing and making new friends that made it always feel like I was on the outside looking in, and that would later make it easier to write since I was used to long periods of isolation and examining things.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I loved hanging out with Saida Agostini. She was my mentor during my first retreat, and we bonded over sharing stories of our exes with bad rap videos on Instagram. She’s my favorite Scorpio. For my second year, I really adored my workshop group and I didn’t know the process could be so much fun until I was with those folks.

Clint Smith is a writer and doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody, 2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans. Hear Smith read alongside Casey Rocheteau and John Warner Smith, April 19 at The New School.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your book, Counting Descent.

The book is born out of a moment where, after Ferguson, my political sensibilities began to shift—as I believe they did, to some extent or another, for many of us. I began thinking of the marathon of cognitive dissonance that is growing up as a young black person in this country. How does one wrestle with the ever-present tension of navigating spaces—perhaps your home, or maybe somewhere else, where you feel loved, affirmed and celebrated—and then going out into a larger world in which you are constantly rendered a caricature of someone else’s fear? The book is attempting to hold that tension, and explore how that often complicated duality shapes the experiences young black people have as they come of age.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I always come back to an essay by Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” where he rebukes the young artist who says, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet.” Imbued within that sentiment is a sense that the lives, voices and experiences of black people do not constitute an artistically legitimate or worthwhile literary endeavor. What Hughes is saying, I think, is that one should not fear that writing about the trials and tribulations (or the joy and celebration) experienced by black people will place them lower on the literary hierarchy simply because it’s not about the trees, the flowers and the mountainous landscape. If one feels compelled to write about such things because they are beautiful, which they certainly are, that’s fine. But if one is writing about them and not something else and that’s predicated on the idea that the something else isn’t worthy of engagement for “serious” artists, then I think that’s a problem. As Hughes said, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.”

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year; what made you decide to read it?

Oh, man. I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and thought it was one of the most stunning novels that I’ve ever read. The concept of writing an intergenerational narrative of the African diaspora from not only one, but two different extensions of the same lineage is so ambitious, and yet she pulled it off flawlessly. Everyone should read that book.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I’ve recently attempted to begin meditating consistently. I’ve tried it on and off over the years but with no real discipline. I’m beginning slowly, with just 5-10 minutes each morning, and hope to build my way up to something more significant. We don’t realize how little time we allot to simply sit with ourselves. When I realized that, I found it deeply unsettling. I’m hoping to be better about that moving forward.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

History. I’m profoundly interested in studying history and how it shapes the landscape of our current sociopolitical landscape. When you understand the trajectory of American history in particular, everything around us makes sense. The reason certain communities look one way and other communities look another. These were because of decisions that people have made through public policy, and often violence. The more time I spend engaging with the history of our country the more it influences my intellectual and political sensibilities.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

I’ve come to really enjoy running in a way I didn’t always. I played soccer my entire life and throughout college, and I was trained to think about running as a means towards a specific utilitarian end. When I was done playing, I had to recalibrate my relationship to exercise generally. It took some time, but I think I’m finally in a place where I value the act of running itself in addition to the way it makes me feel afterwards. I’ve also learned that a good audiobook takes my mind off how long I’ve been running and simply allows me to get lost in the duality of the story and my own breathing. I’m currently listening to Teju Cole’s Open City which I’ve read before, but is so wonderful to hear read aloud.

What advice you would give to emerging poets?

It’s an interesting question, because I still feel as if I’m still an emerging poet myself. I mean that in the sense that I still feel like I’m finding my footing as a writer and have a lot more muscles to stretch in order to more concretely understand my own literary sensibilities. What I would say, for any writer, is to read across genres. Fiction and non-fiction. History and social science. Longform journalism and haikus. All of them inform how I write, how I situate myself as a writer in the world, and help me to remember to reject the ways that the world can often create false demarcations between them.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

Oh, that’s interesting. Well “French fry” was my first word (or two words) as a child and I still think that there are few things better in life than a really good French fry. I don’t anticipate that will change anytime soon. In terms of the converse, growing up, I fervently believed that I would become a professional soccer player, and when I got to college, I realized that Louisiana, where I grew up, is not exactly a hotbed of soccer talent against which to measure your skills. I didn’t get much playing time in college, but ultimately it was the best thing that could have happened to me because it forced me to determine who I was beyond the soccer field, and that’s how I became more serious about writing.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

My parents’ dining room table, the annual summer reading competition put on by the New Orleans Public Library, Hurricane Katrina, and Ferguson.

What year(s) did you attend the Cave Canem retreat? What are some of your favorite memories from those times?

I attended the Cave Canem retreat for the first time last year, and there simply are no words to explain what it means to be given a space where you feel as if you don’t have to explain the scope of who are you, whether it be in the poem or in the interpersonal dialogue of the workshop. I wrote the sorts of poems that previously, I didn’t feel I had the space or permission to write, and that was incredibly freeing. I’m looking forward to getting back.

Cave Canem fellow Darrel Alejandro Holnes is the co-editor of On Poetics, Identity & Latinidad: CantoMundo Poets Speak Out, Happiness, The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, co-author of PRIME: Poetry & Conversations, and a recipient of the Cave Canem Residency at the Rose O’Neill Literary House. His poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Callaloo, Best American Experimental Writing, and elsewhere. Holnes works with writers at the United Nations and teaches at NYU and the City University of New York – Medgar Evers College, where he is an Assistant Professor of English. Hear Darrel Alejandro Holnes and Jessica Lanay Moore read poetry as part of the Brooklyn Museum First Saturdays event series on October 7th, 2017.

You are a playwright, ethnographer, radio producer and in general, a multi-media creative: is there something poetry can accomplish that other mediums cannot when it comes to storytelling?

Poetry is the oldest of all of the art forms in which I work. I don’t know that the ancients were any wiser than we are today, but I do think traditions that last are worth looking at. I’m glad that I looked to poetry when I was in middle school and struggling with fitting in at a new private school in Panamá.

What poetry did for me back then was remind me that there’s always a silver lining to the trials and tribulations we suffer through in life. Poetry for me was inspirational and uplifting. The silver lining isn’t always positive, but it is real. Sometimes it’s the scar you have to show for enduring phoniness in life. The scar may not be beautiful but it’s proof that up until now you’ve survived. That’s what writing poetry does for me. It gives me something to show for all of the hardship I’ve put up with; it says, “Look, I’ve learned how to survive. Let me help you survive too.”

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I grew up in a family of government people. Civic engagement was always important in my house. If you’re a Jackson (as in Michael, Janet, and Jermaine) you grow up playing an instrument. If you were a Holnes, you grew up volunteering and working for the common good. Growing up in that world taught me that promoting social justice is what we do every day; it is how we act based on our personal constitution. We must live principled lives if we expect principles like “the justice system should be unbiased” to ever be a reality. We must be the change we want to see in this world.

I believe that evolution is a choice, and I think that as poets we must help the world make the choice to evolve. We can do so by writing poetry that asks hard questions, questions that challenge systematic oppression, the victor’s telling of history, the paradigm of empire, and socially constructed identity.

Not every poet wants to “promote social justice” but for those of us who do, I think we can do so by using poetry as a tool to build bridges across the lines that divide us and put us in opposition with each other.

“Harmony” sounds like the name of a horse on My Little Pony, or a CareBear from the TV show by that name that I’d watch when I was a little boy. But I think that harmony is a real goal. Other species have achieved that on this planet. Other species are not constantly at war. I think we as human beings can achieve that, and perhaps poetry can help us do so. Perhaps poetry can truly help us choose to evolve.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Any poetry collection by Elizabeth Acevedo and sam sax. I also enjoyed reading the novels Grace by Natashia Deon, and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

What’s something you recently tried for the first time?

I’ve been inspired by my friend Jeremy to make my own recipes. I’m happy to say that I developed my first one last year. I call it “Spicy Fish Cube Soup,” and it’s delicious! There are definitely more new dishes to come!

Name a major influence outside of literature or art.

Anthropology. I’ve always loved human beings since I was a child. I’m fascinated by people. I remember being a young man in Ms. Gondola’s Environmental Science class in 10th grade. Even though that was a science class, the most interesting part for me was learning about how we humans affect our planet and about how we work as one of the many animals in the kingdom.

While I was a student in that class, I watched a documentary about early humans and our migration out of Africa. It really ignited a fire within me to learn more about people and to write about human beings.

Many years later, I had the opportunity to study anthropology in graduate school and to conduct ethnographic research with incredible scholars and activist like Ruth Behar, Carl Lindahl, and Pat Jasper. I think about what I learned from anthropology every time I write a play or a poem about who we are as a people, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I see as much theater, dance, and attend as many poetry readings as possible. Aside from that I love to travel. Check out my Instagram, @iamdarelo, and see where I traveled this past summer.

I decided to travel more this year because things in the world feel a little bleak. There is so much political turmoil and social injustice here and abroad that I set out in search of hope. And I found it in the new friends I made on the road. We connected despite language barriers, cultural barriers, and other differences.

Yes, peace is possible. No, “harmony” is not just the name of a fairytale creature. The more we learn about what’s out there the less scary the world seems. For me, that’s what being an American, both part of the USA and part of the American continent, has always been about: finding ways to connect with people who are different from you, and building the strongest community possible. I believe our strength has always been and always will be our diversity. I travel to keep my life, through an ever expanding friend group, as globally diverse as possible.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Stay Black
  2. Write poetry and read poetry
  3. Who you are is enough.

What do you mean by “Stay Black”?

I think Walt Whitman said it best, “We contain multitudes, y’all.” Well, perhaps I’m re-writing that line a bit. But ultimately, I believe that to “stay Black,” we, as self-identified Black poets, must celebrate the multitudes of blackness through poetry.

Black people are not a monolith. As an artist from the Diaspora (Panama), I always looked to Black media in the US for inspiration because when I was growing up, it presented the widest variety of blackness. I wasn’t much of a Hip-Hop head as a teen, so I latched onto Lenny Kravitz as an example of Black maleness in popular media that I could relate to. Now that I live in the US, I look to media and art created by Black people outside of the US for inspiration. I’m inspired by artists like the rapper Young Paris, out of the Democratic Republic of Congo and France, Stromae from Belgium who is half Rwandan, and Afro Panamanians like the singer, Aloe Blacc, and singer-songwriter, Erika Ender, who wrote the lyrics to the smash hit “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (featuring Justin Bieber).

The way that I “stay Black” is by celebrating their great art and entertainment in my poetry. Blackness is awesome y’all. It definitely deserves a party, and with some of my poetry, there’s a party on the page.

What life experience has shaped you the most as a writer?

I think experiencing love has shaped me most as a writer. I say this because love fills me with feelings that I struggle to describe using everyday speech so I turn to art to express it. It’s through art, like poetry, that I find ways to say the unsayable, to describe the indescribable, and to spread the love that dwells in my heart.

Not all of my poetry is romantic or about other kinds of love, but I believe that even my more political work comes from a place of love. I really love this world enough to genuinely want it to be a better place, and I think that spreading love, perhaps through poetry, is a huge part of that.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those experiences?

I participated in the CC retreat in 2010, 2011 and 2012. My favorite memories include dancing to Terrance Hayes’ DJing at one of the closing night parties, taking a workshop with Claudia Rankine, and listening to Toi Derricotte who told me to write a poem about my greatest fear. At the time, I feared my interest and curiosity in drag performance. So I wrote a poem called “I Always Promised I’d Never Do Drag,” where I perform in drag for the first time. It was liberating and became my first poem to be widely included in anthologies and a favorite at my poetry readings. Thank you, Mama Toi, for the courage.

Dawn Lundy Martin is a poet, essayist, and conceptual-video artist. She is the author of four books of poems: Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House, 2017); Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, 2015), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry; DISCIPLINE (Nightboat Books, 2011), and A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007). Her nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and elsewhere. Martin is Professor of English in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and Co-director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. Hear Dawn Lundy Martin read poetry alongside Christian Campbell, Myronn Hardy and Michelle Whittaker at Bryant Park, August 21, at 7pm.

What are the biggest differences that your most recent collection, Good Stock Strange Blood demonstrates from your earlier work?

Good Stock Strange Blood began as a collaboration of thought with the global, mostly queer, mostly POC artists’ collective, HowDoYouSayYamInAfrican? I was asked by visual artist Sienna Shields to join the collective and write a libretto. In order to get to the topics and concerns of that libretto I hung around with the musicians, theorists, architects, composers, film editors, visual artists, and dancers who were already members of the Yam Collective and listened to their conversations, kind of like a documentarian. Sienna has this fabulous studio in DUMBO and lots of folks camped out there. Members also sent texts and video links to our Google group, and discussions about these filled my box every day. I read everything voraciously with the goal of in some way synthesizing, amplifying and extending what was on folks’ minds, and also writing from a place that felt authentic to me. This semi-collaborative process is one that was fresh for this book only. The libretto I wrote is titled “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor,” and simultaneously takes up blood and the notion that blood can be “raced” and the possibility of fourteen dimensions. In one of these dimensions time travel is possible and in that temporal domain new types of beings are born. This was the first draft of Good Stock Strange Blood. In the book, however, I push these innovations up against the directly personal and I tell those stories. What I hope is produced is a tension between the brute real and what can be manifested in a kind of beyond.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s impossible to say which was the absolute “best,” but I LOVED A Machine Wrote This Song by Jennifer Hayashida out recently from Gramma. I read it in manuscript form and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

New Picture (1)

As a poet and activist, do you believe that poetry plays an important role in promoting social justice? Why or why not?

I believe that every utterance, every gesture, every action contributes to shaping and re-shaping the world.

The kind of activism I do now is about trying to help organizations and philanthropists figure out how to shift society to reflect a moral compass that orients itself around a greater good. Women, for example, should be safe from gun-wielding stalkers, boyfriends and husbands. Children should be protected from abuse of all kinds. Black people should be free to drive a car without being shot in the face by police or random white people. Latinos and others in exile and at the U.S. border should be treated with dignity and respect. These things are very difficult in a capitalist society because the drive is toward one’s own wealth and wellbeing at the expense of all else. Poetry, like all literature, insidiously helps change culture because it changes individuals. We’ve all felt this after reading a novel, for example—how you get to have this amazingly empathetic experience and that can shift something inside of you. What makes poetry special, however, in part because it makes meaning indirectly, is that it can affect people’s imaginations and feeling places, in sideways unpredictable ways.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Does philosophy count? When I first read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, it blew my mind. I was so invigorated by his ideas around how both repressive and ordinary regimes subjugate the people, sometimes without the people even recognizing their subjugation.

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

These days, I travel outside of the United States. I want to be reminded as often as possible of the tragic provincialism of United States culture in order to urge me toward some other, bigger imagining of myself and place. I want to be reminded of another possible me, but also other possibilities for black life.

At the Cave Canem retreat in 1999, you along with fellows Duriel E. Harris and Ronaldo V. Wilson founded the Black Took Collective, a group of “Black post-theorists” performing and writing in hybrid experimental forms that embraced “radical poetics and cutting-edge critical theory about race, gender, and sexuality.” Looking back, what were the circumstances that gave way to the emergence of the collective and how do you see Black post-theorists working in the world today?

Ha. We might be the only folks to call ourselves “post-theorists”! The circumstances that gave birth to BTC were general rebellion alongside both play and a desire to investigate language itself. Duriel, Ronaldo and I saw ourselves as renegade black poets who—on some levels—were uninterested in the tropes of blackness. We came together to figure out what to do with that in poetry. Ronaldo and I were at Cave Canem together in 1998 and then Duriel came the following year. I remember noticing Ronaldo in the cafeteria at Mount St. Alphonsus, and him noticing me, and in a kind of romantic love at first sight, we just walked across the room to meet each other. It was as if it had always been, but also I had the feeling of being suddenly struck. Anyway, what has always made the collective exciting for me is how we use “blackness” as subject but from uniquely “queer” perspectives. Queerness is the disruptive force in our work, I think.

 What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Read widely. Don’t just read what you already like, what already appeals to you. Read what you think you hate and/or what makes you uncomfortable.
  2. Read deeply. Read everything an author you’re interested in has ever written or said.
  3. Try not to think of poetry as a business. Money perverts art.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

They tell me that because I am an Aries, I am always new. I feel that. I often feel like a baby. Babies are curious to the world, to language, to touch, to everything because they’ve not experienced anything before. When I’m writing, I am very interested in coming to the poem as if I’ve never experienced it before. In this way, I am uninterested in “mastery,” but more in being a novice each time and trying to figure out a fresh approach to what I thought I knew.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

In Procida, one of the Phlegraean islands in southern Italy, I rented a motor scooter to get to the beach from the ferry dock. My friend translated for me as the woman at the rental place said, “If you’ve never ridden one before I wouldn’t recommend it—lots of traffic, narrow streets.” She asked if I was strong, especially if I might ride with another person. I took it very gingerly at first, getting the feel of the bike, especially the weight of it, the balance too. I am used to negotiating NYC traffic on my bicycle so keeping an eye on the other folks on motor scooters, the pedestrians, and the trucks and cars, but navigating the narrow cobblestone streets and steep hills was challenging and exhilarating. I can still feel the moment when I relaxed into it as if in a dream.

Photo by Yanyi

A Cave Canem fellow and Assistant Poetry Editor at Memorious, Derrick Austin’s poems and essays can be found in numerous publications such as Best American Poetry 2015, New England Review, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, and Blavity, among others. Selected by Mary Szybist for the A. Poulin Jr, Poetry Prize, Austin’s debut, Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016), was additionally honored as a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, the 2017 Norma Faber First Book Award, and the 2017 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Derrick Austin will emcee the Cave Canem Fellows Off-Site Reading at AWP Tampa, on Wednesday, March 7th, 2018, 7pm.

The description of your debut collection, Trouble the Water, states that the poems “interrogate what it means to be…’fully human as a queer, black body.’” Are there any revelations on that inquiry which came to you in the process of writing the book?

It’s an ongoing inquiry, one of those questions that shades the life and work. But, through writing Trouble the Water, I freed myself from flawed, inherited narratives. The cultural narratives concerning blackness in mainstream media are often so narrow and reductive. Growing up, I often felt alienated from many of them. Not that I’m some special case. Mainstream media has long had problems showcasing the multiplicity of black life in America. I harbored so much shame. I remember, in my teens, never feeling black enough—whatever that meant. It took years to realize those anxieties had nothing to do with blackness and everything to do with the white gaze and the vicious limitations of that gaze. By the time I finished my book I was just doing me. One glory of blackness is its limitlessness, its strangeness. We’re all just trying to live out here.

What does the public have to gain by reading poetry?

On the one hand, I think the public has everything to gain from reading poetry. A part of me bristles at the idea that reading poetry imparts some kind of specialized knowledge. I think one can learn as much from reading poetry as from reading fiction, a biography, an essay, etc. Sure, there are limits to this comparison, but one can learn so much about the world from a poem’s details and perspectives. On the other hand, poetry forces us to slow down. Slowing down feels like such a luxury. It’s partially why I started writing poems in the first place. Poetry is one of the last places where it’s vital that we carefully consider what we say and how we say it. Lord knows that’s something we need more of these days.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic. It’s such a heart-filling book. The way that book orients itself towards joy, happiness, messiness, and freedom inspires me. Formally, the book is wildly smart: loose but never sloppy, unabashedly sexy, fun, and sad too — and the utterly inventive way the book interrogates gender through symbol and breath. I could keep gushing forever.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Walking on a frozen lake. I walked out and the ice didn’t crack under me. I’d call that a victory.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Costume dramas. 

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

These past few years, going to the movies. I really love going to the movie theater and living somewhere else for two hours. It’s a transport like no other. Also nothing beats happy hour with friends. 

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  • The writing life is a long game. Don’t fret if you don’t win an award, get published in a big journal, or receive a residency. These are important insofar as getting financial support, readings, or jobs in academia. I won’t pretend that these things aren’t important. We’ve gotta eat and we’ve got bills to pay. However, as far as your art is concerned trust yourself and trust your poems. They’ll find their way.
  • Find your community and foster it. Find the writers and artists that feed your work and yourself. You’re not just a writer; you’re a person. You’ll need someone to send silly gifs to at midnight and talk about life.
  • Don’t lose the joy in this life. Writing is a hard path. You’ll doubt yourself. You’ll be broke. You won’t write. You’ll wonder why the hell you’re doing this. Through it all don’t lose the sense of wonder that comes with writing and reading and being part of this living tradition.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

Being lonely. Never feeling like I fit in anywhere. Being deeply queer from the jump. I’ve got a soft spot for things that are strange, that aren’t popular, that even feel old-fashioned. I guess one would call that taste.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

It’s not a life experience but all through my life my friends have made me feel safe and loved. I learned how to be myself among friends. I learned to value community.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2014 and 2015. I have far too many sweet memories of my time at CC. The best way to encapsulate them all is the epic dance party that closes out each retreat. It’s the best family reunion. It’s celebrating with family you didn’t know you needed.


Photo Credit: Yanyi

Dustin Pearson is the author of Millennial Roost (Eyewear Publishing, 2018), and a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Pearson has served as the editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and a Director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He won the Academy of American Poets Katharine C. Turner Prize and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His work appears in Blackbird, Vinyl Poetry, Bennington Review, and elsewhere. This Fall, Dustin Pearson’s shared work alongside Cave Canem fellows Marcus Jackson and Amanda Johnston at a New Works reading on October 12, 2018 at the NYU Lillian Vernon House.


Can you speak to why you chose to use animals in your debut collection Millennial Roost as a way to evoke what you’ve called in an interview with Poetry & Poets, an “allegorical documentary”?

I think the challenge of writing a book like Millennial Roost is conveying the emotional fallout of sustaining such an abuse and at an age when you don’t really understand anything. The physical abuse is easy to imagine, at least comparatively, but writing that physical abuse page for page over an entire book isn’t sustainable. Focusing on and conveying emotions both specific to a trauma and unique to a person who sustains the trauma runs a significant risk of throwing too far into the realm of the abstract to provide a powerful experience for a reader, so re-grounding the whole experience in imagery that’s familiar (Mr. Hen, chickens, eggs, etc.) but has limitless potential to be transformed by a specifically impacted consciousness or a uniquely formed  emotionality allows both the abuse and the emotion to be related in a compelling and fresh way. When it comes to making reference to an allegorical documentary of my emotions filtered through a persona, I really think the emotions in the book are mine, though how they are acted on or even acknowledged doesn’t compile my (conscious) experience, so that’s why I call it a persona, but then again, sometimes I get weirdly confused sorting who is who and what is what having written the persona so intensely and intimately over my own emotionality for a number of years, and that’s really cool. Everything is true and false and ultimately true. Reality is made irrelevant, which is liberating because it’s so often hard for me to tolerate, or at least the consensus of it we all conform to and fight against to varying degrees. I feel the speaker and his experiences are a kind of recovery. We may have merged into one person at this point. The speaker and the larger book allow me to pursue emotions in ways that I’ve been taught are dangerous, but the truth about what you initially asked me is that the throw to an egg laying rooster wasn’t something I planned, just something that worked after a significant amount of unsatisfying writing.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

You know, I’ve gotten a real kick out of reading various volumes from the Poets and Poetry series published by The University of Michigan Press.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

North American Southern Culture. North American Southeastern Culture. North American Southeastern Coastal Culture. South Carolina Culture. Summerville, South Carolina Culture. Charleston, South Carolina Culture.

As editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review, what would you say makes a great editor?

Perhaps having the nerve to be arrogant in your vision? Or maybe just an awareness that there are so many limitations to curating a literary journal, especially a print journal, that you really have to craft an aesthetic and push that aesthetic to its limits to evade putting together an issue that reads like nothing in particular, regardless of how strong the work is. I think the mark of a great editor is reading through an issue of a literary journal without the urge to rip it apart or deconstruct the assemblage, to always think of and refer to a particular issue as a whole.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

Never doubt that whatever you’re writing at the time is black writing.

Establishing and maintaining a sense of community is a lifelong effort, so treasure it wherever and whenever you find it if it’s important to you.

Some modification of this quote from Langston Hughes: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Or that

Learning to love yourself / it is the greatest love of all.

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I really enjoy listening to minimalist and ambient music. I’m always trying to find a new craft that I’ll both have the tolerance and talent for. I love uninterrupted daydreaming. I love watching anime even if I’m incredibly picky. I love plotting to meet kindred spirits.

Can you take us through what your writing regime looks like? How do you fit time to write into your day?

I’m sure I don’t have one. I have a powerful mind, a quirky way of seeing things, and a good memory. I think the combination of those things spoil me when it comes to writing because I feel like I never really stop writing even when I’m not doing something that can readily be recognized as writing, so I imagine that the people who know me well would agree that I more fit my day into my writing rather than the opposite.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I recently started wearing rings with turquoise inlays. I never thought I would wear a ring with a stone in it, and especially not a stone as bright and colorful as turquoise. It’s been a wonderful surprise.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

I never really lost my ability to see and process things comically, to apply comic logic to powerful effects, and I have an incredible sensitivity to textures, smells, movement patterns, and some sounds.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I attended the 2016, 2017, and 2018 retreat. I’ll sort these memories by year.

2018: Rashida, Aaron, Nicholas and I randomly went walking through the large sports field on the Greensburg campus. The field was incredibly soggy and even drenched in some spots from all the rain. There were a massive amount of fireflies in the trees and they were flashing so much that the trees seemed to be twinkling. There were also a great amount of stars out that night. The sky was super clear, and it was in that environment that we read poems to each other.

Graduation was incredible, but I’d have to write so much to do justice to saying why.

2017: Justin had the idea to go searching for the moon and invited me to come along. We found an incredible amount of fireflies and walked around the entire campus to find the moon much closer to where we started walking from. It was hilarious because we’d done so much walking. Having had enough of the moon, I said something about the fireflies having followed us, and when I pointed up to show Justin where the fireflies were, a shooting star shot over us. That was the first time I’d seen such a thing in person. I know the story must sound made-up, but I promise that’s how I remember it.

2016: I’m sure I was mesmerized the entire retreat, but there’s an incredible picture of me, Matt, Dexter, and Cortney that I most readily associate with the wonder of that first year.


photo for Dustin Pearson interview sent by Pearson

2016 Cave Canem retreat faculty member Evie Shockley is the author of four collections of poetry—most recently, the new black, winner of the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry—as well as a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. Her poetry and essays appear widely in journals and anthologies, recently including Boston Review, pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, Bone Bouquet, Best American Poetry 2015 and Best American Experimental Writing 2015. Her honors include the 2015 Stephen Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry and the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize.  Currently serving as creative editor for Feminist Studies, Shockley is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

What can poets do to promote social justice? 

Poets can do the same things anyone else can do, broadly speaking: vote, organize, donate (time or money) to the people or groups who are doing good work, get out in the streets, build institutions, run for office, help raise awareness about the issues, and work on living life daily in ways that make social justice more likely or more available in one’s own corner of the world. Voting may sound lame or retro, compared to protesting in the face of an increasingly militarized police or tweeting comments to millions of people via trending hashtags, but believe me: it’s one of those rights you don’t want to learn to appreciate because you’ve lost it. Use the right to vote on election days—and throughout the rest of the year, use all your other rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, with a vengeance.

Now, with all that said, poets do have a special set of skills and inclinations that can come in handy in doing the work. We can give the gift of time by reading at a rally; we can help raise money by reading at a benefit or contributing a poem to a publication whose proceeds will be used for a worthy cause; and, of course, we can write poems about subjects that we want people to think about, poems that will inspire and encourage activists, poems that remember what must not be forgotten. I feel especially strongly that one of the strengths of poetry is making connections—or making connections visible—and, therefore, one of the ways we can use our art to promote social justice is by writing in ways that help people see that the small pieces of the puzzle we’re each focused on all come together in the big picture. Most people want to live in a just world. What we need more than anything right now is for more of us to understand that our various ideas about what justice looks like are not necessarily competing or conflicting, but are connected and interdependent. The struggle to transform the world into a place where we can all live in peace, in good health, in joy—regardless of who we are, where we were born, what religious beliefs we hold (if any), what our anatomy looks like, and so forth—is one that requires all of us, working together on a wide range of issues that we’ve been led to believe are “special interests” or incompatible goals, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year? 

I have read a lot of good books this past year. Rather than single out one as the “best,” let me amplify the praise I’ve already given to a poetry book just released a couple months ago: play dead, by francine j. harris, is a truly memorable book, in terms of its language, images, and subjects.  It will open you and enter you and teach you. I also finally (finally) read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets last year, and I was blown away by the voice and the structure of that book.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time? 

I taught a poetry workshop in prison (at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers) for the first time this spring. It was very rewarding and not an experience I’m likely to forget. I have an even greater appreciation for those who teach inside the prison system on a regular basis.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art. 

It depends. If “art” is shorthand for “visual art,” then the answer is music. All kinds of music have left their mark on my writing, but I would have to make special mention of Prince, especially right now, because without his music in my life, I would be a different person than I am.  If “art” is meant to include all the art forms, then I would point to the ways my work is influenced by people talking.  I listen to people talking—on the subway, on film and TV, in my classes, in restaurants, on the sidewalks, on the radio—and I learn something new about language every day.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money? 

I go to see as much theatre as I can; it has overtaken movies as my favorite art form for storytelling. I’m a lackadaisical foodie, meaning that I love good food, good wine, and long, leisurely meals with good friends and wide-ranging conversation, but I don’t take the trouble to do much research about chefs, restaurants, vineyards, and such. So there’s a lot of trial and error involved! And I’m always looking for recommendations from people who know about these things.  I go for walks—sometimes power-walks as a form of workout, and other times just rambles in the park, or walks to get from here to there in my neighborhood or in the city. I watch the comedy/news shows that come on late-night TV (though I watch them on YouTube; we don’t own a TV). I travel a good bit, though more often for work than vacations. Oh—and it almost goes without saying, but it should be said—I spend time with my family: partner, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. I cherish the hours—and the years (16, and counting!)—with my partner, and I’m an especially doting auntie. I also commune with my cats.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging black poets; to all emerging poets? 

  1. Read widely. Read poetry, but not just poetry. Read literature, but not just literature. To Black poets, I would say: get as familiar with the traditions of Black poetry as you are with your bedroom. To other poets, I would say: if you haven’t already done so, bring Black poetry out of the attic and basement and into your living room and your kitchen.
  2. Seek to be influenced. You want to be influenced, the way Prince was influenced by James Brown, the way D’Angelo was influenced by Prince. Go ahead and try to be like Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, like Jayne Cortez or Bob Kaufman, like Reginald Shepard or Erica Hunt, like Yusef Komunyakaa or Robert Hayden, like Lucille Clifton or Suheir Hammad, like Rita Dove or Ed Roberson. You wish! But try—and in the process of trying, in the process of figuring out what makes their poetry so compelling, in the process of discovering what they do that allows them to slay you again and again and again, you may become a most fabulous YOU.
  3. Remind yourself regularly why you write. There are many ways to be a poet, many paths one can walk in making that journey, and it can be helpful at times to remember that you don’t need to be on the path to a Nobel Prize to be living the poet’s life that you dreamed of: making a difference with your words, meeting wonderful and interesting people, and having the top of your head taken off (mind. blown.) on a regular basis.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has? 

I find this a difficult question to answer. I think I always assume things will change, and they always do, even when they stay the same.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer? 

I don’t think there’s one thing that has “most” shaped me as a writer.  Rather, I think one thing that has helped me a great deal is the understanding that I am, as a writer, a composite of all of my life experiences.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times? 

I was at CC in 1997, ’98, and ’99, the organization’s second, third, and fourth years, when the retreats were still held in upstate NY, at Mount St. Alphonsus.  My memories are many and dear.  I remember that the first CC poet I met was Shara McCallum.  I remember waking at dawn and watching the deer on the lawn with Robin Caudell.  I remember Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon singing spirituals in the little chapel. I remember walking down to the Hudson River in the pitch black dark with a group that included Brandon Johnson and Robin Dunn.  I remember walking down the monastery’s long halls, hearing Tyehimba Jess’s blues coming from the open door of his room.  I remember G.E. Patterson repeatedly saying, writing, or doing things that made me surprised or thoughtful or happy.

I remember Lucille Clifton, with whom I’d already studied at Duke, introducing me at lunch to Sonia Sanchez, whose first words to me were “Can I get you some beans, sister?” (both of them modeling how we must take care of one another). I remember Elizabeth Alexander bringing her first child, Solomon, to the retreat just weeks after he was born.  I remember Afaa M. Weaver teaching a group of us (including Yona Harvey) about a form he’d just invented, called the “bop.” I remember sitting on the monastery roof one night with a group that included Michelle Courtney Berry, Jonathan Smith, and Tim Seibles, and seeing a shooting star. I remember Father Francis Gargani cheering us on (and reminding us to be quiet) and dancing like Gene Kelly at the parties on the final nights.

I remember Michael Harper being stern, patriarchal, and magnificent. I remember Phebus Etienne being quiet in all the ways her poems were not. I remember Vincent Woodard in the opening circle, opening us all up.

I remember sitting at lunch with Reggie Harris and Cornelius Eady, who—when I said I didn’t really buy poetry books—asked me who I thought would buy them (especially books by black poets), if we didn’t. I remember Duriel Harris teaching me how to pronounce her name. I remember hearing Tracie Morris perform a soundscape (“Chain Gang”) for the first time. I remember giovanni singleton reading to us the colors of the J. Crew catalog. I remember Joel Dias Porter (“Renegade”) arguing with everyone, passionately. I remember workshopping with John Keene, Brian Gilmore, Taiyon Coleman, and Yolanda Wisher, just to name a few. I remember Erica Doyle introducing Harryette Mullen, punning about the “amusing drudgery” of her work. I remember Honorée Jeffers reading her “Tuscaloosa” poem. I remember Carrie McCray telling us about Ota Benga.  I remember Toi Derricotte’s ever-ready smile—and her ability to take each one of her workshops to the bone.  I remember Carolyn Micklem running herself ragged so the rest of us could just think and talk and breathe poetry for seven whole days.

I remember you all: January Gill, Bakar Wilson, Kate Rushin, Lenard Moore, Dawn Lundy Martin, Ronaldo Wilson, Kendra Hamilton, Holly Bass, Hayes Davis, Teri Cross, Toni Lightfoot—all of you whose names I am still singing as I force myself to bring this list to a premature close. And I remember Ernesto Mercer, in white, leading the first Cave Canem graduation ceremonies, blessing us and our poems and our journeys onward.

Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and  Best American Poetry. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is an assistant professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.


You are one of the originators of Black Poets Speak Out. How and why did you help launch this movement? What can poets do to promote social justice?

While Michael Brown’s body lay dead in the street, many of us wished we could do something other than watch it…something to help…something to help join and honor the grief of his mother and the crowd gathering around the murderous display. Then Amanda Johnston was brave enough to go to the Cave Canem Fellows Facebook group and ask quite directly, “What ARE WE going to do?”  Soon, I joined in the conversation along with poets Jonterri Gadson, Mahogany L. Browne, Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe and others. I’m not sure I remember which of us came up with the hashtag, though I do remember writing a template for the language poets could use to introduce videos they uploaded in response to police brutality. After that, I texted everyone I knew in my contacts who writes and asked them to record a poem. Then spent my Thanksgiving—John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice had all been murdered by then—retweeting and reposting. Word of mouth did most of the rest. I guess all of that is the how. Community. Community is always how. Though writing a poem is an act of isolation, it happens by way of no one alone.

In this case, the why has to do with something that may be much more individual than it is communal. I don’t see the purpose of Cave Canem or Alpha Phi Alpha or Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church, for that matter, if these organizations don’t take a break from regularly scheduled programming to show and prove that they are made up of people with a stake in the world and our future. That’s my why. I could just imagine Amiri Baraka rolling his eyes from the grave and saying, “Oh, so what you Negro poets gon’ say about this?” Of course, no matter how much you do, you never feel you’ve done enough.

I don’t know that poets have to do anything other than allow all of themselves—all of their lives (and everyone on Earth lives a political life)—into their poems. That’s our only responsibility, and it’s all any one of us really can do.

Which poets or artists have influenced you the most, and where might readers see that influence in your work?

This list is probably too long to be of use to anyone, and I don’t think poets should intrude upon readers by telling them what antecedents to look for. I really wish everyone approached my poems assuming that I’ve read everything and that I’m allowing all of that to do some work in my writing.

I’m actually much more interested in talking about books that I see some of myself in than I am in talking inexhaustibly—doomed to leave someone out—about all those who come to make me who I am. I am, for instance, really excited about the work of people like Anais Duplan because something about it makes me feel that I haven’t been wasting my time and that my work has been of use to someone else’s work. I mean the greatest poems I write are the ones other poets will learn from and expand upon.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I’m excited to see Christina Garcia’s new book come into print. It’s called The Brighter House and should be out from White Pine Press soon. Her voice is wholly her own, and she speaks in the language of delicate and mesmerizing touch with phrases like “feather-brush antennae” and “ticklish insect-footed sensation” and “wished-for snow” without ever falling into precious sentimentality. Over and again, these poems mount to harsh and cold violences that speak to the intricacies of the soul in a gorgeous way that leaves the reader feeling bruised—as in pressed upon—but not bloody. It’s really a brilliant book of first-rate artistry.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, money, and energy?

Well, I try to wake in an attitude of gratitude so that feeling can guide the rest of my day. Then I weigh myself. If I’m over 189 pounds, I drink some water and do 100 burpees in my basement then eat breakfast and then sit in my living room to pray. If I weigh less than 190 pounds, I eat some breakfast, then sit in my living room to pray. Once I’ve done that, I check my five email accounts and my Twitter. I’m totally addicted to Twitter.

Email correspondence takes all day if I let it, but I usually stop after two hours and head to the gym and work out for about an hour. Most of the ordinary day other than that is “reading, writing, or teaching,” which really is at the center of all my doings and which, as far as I’m concerned, includes listening to music and having phone conversations with close friends about “reading, writing, or teaching.”

Of course, there are my fraternity meetings and service projects, and church on Sunday and sometimes a class offered at my church I may be taking once a week. I club or go to a house party when I can because I like to dance and look at cute black men and to see them look back at me. I love to hear live R&B, so I go to concerts whenever I know about them. And I watch Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder and Game of Thrones if I’m in town and not away giving a poetry reading.  I go to the movies when I can, but of course, that’s writing too. I like to cuddle, but that doesn’t happen often enough for any of us to call it the way we spend our time.

I eat at least six times throughout the day. I’m generally hungry, so I spend my money on food. I enjoy shopping, but I don’t get to go hurt the mall as much as I would like because I’m so busy “reading, writing, or teaching,” and all three of those trump my capitalist and consumerist leanings.  Whatever money I’m paid is divided among my bills, save for 10%, a tithe I give to my church, Cave Canem, and my alma mater Dillard University. (I really want to be a person who spends money on giving gifts to people, but unless it’s someone’s birthday and he or she is in my presence, I never actually send all the gifts I plan to send. This is like the last mountain of shame in my life.)

I try to keep the house open so that people can come and crash there if they have a ride and are visiting Atlanta for a couple days or even if they just need a place to wash clothes or to catch some cable TV or if people want a place to come work and read. I’m not really a host, though; often, I have people over who seem to understand that other than the music I’m playing, I like for the house to be quiet.

Lately, I’ve been practicing what I call radical forgiveness, so before I go to sleep at night I go over my day and think of anyone who may have rubbed me the wrong way in any interaction, and I let that shit go. I realized in these last few months that I was holding on to the idea that people in my past had done me wrong, and those grudges weren’t making anything good or new happen. So now when I come across these people in my mind or on the street, I try reimagining things and try remembering that people generally just do the best they can in the moment that they do whatever they do and that we all have times when we act out of fear when we should be acting out of love.

Just before going to sleep, I make a list of five things for which I am grateful and email it off to my friend the novelist Amber Dermont, who by that time has already sent her list of the same to me.  I spend that “energy” you mention praying for another poem and trying to see some good in everything, which gets hard when police follow me into my driveway to ask if I live in my house.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

But I have four:

  1. Use condoms, unless you’ve got another thought-out plan.
  2. Go about being whomever it is you want to be or doing whatever it is you want to do with what you have now.
  3. Experience your days as wholly and awake as possible so you can have something about which to write that comes to you as an automatic passion rather than a project for some poems.
  4. Go be where the poets are. Physically sit next to one sometimes.  Read books written by some all the time.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I thought I was going to be one of those people who gets tenure then sits down somewhere. I’ve found that I’m actually still a dreamer. I still want to write a poem better than my last poem and a book better than my last book. I’m collaborating with Snehal Desai on a play, and if you had told me as a kid that I’d ever want to make anything other than a poem, I’d have rolled my eyes.

I didn’t think black people would be so wholesale taken with white people who record some version of black music. The Bee Gees and Billy Joel and Michael Bolton and Hall & Oates would have made way more money if they were artists who debuted in 2015.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

The summer after I graduated from college, Toi Derricotte and Gloria Wade-Gayles and Yona Harvey and Terrance Hayes and Major Jackson all moved to New Orleans where I was living at the time. They (and people like Randy Bates and John Gery and Kay Murphy and Brenda Marie Osbey and Kalamu ya Salaam and Mona Lisa Saloy and the people Nommo Literary Society) seemed to appear out of my imagination as caretakers of my imagination. They looked at me as if I was a whole human being; this was a brand new way of being seen for me. They talked to me as if I already was a poet, and in their speaking to me that way, I became what they saw.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I may remember this wrong, but I think 2000, 2001, and 2004. I’m glad Cave Canem has stayed around long enough for me to be thought of as old skool CC.

I remember falling asleep on Sean Hill’s shoulder during a long bus ride. I remember Douglas Kearney waking me up every morning because I didn’t have an alarm. I remember hearing Mendi Lewis Obadike sing “Believe in Yourself” from The Wiz at a CC graduation.  I remember writing while I wished I was partying with other CCers who were already done with their poems to be workshopped the next day but feeling like I was writing my ass off. I remember John Murillo doing pushups shirtless. I remember cuddling with Marvin K. White. I remember everybody acting like it was normal when Nikky Finney said she used to catch herself levitating when she was a kid. I remember Ronaldo Wilson giving a great reading and Treasure Shields doing a great Ronaldo Wilson impression. I remember listening to Shane Book and Greg Pardlo talk to each other about poetry and thinking one day I’d be as smart as them. I remember Elizabeth Alexander reading to us the poems of Forrest Hamer and feeling like I wasn’t alone. I remember Tracie Morris singing the word “Blackberry” until it meant everything. I remember Jacqueline Jones LaMon giving us one motherly look that made us rethink our decision to play music full of profanity at the farewell party. I remember Patricia Smith dancing in a magenta dress, leaving to go to sleep, then coming back to dance some more. I remember Lucille Clifton telling me to hush.

John Murillo’s first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie, was a finalist for both the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award. His other honors include a 2011 Pushcart Prize, two Larry Neal Writers Awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem Foundation, the New York Times, the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Currently, he serves on the creative writing faculty at Hampshire College and New York University.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Write poems. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s an old question with old answers. Poets such as Audre Lorde, Martín Espada, Sonia Sanchez, and Carolyn Forche have been showing us for years what we can do. Publish well-written poems grounded in the real world in a language real people can understand. It’s that simple. I’m a strong believer that, as historian John Henrik Clarke once wrote, the best way to serve any cause is “to do [one’s] best work.” Healers should heal and poets should poet. That said, there are, in addition to the usual means by which poets engage—writing poems, giving readings, using available platforms and networks to raise awareness about various issues—smaller, less glamorous acts, by which writers can do some good in the world, in the community. One can write letters to legislators and various civic organizations advocating for one’s neighbors (writ large and/or local); one can teach creative writing or even basic literacy at neighborhood libraries, community centers, and houses of detention; one can read poems to an ailing family member. Of course, little of this will end up on YouTube or get many likes on social media (unless, of course, one announces such acts and/or posts selfies, for instance, with said ailing relative—propped up in the hospital bed, tubes and electrodes running every which way, and the somber faced poet flashing a first collection of a newly famous friend whose favor he fiends for. Friggin’ fakers.) But these small acts matter, nonetheless.

In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman tells us that one job of the poet is to “cheer up slaves and to horrify despots.” In a similar vein, Lucille Clifton said in an interview decades later that poets should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I hold these ideas close and have always admired poets who use their talents in the service of others. Having said that, there is something I find problematic in the question itself, “What can poets do…?” There is tucked away in there this notion of poets as inherently better qualified—more articulate, in possession of heightened powers of perception, and, therefore, more astute political sensibilities than the dumb and grunting masses who are unable to speak or do for themselves. No one ever asks, “What can garbage collectors do to promote social justice?” Or nurses. Or numbers runners. A poet is no more or less a citizen than anyone else, has the same civic responsibilities as everyone else, and is no more or less qualified than anyone else to bring about change. To have developed a talent for scribbling a few lines here and there neither obligates nor absolves one of anything. Far too many poets take this “Voice of the Voiceless” business to heart and start thinking of themselves as some sort of saviors, prophets even. And there are others who write some politically charged verse, read said verse to loud applause, and think their work is done. No. And, no.

I hear you have a new book coming out. Can you tell us a little bit about it, and how it came to be?

My next book is still a couple years away. Still scribbling and scratching is all.

What was the last great book you read?

Working through a great book now. Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us: White Predators, Black slavers, and the African Elite. I’ve owned it for a few decades now and have tried and failed often to tackle it. But I’m doing good this time around.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Wow. Nothing recently. Can’t even remember the last time I tried anything new. It’s sad, really. But now I’m committed. I’m going to try something new. Tomorrow.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

These are great questions, by the way. I’ve always been a huge basketball fan. Since I was in elementary school, I used to love to read biographies of players who lacked any innate talent or size or athleticism, but were able to succeed on grit and determination. As someone who came to poetry relatively late and who really has no special talent for it, I still draw inspiration from these kinds of stories. Love the underdog. Most recently, I’ve been rooting (reluctantly) for the Celtics’ guard, Isaiah Thomas. As a Lakers fan, I hate all things Celtics, but this guy has so much heart it’s unbelievable. Dude is 5’9”, was the LAST player selected in the 2011 draft, and has fought his way to becoming one of the league’s premier players. More impressive, though, was when a few weeks ago, after learning that his younger sister was killed in an auto accident, Thomas went out the next night, eyes red and his whole face swollen from crying, and carried his squad on his back. His team lost, but that’s not the point. Nor is it that he was able to put all that pain aside. He didn’t. He carried that shit. He carried all that weight—leaned into the hurt—and still did what he had to do. There’s a lot to be gained watching someone like that. A couple weeks ago, while playing the Washington Wizards, he got his front tooth knocked out by some Goliath’s elbow, bled all over the court, and kept balling. Straight gangster.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Really, all I do is teach, read, and write (In that order). I guess the bright side of having so little time or energy to spend is that I can save some money. If I do have any down time, I’m either at the gym or with my wife. Lots of Netflix and chill. Chewing Gum is dope. Atlanta is dope (though not on Netflix). The Office. Frasier. Black Mirror. I listen to a lot of music. Old school, mostly.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

By “change” I’m assuming you mean something significant like “racism would have ended” or “there would be no more homelessness.” But to answer this I’d have to pretend that my child self was much brighter and more curious about the world than he was. Either I didn’t give much thought to such things or, if I did, I’m too old to remember.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Something fairly recently, actually. A few years ago I went through a process that demanded of me that I step back from the world, so to speak, for a year or so. No parties, no conferences, no social media, etc. The relative solitude, the quiet, was a godsend. Time off the grid gave me an opportunity to reflect on a great many things, not least of which was who I was becoming as a writer. It didn’t sit well with me. I realized that after a few years in PoBiz, I had started to care about things that had absolutely nothing to do with poetry. I would have entire conversations with poet friends and never mention a single line, or poem, that meant anything to any of us. Instead, it was all contest deadlines, job searches, who just won what and was publishing where. Upon completing the aforementioned process and returning to the world, I came back feeling out of step with a lot of it. Particularly on social media. I decided, to whatever degree I could, to try and stay gone. I’ll pop my head up every now and again, but for the most part, I’m underground—reading and writing—and I’m saner than I’ve ever been.

What advice you would give to emerging poets?

Stay off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the rest. Make a few real friends, keep them close. Stay hungry, but stop being thirsty. Read deeply and widely. Balance your life. Find ways other than writing poems to make money, to get laid, to become famous. Honor the tradition, don’t pimp it for grants, fellowships, or tenure. Work hard. Know that you won’t get everything you think you deserve, nor will you deserve everything you get. Say thank you, then get back to work. Work hard. And stay off Facebook.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was at Cave Canem in ’03, ’04, and ’06. Most of my favorite memories came from my first and third years. That’s when I met people who would become, over time, my closest friends. And then there are a few little things I remember that still make me smile. I remember getting sick on the Greyhound from D.C. to Greensburg, and spending the first couple days of the retreat curled up under a blanket and my suitemate, Dante Micheaux, checking in on me to see if I needed anything. Tea? Water? That was before we even really knew each other. I remember telling Nikky Finney how much I enjoyed her reading but that I didn’t have enough money to buy her book, and Shelagh Patterson, who I had not yet met but who was standing within earshot, reaching into her pocket to hand me a twenty. I remember Regie Gibson turning me onto Robert Bly’s “Leaping Poetry,” and Adrian Matejka turning me onto the work of Eric Gamalinda and Bill Matthews. I remember partying too much one year, turning in a couple days’ worth of bullshit into workshop, and Jericho Brown being brother enough to call me out on it. I remember Carolyn Beard Whitlow bringing the house down at a fellows’ reading, and Toi dancing with the big homey, James Richardson (r.i.p.). I could go on for hours about the good old days, really. Mostly, I was just happy to be a part of the community.

Kyla Marshell’s work has appeared in Blackbird, Calyx, ESPNw, Gawker, The Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and on the Poetry Foundation. Her work has earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, two residencies to the Vermont Studio Center, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. In 2013, named her one of “7 Young Black Writers You Should Know.” A Spelman College graduate originally from Boston, she grew up in Silver Spring, MD, Morehead, KY, and Portland, ME, and now lives in New York. To view Kyla’s previous interviews, visit the DOGBYTES blog.

Kwoya Fagin Maples’ debut poetry collection, MEND, (University Press of Kentucky, 2018) was finalist for the AWP Prize and received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Maples holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem fellow. Her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary JournalBerkeley Poetry ReviewObsidianThe African-American ReviewPLUCK, and Cave Canem Anthology XIII. Maples teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and directs an annual three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film. Celebrate Kwoya Fagin Maples’ debut collection, as she joins Cave Canem fellows Jericho Brown and Marwa Helal for a New Works reading, Thursday, April 25, 2019, 7pm, at the NYU Lillian Vernon House. 

Can you walk us through what your research process looked like when writing your debut poetry collection, Mend?

I wrote the first poem for the collection in 2010 while at Cave Canem. After presenting the poem in workshop, I decided I wouldn’t write another poem until I conducted research. I spoke with a mentor, Joel Brouwer, who advised that I make an effort to not allow the work to be bogged down in research. The only way I figured I could do that was by keeping the writing and research separate. So I read for a year without writing towards Mend. I read hundreds of slave narratives and the voices, images and experiences of my ancestors became the heaviest influence on the book. Ultimately, I wrote Mend by a process of immersion. In addition to narratives, I used photographs of enslaved people and music from that time period to saturate my consciousness. I was very fortunate to have the space and time to focus on the work.  By way of Cave Canem, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation provided a writing residency at Pocantico in New York. For two weeks I was alone in a house with time dedicated specifically for the work. This is where the writing really began.

What were the challenges you faced in weaving historical research into creative writing? How did you navigate those challenges?

There were a few. The biggest challenge was the utter lack of information. We have J. Marion Sims’ autobiography and surgical notes, but he only names three of the women who were the “subjects” of his experimentation in Mt. Meigs, Alabama—Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. However, there were a minimum of eleven women that he operated on. Sims wrote extensively about the operations in his autobiography, Story of My Life, but the women are footnotes, extras in their own story. There are no personal details or descriptions in reference to their experiences. There is one moment where Sims admits of Lucy “…she was much prostrated, and I thought she was going to die.” This detail is a brief reference to Lucy’s humanity by acknowledging her physical state, but it is one of few in his autobiography.

The whole time I wrote the book I felt as if I were just on the verge of seeing the women fully.  When the poems came, I’d write as quickly as I could, but the images would fade away. I traveled to Mt. Meigs, and there are poems that discuss that experience in Mend. Even while there, no one could point me to the doctor’s home. I spoke to a local historian, who claimed to know everything about the history of the town. Of Sims, she said, “I know him! He’s famous because he operated on an African American woman and saved her life!” Everywhere I turned during research seemed to end with a feeling of not quite having reached something tangible. It was a struggle to imagine and create experiences. It’s certainly part of why it took six years to write the book.  The purpose of Mend is to convey the humanity of the women and shed light on what could have been their experience. As I engaged in immersion, I wrote.

Another challenge was accuracy. I always tell my students to abandon accuracy for the sake of art. While writing Mend, however, historical accuracy was extremely important for me. I wanted to make sure I was writing what could have been. I felt a sense of responsibility to tell this story by focusing on the women’s voices and not my own. They are my ancestors and their story is real.  I endeavored to write scenes that were probable. The images, objects and references are specific to that time and circumstance.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I’m going to cheat and mention two.  The novel Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, and the poetry collection House is an Enigma by Emma Bolden.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Removing the front door of my house to replace it with an older one I liked better. The door was a lot heavier than it looked, and I was alone. I’ve been sore all week. YouTube DIY videos give a false sense of capability.  🙂

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

I have three daughters.  I enjoy having deep conversations with them, reading to them and braiding their hair in creative ways. I love the movies. My favorite membership of life is my $15 annual AMC Stubs membership (so many perks).

I spend most of my money at this restaurant called Urban Cookhouse where I get the same exact meal I’ve been ordering for months.  I get the three-cheese chicken quesadilla with white barbecue sauce.  I also love visiting the ocean (I’m from Charleston, S.C. so the ocean is always home). I spend time at a Care Center for the homeless population in Birmingham and it’s one of the most valuable things I do.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  • Trust your voice but don’t use it amiss. Be intentional about what you put into the world.
  • Find a workshop space that is predominated by people of color.
  • Read widely. And read a variety of books by writers of color (outside of the three acknowledged by your current MFA program).

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

This might be too easy, but playfulness and humor. Being willing to not take myself so seriously on the page. And yes, wanting to be seen and heard.

Why is it important to engage academic fields such as history, gender studies and black studies through poetry, rather than strictly reading academic texts?

It adds complexity and depth to our understanding. Artists capture truths that contextualize history. There are (historical) truths in Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied Sing, namely, convict leasing. She creates a probable account of its effects on an individual.  The book has also informed my understanding of the impact of the cycle of poverty and drugs on a family. Literature becomes representative of cultural history, which is why writers have to be careful. I think of Gone with the Wind for example, and how the character of Mammy is depicted, it was a representation that became a stereotypical idea of black women in the south.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

My family. Their stories are always captivating. They remind me that art is everywhere. In their conversation, speech and mannerisms I continually find beauty.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2008, 2010 and 2012. In 2008, I was responsible for the dance party. I never claimed to be the organizer, but I WAS. I want it to be known now. I spent the entire day telling people there was a dance party that night. I asked a guy who was already playing music all day to DJ. It was a fantastic dance party. I’ll never forget it.

In 2010, it was me who poured the salt on the sidewalks. I can’t stand slugs.

In 2012, I was pregnant with twins. Mahogany Browne brought food to my room unprompted. I’d been too tired to walk across campus to lunch. She’d noticed my absence. It’s still one of the kindnesses of my life I appreciated most.

Kyle Dargan is the author of four collections of poetry, Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007) and The Listening (2003), all published by the University of Georgia Press. For his work, he has received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His books have also been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Awards Grand Prize. He is currently an Associate Professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University and is the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia and Indiana University.


What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Honest Engine?

With Honest Engine—unlike my other three books in which I was still figuring out what I wanted to achieve as a poet, a communicator—I knew well before the book was published that I had hit the sweet spot, I knew I was actually executing at my optimum capacity at that time. Refining that—when you are already exceeding what you assumed your abilities to be—was challenging. I was afraid of doing too much and ruining the recipe, or that I was delusional and the manuscript was not as strong as I thought it to be. It helps to have poet colleagues and editors you trust, and, luckily, I did. Their honesty—and confidence—kept me from rendering the book overwrought.

On Twitter, you often encourage poets to “push for the book.” Why is it so important to complete this step?

Well, I mostly say (or tweet) this to people who I know have manuscripts on hard drives or under their beds. It’s not something that generally validates or completes a poet—no one should feel that way—but I do want people who have ventured the audacity to produce and present a book to the world to follow through. I always say that whenever you send out a manuscript, it should be stronger by the time you get a response. Releasing it should free you (and encourage you) to allow it to grow, and I want people to believe they can stay engaged in that process or cycle of release and growth until their manuscripts find a home.

How might social media enhance our collective effort towards social justice?

When it comes to social justice, I am more interested in hacking than social media. To me, social media amplifies and, on occasion, clarifies narratives, but hacking actually grants access to change the narrative. It gets people access to the information that those who—tacitly or explicitly—want to maintain inequalities and disenfranchisement need to keep out of the public record. Politically, I would say hacking tends to be thought of as a tool of The State—espionage—but the people who really need hackers and hacktivists are the ones whom The State denies rights and resources and access. The world needs to be able to see how a web is being woven behind firewalls.

What does the phrase “do the work” mean to you as a poet?

“Do the work” means many things. It means be serious about your craft as a poet—as in not more serious than you are about networking and promoting yourself. It also means the work one does to or with the self to grow. Growing as a human being and growing as an artist, those two phenomena are impossibly connected. I like to be active about moving back and forth between the two. It’s almost like pistons—pushing hard in one direction acts as the compression before ignition and the push back in the other direction.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Outside of literature or art—does Japanese anime count as non-literature or non-art? If so, then I would claim that first. At this phase of my life, many of the ideas that push me (as in challenge or stimulate) creatively come from anime. Visual narratives that do not begin with the limitations of what can or cannot be done with film just tend to be more inventive in the way they can and do probe the human psyche. Of the serious and dramatic stuff, loved Durarara! Loved Ghost in a Shell. Loved Full Metal Alchemist. Loved Death Note. Attack on Titan. Parasyte. Evangelion. The Gundam series. Yu Yu Hakusho. Akira.

One of the things I appreciate about anime is that the settings are often imagined spaces within real environments. (Think of One Punch Man taking place in Japan but all the cities are “City A,” “City B” etc., or Akira’s “Neo-Tokyo”—a city built in a crater following a third world war.) I’ve given myself a little moratorium on writing about America after my next book, Anagnorisis, is published, but whenever I get back to that, I want to write about America using imagined spaces nestled within our history but not beholden to its rules. I’m excited to see what aspects of my imagination that might allow me to access.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I actually spend a lot of time responding to and communicating with people who write me—former students, other writers, complete (and I say this lovingly, or jokingly) randos. If my writing is doing the work of actually communicating and connecting with people—who then reach out to me—I feel an obligation to respond. (Luckily, though, I’m not that popular of a poet.)

Aside from that, I play basketball and lift weights a lot. Those things don’t really make it into my writing, but they inform—as philosophies—a lot of my life. I’m always thinking in terms of basketball-to-life, or weightlifting-to-life. Darry Strickland—another CC fellow—he thinks a lot like that. He’s like a sage. (He played Division I college ball and has coached a lot.) Conversations with him that blend all these worlds are a blessing.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging poets?

The key piece I would suggest is to always think of yourself as an emerging poet. That language of “emerging poet” has always been empty to me. I had my first book, the Cave Canem prize, at twenty-three and my third by thirty. By the industry’s standards, I was out of the emerging “phase” by my late twenties, but that was ridiculous. Number of books has nothing to do with degree of development. Finding a space for my process and continued growth was difficult, and I have people coming to me for mentorship when I’m thinking “yo, I’ve been in this game just as long, if not less time, than you.” Rather than fit a category, I just embraced being an emerging writer all the time—always emerging into my next iteration. So try that. Try being a, to steal Oliver de le Paz’s term, poet citizen—to the country but also to the field of poetry. What are the “civic duties” of poetry we need to attend to? And this last bit, it may not be great advice for everyone, but have a bit of a chip on your shoulder about your work. I’ve only felt wholly inadequate reading next to one other poet—Lucille Clifton. (A privilege but, to this day, I think, “what the hell was twenty-something-year-old me doing on stage with her?”) But anybody else, I want to feel like I earned my space next to her or him because—(recall)—I did the work and I’ll keep doing the work.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

Over time, I began to believe that my birth city, Newark, New Jersey, would never change from being a majority blk, majority lower-income city. The September 11th attacks changed Newark’s post-riots trajectory. New York companies and workers felt safer in New Jersey. Downtown Newark is practically becoming a college town. The old Bamberger’s (Macy’s) where my grandmother worked as a girl once, that’s going to be a Whole Foods soon, but that kind of change has been forty years in the making. D.C. is very different in terms of development. You’ll feel whiplash watching neighborhoods gentrify in D.C.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Being negro. Negotiating and managing “whiteness” almost constantly—which is exhausting. Living as both one of the nation’s greatest fears and one of its clearest examples of disenfranchisement, you’re constantly distinguishing people’s reaction to you. It sharpens your eye, as long as you don’t let that racial animus consume you. As a cis-het blk man, occasionally I need to remind myself that life is so much bigger than the struggle against “white” supremacy. Being a being—not just a human but a sentient entity in the universe—is bigger than that.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What’s a favorite memory from those times?

I attended in ’02 and ’03 I believe. Never “graduated.” I’ve popped back in for readings and things a few times. I remember, my second year, as a joke, some of us advertised a party, The Denmark Vesey Club, that really did not go over well with some of the faculty (though some of the faculty were at the party)—particularly Nikky Finney, who went in on us the next day. For someone like her, who would have died to have a space like Cave Canem when she was a younger writer, it was just unfathomable that we wouldn’t treat the time and space with supreme reverence. I still remember that “talking to.” It still hurts, but I am ever grateful to her for doing that as an elder, for modeling how we need to see to the integrity of our spaces, especially since we have so few and they are not guaranteed. And, sure, I was twenty-four and less mature then. But after that, the stakes, the urgency, of life as a poet became very clear to me, and Nikky Finney still serves as a model in that regard.

Layla Benitez-James is an artist and translator living in Alicante, Spain. Her chapbook, God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure, published by Jai-Alai Books, won the 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Benitez-James’ work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Anomaly, Guernica, Waxwing and elsewhere. Audio essays about translation by Benitez-James can be found at Asymptote Journal Podcast. She currently works with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid as its Director of Literary Outreach. Celebrate the launch of Benitez-James’ chapbook, selected by judge Major Jackson, on April 11th, 7pm at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop.

How has translation shaped your relationship to language over time? How have the dynamics of translation contributed to your poetry?

Translation has made me a more careful writer, more deliberate. I hesitate to say less wild but it did make me attempt a more fruitful wildness, it made me interrogate my playfulness with language and made me realize it was playfulness with English, rather than with language. Or perhaps it helped (or forced) me to look outside English, to anticipate what the lines would look like moving into another language and wonder if they would hold their appeal/punch. A friend in a poetry workshop once noted that, in the work I was bringing in, meaning often got sacrificed to the gods of sound…and once I started translating, I feel like I pared back rhyme and wordplay a bit, asking, am I just delighting in the wonderful strangeness of English or am I also trying for something more? I have a tiny poem that has not developed much as it plays with the permutations of letters in the word wife: few, if, we…in a way that was ultimately unsatisfying, fun, but in a way that ended up feeling hollow or narrow, it may still get used in some bit of writing, but it does not hold its own as a poem, I almost think a meditation or exercise doing that with several languages would get at something more whole. Translation has made me experiment with craft in new ways; it has made me focus more on image and idea rather than sound.

Can you speak to the image of a geode, which is included in the title of your chapbook God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure? How do you understand its place in your work?

The geode was a big part of my childhood; I was really into rock collecting and geology and when my dad went on business trips he would often bring me back pretty stones from museums. Amethysts were a favorite. My brother and I would also look for them in a dry creek bed at my grandparents’ house in San Marcos. Geodes are plain or even ugly on the outside, they don’t look like anything special, but if you break them open there are all these beautiful crystals and they grow from the outside in. It’s like all this prettiness is just getting directed in towards itself until it is smashed open. You have to destroy the wholeness of the object to appreciate its beauty. You can’t value it as an unbroken stone if you want to get at the shine. They also take so long to form that when I first wrote the image, I liked that even though they could be broken they were really hard, not like an anatomical heart. Something like a stone or slowly formed crystal seemed like a better way to describe something like the soul which I would hope is more enduring than muscle and tissue. It was then a way to think about and even appreciate grief and breaking, a way to twist a hard time into an opportunity for discovering beauty on the other side of a rough exterior, a way to imagine a god as a child, walking along a creek bed looking for something special and not particularly caring about the violent process it takes to find it. 

What, if any, is poetry’s place in social justice work?

I’m still trying to figure this one out…still needing to read and learn how best to open and engage through poetry which is at once so universal. Each culture, each people, has a poetry, and yet often so solitary in its construction. I really like to hermit when I write but all the news I absorb is also with me when I sit down, even in a silent room. I have a Tracy K. Smith quote at the top of one of my journal pages that says, “art makes something worth watching,” and perhaps that is part of poetry’s place, to direct attention and make sure the right things get watched. “Telephone Conversation” is a perfect poem for me, one I’ve read thousands of times and has knocked me over when I first read it, maybe in high school. It not only helped me understand something I would struggle to put words to, it made me smile at something I thought I could not smile at, gets at understanding through compassion and highlighting absurdity all in less than a page. Looking to the future, I hope to keep in heart and mind the words of John Pluecker, poet, activist and translator, that I also copied in my journal: “artists and writers are a part of communities and if we want our communities to pay attention to our work, we have to be engaged and rooted where we live and work,” which has been especially interesting to me as I have been putting down roots in Spain over the past few years. I’ve thought a lot about what an organization like Cave Canem does for black writers in America and am currently thinking about what that might look like over here. I’ve been carrying around, rereading and spilling tea on a copy of John Keene’s essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” and am driven to answer the call: “not only more translators, but more black translators, particularly from the United States, will step into the breach to undertake this work.” That is, translating more black writers from all over, writing in a wide range of languages. I’m circling but I suppose part of poetry’s place in social justice work is just to make things known, to make all kinds of things known and to help us to see and feel one another. If I had a dime for every time someone told me that they just had no idea things were like that 

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I absolutely loved the story collection Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. My godmother gave it to me after I saw Arrival, which I saw just because it was supposed to be about translation (and interpretation…) and I liked the short story it was based on, but that collection is so strange and moving in its entirety. One story, “Tower of Babylon,” is just so pretty, and so real, focusing on the construction of the tower from the point of view of its makers, some of whom have been born in the tower and have never seen the earth, nor have any desire to. Chiang has a way of taking stories you think you already know and opening them up. 

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

This is making me think I need to diversify my interests a bit more…fashion is certainly an art and religious texts fall squarely under literature…but botany took over my reading life last year, I started reading a lot of non-fiction about botany and finally tried gardening with a little more care. My father and both his parents have green thumbs but for a while I was killing absolutely everything I tried to keep alive. My dad would be saying, it’s easy, you can’t kill this one and then I’d be shaking twigs around a dry pot a month later. Now I’ve got four pineapple plants I sprouted from the tops of store bought pineapples and I’ve gotten really attached to them. I think nature (geology included) is most likely the biggest influence pressing on me outside of literature and art, they obsess me and can distract me if ever I need to disconnect.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets? 

Find community, find community, find community…If you are ever the Only One in a workshop environment, take all reactions to work about race with a huge grain of salt and don’t feel the need to change or code anything right away if people are stumbling over this or that. Read everyone.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time? 

Visual art and running are two things I’ve recently tried in earnest for the first time that has had similar and positive effects on my writing life. Both were things I felt ok to be bad at or struggle with in a way that shut down the inner critic. Last year I made a rule for myself that I had to draw or paint something every day and in February I ran my first 10K. I also took a stamp making workshop in Alicante, where I’m living now, and just doing something completely new, really learning from square one and having the pressure taken off which is very much there with writing. It’s something I need to keep trying to do.

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Train tickets, plane tickets, food…nice olive oil, sweet treats like turrón at Christmas.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

Being a collector and having this compulsion to gather, to save little pretty things that spill over into my writing life where I want to list and stack up images. Part of that is a love of nature that I never lost from my child-self, but it’s a possessive love, one that wants to collect rocks and press flowers and gather pine cones and pretty bits of moss.

Besides language, what are two of the biggest differences between the literary community you are involved with in Spain, and those you’re affiliated with in the United States?

Size and funding are a huge difference, because Spain is so much smaller, the community is more insular, not that absolutely everyone knows everyone else but the US is just so huge, has so many writers…you can’t quite compare it to all of Europe either but it’s a giant machine and the culture of writing programs and being a poetry professor as your main profession…that same system is not in place and I feel like the hugeness of the US allows for more funding opportunities etc. But, perhaps because of its size, Spain is also really outward reading and I would say the “average” person here has a healthy respect for poetry and literature. I was luckily thrown into a really amazing creative community in Murcia, and the poets I met there had such a love and respect for American poetry and had read contemporary American poets (and had a lot of love for Mary Jo Bang) on a level that I don’t think the average American poet could live up to. I would say the biggest difference is diversity. Again, it’s difficult to compare as the two countries are so different, but I have come across countless all white catalogues here from different publishers and most surveys or anthologies or issues of journals with “new writing from Spain” don’t reflect what a diverse country it is.  Though I’m happily going to try and make sure that keeps changing for the better.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017); a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press, 2016); and But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), chosen by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award. Bertram’s other publications include the artist book Grand Dessein (commissioned by Container Press), a mixed media artifact on the work of artist Paul Klee that was recently acquired by the Special Collections library at St. Lawrence University; and Tierra Fisurada (Editoriales del Duende, 2002), a Spanish poetry chapbook published in Argentina. She interviewed the artist Laylah Ali for the exhibition booklet of Ali’s 2017 art show, The Acephalous Series. Her honors include a 2018 Noemi Press Poetry Award for her manuscript Travesty Generator, 2017 Harvard University Woodberry Poetry Room Creative Grant, a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, finalist nomination for the 2013 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and others. Join Lillian-Yvonne Bertram and Jennifer Chang as they share work and engage in a moderated discussion with Cave Canem fellow Camonghne Felix, on September 26th, at The New School, 7pm. 

Your most recent collection, Personal Science, grapples with “imagined life” and “the difficulty of knowing what’s ‘real.’” What challenges did you face when bringing your own imagination into your poems while writing?

I think the challenge here was similar to the challenge I face any time I am bringing my imagination into my poems, or into anything I am writing. Things don’t go in order in the imagination, and imaginations aren’t known for making complete sense. All I can really do, in writing, is come as close as possible to transmitting what I see in my head to the reader. This transmission is always imperfect, and that’s one of the caveats of dealing in language. It’s the representation of the thing, but never the thing itself.


What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Counternarratives by John Keene. Period. Ok, and Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith. Both of those books are at all peak levels. Unbearably good.


What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I floated unassisted down the Aare, a fast-moving river through the center of Bern, Switzerland.  Scared the shit outta me but everyone was doing it and I just had to try. You jump in, float with the current, and when you’re ready to come out you have to float to the river’s edge and grab onto railings or rocks that are positioned for you to snag so you can climb out. The Aare is fed from the mountains so it is fresh, cold, clear and blue as a marble.


When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

My friends will give me side-eyes about this because they know it’s not super-healthy, but I am almost always working at something. I like to travel, though most of my travel is usually connected to work in some way. I spend most of my time alone, so I will treat myself to things like sessions in a sensory deprivation float tank (bougie as hell) or in the sauna at the gym. I’m a commuter so I also spend too much time in my car and in traffic, sometimes so much that I need the gym and sauna to “unkink” all the tension that gets stored up in my body. In good weather, I like going for long road bike rides and downhill mountain bike rides through forest trails—sometimes there is really nothing better. I have to keep physically active in some way so I spend a lot of time at the gym—several hours a day if I can. My close friend and I make things for each other and send it through the mail, so I have an art desk where I practice painting and collaging, freeform “making” and undirected play. I wish I had much more time for making things and learning things. I have two cats that I love fiercely. We cuddle and nap and stare each other in the face.


You’ve stated that your process and practice includes “photographic and video work and mixed media composition” including, computational poetics. Can you describe what computational poetics are and what it has taught you about your interest in exploring language through writing?

It means engaging in processes of computation to do things with language, be it writing a program that tells the computer to write a poem or using specific algorithmic processes in selecting and sorting bits of language. It is a natural extension of my interest in writing and language. It’s a very complicated extension and often frustrating, but it foregrounds process and discovery in a whole new way for me. I program mostly in one language, Python, but I hope to learn others!


What is poetry’s role in pursuing social justice?

I don’t think I can give a definitive answer to this question—it’s a huge question. I can say that poetry can be and often is a powerful tool in pursuing social justice and reconciling the self with others and self with self. Poetry doesn’t let us sleep on issues of social justice, nor should it. Poetry is one of the many ways and methods available to us and I for one would like to see more of it.


What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

1) Read. 2) Read. 3) Read.
Know your history! Know this glorious tradition of Black writers. When you do, you will see how we call out to one another across generations.


What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

Childhood is where I developed obsessions that I continue holding onto today, and it’s also where I developed a lot of interiority and sense of observation. Many obsessions from childhood are the foundations of the anxiety that courses through Personal Science.


What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

My mom and dad. They made sure we had books and typewriters and pens and pencils. We couldn’t be bored—no excuse for it—if we could read and write. Nothing to do? Read a book. You finished the book? Then write one. Need a world to inhabit? Create one.


What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I feel like someone from the CC archives would have to tell me that! I think 2008, 2009, and 2011?
I think one of the most meaningful experiences I had at Cave Canem was that I introduced Amiri Baraka at his City of Asylum reading in Pittsburgh. That was an all-time high life moment for me.
And watching Ross Gay dunk.

Marissa Davis is a poet and translator from Paducah, Kentucky, currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. Her original poems have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Rattle, The Iowa Review, Sundog Lit, Raconteur and Peach Mag, among other journals; her translations are forthcoming in Ezra and Mid-American Review. She received a BA from Vanderbilt University and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at New York University as a Rona Jaffe fellow, where she also serves as an assistant translations editor for Washington Square Review. Selected by Danez Smith as the winner of the 2019 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak, is her first chapbook, of which Smith says, “exist brightly in the canon of Black femme poets and points to unfathomably bright future for the canon.”

What did you enjoy most about the journey of writing your prize-winning chapbook, My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak? What was a challenge you faced and what did that challenge teach you? 

Ordering the poems was both the joy and the challenge for me. The process of gathering the poems themselves was relatively straightforward; they were written over a three-year span (from my last year of undergrad and the following two abroad years), but I had already done a lot of the work of compiling, revising, and searching for common threads while applying to MFA programs last winter. But at that point I’d written a set of poems, not a book. Making a book involved palpating connections: examining things like how to give the right amount of thematic variation as poem gave way to poem, and how to find the proper space for works whose themes were not echoed as loudly elsewhere but whose connection to those elsewhere still needed to be felt. But mostly, I had to learn how to view the poetry as one would view a mosaic or a work of pointillism: stepping back, viewing all of these disparate pieces as a unified whole, what image did I want it to proclaim? What story was it spinning? There were narrative and emotional foundations the early poems had to provide for the rest to find their proper voices; there were stakes to be laid, struggles to be worked through, learning to be done. And with so many moving parts, every shift in a poem would create a different sensation, a different tension, even a different story in the whole. Of those stories, there were certainly some that felt more honest than the rest, but also several that were honest. Understanding those distinctions enough to decide between them became an act of self-searching as much as an act of craft.

I think the greatest challenge, though, was figuring out how to end it (and I’ll add: if I found that end, it’s thanks to the readings/advice of several wonderful friends).  I didn’t want the book to tie up too neatly, everything finishing in sunshine and butterflies and riding a palomino into the sunset. It wouldn’t have been realistic and it wouldn’t have been true. I wanted an end that still allowed room for continued struggle as much as it promised survival and a certain acquiring of wisdom—but that also didn’t let struggle squash everything down into a trapped-ness negating what’s been earned. There had to be honesty but also a way out. I sought an end that would allow the process of writing to be understood as what it often is for me: a kind of questing, sometimes knowing and sometimes not knowing for what; a kind of sniffing towards the smell of heat until I can sense the light that makes it.

Thinking about your international experiences in France, as well as being a poet from Kentucky and now living in NYC, how is geography important to the role that language—or languages—plays in your chapbook? 

Being so far from home gave me a totally different appreciation for not only what language can mean, but also what my language means to me. I don’t think I realized until leaving how much shame I carried with me about the way I talked. I have a Southern accent, mostly of the western Kentucky variant with a hint of my parents’ Appalachian—it isn’t super strong, but it’s certainly present. For college, I found myself on scholarship to a rather wealthy, WASPy institution; feeling myself, at a very self-conscious 17, to be not just the strange dark-skinned girl among them, but the dark-skinned country bumpkin on top of it. So I scraped what accent I had until the scraping became something natural to me. In France, speaking mostly French, I noticed myself gradually, accidentally, reverting to my homegrown default whenever I did speak English (my best friend and coworker, a Californian who had studied linguistics, had a lot of fun pointing out and analyzing the re-appearance of my modes of speech that were so foreign to him). But I didn’t veer from it this time. Homesickness was teaching me to love, even yearn for, that speech. Hearing tourists in Paris who were clearly from the American South—and that tongue reminding me more and more of wild-blooming things, of goldhard summer sunlight, of whatever made my old there distinct from that here—stirred such an unexpected and physical kind of longing in me. Same for hearing Black American people. Same, oddly enough, for hearing Black French people and sometimes catching similarities in intonation, in the speech’s particular music, and thinking: my god, is this truly something we (of the diaspora) have kept with us all these centuries? I started to think of language as a kind of home, and a home we can carry with us, and a home that we give to our children, and a home that we offer to each other.

On the other end, though, is the complete and utter joy I feel for operating in a second language. I lived in a foreign language immersion dorm for three years in college, then I spent two years in France—so for five years straight, I was somehow lucky enough to sneak French into my daily life. I think that time and study led to a certain obsession with meaning and music that found its way into many poems in this chapbook: how some words can’t be translated at all, or at best only approximated; how the same word-idea can carry different nuances in different languages; what a word’s music has to do with this phenomenon; how that music resonates in us subconsciously; how a word can have so many subterranean meanings churning under the ones we most closely associate. And the near-mystical—or perhaps alchemical—nature of language’s multiplicity. And paradox as one of language’s instincts. And, word to word or sentence to sentence, wondering what could be the ghostly soulshape of what Walter Benjamin calls “pure language,” as the power of meaning-making shifts from the writing me to the reading you.

There are studies showing that people feel they can more easily express emotionally complex matters in a foreign language than their native tongue, apparently because the words don’t carry the same ingrained emotional associations. I like to muse on what this means for poetry. Can one think of poetry—its novel combinations of words, its novel images, its novel shapes, its slant-telling, to take from Dickinson—as a way of making language foreign to ourselves (for protection, for vulnerability, to allow space for an otherwise disallowed unlocking)? And can (or even must?) that act of foreigning invert itself in its own process, building a language so deeply one’s own that it becomes individually native—ours so ours but still transferable, legible, connectable by virtue of its semantic foundations?

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. I’m continually floored by the language’s density and tension and hunger and bloodiness and daisiness and dizziness and questioning and questing and roiling serpentine light-wrenched duende. I feel like this book exists as a monument to the word, if a monument were a fluid, evolving, ungraspable thing—and so I suppose not a monument at all, except perhaps in the sense that one could call a holy book a monument in that though the nature of its lyric is openness it is also weight. The word, here, is “God.” There’s not really a narrative, and whatever narratives briefly arise are also fluid (living water is the book’s alternate title for a reason). The language exists for the language’s own sake and as a reader I have to learn to allow it to exist as such. Almost as with a work of abstract expressionism—unsurprising that Lispector herself was a painter—I have to throw in quite a bit of myself in order to be admitted into the garden the author is planting: but in a way that feels clarifying, even spiritual. The water washes. Agua Viva’s tools are feeling, structure, rhythm, a cosmic-reaching interiority; its expression is at once spontaneous and almost anciently precise. I feel like every paragraph teaches me something new about the possibilities of language and what language can form and be and hold.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

This is a rather small odd thing, but last week, I tried making flourless brownies for the first time. I used a base of canned chickpeas, which I’ve done with chocolate chip cookies before but always closely following a recipe. For these, I couldn’t really use the cookie recipe as a base because I wanted the peanut butter flavor to be as minimal as possible (which the original relies heavily on for hold and texture)—so it ended up just being me throwing a bunch of random stuff together completely on intuition and seeing what happened. They somehow actually turned out very good? Despite the odds!

What have you learned from your experiences teaching elementary school in France that has had an impact on your writing? 

First, wonder. Just how excited some of the kids could be about learning a new English word, rolling it around their tongues, testing it out and testing it out and testing it out again, delighting so purely in the rhythm and feel, slipping it in a sentence just to marvel at what it means (or just that it means)—witnessing that really taught me a kind of gratefulness to every word I spoke and wrote. And can be a spell. And the. No word is too small for melody nor too simple to be significant. Alongside that, I think the kids helped me feel more comfortable making language mine. As in: the students’ errors were often repeated, and they were repeated because error can have meaning, and error can have meaning because non-word becomes word the moment the child internally wills it to be (or is convinced it is, despite my blackboard warring) a word. I had a 2nd grade girl that, no matter how many times I told her to call me “teacher,” would always call me “teachers.” I corrected her every time; I explained plurals and singulars and the silent s in French plurals whereas in English such a singular simply has no s at all—it didn’t matter, all year long I was “teachers.” But I think that kind of unintentional stubbornness also helped me allow myself to not always think of language as such a proper, structured, sacred thing. I started giving myself more permission to wordsmash, lean into neologisms, break words partway through, etc. A thing could mean a thing quite simply because I wanted it to mean it. The only real limit is being understood.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or visual art.

Nature; southern landscape in particular. I say I grew up in a town called Paducah, but technically my childhood home is out in the country—which is to say: I grew up around a lot of land, meaning also that I grew up with an acute understanding of the earth’s goddishness. On one hand, it surrounded me with astonishing beauty. On the other hand, I was a rather paranoid little child raised on a fault line, in tornado country, in a river valley not wholly impervious to flood, and destruction on some scale felt not just possible, but impending. Maybe goddishness isn’t even the right word: with gods, destruction is a matter of want—and want can be prayed to, want could be held in abeyance. Nature destroyed because of need, or hunger, or whatever rhythms of its own creation churned either skyward or deep in it that it listened to because it had to, because one thing is connected to everything else and that’s just the way of it.

But at the same time: recognizing myself as subject to that untenability—that power—also meant recognizing myself as somehow part of it and made of it. Certainly shaped by it. Whatever connection I had to the animal or organic meant that I possessed its wild dignity too. I didn’t always feel such a dignity afforded to me in a sociocultural sense, but in this space I could feel it as it was: something innate, solid in me as one of my own organs.

The reflections my native landscape inspired in me arise again and again as themes in my writing: terror, marvel, self-recognition, powerlessness, power, definition, cycle, desire, instinct, cosmic unity, darkness as shaper of the beautiful. Nature, influencing my poems’ themes, inevitably also influences my poems’ imagery and texture. I’m always striving towards the organic: in language, for a June-like lushness; in tone, for a rolling, arabesque-ing, breeze-in-treetops sort of elegance.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

In too many ways! I keep sometimes maybe a little too busy. I’m a language nerd (if you couldn’t tell) and so I’m slowly but surely working on learning Spanish. I’ve been sporadically taking belly dance classes since my senior year of college, but now that I’m in a city where they’re more readily accessible, I’m trying to restart again in earnest. I love baking, and in particular experimenting with wacky versions of classic recipes (the aforementioned chickpea brownies being a prime example). I apply for a lot of scholarships/work odd jobs to be able to afford to travel, when possible. RE: spending money more precisely, I’m a lover of inspired (and unfortunately often pretty pricey) cocktails. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of old friends now living in and around the city, as well as to have made many new friends since arriving, so I spend a lot of time going out for coffee or pizza and having potlucks and other get-togethers. I love singing—which I feel is maybe not altogether separate from my writing practice; I love poetry in part because of how it allows for such a direct and intense relationship to the music of words. I sang throughout much of my youth, then stopped in college, then missed it so much that last year I started in a really wonderful little jazz choir in Paris, and then joined an all-women/femme social-justice folk choir when I moved to New York until my class schedule prevented my attendance. But I still sing in the shower, I sing when I clean, I sing when I walk the dog, I sing anywhere and anytime I think I can get away with it without bothering anyone!

From your experience, what have you noticed are the biggest challenges to your ability to foster community through writing in Paris that differ from challenges faced in the U.S? 

I’ll speak mainly on Paris versus New York:

New York is just so big. It can be overwhelming. If I wanted to find a poetry community in Paris, I knew exactly where to go; I was familiar with two English-language weekly reading series and about three monthly ones where writers tended to gather. In New York it can sometimes be paralyzing just knowing where to start. There are so many options that even Google can’t really help. That largeness, though, is simultaneously really amazing—it’s wild here, going to readings sometimes and seeing every single seat being filled. I’ve never witnessed that anywhere else. There’s such an immense and thriving community of writers and lovers of writing in this city.

I’ll add that I’m also lucky in the sense that I came to NYC for an MFA program, so community was already kind of there. I’m grateful to have met so many wonderful poets in the program who have introduced me to so many other wonderful poets. Of course, in a certain way Paris was similar; I had a fiction-writer friend who introduced me to her poet friend who introduced me to her poet friend and then we three poets became a workshop/writing group, one whose fellowship was incredibly important to me. It remains true, though, that in Paris the amount of people writing in English is just by circumstance much smaller—which has its upsides but also its drawbacks when it comes to community-building.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Find what affirms you, and chase that—which I mean not only as writing advice, but also general wellbeing advice. It can be a person or community of people, it can be a song, it can be a book, it can be a beloved family recipe, it can be tending to a garden of your favorite plants—it really doesn’t matter. Search for it, find it, know it, follow it, carry it in your mental pocket as balm or worry-stone when you need it most. And if you want to write to it, write to it; if you want to split it open and examine its architecture, understand why it means what it means to you, and find a way to incorporate its lovely shape into the textual yours, do that, too.
  2. Seek your language. I think as Black people in particular our relationship to language can sometimes be complex: it is so communal for us, so bonding, but outside of certain spaces we can find it reviled or ridiculed. There can be such love and pride but also an external pressure of shame. We live in many languages; we code-switch for survival. I think our language, like our bodies, can sometimes be a beloved thing made distant from us. But the page is a place to overturn that; it’s where language is totally and completely yours to mold. You make the rules: you can twist it, turn it, build it, break it, build it back again in your own image. Plunge into that freedom; seek out what shapes your language, what gives it fire, and what it means to make your language yours.
  3. This one you’ll likely hear many times but it makes it no less true: read, read widely. Read widely generally, of course—but also read Black writers (and read Black writers who are American, and read Black writers who aren’t American…).  And if you find you aren’t having Black writers presented to you, don’t be afraid to seek them out yourself. It’s so important for us to see ourselves in each other; to have that community even across continents or decades. For one, I believe it’s important just as people, for remembering how to see oneself wholly, tenderly, joyously—but also, as an artist, to reflect on how those that came before you shaped their own keys to unlock whatever others tried to lock away from them, and from there to figure out what that keyshaping is for you.

Myronn Hardy is the author of five books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Prize for poetry, Kingdom, and most recently, Radioactive Starlings. His poems have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, the Virginia Quarterly Review,FIED and elsewhere.  He divides his time between New York City and Morocco.

Your most recent collection is titled Radioactive Starlings. What influenced the creation of this title and can you speak to its meaning?

The principal idea in Radioactive Starlings is the often-contentious relationship between technology and the natural world. The title directly comes from my noticing starlings in many of the places I journeyed while writing the book: throughout Morocco, Tunisia, Portugal, New York City, and elsewhere. Once, and I remember this vividly, I saw a group of starlings flying about and one out the group appeared neon green. I read this as it having been in contact with radiation.

It had become radioactive due to its intake of something poisonous and human made. It had been changed, infected, and on the threshold of ruin. I imagined there being a flock of these neon birds, radioactive birds, due to the toxicity of the world.

Radioactive Starlings holds poems that take many forms such as the villanelle, pantoum, ghazal and the sonnet. Why was it important for you to write within the “constraints” of these poetic forms?

I decided to experiment deeply with these forms because they are relatively new to me. I generally write in free verse or without these particular restraints. But in this book, I waited for the poems that would inhabit these forms. I wanted to see what these poems would do, what they would tell me within these confines. Also, I believe the starling itself held my imagination in a way whereby I felt as if I were writing on them, writing within their form, their shape. For me the starling itself extended the metaphor of a given or received shape. 

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art. 

The natural world—nature.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Mountain climbing.

When you’re not reading or writing, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I go to the movies. I love that big screen and watching a story evolve in images. I also really like to run.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

As much as I don’t want to be cliché: read. Also, learn how to be free and open in your thinking. Follow your particular interests and obsessions. You are you, and the more you are yourself – your specific self-understood, self-surprising self – the better your writing will be.  And listen to lots of music. It gets inside your poems.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

My grandparents were farmers so they taught me to have an intimate connection to the land, to the natural world.  Seeing it. Knowing it.  Not merely the ordered or cultivated way farming is, but the land that is not cleared, the forest, the wild. How things happen naturally. The land, the natural world is perhaps the most profound influence in my poetry and this appreciation and influence began as a child. For me, this connection to the land, the details of it, inhabit my earliest recollections.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?


What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat?What are a few of your favorite memories from those times? 

2006-2008. I have many favorite memories of the CC retreat. One would be having the opportunity to be reacquainted with Lucille Clifton. She was one of my professors in graduate school as well. Also, I recall staying up late, perhaps not getting any sleep in an attempt to make new poems each day of the retreat. We were all doing this amongst this wonderfully generous community.

Safiya Sinclair is a poet and librettist born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison M. Metcalf Award, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Cannibal was selected as one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year,” and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, as well as being longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize. Sinclair’s other honors include a Pushcart Prize, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, among others. She received her MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia, and is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Hear Safiya Sinclair, Tim Seibles and Jacqueline Allen Trimble read new work on Tuesday, October 9, 2018, 6:30pm at The New School.

Can you speak to the intriguing cover art for your debut collection, Cannibal? How does the image help to convey the book’s concern for postcolonial identity, racial politics in the United States and Caribbean and womanhood, among other things?  

The image is a piece by Wangechi Mutu, an incredible visual artist from Kenya. I absolutely love and admire Mutu and I find her work so powerful and closely concerned with the same themes that interest me as a poet. So much of her work succinctly captures what I want my poems to do—the lush, textured tropics of their interior landscape. She masterfully interrogates the black female body, subverting imperial violence by weaponizing our beauty, our hybridity, our mythification. She is the architect of my fevered dreaming. I knew that I wanted cover art by a black woman artist, and once I saw this particular Mutu piece, I knew it had to be the cover of Cannibal. The image interrogates both womanhood and black postcolonial identity, playing against these stereotypes of blackness being monstrous and womanhood being repulsive, while also reclaiming those ideas of savagery. Half of the cover’s collage is the female body seen through a gynecological and anatomical study; meanwhile, the other half is a black face with red lips that function as a critique of minstrelsy, while also exploring the fetishization of black womanhood and western standards of beauty. We have a shamanistic genderfluid Calibanesque figure assembled as a collaged intersection of these things, while the third eye, of course, is a vagina. That vaginal third eye reframes these ideas of a woman’s body being grotesque, sinful, or somehow inferior, and in a transgressive turn, it is here in the vagina that all the power is centering. Mutu’s image reclaims the monstrous as a source of power, lingering always on the feminine experience, its fertile gaze.

How does Cannibal challenge discourse on the female body and womanhood, most especially with respect to Caribbean vs. American notions of these concepts?

I can’t really speak precisely to American notions of womanhood, especially since there seem to be many different Americas and many variant definitions of womanhood between Black Americans and White Americans alone. As a Jamaican woman I can speak to my own experiences being raised in a strict Rastafarian household where the gender roles were suffocatingly fixed and women were relegated to child-bearing, child-rearing, and housemaking. The female body was to be covered completely, without a choice given to the women, birth control was forbidden without a choice given to the women; the female body was never to be discussed, especially if there were men present. As a young woman in Jamaica I often felt ashamed of my womanhood, of my biology, of my sexuality. This body was a body of sin. Women on their periods were thought to be unclean, were not allowed to touch Rastamen or enter the kitchen and were sometimes sequestered to sleep in a different room. A Rastaman’s spouse or partner was called his “Daughter.” Very early on I sought ways to dismantle the patriarchal boundaries that were diminishing me, and since I was not allowed to share my dissenting thoughts at home, I nurtured them on the page. That lyric revolt born out of silence sustained me for a long time, and it’s from that sacred place that the poems exploring womanhood emerge in Cannibal. Celebrating my womanhood through poetry has been a crucial part of my survival. In Cannibal, as in most of my poems, I write with a naked gallop towards a cunnicentric poetics—what scholar Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley describes as “an aesthetic appreciation for colours, shapes, and textures associated with the vulva and vagina”—where the feminine erotic is not only tied to its own way of seeing, but is inseparably linked to ritual, to primal language, to bare and unfettered emotion. And like Audre Lorde says, there is boundless untapped power in the feminine. Through these poems I can live full-bloodedly in that nuclear energy, by celebrating my womanhood instead of being erased by it.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I’ve been reading a lot of prose this last year, and I decided to read only women. I loved Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Naomi Alderman’s Power, Tara Westover’s Educated, and I really loved Shara McCallum’s poetry collection Madwoman.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

My mom’s love of poetry indelibly shaped my life. She is the biggest poetry reader in my family, and she is the first person to introduce me to poetry and give me books on prosody. When my siblings and I were younger she would encourage us to recite poems and sing, to dive into the wild river of creativity, wherever it may take you. For many years we survived on her love of knowledge and the wide universe of words. She taught me the incantatory power of language, the magic of poetry, the electricity of speaking a word out loud, being struck by its meaning. This shared ritual of poetry between my mother and me transformed and nurtured the poet I am today.

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Caliban is a character, largely portrayed in a negative light, who is native to the island that is the story’s main setting. Because the Caliban figure has been written about widely in academic circles whether through literary criticism, postcolonial thought, or Caribbean philosophy, can you describe what your research process was like when writing your book? 

My research process has been one of a lifetime of reading. I first read The Tempest in high school, and was drawn in by the familiarity of the landscape, the island with its “thousand twangling instruments,” its “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” I came to the text again a few years later when a poetry mentor suggested there was some vital meaning in fact that The Tempest was one of Shakespeare’s last plays. This was when I first began to consider the character of Caliban, whose mother was banished after her magic was stolen by the shipwrecked Italian Prospero, who then captured and enslaved Caliban. Over the years I kept reading The Tempest, each time with a more critical gaze. I encountered Caliban as a father figure of postcolonial rebellion, as found in the critical and creative work of Kamau Brathwaite and Aimé Césaire, Roberto Fernández Retamar, and Sylvia Wynter. Brathwaite’s Letter SycoraX and Césaire’s Une Tempête were particularly instructional for me, searing in the way they decolonized Shakespeare’s text, how they had Caliban speak in his own words from a Black Caribbean perspective. With Cannibal, I was interested in continuing this Caribbean tradition of decolonization by bending Caliban through a feminine gaze, to enfold Caliban’s “savagery” as a part of Jamaican womanhood. I was also interested in translating Caliban’s rebellion through the Rasta-poetics and insurrection of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica. Through these years of reading and researching, I aimed to renarrativize Caliban’s poetry in the world, to recast the spells in our words, to reclaim our magic.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Find your people—one of the most vital things poetry has given me is a tribe, my dearest poet friends, tried and true, who I can turn to for advice, for tea, for laughs. These are the people who inspire me and push me, who teach me. It wasn’t always apparent in my MFA that I would ever find other black poets who understand me before I even say a word. But when you find your tribe, you find your best readers.
  2. Take your time and read everything. Read things outside of poetry, read something you never thought you would like. Prosody matters. Study the foundations. Read everything that came before you—study the blueprints so you understand how best to burn down the house.
  3. Ignore the white noise. This one I learned the hard way, being in workshops with poets who clearly did not understand my experiences, nor could they recognize the scope of my vision, or why it mattered. For them poetry was a hobby. For me, it was a matter of survival. Learn how to tune out bad advice, ignore revision notes that seek to cull the wildness of what you are growing. And if you have your tribe, none of the bland static matters.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

My mother is a tremendous influence, and she appears in my poetry quite often. She is the best storyteller I know; I turn to her now, and all my life, for the oral folklore and history that sustains and inspires me. I think of her always trying to find the sunshine in people, in places, trying to find the sunshine wherever she goes, and I am always trying to live and write that way—chasing the sunshine underneath the line.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I’m writing an entire book of prose for the first time as I work on my memoir, How to Say Babylon. It’s daunting work, rearranging the poet’s brain long enough to plan for blank pages months ahead of me.

When you’re not reading or writing how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Traveling. I love to travel and do it as often as I can. I love spending my time in the long dreamy avenues of a new place, absorbing the culture and history, the landscape and seascape there. I try to visit at least one new country every year. I’m incredibly lucky that I’m able to, and so often it is my poetry that takes me to these new places. There’s nothing more joyous than poetry being a common language, a common currency in parts of the world this Jamaican girl never dreamed of seeing.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

She, that young king of my heart, has given me her awestruck wonderment at nature. In my poems I live in the tangles of the burst-and-bloom tropics of my youth. I swim toward the pensive singing of the sea. I always write towards that love of what grows wild, aching for that greenery that I hope outlives us. Every poem is rooted in that youthful curiosity, rising every morning to ask the meaning of every living thing.


t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher and Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, No, Dear, The African American Review, Vinyl, Muzzle, RHINO, Poetry and others. In 2012 and 2013, she completed two multi-city tours as a part of a queer women of color literary salon, The Revival. Winner of the 2015 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, her first poetry collection, how to get over, is available from Red Hen Press. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn where she is a co-editor at No, Dear MagazineSee t’ai freedom ford read new work alongside Cheryl Boyce-Taylor and Cortney Lamar Charleston on Wednesday, November 1, 2017, 6:30pm at Cave Canem.


Your debut poetry collection is titled how to get over. What does “getting over” mean to you?

For me, getting over has a lot to with survival. In a country where the survival of Black folk was/is not always guaranteed, I feel like the beautiful and resilient ways in which we have all survived is how we get over. And this idea of ‘getting over’ ain’t a new concept in the Black community, right? Cause many of us ain’t ever have nothing worth having, we were forever looking for a come-up or a hook-up that wasn’t a set-up. So, getting over is about surviving, living, thriving in the face of so-called white supremacy.

What have you learned about writing from being a teacher?

It’s very hard to say because I view them so discretely. I sat and thought about it for a while. I really can’t say.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Is that really the responsibility of poets these days? hmm…Write. Write honestly. By which I mean, tell YOUR own truth. Cause for me, social justice is about a lot of small movements and poems have the power to make those small moves aggregate into some more powerful.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Isn’t everything art or literature? I really dig Arthur Jafa’s film work. And dancers/choreographers like Camille A. Brown and Kyle Abraham often inspire me to think in other vocabularies.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Forgiveness. Relinquishing control. Bison burgers.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I’m obsessed with food and watching food competition shows like Chopped and Top Chef. I also love cooking, entertaining and throwing dinner parties. (I’m low-key a hood Martha Stewart).

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I guess like why is RACE still an issue. You would think we would’ve evolved beyond this by now.

But then, I never expected that queer folks would be able to marry. That so many folks would have the opportunity to be themselves via gender transitions. That so many folks would see themselves as gender-fluid or genderqueer.

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

Read everything. Write what moves YOU.

What years were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was at CC consecutively from 2011-2013. This is an odd favorite moment…I guess, more memorable than anything, and that’s when avery r. young did this piece about Emmett Till during the fellows reading and we legit had to stop for like 15 minutes while folks composed themselves…I guess that’s that power in them poems that I’m talking about. A truly favorite moment of mine is beating Terrance Hayes in scrabble.

Kyla Marshell’s work has appeared in Blackbird, Calyx, ESPNw, Gawker, The Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and on the Poetry Foundation. Her work has earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, two residencies to the Vermont Studio Center, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. In 2013, named her one of “7 Young Black Writers You Should Know.” A Spelman College graduate originally from Boston, she grew up in Silver Spring, MD, Morehead, KY, and Portland, ME, and now lives in New York. To view Kyla’s previous interviews, visit the DOGBYTES blog.

Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Her chapbooks include the upcoming Never Been Lois Lane; 7 x 7: kwansabas; and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Tara holds an MFA from New England College and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her poems, essays and short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Essence, Poetry, NYLON, Octavia’s Brood, Bum Rush the Page, Black Nerd Problems and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Tara currently teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago. Hear her read Friday, March 3 alongside Cameron Awkward-Rich, Hayes Davis and Nathan McClain.

What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Break the Habit?

The most challenging aspect of finishing the book itself was sifting out poems that were not essential to the final sequence. I do plan to publish them. Some of them already are published. It kept changing, but there are more poems that I did not include in the book.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year; what made you decide to read it?

Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday by Alexis DeVeaux. I’m finishing an essay on poetic representations of Billie Holiday for BILLIE 101, an anthology celebrating the singer’s 100th birthday. DeVeaux wrote the first book-length collection on Holiday. The second one was the YA poetry collection Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, which came out in 2008.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

If you are a poet, you should be using your skills to sharpen people’s critical thinking skills, including making a variety of perspectives more visible. If a poet has other skills, use them. For this reason, I have consistently returned to Sonia Sanchez’s “For Sweet Honey in the Rock.” We have work on so many fronts that needs to be done if we want our communities to endure. If you can teach, teach more people how to read, teach other young people how to teach. Most academic programs fail to teach pedagogy. Teach outside the academy. Learn some new skills that have little or nothing to do with poetry that can meet people’s human needs.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

The small town where I was born and raised—Kankakee, Illinois. It’s where I met so many people in my grandparents’ tavern, different schools, and I became curious about art in my childhood. My love affair with the library developed there, and my mother taught me to read there. I still love that a river runs through the town. Even though I don’t live there now, it motivated so much of what I wanted to do as a writer.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I visited a friend at the hospital, and I got to be the first person to see her newborn child. There is something awe-inspiring in seeing a vulnerable, new life and greeting it.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

At this point, taking a walk or sleeping, but I do enjoy visiting with old friends and former students from classes and workshops that I’ve taught. Lately, the money has been getting spent on good food and comic books.

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

The best thing a poet can do besides maintain their health is to keep writing. I have been talking to my students (and writing friends) about how life is not slowing down for any of us, and whatever happens to us can get in the way. You must make consistent, persistent efforts to keep writing and releasing work into the world.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

As a kid, I had hoped to see more mixed-race kids like me. I’m glad to have grown up to see someone like Barack Obama come into prominence. His mom reminded me very much of my own mother.  Unfortunately, I think too many people think that means racism isn’t a problem or that this means people will lose some sort of cultural grounding. I’m hoping that complicates people’s understandings of humanity and race, especially as white supremacists become simultaneously bolder and more afraid of becoming obsolete.

What life experience has shaped you most as a writer?

I think having my first job as a page at the Kankakee Public Library. Being involved with nonprofits, working at other libraries, poetry slams, women’s groups, going to college, and becoming a professor—all of these experiences were fed by my love of libraries. I fell in love with words at the Kankakee Public Library, and it was one of the few places I walked to alone as a young girl. That quiet, contemplative space filled with so many words is different from what home can look like for a lot of children. At this point, I am a huge supporter of libraries and the work they do to provide information and combat censorship.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2002, 2003 and 2005. I am still struck by how overwhelmed I felt at the opening circle during my first year when the retreat was still based at Cranbrook in Michigan. I met Akua Lezli Hope there, after writing to each other for a couple years. I was blown away by so many talented writers there—many of them before their first books dropped—Adrian Matejka, Christian Campbell, LaTasha Diggs, Cherene Sherrard, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Treasure Redmond, Doug Kearney, and many other folks who were accomplished in other areas. One night, a bunch of people got together and listened to Richard Pryor albums, and A. Van Jordan ended up writing a poem about Mudbone. I ended up writing the poem “Switch” because I was really engrossed in Lucille Clifton’s poem “move” from The Book of Light. I am also sad that some of the people that I met at the retreat are no longer with us—James Richardson, Reginald Lockett, Phebus Etienne, Reetika Vazirani. My first year there was the most memorable for me, and I’ve been running ever since, it seems.

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint (Gival Press, 2017), winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Soul Mountain Writer’s Retreat, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is on the Advisory Council of Split This Rock (a biennial poetry festival in Washington DC), a semi-finalist judge for the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Out Loud and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. Her work has been published in many anthologies including: Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Growing Up Girl, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and Not Without Our Laughter: poems of joy, humor, and sexualityCome hear Teri Cross Davis and Melissa Castillo Planas as they read work and engage in a conversation on craft and anthologizing Black poets for our Poets on Craft Series, February 26, 2019, 6:30pm at The New School.

Can you describe some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing your debut poetry collection Haint? Can you speak further to how you navigated those challenges?

For me, time to write was one of my biggest challenges. I work full-time, am married, and have two children. In the later stages of writing Haint I was gifted with time at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown. Those weeks away were really instrumental in allowing me time to polish the poems which eventually finalized the book. Having a writers group that I have been in for about a decade also kept me beholden to writing and producing on a regular basis.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

I am diving deep into black culture and contemporary black history by talking with and recording my elders. As I dive deeper into my family’s background, I also find myself thinking deeply about the language I grew up hearing, the phrases and their origins–I find these stories deeply compelling and am beginning to understand how that language and the code-shifting that came with it, shaped me and my understanding of the world and my pathways in it.

What topics of research or influences are informing your current writing?  

I love myths from many different cultures and I am thinking a lot about who we deify and why. I am seeing the influence of nature in my work. Over the past decade, I have thrown myself into gardening. From composting to researching flowers for all seasons, I appreciate the opportunity to take off my gloves and dig in the dirt, and make living things thrive. I find surrounding myself with growth to be a positive thing. And thus, I cannot be aware of the premature buds of daffodils in January without writing about them.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I spend time with my family–from introducing new books and films to my children, ages 10 and 8, to playing and talking with them. My husband and I work, and while our children have chores, with four social schedules, two growing bodies, and two bodies in constant need of rest, it is hard work keeping up with the house and its demands, inside and out. I am also trying regain my fluency in Spanish.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Oh, if we are not talking poetry, it is between Circe by Madeline Miller or The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but even as I write that I would be remiss for not mentioning reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and the joy and escape it bought to me. If we are talking poetry, I have started many books but not finished them, but three that I read from start to finish and really enjoyed were Madwoman by Shara McCallum, Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing by Charif Shanahan, and So Far So Good by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Name something you tried recently for the first time?

Last year I wrote and read my first lyric essay. I find it an interesting and welcoming challenge, combining the condensed clarity of poetry with the fluid strength of prose.

You are a poet, who serves on the Advisory Council of Split This Rock, a Poetry Coordinator at Folger Shakespeare Library and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. Through these collaborations how, if at all, have you witnessed the ability for poetry to shift culture and our political landscape?

I have seen a rise in the diversity of voices within poetry–from disability poetics, to Latinx, to a wider variety of Asian voices, to more LGBTQI+ voices– and that rise is shifting the culture in that more people see themselves in, and are validated by, poetry now, more than ever. I see people who are not afraid of writing their truth, which is a glorious thing to me, and I see that truth energizing people and aiding them in making emotional connections to the work and to others. I see people attending more poetry events and responding to the work in a way that makes me feel as if poetry is on a really good track and is allowing these readers a moment to pause and contemplate the stillness and themselves in it.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

Read–this one I cannot stress enough–read people outside your groups, outside your life experiences, read people from a different era. Second, do not inhibit yourself on the page–I think being vulnerable is where a lot of good work can happen. In this way, I often think of something Audre Lorde suggests/asks of writers: to find the words you are afraid to write or say. And last, revision is your best friend. Writing the poem is one step, but revision is where the real work begins.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

It changes, sometimes it is a sense of wonderment at small things in the world. Right now it is the righteous indignation of children. When a child sees something unjust, their fury to make it right is inspiring to see as it sometimes gives rise to action or at least emotional and intellectual growth.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was at Cave Canem in 1999, 2001, and 2003. I had the experience of being at Esopus, Cranbrook, and Greensburg. I absolutely loved Esopus, the reverence of being at a monastery, the first time being accepted as black and as a poet, the friendships that were born there. Each retreat has gifted me with more friendships and experiences. At the last one in Greensburg, my husband, poet Hayes Davis was a working scholar, so we finally had a chance to be at Cave Canem together (he attended 1996-1998, so we never overlapped).

Detroit native Tyehimba Jess’ first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Olio, his second collection, was published by Wave Books in April 2016. Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TEDxNashville Conference. Jess is an Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.


What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Olio?

Well, there were a lot of challenges. The hardest was trying to figure out the overall motifs in the book, and how to make them complement each other. The book has a circular motif, one that is expressed through a double crown of sonnets for the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a series of interviews about the life of Scott Joplin. That circular motion is echoed in the contrapuntal poems that employ stichomythia. The mixture of forms throughout the book mirrors the interchange between personas. The circular motion of history is also emphasized in the list of burned black churches that surround the Fisk sonnets. There are a lot of moving parts that are trying to work together throughout the book, and the challenge was to try to approach each one differently, with due respect and diligence, and to have them mesh together as one unit.

You wrote a poem in response to the video project and movement #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. What can poets do to promote social justice?

Well, I’d first say that we all have to find our own path towards fighting injustice. There are so many ways to do so through our writing, the petitions we sign, the marches we attend, the institutions we build, etc. For myself, I accept that I am a work in progress, one trying to recognize and work against the ways that disparities between race, gender, gender orientation and preference, and class create a world smaller and dimmer than our collective human potential. When I work collectively with a circle of humanity listening deeply to each other, when we have face-to-face, voice-to-voice conversations that take us beyond the Facebook or Twitter post, when we can strive to even agree to disagree in order to preserve a degree of mutual respect in order to achieve mutual goals, I believe we will be able to more effectively promote a justice that serves all of us.

This goes beyond writing the “politically correct” poem, or making the cogent analysis or blog post at the right moment. It means trying to listen deeply to each other in a real, human sense so that we see beyond the issues and into the place where we can respect each other’s humanity. These public, electronic forums often flatten out nuance and destroy subtleties that would otherwise encourage us to interact more humanely with each other—to really listen.

But then listening is an essential part of writing a good poem, isn’t it? So, that’s what this poet is trying to do right now—listen to those around me to understand their perspectives, listen to the many rivers of history, listen beyond rhetoric and try my best to think carefully before I speak in order to avoid simplistic and incomplete answers to complicated questions. And then to act according to what I have discovered through that listening—with care.

And I know I’ll stumble along the way and find new ways to be wrong; but I guess the challenge is to recognize this as a life struggle that don’t stop till we’re in the ground. And even then, if we’re doing our job as poets successfully, our words will continue to do their work in the world after we’re gone. So write for the ages.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

A book that immediately comes to mind is Vievee Francis’ stunning Forest Primeval. I believe this was a breakthrough book for Vievee. Her craft is so brilliantly tight and wild, the search into self so deliberate, brutal, tender and searing.

I’d also have to say that John Keene’s Counternarratives is so ambitious in its scope, so well executed, so historically thorough and full of surprises, that it really set the bar high for me.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

I have learned quite a bit from riding a motorcycle over the past eight years. I’ve learned about patience, the kind of patience you need when you’re being passed by semi trucks in a sudden thunderstorm; the importance of knowing one’s limitations; how to avoid overrunning the turn and going dangerously off course; overcoming fear, the kind of fear when you’re on a bridge, leaning into the crosswind that’s trying to push you across lanes; how to focus, concentrating on the place you want to go in order to get there safely. I’ve learned how to maintain the many parts of my 19-year-old Honda, learned more about the importance of proper preparation for the journey. I’ve learned more about anticipating the moves of those around me—to read the traffic around me, looking as far ahead as the eye can see for possible accidents and competing egos on the highway ahead. I’ve learned more about how to sacrifice ego when it comes to reaching a goal on the road, and how to never take smooth pavement and a sunny day for granted. I’ve learned to weave between the lines when necessary but to respect the lightness of my weight against the tons of metal I pass. I’ve learned how beautiful so many parts of the country are in the sunset. I’ve even learned how to camp out on my own and the wonders of a portable hammock and evening shade. I’ve learned a passion that’s brought me closer to my brother, who now rides almost more than me! I never thought I’d learn that much from being in that motorcycle seat for so long. But there it is. I guess we can learn from anything if we try.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Right now I’m spending a lot of time getting ready to be married! I’m lucky enough to have a lady that wants to spend the rest of her time on the planet with me, so I’m spending a lot of time getting ready for this next journey together.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

1. Don’t stop writing, even when you feel discouraged. My formula is 1>0: it’s always better to have at least something on the page rather than nothing. You can always revise, and revise, and revise…

2. Know your histories. Research the many histories of the country in which you were born, the country in which you live, and the people from which you come. Read beyond those histories to understand global context. History often repeats or rhymes with itself. By engaging and recognizing those patterns we have the opportunity to reference lessons that are continuously new, ancient and true to the human experience.

3. Read extensively. Set your standards for yourself as high as possible.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Probably the fact that I grew up in a house full of books has influenced me the most as a writer. My father was constantly reading; he had lots of full bookshelves in the house and subscriptions to every magazine from Time to National Geographic to Ebony and two newspapers. And my mother was never tiring in her desire to see me read and write well. Without that early influence, I might have never dreamed of being a writer.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat?

I was at CC in 1997, 1999, and 2001. I served as a retreat administrator/aide for three years, 2002, 2003 and 2004.

What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

The first time I saw the CC reading during my first year. The talent in the room blew me away. I knew immediately that I had to step up my game. It was a real eye opener and the beginning of a kind of self-reconstruction—I had found a community of folks who were listening to hear each other and grow from what they heard. I’ll never forget feeling that I had finally found my crew.

Yolanda Wisher

Named the inaugural Poet Laureate of Montgomery County Pennsylvania in 1999 and the third Poet Laureate of Philadelphia in 2016, Yolanda Wisher is a Cave Canem fellow whose work has been featured on numerous platforms including PoetryNOW, PloughsharesGathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, and CBC Radio, among others. She has led workshops and curated events in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Free Library of Philadelphia, and U.S. Department of Arts & Culture. She is currently the 2017-2018 CPCW Fellow in Poetics and Poetic Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Hear Wisher read new work from her debut Monk Eats an Afro (Hanging Loose Press, 2014) alongside Kamilah Aisha Moon and Marcus Wicker on Friday, February 23, 2018, 5pm, at the NYU Lillian Vernon House. 

Your band, The Afroeaters, creatively combines poetry and song. How does song influence the collection Monks Eats an Afro, or find its way into your poems?

For me, a creative idea or utterance can begin as a line of poetry or a snippet of song. I try to honor that original impulse, let it take its course in the writing, revision, and performing process. I want my work to sing on and off the page.

Your bio mentions your value for “upholding poetry as a public art.” Can you explain the concept of poetry as a public art and what that means for the poet’s relationship to the art economy?

I think poetry often carries and expresses the vulnerability and urgency of a person’s identity. Our voices can change the air around us. Poetry can make public spaces more inclusive, more intimate, and more safe. The public sharing and the experience of poetry deepen connections between known folks and between strangers. Poetry as a public art means that the poet—as well as the visceral power of language—is a visible and valuable part of the art economy, not just an ornament or sideshow.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

They can write their own truths and investigate their own blind spots. Embrace and use their own vernaculars. Walk the talk. Trouble the everyday languages we/they use. Open more doors, keep no gates. Use the poetry reading as a unit of community organizing and nation building. Teach.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Swallow the Fish by Gabrielle Civil.  It reminded me of the necessity of documenting my work and practice as a Black woman artist.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

My great-grandmother Christine’s wild collection of knick knacks – thrift store candy jars, salt & pepper shakers & souvenirs from trips to Atlantic City.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

Be Black how you want. Read Black, forward and back. Stay Black & die.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Cooking. Being an amateur genealogist. Running my mouth. Hanging with my partner and my eight-year old. Crocheting hats & blankets for family gifts. Sun salutes and watching indie films in the middle of the day.

What was the greatest learning experience that came out of your time as the 2016-17 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia?

Poetry can’t and won’t survive in academia alone.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Growing up not knowing my father, then meeting him for the first time on my wedding day.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was at the Cave Canem retreat in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Some of my favorite memories: Getting off of the waitlist! Meeting Tonya Hegamin on the Philly train platform to Poughkeepsie that first year. Getting herbal advice from Tracie Morris after one of our workshops in the Esopus monastery. Carpooling from NYC to Michigan with Tonya and Eisa Davis. Eating breakfast with Harryette Mullen and Sonia Sanchez one morning at Cranbrook. Michael Harper critiquing my use of a cuss word in a poem. Being part of workshop group C (nicknamed “C-Loaf”) that included Doug Kearney and John Keene. I could go on…



My mother calls and sandbag sighs
into another of her lists:
She found Papi shivering inside
a bottle of spiced rum. Again.
My grandparent’s bills are loose napkins
that won’t origami into pretty swans.
My brother won’t drink the milk anymore—
he knows about the medicine.

There is a timer on these calls
but the bread always burns in her irises.
I put the match out on her throat.
When I was little, she never cried
where I could see her;
hung rosaries from her eyelashes instead.

I convinced myself then silence was strength.
I won’t feed from her fingers.
I fold into two walls. Hide from her hands.
Peel my ear when she reminds me
daughters are meant to veil themselves behind the skirts
of their mothers. When are you going to visit?

I don’t tell her this is why I left.

You know, I know…it’s easier to be far from this.
From me.

We both heave wordless.
She whistles softly through her teeth
and I am packed with the air of her.

Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poets Tour Profile

In Conversation: Simone White & The Friend 

6:00PM – 7:30PM

The New School

RSVP for Virtual Only Event

Simone White and The Friend discuss White’s newly released book or, on being the other woman (Duke University Press, 2022), aesthetic interests, and the climate of American poetry.


For this virtual event, Simone White and The Friend come together to build on past conversations. White will take us behind the scenes of her book or, on being the other woman (Duke University Press, 2022), and will show us how much of what happens in a poem happens outside the poem.

Recently, The Friend, champion and scholar of Simone White’s poetry posted highlights and analyses of Simone White’s writing to their Instagram Story.

The Friend’s posts continue in this live-streamed conversation with Simone White on the particularities of her writing practice, aesthetic interests, and the climate of American poetry.

White writes cross-discipline with music, womanhood, and lotion at the center (read White’s Harper’s Magazine essay Lotion here).


Simone White is a poet and critic. She is the author of or, on being the other woman (Duke University Press, 2022), Dear Angel of Death, Of Being Dispersed and House Envy of All the World and is the Stephen M. Gorn Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Friend is the author of George Washington (Liveright, 2016) and The Late Parade (Liveright, 2013). They are a professor of creative writing at Rutgers University.


This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation. This program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Co-presented by The New School Creative Writing Program.




Regional Workshop (NYC): “all swirl and pivot:” African-American 

Sonnets with Reginald Harris

Mondays, 6:00PM – 9:00PM | Public Reading December 5

Cave Canem Foundation

Visit our Submittable page to Apply by September 19th

The Temps, all swirl and pivot, conjured schemes. –Patricia Smith, “Motown Sonnet”

Black poets have transformed the American Sonnet. Cave Canem’s FREE Fall 2022 regional workshop “all swirl and pivot” will take workshop participants through a wide range of sonnets from historical to contemporary, traditional and experimental, single poems to sonnet sequences and crowns, with extended looks at two practitioners of the “American Sonnet,” Wanda Coleman and Terrance Hayes.

Led by Cave Canem Fellow and formalist poet Reginald Harris, this workshop is for poets interested in a consistent writing practice and invested in exploring the Black American sonnet for inspiration. Poets will generate their own sonnets as they search for the freedom that can be found in formal constraint.

Participants will receive a  $250 honorarium dependent upon attendance and completion of a workshop evaluation. Workshop poets to be spotlighted at our December 5th public reading at Cave Canem headquarters.

Submissions to this workshop are free and open to New York City residents. Applications close on September 19th. To be considered, please submit a cover letter and five original poems.


Reginald Harris is Director of Library and Outreach Services for Poets House. A Cave Canem Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, and recipient of Individual Artist Awards for both poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council, his first book, 10 Tongues (Three Conditions Press, 2002), was finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year. His second collection, Autogeography, won the 2012 Cave Canem / Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize.

Former Associate Editor of the Lambda Literary Review, and member of the National Book Critics Circle, his poetry, fiction, book reviews, and articles have appeared in numerous journals and websites, including African-American ReviewBuzzFeedGay and Lesbian Review WorldwideSou’westerLGBTQ America Today: An Encyclopedia, and Gathering GroundOf Poetry and Protest, and The Ringing Ear anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner.



This program is supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation. This program is also supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation; and the Consolidated Edison Company of New York.



In the last two and a half years, it seems for some that time has stood still or, for others, disappeared. Our individual and collective memory for the duration of a global pandemic is locked in a kind of stasis, protecting us from the kaleidoscopic effects of loss—in Yusef Komunyakaa’s words “[n]othing / but the white odor of absence.” Still, there was Poetry! 

And because there was Poetry, Cave Canem was at work: a virtual presence bringing readings and conversations into peoples’ homes; a place for poets to turn when they could not write; celebrating our 25th anniversary and the necessary labor of our Founders, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady; providing emergency funds for poets who could write but required extra resources; and bringing new poetries into the literary landscape with our Prizes.

That work does not cease and it is a privilege to offer you the opportunity to gather around the hearth of poetry again, in-person, together, to enjoy a season of programming that is sure to remind you of what it is that Black poets do, how it sustains us in times of crises and how it renews us in the aftermath.

Dante Micheaux
Director of Programs


Fall 2022 Programs

September 20

In Conversation: Simone White & The Friend 

6:00PM – 7:30PM

The New School (livestreamed)


A conversation featuring contemporary poets Simone White and The Friend in discussion on their new works, shared aesthetic interests, and the climate of American poetry. 

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation. This program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Co-presented by The New School Creative Writing Program.


October 3December 5

Regional Workshop (NYC): “all swirl and pivot:” African-American

Sonnets with Reginald Harris

Mondays 6:00PM – 9:00PM

Cave Canem Foundation

Join Workshop

The Temps, all swirl and pivot, conjured schemes. –Patricia Smith, “Motown Sonnet”

For nearly 800 years, the little song of the sonnet has enticed poets into its web.  The form continues to be used to engage with tradition and work through issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In this workshop we will look at how African American poets have used, and played with, the form. We will read a wide range of sonnets from historical to contemporary, traditional and experimental, single poems to sonnet sequences and crowns, with extended looks at two practitioners of the “American Sonnet,” Wanda Coleman and Terrance Hayes. Weekly writing exercises will aid in generating our own sonnets as we search for the freedom that can be found in formal constraint.

This program is supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation. This program is also supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation; and the Consolidated Edison Company of New York. 


October 22

Cave Canem Presents Anticenter: Black Poetic Composition at the Margins

with Quenton Baker, Chekwube Danladi & Anastacia-Reneé


Dodge Poetry Festival

Newark Museum

Billy Johnson Auditorium


Despite the great flourishings of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, Black poets and other poets of color have, for the majority of American literary history, worked at the margins. With an increase in representation in publishing, across national, eminent literary prizes and several Poets Laureate of color, some have argued that a reckoning of sorts has occurred or is in the process of doing so. What are we to make of the poets whose practice has remained outside the center or been neglected by it? Baker, Danladi and Anastacia-Reneé, approach the question each from their own distinctive compositional perspectives.


November 30

Cave Canem Prize Reading: Courtney Faye Taylor & Aracelis Girmay

7:00PM – 8:30PM

American Negro Theater

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture


Courtney Faye Taylor reads Concentrate (Graywolf) selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as winner of the 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Aracelis Girmay author of Kingdom Animalia (BOA) will join Taylor in discussion about Concentrate, writing practices, and poetic traditions. 

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation. This program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.


December 5

Final Fall Regional Workshop Reading

6:00PM – 9:00PM

Cave Canem Foundation


The Final Reading will showcase fresh, published, and beloved poems written by participants of Reginald Harris’ Fall Regional workshop.

This program is supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation. This program is also supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation; and the Consolidated Edison Company of New York.


December 8

First Books: Ama Codjoe & Maya Marshall

6:00PM – 7:00PM

The New School (livestreamed)


Ama Codjoe and Maya Marshall read and discuss their debut collections, Bluest Nude (Milkweed Press) and All the Blood Involved in Love (Haymarket), respectively. 

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation. This program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Co-presented by The New School Creative Writing Program.


Black and white headshots of Cave Canem Fellows devorah wilson and Bakar Wilson side by side. major is laughing with her eyes closed. She has long curly hair, and is wering a dark top with the illustration of a fish. She has long earrings and a light-colored braclet. Wilson is smiling and is looking directly into the camera. He has dark glasses, long dark locs, a thin metallic necklace. He is s wearing a dark-colored henley that layers on top of a white v-neck shirt.

This fall Cave Canem is excited to bring Regional Workshops to Oakland, California! With support from the Poetry Foundation, Cave Canem continues to expand Regional Workshops to Black poets nationwide.

Cave Canem’s Regional Workshops are tuition-free, free to submit, and led by Cave Canem Fellows.

Check out this season’s workshops in Oakland, California, and, of course, at the Cave Canem headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

To be considered, please submit a cover letter and five original poems via Submittable.

Regional Workshop (Oakland)

“The World In & Around You” with devorah major
September 5 – October 31, 2023
Tuesdays, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. (PT) | Public Reading November 7, 2023

1721 Broadway #201, Oakland, California 94612
Visit our Submittable Page to apply today

Submissions are free and open to Black Oakland-area residents.
Applications close August 6, 2023, at 11:59 p.m. (ET)

Born and raised in California, devorah major served as San Francisco’s Third Poet Laureate (2002-2006). She received Italy’s Regina Coppola International Literary Award performing in Sardinia and Northern and Southern Italy. Her sixth book of poetry, with open arms was released in a bilingual edition in Italy. A Willow Press Editor’s Choice, her seventh book of poetry Califia’s Daughter was published by Willow Press. major premiered her poetry play Classic Black: Voices of 19th Century African-Americans in San Francisco, with music composed and performed by Destiny Muhammad, at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Trade Routes, a commissioned symphony with devorah major’s spoken word and chorus, premiered under Maestro Michael Morgan with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. She is on two CDs as a part of Daughters of Yam with Opal Palmer Adisa. devorah major performs her work nationally and internationally with and without musicians. She has been a participant in international poetry festivals in Italy, Belgium, Bosnia, Jamaica, and Venezuela, and performed her poetry in France, the Bahamas and Germany.

Regional Workshops (New York City)

Let Us Play: Creating Wit and New Forms on the Page” with Bakar Wilson
September 11 – November 6, 2023
Mondays, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. (ET) | Public Reading November 13, 2023

Cave Canem Headquarters
20 Jay Street, 310A, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Visit our Submittable to apply today

Submissions are free and open to Black New York City-area residents.
Applications close August 13, 2023, by 11:59 p.m. (ET).

Bakar Wilson has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Community of Writers, and the Colgate Writers’ Conference. He has performed his work at the Bowery Poetry Club, Poetry Project, The Studio Museum of Harlem, and The Asian-American Writer’s Workshop among others. His poetry has appeared in The Vanderbilt Review, The Lumberyard Radio Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology, and The Ostrich Review among others. Bakar curated and hosted an hour of poetry at the Whitney Biennial for their poetry marathon in collaboration with A Gathering of the Tribes and received a commission from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Juneteenth. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Bakar received his B.A. in English from Vanderbilt University and his M.A. in Creative Writing from The City College of New York. He is an Adjunct Lecturer of English and Creative Writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College at CUNY.

These programs are supported by the Poetry Foundation.

August 14, 2023

Cave Canem Announces Fall 2023 Programming Season, Award, and Fellowship Opportunities


BROOKLYN, NY –  Today, Cave Canem, the leading non-profit organization committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of Black poets, announced its fall 2023 programming season, fellowship, and award opportunities. 

Kicking off with the annual 2023 Cave Canem Poetry Prize Reading celebrating Ariana Benson’s debut poetry collection Black Pastoral at The Schomburg Center for Black Culture, Cave Canem’s fall season includes several opportunities for the public to celebrate and learn from the works of Black poets from New York City and beyond. The organization also announced application dates for its highly-regarded fellowship and award programs, open to poets of African descent from around the country. 

“Cave Canem is excited to offer a series of programs reinforcing the importance of Black poetry and poets to the overall cultural landscape,” said Lisa Willis, Executive Director of Cave Canem. “The influence of Cave Canem’s community continues to grow, with Cave Canem poets and Fellows participating in interdisciplinary programs with institutions such as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Guggenheim Museum. We invite the public to participate in one of our programs this season and to experience the power of Black literary voices for themselves.”

All of Cave Canem’s programs are free and open to the public. Additional programs may be announced throughout the season. For more information on this season’s programming, awards, and application cycles, visit 


Cave Canem Fall 2023 Programs and Award Opportunities

Cave Canem Prize Reading with Ariana Benson & Sharan Strange
September 12th, 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. ET

Book Sales & Reception at 6:00 p.m. (ET)
Reading at 7:00 p.m (ET)
Book Signing at 8:00 p.m. (ET)
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The American Negro Theatre
515 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10037

Join Cave Canem in celebrating Ariana Benson’s Black Pastoral–a poetry collection that explores Black peoples’ complex relationship with nature. It surveys the ways in which our histories (both Black and ecological), our suffering and our thriving, are forever wound around one another.

In person registration
Virtual registration

This program is supported, in part, by the Amazon Literary Partnership Poetry Fund in partnership with the Academy of American Poets; Consolidated Edison Company of New York; a Humanities New York Action Grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities; National Endowment for the Arts; by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; New York State Council on the Arts;  and the Seth Sprague  Educational and Charitable Foundation. Co-presented by The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

2024 Cave Canem Fellowship Application
Application Period: September 22nd – November 10th

Apply via Submittable.

Since 1996, Cave Canem has awarded fellowships to more than 500 Black poets. Cave Canem Fellows are among the most distinguished poets in the field, not only as recipients of the highest literary honors and critical acclaim, but also for their service in communities across the country.

Each year a cohort of 10–20 new Fellows is selected based solely on the quality of their poems. Cohorts encompass a range of different aesthetics and poetic practices (spoken word, formalism, multimedia performance, text-based composition, etc.) to ensure an equity of voices in our gathering—all are united by the drive to improve craft.

The 2023 Cave Canem Retreat is supported, in part, by Heinz Endowments, Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Black Pastoral: A Reading Group
Tuesdays, 12:30PM – 1:15PM ET
October 3, 10, 17, and 24

Registration closes October 1, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. (ET)

Join our Director of Programs, Dante Micheaux (2003), for a weekly virtual gathering to discuss Black Pastoral, winner of the 2022 Cave Canem Prize.

Participants will be invited  to answer the question put forth in Sharan Strange’s introduction: “does Black presence challenge and complicate the notion of the pastoral?” The group will examine the text to determine where it sits in the Black poetic tradition as well as on the spectrum of ecopoetics.

Virtual registration

This program is supported by a Humanities New York Action Grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Derricotte/Eady Prize Open Call
Application Period: October 6 – November 5, 2023

Apply via Submittable.

Since 2015, Cave Canem has collaborated with O, Miami to spotlight exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets. The winner of the prize receives a $1000 award, publication of their manuscript by O, Miami Books, 10 copies of the chapbook, a residency in The Writer’s Room at The Betsy Hotel in Miami, and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival in April. Previous judges include: Robin Coste Lewis; Dawn Lundy Martin; Ross Gay; Major Jackson; Danez Smith; Mahogany L. Browne; and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram.

Co-presented by O, Miami.

Regional Workshop Reading | Oakland
November 7, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. (PT)

Refreshments at 6:30 p.m. (PT)
Oakstop Broadway; Broadway Gallery Suite
1721 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

Join devorah major’s final Cave Canem Fall Workshop session for a reading from students and major herself.

Some poets create poems that center friends, family, or personal history. Others seem to be drawn to outward subject matter: the streets, politics, the stars, etc. Using the work of poets such as Wanda Coleman, E. Ethelbert Miller, Sonia Sanchez, Tim Siebles, Natasha Tretheway, and Oakland’s own Mahogany L. Browne, this workshop will look to create poetry which seeks a balance between the two and investigates poems that include the self without the use of “I.” The sessions are structured to include time for both writing and critiquing.

In person registration
Virtual registration

This program is supported by a grant from the Poetry Foundation.

Regional Workshop Reading | NYC
November 13, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. (ET)

Refreshments at 6:30 p.m. (ET)
Cave Canem Headquarters
20 Jay Street, 310A, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Join Bakar Wilson’s final Cave Canem Fall Workshop session for a reading from students and Wilson himself.

Familiarity with traditional forms isn’t necessary for this generative workshop; we will play with language and look at poets who create forms for themselves: Harryette Mullen, John Yau, Elaine Equi, Carl Phillips and others. Let us play on the page. Be prepared to take risks. By studying and workshopping both these poets and your own work, we will create poems unlike others you have seen before to create new ways of writing poetry.

In person registration
Virtual registration

This program is supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation and is also supported in part by the Consolidated Edison Company of New York and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Starshine & Clay Fellowship Application
Application Period: November 15th – December 17th

Apply via Submittable.

Cave Canem and EcoTheo Collective are pleased to announce the 2024 Starshine and Clay Fellowship. Developed in 2020, this initiative provides financial and developmental support to emerging Black poets. Named in honor of Cave Canem elder Lucille Clifton (“won’t you celebrate with me”), the Starshine and Clay Fellowship was developed to speak to the mentorship Clifton offered Cave Canem fellows during her tenure as faculty at the Cave Canem Retreat.

Two recipients will each receive $500 for a featured reading at the 2024 Wonder Festival. Fellowship recipients will also receive a one-on-one consultation with Aracelis Girmay. Additionally, the fellows’ work will be published in an issue of EcoTheo Review.

I bhFad IgCéin
November 16, 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. (ET)

Irish Arts Center, 2nd Floor
726 11th Avenue, New York, NY, 10019

Cave Canem has partnered with Poetry Ireland and its International Residencies program, I bhFad igCéin (Far Afield), to bring a poet to The City to write and experience the literary life abroad. At the end of her residency, Nithy Kasa will join Cave Canem Fellow Safia Jama (2014) in a reading at the Irish Arts Center.

In person registration

This program is supported, in part, by the Amazon Literary Partnership Poetry Fund in partnership with the Academy of American Poets; Consolidated Edison Company of New York; National Endowment for the Arts; by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; New York State Council on the Arts; and the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation. 


Thank you to our funders who make Cave Canem programs possible:
Academy of American Poets; Amazon Literary Partnership Poetry Fund; Consolidated Edison Company of New York; Ford Foundation; Hawthornden Foundation; Heinz Endowments; Humanities New York; Jerome Foundation; Lannan Foundation;, Mellon Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; New York State Council on the Arts; Poetry Foundation; Rona Jaffe Foundation; Scherman Foundation, Seth Sprague Educational & Charitable Foundation; and the University of Pittsburgh.

About Cave Canem
Cave Canem is a nonprofit organization, committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of Black poets. Founded in 1996 to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape, Cave Canem fosters community across the African Diaspora to enrich the literary field by facilitating a nurturing space in which Black poets can learn, experiment, create, and present their work. To date, Cave Canem has grown from a gathering of 26 writers to become an influential movement with a renowned faculty, a high-achieving global fellowship of 500 poets, and a workshop community of over 1,000. In making a home for Black poets and poetry, Cave Canem has transformed American arts and letters.

Media Contacts: 

Christopher Greggs
Communications & Engagement Manager
[email protected]

Ayofemi Kirby
ElevenThirtySix Strategies
[email protected]

Alt-Text: Poster announcing the Cave Canem Fellows & Faculty Fund Project Grants.

BROOKLYN, New York (January 4, 2023) — Cave Canem established the Fellows & Faculty Fund in 2020, originally to help support members of our community during a time of global hardship. 

Due to the support of donors like you and the Poetry Foundation, the fund has now been expanded to offer increased resources to Fellows and Faculty, with grants of $5,000 for projects and $500 for individual support.

Individual support grants are awarded for urgent/unexpected expenses or as supplemental support for artistic practice and development.

Project grants will be awarded to support initiatives to be completed in 2023 that further civic and community engagement in poetry and foster poetry education directly impacting Black people in underserved regions of the United States.

As Cave Canem continues its mission to foster community across the diaspora, these grants will serve as a resource for Fellows to nurture their poetic pursuits and help them create (and implement) programs that make access to Black Poetry more equitable.

Artistic Director Karma Mayet Johnson

Artistic Director Karma Mayet Johnson and her inter-generational village of poets and musicians rocked the stage on Wednesday, October 19, with an evening-long concert of artistic rebellion celebrating Cave Canem’s 2oth anniversary. View the full program on YouTube.

Inspired by jazz composer and drummer Max Roach’s WE INSIST!, as well as texts by Audre Lorde and Henry Dumas projected overhead throughout the evening, Cave Canem co-founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady moved us with original poems-in-song, including Eady’s homage to Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole to remove the emblem of white supremacist violence, and Derricotte’s painfully exquisite “Exits from Elmina Castle: Cape Coast Ghana.” We were uplifted by the voices of young poets and elders, of string, horn and drum, and the rebellious inflections of Linton Kwesi Johnson. Thank you, genius artists for perpetuating the legacy and quilting an unforgettable  narrative of resistance, consciousness, hope and transcendence.

We’re deeply grateful to our co-presenter the Schomburg Center, our sponsors, funders, staff, volunteers, and you, our faithful audience.



Artistic Director Karma Mayet Johnson; poets Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Mahlaney Wilson and Zubaida Bello; musicians Lewis Barnes, Lisala Beatty, Melanie Dyer, Christopher Eddleton, Henry Grimes,  Alex Harding, Val Jeanty, Juliette Jones,  André Lassalle, Jadele McPherson, Jared Michael Nickerson, and Marvin Sewell.

Cave Canem Foundation, Inc. and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Lead Sponsor
Marie-Elizabeth Mali

Sustaining Sponsors
Adelphi University Creative Writing MFA; Hallie S. Hobson; and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University

Supporting Sponsors
The Center for African American Poetry & Poetics and The Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, Northwestern University Press, and NYU Creative Writing Program

Associate Sponsors
92 St Y Unterberg Poetry Center: The Voice of Literature; Graywolf Press: A World of Voices; The New School, MFA Creative Writing Program; Poetry Center,  San Francisco  State University; and Wick Poetry Center, Kent State University

Grace Farms

Poets & Writers: This event is funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; and Puffin Foundation, Ltd.

Event Photographer
nívea castro


Meghan Berry, Monique Briones, Ama Codjoe, Nicholas Nichols, Sharlene Piverger, William Sledge, and Zing Tyehemba

on July 4th, we remember that American independence did not mean Black liberation. Getting Word’s campaign to #FundBlackLiterature is an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the vitality and resilience of the Black American spirit, and the stories of our humanity.

This Independence Day, we invite you to stand with Getting Word’s mission to support our Black literary organizations that are central to Black Literature. Together, Cave Canem, Furious Flower, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Obsidian artsmag and @twhpoetry represent over 130 years of collective action to guide the journeys of today’s leading, emerging, and aspiring Black authors.

Your donation to @gettingwordnow is a commitment to the future of Black literature, and the financial independence of the Black literary organizations behind your favorite Black authors.

On the final day of our 2022 campaign, we invite you to join us. Your contribution matters. Visit to learn how you can #FundBlackLiterature today!

Remica Bingham-Risher

There are fewer memories clearer for me during the time just after grad school than the evening Naomi Long Madgett called to tell me I’d won the book prize bearing her name. I was at my aunt and uncle’s house for some family get together; my parents were making plates in the kitchen, I was cutting up with my cousins, the house was so loud when I got the call, I had to go out to the garage to hear the poised voice on the other end of the line. She asked for me and once I’d answered in the affirmative, she said, “I’m Dr. Naomi Long Madgett. Do you know why I’m calling?” I merely mentioned the prize and, as the realization that I’d won set in, I screamed so loudly one of the neighbors peeked out of the window on the other side of the street.

I apologized all over the place for screaming in Dr. Madgett’s ear, but she just laughed. She started in on the business of things—when the contract was coming, blurbs, line editing—all new and frightening and wonderful forays into the Po’ Biz for me. To my surprise, it turned out because of some conflict in scheduling, she’d stepped in to be the final judge for the prize that year. “I love what you’re doing and how you do it,” she said, and we talked about me tracing the path of writers like Lucille Clifton until she ended the call by saying something akin to, “We’re off to the races. Welcome to Lotus Press.”

Lotus, for me, was legendary. I was so grateful to be in the house that housed so many. I’m finishing a book of prose now about the writers who formed me, and a legion of us came under Dr. Madgett’s watchful eye and care. Lotus published Cave Canem co-founder, Toi Derricotte’s, first book along with fellows like Mendi Obadike, Evie Shockley, Carmen Gillespie, and so many others. My first book, Conversion, was published by Lotus Press in 2007.

By then, Lotus was really an operation of one, though Dr. Madgett put up a good front. She’s invented a name for an assistant that she used for most business and got by with the help of one niece and a few intermittent interns. She was publishing one book a year but keeping a pulse on all the others, working with distributors and other publishers in Detroit, touching base with authors. It was kind of miraculous that she’d kept Lotus afloat so long—by the time I won the prize she was in her 80s—much like Dudley Randall, her comrade and brother-in-arms in Detroit Black book publishing. Eventually, the two presses, Broadside and Lotus, would merge into Broadside Lotus Press in 2015 and still lift up the voices of those who are a rallying cry for intersectional lives and living.

For many of us, poetry is about clarifying questions we have about the world, asking those questions with as much precision as we can. We serve as witnesses to the forgotten and unwanted ugliness or beauty. Much of our work as writers is to help spotlight what is unseen or underseen. Writing about my elders, my journey, got me to thinking much about our editors, compilers, archivists—publishers like Madgett, Randall, and W. Paul Coates, anthology editors like E. Ethelbert Miller, Nikky Finney, and Camille Dungy, those that are bringing light to light and, most importantly, cultivating and tending community.

I write as a way of tussling with what I can’t answer in myself and—sometimes—the finished poem or book (the years-long process of sifting and shaping and casting) helps me get invaluably closer to that answer. I imagine the same is true for our archivists, our savers; they spend years, decades, lifetimes, valuing voices, seeking them out, then listening to how they work in concert, puzzling them together. As writers, editors, all artists, we all create to help translate what we know, have experienced, what we carry and can’t ignore, in hopes that someone will say, I see you, fam or better yet I feel that which means in translation, you’ve given me a bit of God, you’ve helped me to understand the human condition, you’ve done the work and moved it into the world to help introduce me, once again, to myself.


Remica Bingham-Risher, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian
Poet. Among other journals, her work has been published in The New York Times, The Writer’s ChronicleCallaloo, and Essence. She is the author of Conversion (Lotus, 2006), winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award; What We Ask of Flesh (Etruscan, 2013), shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and Starlight & Error (Diode, 2017), winner of the Diode Editions Book Award and a finalist for the Library of Virginia Book Award. She is currently the Director of Quality Enhancement Plan Initiatives at Old Dominion University and resides in Norfolk, Virginia with her husband and children.

Brooklyn, NY (April 22, 2015)—Cave Canem Foundation, North America’s premier home for black poetry, congratulates Cave Canem fellow Gregory Pardlo, recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Digest, published by Four Way Books. This year’s jury described his book as “clear‐voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century America, rich with thought,
ideas and histories public and private.” Pardlo will receive a monetary prize of $10,000, and will be honored alongside other 2015 winners at a luncheon on Columbia University’s campus.
Pardlo’s first book, Totem, received the American Poetry Review/Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, as well as such anthologies as Angles ofAscent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry and two editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a fellowship for translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate editor of Callaloo, he currently is a teaching fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University and is writing his dissertation for the PhD in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the second Cave Canem fellow to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, following Tracy K. Smith, whose collection, Life on Mars, was honored in 2012.

Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to remedy the under‐representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape, Cave Canem 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. Called ʺthe major watering hole and air pocket for black poetryʺ by 2011 National Book Award winner Nikky Finney, Cave Canem has grown from an initial gathering of 26 poets to become an influential movement with a renowned faculty and a high achieving national fellowship of 400. Programs include a week‐long writing retreat, first‐ and second‐book prizes with prestigious presses, Legacy Conversations with pre‐eminent black poets and scholars, Poets on Craft talks, a lectures series, community‐based writing workshops, publications and national readings. Such pre‐eminent poets as Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey number among the organization’s faculty and judges. To date, the organization has published Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006); The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press, 2007); and two anthologies from Willow Books, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008‐2009 (2012) and Cave Canem Anthology XIII: Poems 2010‐2011 (2015).

Cave Canem recently celebrated the election of new executive officers to our Board of Directors. With this transition, we also uplift the work of outgoing executive officers, including former Board President Amanda Johnston. Since becoming a Cave Canem fellow in 2005, Johnston has has served as staff for the annual Cave Canem Retreat, board member, and board president, among a host of other volunteer efforts. Her tenure in these capacities remained informed by her commitment to fostering community among Black poets and the literary arts at large. Cave Canem is grateful to Johnston for her undying investment in our mission, and her unwavering devotion in helping us carry out the work of serving Black poets. For these reasons, the Board of Directors passed the following resolution in honor of Amanda Johnston’s service.


Whereas, Amanda Johnston has served Cave Canem in many soul-giving, hallelujah-strong capacities: that she star-shined in her roles as fellow, retreat coordinator, one-woman cheering squad and board member over the past 20 years;

Whereas, Amanda Johnston has made an exceptional contribution to the field of poetry and her fierce commitment to the enduring Blackness of poetry and poetics is equalled only by her down-home, indomitable, courageous love for her fellow poets;

Whereas, Amanda has served the organization with distinction, directness, caring and class as President of the Board of Directors since 2019;

Whereas, Amanda Johnston has retired from her work on the Board of Directors of Cave Canem effective October 2020;

Now, therefore, let it be Resolved here and down through the ink we put on each poem that Cave Canem Foundation, on behalf of its board, staff, fellows and faculty, honors and is grateful to Amanda Johnston for her tireless commitment to cultivating Black poets, and expresses its sincere appreciation and admiration for her energy and leadership.

Moved: Allen Drexel
Second: Lynne Thompson
Approved by a unanimous vote by the Cave Canem Board of Directors.

So resolved.

December 7, 2020

BROOKLYN, New York., October 7, 2022 — Submissions are now open for the 2022 Toi Derricotte And Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. This year’s judge is Herman Beavers. The deadline for submissions is November 14th, 2022

Since 2015, Cave Canem has collaborated with O, Miami to spotlight exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets. The winner of the prize receives a $1000 award, publication of their manuscript by O, Miami Books, 10 copies of the chapbook, a residency in The Writer’s Room at The Betsy Hotel in Miami, and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival in April.

Previous judges were: Robin Coste Lewis; Dawn Lundy Martin; Ross Gay; Major Jackson; Danez Smith; Mahogany L. Browne; and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram.

This prize is free to enter.


About the Judge
Herman Beavers is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program and offers an arts-based, community service course that brings students together with Philadelphia residents. Beavers’ poems have appeared in The Langston Hughes Colloquy, MELUS, Versadelphia, Cleaver Magazine, The American Arts Quarterly, and Supplement. His fiction has appeared in the Best Philadelphia Stories. His poems have been anthologized in Obsession: Sestinas for the Twenty-First Century, Remembering Gwen, Who Will Speak for America and Show Us Your Papers. Beavers is the author of Obsidian Blues (a chapbook), Geography and the Political Imaginary in the Novels of Toni Morrison, and The Vernell Poems. He is collaborating with saxophonists Odean Pope and Immanuel Wilkins to develop a series of jazz compositions based on his sonnet cycle, “Progressions,” in a project titled, “Re-Sounding Progressions”. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Lisa.

About O, Miami
O, Miami builds literary culture in Miami, FL. In collaboration with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, O, Miami produces a visiting writer series, a publishing imprint, a poets-in-the-community workshop program, and the O, Miami Poetry Festival, which has the annual goal of every single person in Miami-Dade County encountering a poem during the month of April. O, Miami publishes print books, e-books, zines, chapbooks, posters, and other stuff. The mission of our publishing program is to contribute to a regional identity for Miami-based literary publishing and provide opportunities for South Florida voices to find new audiences. For more, visit

About The Betsy Hotel 
The Betsy – South Beach is an award-winning global arts hotel and home of The Betsy Writer’s Room that has hosted over 800 artists, thought leaders, poets and creators in residence. The Betsy is also the home of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, Miami Classical Music Festival and host Hotel to many of South Florida’s leading regional charitable, arts and culture organizations. Its poetry programs are inspired by the work of mid-century poet Hyam Plutzik, three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and father of Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik. The Betsy Hotel, located on iconic Ocean Drive, beachfront, is also home of The Betsy Poetry Rail, a public installation that champions the work of 12 writers that shaped Miami Culture.



Cave Canem is grateful to our community of institutional supporters. Thank you for your belief in the mission to cultivate the artistic and professional growth of Black poets!


Designed to cultivate the next generation of arts administrators of color, the working fellowship and internship program at Cave Canem teaches fellows and interns the ins and outs of nonprofit administration. Workshops & Administrative Fellow Della Green notes, “My skills and experience in arts administration have improved immensely during my time at Cave Canem.” Throughout the fellowship year, participants attend working lunches with established arts administrators to learn about their work in the field.

Since the start of the year, the Cave Canem team has had the pleasure of lunching with five arts professionals including, William Johnson, Program Director at Lambda Literary; Kevin Larimer, Editor in Chief of Poets & Writers Magazine; Novella Ford, Manager of Public Programs at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Kima Jones, book publicist and founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts; and Nikay Paredes, Programs Coordinator at the Academy of American Poets. About the meetings, Programs & Communications Fellow Natalie Desrosiers explains, “I’m so grateful for the rare opportunity to connect with incredibly brilliant professionals who have provided me with a deeper clarity about my own professional journey.”


william johnson and staff

Workshops & Administrative Fellow Della Green (left) and Programs & Communications Fellow Natalie Desrosiers (right) lunch with William Johnson (middle), Program Director at Lambda Literary.

kevin larmier and staff

Natalie Desrosiers (left), Editor in Chief of Poets & Writers Magazine Kevin Larimer (second from the left), Cave Canem Executive Director Nicole Sealey (middle), Della Green (second from the right), and spring intern Nicole Hatcher (right), gather for a group photo at the Poets & Writers headquarters.

novella ford and staff

The Cave Canem team at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with Novella Ford (second from the right), Manager of Public Programs.


Spring intern, working fellows and Programs & Communications Coordinator Elizabeth Bryant (right) at Cave Canem with Kima Jones (second from the right), founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, before her cultural publicity workshop.

Academcy American Poets and staff

Summer interns Noor Dhingra (second from the left) and Saïkou Yaya Baldé (back left), as well as working fellows pose with the Academy of American Poets staff, including Programs Coordinator Nikay Paredes (front row, second from the right).

The working fellowship and internship program is made possible by generous funding provided by the Regional Economic Development Council initiative (REDC), administered by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), and Amazon Literary Partnership.

On the evening of Thursday, February 1st, Cave Canem’s DUMBO office was filled with ragtime and jazz as participants in “Poetry’s Musical Bloodline: A Sociohistorical Soundtrack,” settled into their seats. Once the music died down, Tyehimba Jess played a short, electrifying tune on his harmonica. “The harmonica is a lot like poetry,” Jess explained, “it doesn’t take a lot to be able to play a little, but it takes years and years to achieve mastery.” The master class, taught by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and Cave Canem alum, focused on the relationship between poetry and music of the African diaspora. With sixteen in attendance, the class attracted an audience both culturally diverse and cross-generational.

Jess emphasized the importance of historical research and critical inquiry. Throughout, he drew from his vast knowledge of jazz, blues, hip hop, and minstrelsy, with respect to Olio (Wave Books, 2016),  his critically acclaimed, Pulitzer prize-winning second collection. During the latter half of the class, Jess showcased individual poetry collections, explaining how each had been crucial to his writing process. Participants posed thoughtful questions that ranged from the topic of conducting research and the politics of agency, to tensions between jazz poets and jazz musicians and what makes our musical heroes heroic.

Ultimately, the tools participants walked away with that night were indispensable: a plethora of questions to guide their learning and writing processes, as well as a number of titles to add to their reading lists. “Tyehimba is exceptionally knowledgeable and I felt he was able to engage everyone at the table,” said one participant. There could not have been a better way to launch Cave Canem’s 2018 programs!

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This program is part of Cave Canem’s 2018 Lecture Series. The Series is made possible by generous contributions from Con Edison, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Poetry Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts and Two Trees Cultural Space Subsidy Program.

Photo credit: Jeyhoun Allebaugh, @jeyhoun

With the 2018 Retreat fast approaching it is a pleasure to introduce this year’s 2018 Retreat fellows, both new and returning!







Cave Canem and the EcoTheo Collective are pleased to announce that Gregory Pardlo has selected Michael Frazier, Asmaa Jama, Oak Morse, and Ashunda Norris for the inaugural Starshine and Clay Fellowship. The fellowship provides financial and development support to emerging Black poets, and fundraising opportunities for Cave Canem. The initiative is named in honor of Cave Canem elder Lucille Clifton (“won’t you celebrate with me”).

About selecting the cohort of fellows, Gregory Pardlo says, “It was an honor to explore this incredible array of voices and styles. These poets herald a lush and exuberant new generation of poetry steeped in the traditions of black excellence.”

Recipients of this year’s fellowship will receive $500, a featured reading, and a travel stipend and lodging to attend the upcoming Wonder in Wyoming, a literary festival that will take place in Jackson, Wyoming July 9-11. In addition, they will receive a one-on-one consultation with the final judge, and master classes and other opportunities provided by Cave Canem.

Finalists include Rosa Castellano, Marvin Hodges, Sania Thomas, and Semein Washington. Work from these poets will be featured in the upcoming summer issue of EcoTheo Review.

Submissions for the 2022 Starshine and Clay Fellowship will open this fall or early 2022.

Read more about the inaugural cohort of fellows here:

Michael Frazier is a poet and educator living in central Japan. He graduated from NYU, where he was the 2017 poet commencement speaker & a co-champion of CUPSI. He’s performed at Nuyorican Poets Café, Lincoln Center, and Gallatin Arts Festival, among other venues. His poetry has been honored with Tinderbox’s 2020 Brett Elizabeth Jenkins Poetry Prize, honorable mentions for both RHINO’s Editor’s Prize and COUNTERCLOCK’s Emerging Writer Award, and Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets nominations. His poems appear in Poetry Daily, The Offing, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. He’s thankful for the organizations that have generously supported his writing including Callaloo, The Watering Hole, The Seventh Wave, and Brooklyn Poets. Michael is passionate about anime, R&B music, and, most importantly, the power of Christ to change lives. Currently, he’s facilitating a biweekly zoom poetry book club open to the public. Message @fraziermichael to join.

Asmaa Jama is a Danish-born Somali artist, poet, and co-founder of Dhaqan Collective, a feminist art collective. They have been published in print and online in places like Ambit, ANMLY, and The Good Journal. Asmaa’s work has been translated into French, Swahili, Somali, Spanish, and Portuguese. Most recently they were shortlisted for Brunel African Poetry Prize. Asmaa is an inaugural alumnus of the Obsidian Foundation.

Oak Morse lives in Houston, Texas, where he teaches creative writing and performance, and leads a youth poetry troop, the Phoenix Fire-Spitters. He was the winner of the 2017 Magpie Award for Poetry in Pulp Literature, a finalist for the 2020 Witness Literary Award, and a semi-finalist for the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. He has received fellowships from Brooklyn Poets and Twelve Literary Arts. He is a Houston Texans’ Stars in The Classroom recipient, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a Warren Wilson MFA candidate. Oak’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, PANK, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Nimrod, Cosmonaut Avenue, and Solstice, among others.

Ashunda Norris is an award-winning filmmaker, feminist, archivist and poet living in Los Angeles. Her honors include fellowships from Cave Canem, the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute and a residency at The Lemon Tree House. Ashunda’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fence, [PANK], Trampoline, La Presa, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. Her most recent film work, MINO: A Diasporic Myth, has screened nationally and internationally including in Amsterdam, Berlin and Nairobi, Kenya. The artist is a proud alumna of Paine College and Howard University. She holds MFAs in both Poetry and Screenwriting. Born and raised in the heart of rural, red clay Georgia, Ashunda loves hot water cornbread, obscure cinema, stargazing, the ocean and celestial Sirius.


Brooklyn, NY (05 October 2015)—Cave Canem Foundation, North America’s premier home for black poetry, is pleased to announce that Jacqueline Jones LaMon has been elected to serve as the organization’s next president. She succeeds Cave Canem co‐founder Toi Derricotte, who held the office from February 1997 to late September 2015. Derricotte will continue to serve on the board as a director. Reflecting on the work ahead, LaMon says, “In our next phase of development, Cave Canem’s board, staff and stakeholders will build on the solid groundwork established by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, continuing to advance the organization as the premier center and home for African American poetries.” She sees her two‐year term as president as an opportunity to “strengthen Cave Canem’s infrastructure and ensure a healthy foundation for decades to come—emphasizing our creative excellence, shaping our legacy of mentorship, and promoting entrepreneurial leadership.” A Cave Canem fellow, LaMon has served on the organization’s board of directors since 2009 and chaired the Development Committee, 2013 to 2015. She is the author of two collections of poems, Last Seen, a Felix Pollak Poetry Prize selection, and Gravity, U.S.A., recipient of the Quercus Review Press Poetry Series Book Award. Her novel, In the Arms of One Who Loves Me, was published by Ballantine Books. An Associate Professor at Adelphi University, where she teaches in the multi‐genre MFA program, LaMon was a finalist for the 2012 NAACP Image Award (Outstanding Literature, Poetry) and has received fellowships from the The Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction, the Yaddo Foundation, the Fine Arts Work Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. She earned her BA from Mount Holyoke College, JD from UCLA School of Law, and MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry, from Indiana University Bloomington. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem 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. Called ʺ t h e major watering hole and air pocket for black poetryʺ by 2011 National Book Award winner and faculty member Nikky Finney, the organization’s programs include an annual week‐long retreat, first‐and second‐book prizes with prestigious presses, Legacy Conversations with distinguished black poets and scholars, Poets on Craft talks, a lecture series, community‐based writing workshops, publications and national readings. Such pre‐eminent poets as Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Chris Abani, Harryette  Mullen, Yusef Komunyakaa and Claudia Rankine number among the organization’s faculty and judges. To date, Cave Canem has published Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006); The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press, 2007); and two anthologies from Willow Books, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008‐2009 (2012) and Cave Canem Anthology XIII: Poems 2010-2011 (2015).

What if the Supreme Court Were Really the Supremes?

Oh, how their bedazzled robes glisten

as they glide into the courtroom,

open wide their satin-gloved arms, flutter

their long, store-bought eyelashes

and croon, “My world is empty without you, babe.”

Even Cindy Birdsong envies their hips

as they pop and sway, dip and snap.

Each one a lady.

Would these judges made new

by the rhythm and the blues,

the ooh, ooh baby magic of a Motown spell,

ever hold the sequined fish of my voting rights

above their lovely bouffant heads,

tip its iridescent scales toward the camera,

then gut it, like a dinner trout?

Jacqueline Trimble’s Poets Tour Profile


New Orleans, a Tuesday, 7:30 A.M.
I’m sipping coffee at a McDonald’s on Canal
when two young black men, early twenties perhaps,
walk in, buying nothing. Suddenly,
I’m aboard a mother ship,
streaking toward the farthest stars.

One, like a fly, bobs the aisles, sweaty
in his Crown Royal muscle shirt.
Gym shorts hanging off his ass,
headset in his ears, he pantomimes
a singer and dances a Mardi Gras mambo
in July, with himself, second lining
silky-smoothly across the floor, out the door,
onto the parking lot—his own block party
without the block.

The other, well-groomed, small backpack,
talks loudly, eloquently to himself
about home, what it is, isn’t and should be, then,
facing the faces, he launches a soliloquy
of senseless babble,
and you sense the other—
the voices, a stage, curtain and cast,
his fans and followers looking on,
inside his head.

I’m gazing stars. Drawn to the glow
of their wayward worlds,
I can’t help
but pause, watch and listen.
I’m entertained,
but scared, because they’re black men
and I’m one, too,
with a son and grandsons of my own,
and I can’t help
but ponder: what’s loose,
what’s broken, what’s gone wrong,
what’s the fix?

Originally appeared in Tupelo Quarterly

John Warner Smith’s Poets Tour Profile

Quenton Baker, Chekwube Danladi, and Anastacia-Reneé's headshots are placed side-by-side in B&W.

Cave Canem Presents

Anticenter: Black Poetic Composition at the Margins

with Quenton Baker, Chekwube Danladi & Anastacia-Reneé

2022 Dodge Poetry Festival

October 22, 2022 at 11:00-12:10PM
Newark Museum, Billy Johnson Auditorium

Register For In-person Here

RSVP For Free Live-stream


2022 Dodge Poetry Festival is perfect to present opposing aesthetic interests. Cave Canem Fellows consider poetry outside of their region. Quenton Baker, Chekwube Danladi & Anastacia-Reneé bring forth their avant-garde aesthetic interests offering new ways to engage with poetry.

Join us on October 22 at 11am EST for Cave Canem presents Anticenter: Black Poetic Composition at the Margins at the Newark Museum, Billy Johnson Auditorium in New Jersey.

Dodge Poetry Festival Tickets required for attendance. Grab your tickets today.


Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His current focus is black interiority and the afterlife of slavery. His work has appeared in The Offing, Jubilat, Vinyl, The Rumpus and elsewhere. He was a 2019 Robert Rauschenberg Artist in Residence and a 2021 NEA Fellow. He is the author of we pilot the blood (The 3rd Thing, 2021), and the forthcoming ballast (Haymarket, 2023).

Chekwube Danladi is the author of Semiotics (Georgia, 2020), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She has received support from Kimbilio Fiction, the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Wisconsin Institute from Creative Writing. Her visual work has been commissioned by the Center for Afrofuturist Studies (a program of PS1), Already Felt: Poetry in Revolt and Bounty, Langer/Dickie, and the Black Poetry Review. She is the 2022-25 Writer-in-Residence at Occidental College and lives in Los Angeles.

Anastacia-Reneé is a writer, educator, interdisciplinary artist, TEDx Speaker and podcaster. She is the author of (v.) (Black Ocean) and Forget It (Black Radish) and, Here in the (Middle) of Nowhere and Side Notes from the Archivist forthcoming from Amistad (an imprint of HarperCollins). Renee was selected by NBC News as part of the list of “Queer Artist of Color Dominate 2021’s Must See LGBTQ Art Shows.” She was former Seattle Civic Poet (2017-2019), Hugo House Poet-in-Residence (2015-2017) and Arc Artist Fellow (2020). Her work has been published widely.



This program is supported, in part, by the Rona Jaffe Foundation.

Cave Canem is pleased to announce the Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion, a virtual gathering taking place June 13-19, 2021. The reunion is in celebration of the Cave Canem Fellowship and the Cave Canem Retreat, the organization’s long-standing programs, and features reunion activities specific to the fellowship as well as a suite of public programs for general audiences. The reunion launches a yearlong recognition of the organization’s rich history and impact on American letters and the nonprofit literary arts sector.

The week is modeled after the Cave Canem Retreat, which traditionally convenes in June to host new and current fellows. Poets take daily workshops with distinguished faculty, and participate in lectures, readings, and other opportunities to hone their craft in community. The Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion welcomes back all alumni to take part in similar activities, including social gatherings and exclusive workshop opportunities with poets such as Camille Dungy, Vievee Francis, Airea D. Matthews, Lenard D. Moore, Tracie Morris, Harryette Mullen, Carl Phillips, Ed Roberson, and Patricia Smith.

“While it’s unfortunate that we can’t meet in person, Cave Canem is presented with the unique opportunity to virtually engage current fellows, alumni, and the general public in celebration of the organization and our many supporters,” says Programs and Communications Manager Malcolm Tariq.

Public programs will include craft lectures delivered by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and Roger Reeves, roundtable discussions on the organization’s history, and featured readings. Presenting curatorial partners include City of Asylum and the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, who are also regular program partners in recent years.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming back Cave Canem fellows and alumni from the past 25 years as we gather to learn from each other and to celebrate our voices. We are honored to have this time to recognize the way we have brought our poems and visions together to change the face of American literature,” says President of the Board of Directors Tyehimba Jess.

Cave Canem was founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996 to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape. That year, the organization welcomed its first group of fellows to a retreat at Mount St. Alphonsus Seminary in Esopus, New York, where they convened for the first five years. The Cave Canem Retreat is currently hosted at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. Each year, hundreds of poets apply to attend the retreat. Applicants who are invited to become fellows have five years to attend the retreat three times. Since 1996, the organization has initiated nearly 500 fellows, many of whom have earned distinguished literary awards, been appointed to university professorships, and lead prestigious cultural institutions. Notable Cave Canem faculty include Nikky Finney, Chris Abani, Afaa Michael Weaver, Elizabeth Alexander, and Kevin Young. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Cave Canem offers a broad range of other literary programs including community workshops, lectures, and reading and panel series. Delivered in collaboration with five prestigious presses, its three book prizes include the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which has launched the careers of poets such as Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith who have gone on to have prominent careers and serve as U.S. Poets Laureate.

The Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion is made possible by Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Lannan Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council of the Arts, Opportunity Fund, Rona Jaffe Foundation, The Heinz Endowment, The Whiting Foundation, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, and Humanities New York with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For more information on the Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion, visit


I’ve passed down my fear
of the police to my baby boy
who always sleeps, frozen,
with his hands in the air.

Corralling around dancing
clouds, Lil’ Bo Peep’s
sheep wag their badges
behind them.

Avery Langston’s
funky cold congestion,
probable cause
he’s trafficking crack.

Lil’ Bo Peep squeezes
air out of a blue bulb
& places the tip
at my son’s left nostril;

the air coming back
pulls out nothing
but encrypted audio files
of my kisses goodnight.

Jonathan Moody’s Poets Tour Profile

Our nation’s newest holiday is indeed cause to celebrate. For many Black people, Juneteenth represents freedom at a greater depth than Independence Day. Hopefully, in times to come, it will be equally significant for non-Black people as well—the cause to celebrate freedom being yet another contribution by Black people to these very much divided United States.

Twenty-five years ago, Cave Canem was founded around a question of freedom: the freedom to express Blackness in all its individual and collective forms, unadulterated, through the medium of poetry. Since then, the public profile of Black poets has grown greater than it has ever been and the majority of those poets—National Book Award winners, schoolteachers, Pulitzer Prize winners, actors, National Book Critics’ Circle Award winners, college professors, members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, gardeners, and state poets laureate—are directly related to the organization through a variety of programs designed to support Black poets at various stages in their artistic production.

The ekphrastic exercise is certainly not new to poets in the Anglophone tradition, and the visual arts play an important role in the presentation of poetry in book form. One need only peruse the poetry shelf of their local bookstore, if it still exists, to see myriad artworks from around the world, in diverse styles, gracing the covers of this debut collection or that must-have anthology. Poets cannot get enough of the stuff; it’s like rocket fuel, launching our imaginations into the far reaches of color and composition, no matter the medium. To ask Black poets to mediate on works of their own choosing from the Museum’s vast collection, however, is risky. What might they reveal about the acquisitors of these works?


Continue Reading here on The Met Museum’s announcement.


Her huffy histrionics take no heckling, that
uppity puffed-up pastiche mishmash.
The hellion half-breed’s
hussyfooted a harvest, a windfall
ensnarled in her miscegenated sassy nappery.

Kink cringes at crumpling brush.
Friar, fire up that fryer! Boinging
sexcapades sink disheveled, so fortune’s
whorled the witching wheel for cover.

Weird women’s wires cork
a screw, spin a spell to squiggle through.
Bubbling over braided babble, trouble
frizzes furies. Frenzies scramble.

Lauren Russell’s Poets Tour Profile

Dear Cave Canem Family & Friends,

As we look toward the 25th anniversary, it is remarkable to think that Cave Canem was once just an idea of our forward-thinking founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. It has been an honor and a great joy to be part of this revolutionary experiment as a fan, fellow and, most recently, executive director. As my contract term has come to an end, I am writing to inform my Cave Canem friends and family that I will be stepping down from my position as executive director, effective Friday, June 28, 2019. While June 28th will be my last day at Cave Canem as its executive director, it will not be my last day with Cave Canem as an ardent admirer, proud graduate fellow and lifelong advocate.

During my tenure, much has been accomplished. I am proud to report that, since the start of my directorship, Cave Canem’s liquid assets have increased by more than 500%. Our organizational surplus is a major win, helping to build a cash reserve for future use, with special attention to 2021, Cave Canem’s 25th anniversary year. Other achievements include:

  • In January 2018, Cave Canem was named a recipient of Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Spark Prize, a distinction that comes with a $100,000 grant award.
  • Brooklyn Community Foundation is just one of a number of Cave Canem’s newest funders that include Amazon Literary Partnership, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, among others.
  • Cave Canem migrated to QuickBooks Online in 2017, introduced constituency management software to better understand donor insights and activity in 2018 and, last month, Cave Canem migrated to the cloud—doing away with its decades-old server system.
  • Since 2017, the organization’s social media presence has grown. Cave Canem’s Twitter following, for example, has increased from approximately 7,000 to more than 12,000 followers.
  • And, the organization’s program offerings have expanded to include one-day and weekend-long symposia, anti-oppression/social justice workshops, including anti-racism training for literary arts professionals and self-care workshops for poets of color, as well as a robust partnership with the Brooklyn Museum.

Of course, I did not achieve these accomplishments alone. These successes require dedicated staff working for a common good. Without exaggeration, Cave Canem employs the hardest working, the most passionate (and compassionate) people in the field. I am grateful for the long hours the committed Cave Canem team, comprised of Elizabeth Bryant, Natalie Desrosiers, Della Green, Zora Howard, and Isissa Komada-John, puts in day after day to ensure this home for the many voices of Black poetry.

Between now and June 28, Cave Canem remains my priority. I will do my utmost to help facilitate a smooth transition. To that end, the search for my replacement by the Cave Canem board of directors is already underway.

It has been a great joy and honor to serve you.

With so much gratitude,

Nicole Sealey
Executive Director

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram to Judge the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize


Submissions are now open for the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, to be judged by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram. The annual contest is dedicated to the discovery of exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets. The winner receives $1,000, publication by Jai-Alai Books in spring 2022, 10 copies of the chapbook, a weeklong residency at The Writer’s Room at The Betsy – South Beach, and a feature virtual reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival. Black poets are encouraged to apply by September 15. The contest is free to enter. Complete details and submission guidelines may be found here.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where they teach in and direct the UMass Boston MFA in Creative Writing Program. They also direct the Chautauqua Institution Writers’ Festival. Their most recent collection is Travesty Generator (Noemi Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Noemi Press Poetry Prize and the 2020 Poetry Society of America Anna Rabinowitz Prize, and a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Other works include Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017); a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press 2016); and But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), chosen by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award. Bertram’s honors include a 2017 Harvard University Woodberry Poetry Room Creative Grant, a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, finalist nomination for the 2013 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Cave Canem, and others. Bertram holds a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Utah, among degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize was launched in 2015 with Ross Gay’s selection of Rio Cortez’s I have learned to define a field as a space between mountains. Most recently, Mahogany L. Browne selected Wale Ayinla’s To Cast a Dream for last year’s prize.

The Board of Directors of Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., North America’s premier home for Black poetry, is pleased to announce that Lisa Willis has been appointed the organization’s Interim Executive Director. She succeeds Ann Marie Lonsdale, whose last day was May 23rd, and will serve as the organization’s Interim Executive Director until a permanent Executive Director is appointed.

Willis is a passionate artistic administrator with 20 years of extensive experience managing multi-disciplinary projects in the non-profit and commercial arts sectors. She joined Cave Canem in September 2020 as development manager and has held various consulting and management roles in development, programming, and operations for New York Live Arts, home of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Contemporaneous, Thresh, Heidi Latsky Dance, Brian Sanders’ JUNK, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the Mann and, JazzReach. In 2020 she co-founded The LynList, a curated listserv and grant writing support service for individual artists and small non-profit arts groups. Prior to her shift into fundraising she was the founding operations manager for CAMI Music, establishing and managing its daily administrative protocols in addition to overseeing the touring and managerial logistics for Lang Lang, Tan Dun, Savion Glover, American Ballet Theatre, Cirque Eloize, and the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández. 

The Board of Directors states: “We are excited to welcome Lisa Willis to the position of Interim Executive Director for Cave Canem. Her experience and leadership will build on the strong foundation paved by her predecessors and support the organization during this time of transition and growth. As Interim Executive Director, Lisa will guide our team of talented staff and continue the necessary work of executive management during our 25th anniversary year. She will continue to aid in growing the overall budget, as she has already been pivotal in developing Cave Canem’s  increased financial stability.”

Reflecting on the work ahead, Willis said: “It is an honor to be selected and trusted to carry out the role of Interim Executive Director for Cave Canem at this pivotal moment. I look forward to carrying out this position with enthusiasm and optimism, elated to be here in service of our mission. I remain committed to making a significant contribution towards securing North America’s premier home for the many voices of Black poetry.”

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 is a home for the many voices of Black poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of Black poets. It has grown from a gathering of 26 writers to an influential movement with a renowned faculty and an international fellowship of over 500. Cave Canem’s programs and publications enlarge the American literary canon; democratize archives; and expand for students, poets, and readers the notion of what’s possible and valuable in poetry. Its programs include an annual retreat, community workshops, lectures, and reading and panel series. Its three book prizes, delivered in collaboration with five prestigious presses, have launched the careers of several poets, including former U.S. Poets Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Tracey K. Smith.

This week, Cave Canem has been taking steps to ensure the safety of our staff and the poets we serve during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we have also been thinking of you: our fellows, workshop participants, supporters and lovers of poetry. With the recent shift in everyday living, it’s important to protect and stay connected with our arts community, neighbors and loved ones as best we can.

For the time being, Cave Canem is operating remotely, our public events through mid-April have been canceled and our spring workshops have transitioned to online platforms. Our staff may be reached by emailing [email protected], or by contacting the appropriate person:

Sandra Bowie, Interim Executive Director: [email protected]
Malcolm Tariq, Programs and Communications Manager: [email protected]
Natalie Desrosiers, Programs and Communications Assistant: [email protected]
Della Green, Workshops and Administrative Assistant: [email protected]

Supporting Community
Right now, we’ve all been encouraged to quarantine ourselves if we’re sick or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, and to practice social distancing to help slow the spread of the virus. In New York City where Cave Canem is based, Mayor De Blasio has closed schools for at least a month, asked New Yorkers not to travel to work and has ordered the closure of restaurants, bars and retailers to the public. This has not only resulted in worry about isolation, but many of us are out of work indefinitely or have already lost our jobs, including teaching artists, performing artists, and booksellers.

One immediate action some of us can take is to support those in our community who are financially affected by this pandemic.

Two funds recently established are the Queer Writers of Color Relief Fund, organized by Cave Canem Fellow Luther Hughes, and the Arts Leaders of Color Emergency Fund, organized by the Arts Administrators of Color Network. Please also check in with your local bookstores to see if you can purchase materials for delivery or purchase a gift certificate for later use. Charis Books & More, an independent feminist bookstore in Atlanta, is currently offering “Stay at Home” $1 shipping for orders placed online so patrons don’t have to leave their homes.

Virtual Community Writing Project
In keeping with our mission to develop Black poets and foster community, Cave Canem is offering a special initiative, Literary Balms: A Virtual Community Writing Project, throughout the next few weeks. Each Monday, you will be greeted with three writing prompts generated by Cave Canem fellows and links to poetry-related readings to be worked through at your own pace. These prompts will also be shared throughout the week on our social media platforms (FacebookInstagram and Twitter) for you to share with your networks and to hopefully spark some creative and critical engagement. We hope that this initiative will help keep writers actively involved with their writing processes and virtually connected with each other. We also hope that it provides some solace or disruption to the continuous stream of devastating and anxiety-producing news during a time when we cannot physically gather in fellowship.

More updates and information regarding the remainder of our spring programming will be included in our April newsletter. In this time of uncertainty, Cave Canem remains committed to our community of Black poets and to the literary arts. We encourage you to reach out to one another, to Cave Canem and to hold space for yourself and others in whichever ways you can. If there is a light, it certainly is in all of us.


I don’t want to be nobody’s poet-

tree no sorry song no mystery no

Billie’s blues no one drop rule no

rebel muse Stop caging me I am my

own simple selves every one and no

one you know at all

Lorelei William’s Poets Tour Profile

In this Legacy Conversation from 2001, former faculty Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez read and discuss their work with fellow Eisa Davis.

“I borrow something from Rudine Sims who said that all children, and I think all adults, as well, need mirrors and windows—mirrors in which they can see themselves; windows through which they can see the world. And everybody’s children are disadvantaged by not having that.” — Lucille Clifton

Enjoy their full conversation below.

We are excited to announce a Cave Canem and Ithaka S+R research collaboration funded by The Wallace Foundation! Ithaka S+R is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to designing and evaluating projects that make higher education, scholarship, and cultural collections more accessible to the general public. 

Our project, “Magnitude and Bond: A Field Study on Black Literary Arts Service Organizations,” will explore the organizational needs, strategies, and models that enable Black literary organizations in the United States to thrive despite adverse socioeconomic conditions. By doing so, we can tell the story of how Cave Canem and similar organizations have been instrumental in shifting the American literary and cultural landscapes and amplifying voices of the African Diaspora. 

On this occasion, Cave Canem’s Executive Director Lisa Willis offered the following words,

“Black poets and literary arts organizations have made significant contributions to the American and global cultural landscapes. Since Emancipation, communities of Black poets and writers have organized to nurture and support each other and our practices, often without the institutional support offered to other artistic disciplines and we continue to be a vital part of the arts ecosystem. Cave Canem is excited to delve into our research to understand what has made our community so resilient, and to share our findings on what is required to ensure Black literary arts service organizations survive and thrive well into the future.”

Our project will primarily focus on organizational structures, networks, funding models, and engagement strategies that foster inclusivity and empowerment. To achieve this, we will analyze and assess the strategies and tactics used by literary organizations of color through a combination of desk research, a series of in-depth interviews, and institutional data gathering.

Cave Canem Fellows Dr. Herman Beavers (1996, 1997, 1998) and Dr. Shelagh Patterson  (2002, 2003, 2005) will serve as advisors to the study. In addition, we will engage the leadership of Furious Flower, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, and The Watering Hole to provide insight and expertise rooted in our decades-long engagement with the Black literary arts community.

Ithaka S+R and Cave Canem will produce a narrative report and sustainability framework, and hold a webinar presenting our findings in the winter of 2024. 

Cave Canem is pleased to announce that Cave Canem fellow Mahogany L. Browne will judge the 2020 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, an annual prize dedicated to the discovery of exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets. This year, the entry fee for the competition will be waived for all submissions. The prize is presented in partnership with the O, Miami Poetry FestivalJai-Alai Books, and The Betsy – South Beach in Miami. Submissions will be accepted until September 15.

Mahogany L. Browne is a writer, organizer, and educator. She is the Executive Director of Bowery Poetry Club, Artistic Director of Urban Word NYC, and Poetry Coordinator at St. Francis College. She has received fellowships from Agnes Gund, Air Serenbe, Cave Canem, Poets House, Mellon Research, and Rauschenberg. Mahogany is the author of Woke: A Young Poets Call to JusticeWoke BabyBlack Girl MagicKissing Caskets, and Dear Twitter. She is the founder of the Woke Baby Book Fair, a nationwide diversity literature campaign, and as an Arts for Justice grantee, is completing her first collection of essays on mass incarceration, investigating its impact on women and children. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The winner of this year’s Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize will receive $500, publication by Jai-Alai Books in 2021, 10 copies of the chapbook, a residency in April at The Writer’s Room at The Betsy – South Beach in Miami, and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival. Previous winners include Marissa Davis, Mia S. Willis, Layla Benitez-James, Nick Makoha, and Rio Cortez.

Brooklyn, NY (24 February 2020)—The Board of Directors of Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., North America’s premier home for Black poetry, is pleased to announce that Malcolm Tariq has been appointed the organization’s next Programs and Communications Manager.

Tariq brings nearly a decade of experience in academic programs and communications, most recently at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services and The Friends School of Atlanta. His work as a researcher, teacher, nonprofit communications strategist, and programs administrator is centered on community building and social change. His creative and professional endeavors include a Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship with the National Endowment for the Humanities, a PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Education) fellowship with Imagining America, and fellowships with the University of Michigan’s Engaged Pedagogy Initiative and it’s Institute for Social Change.

The Board of Directors states: As a Cave Canem fellow and active member of the literary community, Malcolm brings a personal commitment and passion to this position and for the Black poets we serve. We are excited to have him as a vital member of the team as we approach our 25th anniversary in 2021, and look forward to growing the exceptional programming Cave Canem is known for under his leadership.

Reflecting on the work ahead, Tariq said, “I am honored to join Cave Canem as we continue to build on a rich history in serving Black poets through our innovative programs and services. As a Cave Canem fellow and a recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, I look forward to working with our community to help sustain that legacy, supporting the work and development of fellow poets, and engaging with new and old readers in profound ways.”

Malcolm Tariq is from Savannah, Georgia and is the author of Heed the Hollow (Graywolf Press), selected by Chris Abani as the winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He was a 2016-2017 Playwriting Apprentice at the Horizon Theatre Company and has been an arts writer for ArtsATL. Tariq is a graduate of Emory University and holds a PhD in English from the University of Michigan, where he was inducted into the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society.

Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem 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. Called “the major watering hole and air pocket for Black poetry” by 2011 National Book Award winner and faculty member Nikky Finney, the organization’s programs include an annual week-long retreat, three book prizes delivered in collaboration with five prestigious presses, community-based writing workshops, Legacy Conversations with distinguished Black poets and scholars, cross-cultural Poets on Craft talks with writers in mid-career, a popular lecture series, a New Works reading series, and a Poets Tour representing 70 fellows. Such pre-eminent poets as Chris Abani, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine and Natasha Trethewey number among the organization’s faculty and judges. For more information, visit

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.

For further information, please contact Sandra Bowie at [email protected]

In fall 2020, Sonjirose Chin started as a development intern at Cave Canem through her participation in the City University of New York (CUNY) Cultural Corps. The program provides internship opportunities for CUNY students to work in the New York City cultural sector, and is designed to address a lack of diversity in the cultural institutions in the City. In this interview, Poetry Coalition Fellow Christopher J. Greggs speaks with Chin about her experience working at Cave Canem as she prepares to graduate from the Borough of Manhattan Community College this spring.


It has been great to have you on our team this year working with the development team. Share with us a little about your background and how you found out about Cave Canem.
I am 20-years-old, born in NYC, a dog mom, and lover of springtime. I am a last semester student at Borough of Manhattan Community College. I found out about Cave Canem through CUNY Cultural Corps during the job fair. 

It sounds like you had a lot of choices when it came to potential internships. Why did you want to intern with us?
I was instantly attracted to the logo, and I believe I saw Cave Canem before on books in passing. Once I was interviewed and the company’s ethos was explained to me, I knew it was the perfect fit for me.

Oh, wow! What experiences and/or connections do you have with Black Poetry?
My experiences with Black poetry are with my older sisters. They both wrote poems in their youth, and I was exposed to poetry and literature at a young age. In high school, I wrote my own poems, with some focusing on my experiences as a bisexual Afro-Asian woman. 

I’m always curious how people find their way to poetry. Who are five of your favorite poets? Can you share a poem you have been living with recently?
Some of my favorite poets are Rupi Kaur, Halsey, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Recently, a poem that has been close to me is “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran. My nieces are visiting and remembering they are their own persons; this poem embodies that. That children will have their own ideas and lives, that will not always be similar to my own and I find that so exciting! My nieces are such wonderful little beings, and I can’t wait to see who they are once they start understanding themselves more. 

That’s so thoughtful! I have to check out that poem. So, this year has been virtual of course. I’m curious. What has your experience been like at Cave Canem? What have you learned?
I have learned about balancing time management: the importance of setting time aside for work but also rest. Also being a part of a team that looks like me and cares so deeply about one another and the community they represent. I learned that my well-being comes first and with that I’ll be able to do my best when it comes to the work I produce. 

You’re interning with Development Manager Lisa Willis and Development Coordinator Natalie Desrosiers. What did you learn about the role development plays in cultural non-profits?
I learned nothing happens without development. From brainstorming, pre-planning, to actually planning—so much work goes into it! I had to look at everything from a coordinator’s perspective, and now I understand so much more as a consumer.

How do you see your internship at Cave Canem contributing to your life goals?
I see Cave Cave contributing to my life goals of understanding another sector of the workforce. I never had any experience in the nonprofit field before, but this internship has given me so much insight in event planning, searching for sponsors, communicating with diverse professionals, and so much more. As I continue on in my career and academics, I will use the knowledge gained during my time here! 

So, what’s next for you?
I am graduating this semester with my Associates in psychology! I am hoping to transfer to NYU Gallatin in media psychology. But for the immediate future, spend the summer with friends and travel locally. 

Aye! Congrats, Sonji! We’re so happy for you. I know that the pandemic must have added all kinds of pressures to that achievement. On a personal note, I wanted to share that it was wonderful to work with you and benefit from your contributions to our team. I admired your empathy and intersectional approach to the work we do to uplift Black poets. I know that wherever your journey takes you will be bettered by your spirit and perspective.


Sonjirose Chin was raised in Williamstown, NJ and now resides in New York City. She studies psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and hopes to attend New York University’s Gallatin School to study media psychology with a focus on Black women’s sexuality in relation to the media. Outside of academics, she loves day trips with friends, walking her dogs, reading, discussing philosophy, photography, and attending concerts. 

Christopher J. Greggs is a poet, designer, and recording artist living in Jersey City, NJ. He is a Cave Canem, Tin House, Callaloo, and Watering Hole Poetry fellow and is the recipient of the 2020-2021 Cave Canem Poetry Coalition Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as TriQuarterly, Winter Tangerine, Texas Review, and This Is What America Looks Like: The Washington Writers’ Publishing House Anthology, among others. He earned his MFA in Poetry from The University of Wisconsin-Madison. His debut EP Change Mah Name is streaming on all platforms. @mynameisgreggs @nameyourworld. His interview with actor/director Sonja Sohn can be found in the great weather for MEDIA anthology Suitcase of Chrysanthemums


Alt Text: Black and white profile headshot of Merideth Nnoka. She is wearing dark-frame glasses and metallic hoop earrings. She has dark curly hair and is smiling. She is looking to the right off camera. 

We are honored to announce that Herman Beavers has selected Meredith Nnoka as the winner of the 2022 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Cave Canem Chapbook Prize. Nnoka will receive $1,000, publication by O, Miami Books, ten copies of the chapbook, a residency at The Writer’s Room at The Betsy Hotel in Miami, and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival in April. 

Beavers and Nnoka will feature in a virtual reading on April 24, 2023,  from  7:00 p.m – 8:00 p.m. (ET).

RSVP here.

Since 2015, Cave Canem has collaborated with O, Miami to spotlight exceptional chapbook-length manuscripts by Black poets. Previous judges were: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram; Mahogany L. Browne; Ross Gay; Major Jackson; Robin Coste Lewis; Dawn Lundy Martin; and Danez Smith.

Meredith Nnoka is a Chicago-based writer, educator, and prison abolitionist. She has a BA from Smith College and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both in Africana studies. Twice nominated for Best of the Net, her poems have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Four Way Review, Diode Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches poetry at a prison outside of Chicago and serves as program lead for Illinois’s annual Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards. Meredith’s first chapbook, A Hunger Called Music: A Verse History of Black Music, is available from C&R Press.

About the Judge

Herman Beavers is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program and offers an arts-based community service course that brings students together with Philadelphia residents. Beavers’ poems have appeared in The Langston Hughes Colloquy, MELUS, Versadelphia, Cleaver Magazine, The American Arts Quarterly, and Supplement. His fiction has appeared in the Best Philadelphia Stories. His poems have been anthologized in Obsession: Sestinas for the Twenty-First Century, Remembering Gwen, Who Will Speak for America, and Show Us Your Papers. Beavers is the author of Obsidian Blues (a chapbook), Geography and the Political Imaginary in the Novels of Toni Morrison, and The Vernell Poems. He is collaborating with saxophonists Odean Pope and Immanuel Wilkins to develop a series of jazz compositions based on his sonnet cycle, “Progressions,” in a project titled “Re-Sounding Progressions.” He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Lisa.

This program is supported, in part, by Amazon Literary Partnership Poetry Fund in partnership with the Academy of American Poets; Consolidated Edison Company of New York; National Endowment for the Arts; and New York State Council on the Arts. Co-presented by O, Miami, and the Betsy Hotel.

Cave Canem is grateful to our community of institutional supporters. Thank you for your belief in the mission to cultivate the artistic and professional growth of Black poets!

Dear Cave Canem Community,

Many of us are hurting right now. From where I am in New Orleans, I can hear the outrage of many communities across the country. I can feel the sadness. And I can relate to the pain from hearing the names of so many Black people murdered at the hands of the police and the state. It is Black poets whom I trust will charge us to know that these police officers and the culture that sanctions their actions should be held accountable. It is also Black poets whom I trust to care for each other during these uncertain and frightening times. As we know well in the Cave Canem community, it is important to say the names of those we lost because that is what will move us forward. The memories of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor shall not be forgotten, and it is also heartbreaking to know there are so many others.

The issues that perpetuate the execution of Black lives are deeply rooted in systemic white supremacy that is so ingrained in our culture. While dismantling that house may seem daunting, remember that Black artists help define movements by memorializing and inspiring people across the world to understand how and why change is possible. There is room for all of us. As Gwendolyn Brooks reminds us in “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”: 

“It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.

Nevertheless, live.

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”

Black poets are some of the few people on this earth who carry the total and deep visceral memory of what has happened to us for these hundreds of years. We carry it from our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, and all those before. We are the ones who have within us the power of memory, of language and feelings. We have the sensibility to transform all of that pain and triumph into the beauty of poetry. What a great gift to us, to those suffering today, and to those in our past! What a great work for us to do! This is painful and terrible work, hard work, joyous work! I have such faith in your ability to do it. Knowing the capabilities you have for understanding, for studying, for feeling, for going where you have to go and finding that leap in imagination to beauty, I feel hope in despair. I feel through the chord and cord that connects us to the possibility for change. 

There are several local bail funds and mutual aid funds that are accepting contributions to help protest efforts and communities simultaneously affected by racial violence and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I urge you to also learn about and listen to your mental health needswe all have them. Here are some places to start with that:

Where to Donate & Find Mental Health Resources Related to the George Floyd Protests

The Safe Place: A Mental Health App for African Americans

Talking About Race: Self-Care

7 Virtual Mental Health Resources Supporting Black People Right Now

May we remember who we love during these hard times and find comfort and joy in our work.

Much love to all,
Toi Derricotte
Co-founder, Cave Canem

Throughout National Poetry Month, Cave Canem has been providing writing weekly prompts generated by some of our fellows, as well as reading recommendations for those who are not writers. This project,
Literary Balms, is only one way we’ve been engaging with poetry during this special month. As always, our staff has also been discovering new books and returning to old favorites. Here is a list of what we’ve been getting into this month, with hopes that this glimpse into our reading practices inspires you to find new reads for the months ahead. 


Natalie Desrosiers
Programs & Communications Assistant

  • Woodie King and Earl (editors), Black Poets and Prophets: A Bold, Uncompromisingly Clear Blueprint for Black Liberation (New American Library, 1972)

National Poetry Month encourages me to not only read poetry, but to read about poets, their lives and political thought, all of which inform their work. I’ve enjoyed returning to this collection of essays written by Black thinkers and writers of all genres who offer important frameworks for thinking about Black art, literature and freedom, however contested. This book reminds me of the importance of reading poetry through its historical and theoretical contexts. I especially appreciate the opening essay by Frantz Fanon, who often employs a literary style of writing, and an essay by C.L.R James, who is often forgotten as a playwright and fiction writer. It’s a stimulating and critical read that affirms the power of the languages and literatures to raise our political consciousness and guide us toward a freer world.


Della Green
Workshops and Administrative Assistant

  • Nikki Giovanni, My House (William Morrow, 1972)
  • Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi (editors), Women Poets of Japan, (New Directions, 1982)

Women Poets of Japan and My House by Nikki Giovanni both have poems that deal with the political implications of daily observations and intimate moments. It’s beautiful and grounding to read work from other wome