Cave Canem South: Reflections of Black Literary Activism

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.”