Biography of Toi Derricotte
Toi Derricotte (pronounced DARE-ah-cot ) is an American poet and a professor of writing at University of Pittsburgh.
At Wayne State University she earned a B.A. in 1965 and an M.A. in 1984 at New York University in English literature.
Derricotte was born the daughter of Antonia Baquet, a Creole from Louisiana, and Benjamin Sweeney Webster, a Kentucky native, and later half-sister to Benjamin, Jr. At around ten or eleven years old, she began a secret journal that included, among other things, the disintegration of her parents' marriage and the death of her grandmother on whom she was very emotionally dependent. During her years at Detroit's Girls Catholic Central High School, Derricotte recounts a religious education that she felt was steeped in images of death and punishment, a Catholicism that, according to the poet, morbidly paraded "the crucifixion, saints, martyrs in the Old Testament and the prayers of the Mass." Coupled with these images were Derricotte's surreal reminiscences of childhood visits to her paternal grandparents' home, the bottom part of which served as a funeral parlor where bodies were prepared for viewing. Often she would stay overnight at her grandparents', where, unafraid, she would "pray over the bodies … especially … disturbed when young people died, children, babies."
Her first attempt at sharing her poems with others came when, at fifteen, she visited a cousin, a medical school student who was then taking an embryology class. Encouraged by a trip they took to the Chicago Museum to see fetuses and embryos at various stages of development, Derricotte, who was careful not to show her poems to her parents who never "even alluded to babies before birth ... [or] talked to [her] about sex," anxiously showed them to this cousin who pronounced them "sick, morbid." Faced with this unexpected rebuff, Derricotte remembers being faced with several choices: "I could have said something is wrong with me and stopped writing, or I could have continued to write, but written about the things I knew would be acceptable, or I could go back underground." For Derricotte, the choice was obvious: rather than risk ostracism for openly writing about the forbidden, she opted "to go back underground."
In 1959 Derricotte graduated from Girls Catholic Central and enrolled that autumn in Wayne State University as a special education major. In 1962, her junior year at Wayne State, she gave birth to a son in a home for unwed mothers. This act of rebellion was but a presage of things to come, as Derricotte, after graduating in 1965, left Detroit for the East Coast. Her move to New York City in 1967 was a momentous one, for it was here among white, mostly female intellectuals that Derricotte's poetic voice resurfaced. Unlike the African American poets of the Black Arts Movement, many of whom heeded Amiri Baraka's call for an artistic expression that was decidedly black nationalist, proletarian, and accessible, Derricotte wrote, instead, deeply personal, troubling, often difficult poems that talked more of black families haunted by gender oppression and familial strife than of Black Power and racial solidarity.
Having "paid her dues" as a student in numerous workshops where she endured the canon's litany of dead and near-dead white male poets like Matthew Arnold, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Lowell, often as the only black student, Derricotte first published in a "major" magazine, the New York Quarterly, in the fall of 1972. Her literary reputation and publications flourished, culminating in her first book, The Empress of the Death House, published in 1978 by Lotus Press. Derricotte's second book, Natural Birth, was published in 1983 by The Crossing Press. Her third book, Captivity, first published in 1989 by University of Pittsburgh Press, has enjoyed second (1991) and third (1993) printings. In 1996, Norton Publishing Company accepted for publication Derricotte's The Black Notebooks, a book she began in 1974 when her family became one of the first black families to move into Upper Montcair, New Jersey.
In Derricotte's poetry, the taboo, the restricted, and the repressed figure prominently; they are often the catalysts that prompt her to write, to confess the painful. Often stylistically compared to so-called confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Derricotte, in opting for candor over decorum, wants her "work to be a wedge into the world, as what is real and not what people want to hear." This self-dubbed "white-appearing Black person," reared as a Catholic in a black, working-class Detroit community, complicates the myth of monolithic blackness with poems that speak into consciousness obscure, unconventional black bodies. And in an academy whose poststructuralist theories often either depersonalize bodies with esoteric discourse or overemphasize them with hyperbolic identity politics, Toi Derricotte's poems brave the charged, murky depths of much current poetry, stamping the language with her own complex, quirky vision.
She is currently a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem Foundation, a summer workshop for African American poets.
Toi Derricotte's Works:
Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade, (co-editor with Cornelius Eady), fiction and poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006)
Tender, poetry (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press,1997)
The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, memoir (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997)
Captivity, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990)
Natural Birth, (Ann Arbor: Firebrand Books, 1983)
The Empress of the Death House, poetry (New York:Lotus Press, 1978)
Works about Derricotte
The Image and Identity of the Black Woman in the Poetry and Prose of Toi Derricotte by Dufer, Miriam D., MA.
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Toi Derricotte Poems
That time my grandmother dragged me through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up by my arm, hissing, "Stand up," through clenched teeth, her eyes
They told my cousin Rowena not to marry Calvin―she was too young, just eighteen, & he was too dark, too too dark, as if he had been washed in what we wanted
From A Letter: About Snow
I am at a retreat house, and the nun who runs the house told me to look at my face in the mirror.
Those huge platters on their heads on which everything is placed accurately, each small red pepper, prawn, each orange―each arranged in piles so tall they defy gravity―
For Black Women Who Are Afraid
A black woman comes up to me at break in the writing workshop and reads me her poem, but she says she can't read it out loud because there's a woman in a car on her way
A Note On My Son's Face
Tonight, I look, thunderstruck at the gold head of my grandchild. Almost asleep, he buries his feet
Elegy For My Husband
What was there is no longer there: Not the blood running its wires of flame through the whole length Not the memories, the texts written in the language of the flat hills No, not the memories, the porch swing and the father crying
Black Boys Play the Classics
The most popular "act" in Penn Station is the three black kids in ratty sneakers & T-shirts playing
from Burial Sites
The first was a bassinet. I don't remember what it was made of; I think it was one of those big white wicker baskets with wheels. When I couldn't sleep at night, my father would drag it into the kitchen.
Those huge platters on their heads on which everything
is placed accurately, each small red pepper,
prawn, each orange―each arranged in piles so tall they defy gravity―
avocados, crabs, dried fish of silverish brown,
or one great yam, thirty pounds, dirt brushed,
counterbalanced in a kind of aquarium.
A woman approves me with a fluent grin
and offers her light basket for my head;
I walk a yard, tottering awkwardly.