The poet Cornelius Eady took out his phone the other day and clicked to a black-and-white group photo that was taken 43 summers ago when he was a fellow at Bread Loaf, the famous writers’ retreat held each year in Vermont. Eady is easy to spot — he is the only Black person in the picture.
This was not at all unusual for a writers’ retreat in 1980. In fact, it’s not all that unusual at many writers’ retreats 43 years later.
But the fact didn’t sit well with him.
It was a little over a decade later, when Eady was invited to teach at a different retreat, that he met Toi Derricotte, a fellow teacher. She, too, had often been the only Black poet in the room at such gatherings. When they began talking, they discovered that they both shared the same wish: to create a program specifically for Black poets.
“It started as a conversation,” Derricotte said. “We both had a —”
“A recognition,” Eady finished. “I thought, ‘My partner in crime has arrived.’”
In 1996 they founded their own collective, Cave Canem, which holds weeklong annual retreats, prizes and fellowships to help foster the growth of Black poets. Since then they have played a role in developing the voices and careers of some of the greatest poets of the 21st century.
If that sounds grand, consider the receipts: Two U.S. poet laureates (Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Trethewey). Six Pulitzer Prize winners (Carl Phillips, Jericho Brown, Tyehimba Jess, Gregory Pardlo, along with Smith and Trethewey). Five National Book Award winners. Three MacArthur “genius” grant winners. Twenty-four Guggenheim fellows. Six American Book Award winners.
And the list keeps going, with former Cave Canem fellows or faculty members serving as poet laureates of cities and states and, in the case of Mahogany L. Browne, as the first-ever poet in residence at Lincoln Center.
“Have you ever felt the spirit move through the room and sit next to you in your chair?” Browne wrote when asked to describe her time there. “That’s what fellowship within Cave Canem’s home feels like.”
That feeling was exactly what Derricotte and Eady were going for.
The name of the group came from a trip that Derricotte, Eady and his wife, the novelist Sarah Micklem, made to Pompeii. There they visited the House of the Tragic Poet, where they were taken by a mosaic of a black dog on a leash with the words ‘cave canem’ — beware of the dog. They agreed then and there that they had found their name.
The first Cave Canem retreat in 1996 gathered about two dozen young writers for a week in a former monastery in upstate New York. The retreats, which are now held at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg campus, have earned an exacting reputation.
“You are in a crucible,” said Dante Micheaux, director of programs at Cave Canem. “A creative crucible.”
Fellows arrive on Sunday. Their first poem is due early Monday morning. And poems are expected almost every morning. (They can skip Thursday to participate in a reading with City of Asylum, a sanctuary in Pittsburgh for writers in exile.)
Fellows are in workshops all morning, break for lunch and then go back into workshops all afternoon. “It’s pretty intense,” Micheaux said.
Jess, the Pulitzer-winning poet who is now the president of Cave Canem’s board of directors, recalled heading to the retreat in 1997 and meeting “two cats on the train” — John Keene (a 2018 MacArthur fellow) and Reginald Harris (a Pushcart Prize nominee).
Jess thought that he had seen and heard a lot coming from the slam poetry world. But then one fellow shared his work at the retreat. Then another read. And another.
“The more people got up, the more I realized how much I had to learn,” he said.
Kyle Dargan, a Cave Canem fellow in the2000s, remembered playing basketball with Terrance Hayes (who won the 2010 National Book Award), and soaking up time with his teachers, including Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate and 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner who was a guest poet in 2006. “You get to have intimate time with greats in the literary world,” he said.
The group now receives over 450 applications each year for about 15 spots.
Those who are accepted attend the retreat for three years, so each one has a mix of first-, second- and third-year fellows, which helps to bring together a range of generations and work experiences. Micheaux recalled one year when the youngest fellow was in his late teens, and the oldest in her early 90s.
Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a founding faculty member at Cave Canem and has since served as a teacher, board member and adviser. “Cave Canem is the organization dearest to my heart,” she said.
She recalled that when she first got the call from Derricotte and Eady to teach, they said that they couldn’t pay her. Her response: “So?”
Alexander said it was well worth it for “the opportunity to be in community with ourselves.” She noted that just as the fellows were excited to be in a writer’s space that wasn’t predominantly white, the same was true for the faculty. “As a teacher, I was not the only one, either,” she said.
Ultimately each fellow only gets 21 days, spread over three years. But those 21 days have changed lives, and have helped to change the face of American poetry.
“It was so deeply refreshing to be in a place where you were able to explore the boundaries of yourself as both a human and a writer,” said Clint Smith, the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, who was a 2016 Cave Canem fellow. “They push you, and they hold you. You are challenged, but in love.”
This fall the group celebrated Ariana Benson, 26, the most recent winner of the Cave Canem Prize, which honors exceptional first books. She read from her book, “Black Pastoral,” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Benson says it was the poet Patricia Smith, a Cave Canem faculty alumna, who suggested that she apply for the prize. “I’ve experienced the reach of it,” Benson said of the group. “It’s a network of people, it’s a dynamic, it’s us. It means a lot.”
So will it last? Eady is 69 now; Derricotte is 82. They have largely left the teaching and administration of the group to others.
But both are optimistic that their experiment will go on.
“The need is still there,” Derricotte said. “The desire is still there.”