Born Toinette Webster, 12 April 1941, Hamtramck, Michigan
Daughter of Benjamin S. and Antonia Baquet Webster; married C. Bruce Derricotte, 1964; children: Anthony
In 1983, having published two books of poetry and more than 200 poems and several articles in periodicals and anthologies, given countless readings, and conducted numerous seminars for students of all ages, Toi Derricotte remarked, "I want my work to be a wedge into the world, as what is real and not what people want to hear." In 1991 she flatly declared, "Definitely my teaching and writing is about making change," yet in a "Letter to an Editor Who Wants to Publish a Black Writer" she said, "To be published as a woman of color makes me fear I will be ignored by most white people, treated as if I don't exist" (Callaloo).
Happily, Derricotte has been far from ignored and her writing acknowledged as much too compelling to be treated as if it does not exist. Publishing widely in journals and anthologies, she was recognized by Maxine Kumin as a poet who "transforms the raw stuff of experience into a language we can all treasure and continue to draw on." The Village Voice's review of Captivity (1989), her boldest examination of contemporary black female experience, proclaimed it an "outstanding example of personal exploration yielding truths that apply to all of us—if we admit them." An African American feminist poet, Derricotte speaks from a position particularly attuned to American culture's racism and sexism. Yet in doing so, she speaks to men as well as to women, to whites as well as to blacks; indeed, the profound paradox in Derricotte's work is that by repeatedly examining states of poverty, abuse, motherhood, and sexual pleasure that could only be known by women, she manages also to explore experiences of fear, pain, struggle, and ecstasy common to people of all races, sexes, nations, and creeds.
At twenty-one Derricotte was sent to a home for unwed mothers to bear a son; 17 years later she wrote a book of poems about this experience, Natural Birth (1983). After receiving her B.A. in special education in 1965 from Wayne State University in Detroit and marrying Bruce Derricotte, she moved to New York City. There she continued her education by participating in numerous writers' workshops and by studying English literature and creative writing at New York University (M.A. 1984). An associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh since 1991, she was a visiting professor of creative writing at NYU in 1992. Derricotte lived for nearly two decades in New Jersey before moving to Maryland in 1986. Between 1974 and 1991, she held diverse teaching positions, including Poet-in-the-School in both New Jersey (1974-88) and Maryland (1987-88), writer-inresidence for Cummington Community and School of the Arts (1986), associate professor of English literature at Old Dominion University (1988-90), and Commonwealth Professor of English at George Mason University (1990-91). Derricotte is currently an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
Among Derricotte's awards are first prizes from the Academy of American Poets in 1974 and 1978, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1985, National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1985 and 1990, a Pushcart Prize in 1989, a Nicholas Roerich Poets' Prize nomination in 1990, a Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts award in 1993, and the 1998 Paterson Prize for poetry. She has also contributed to various anthologies and numerous periodicals, including Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, and Feminist Studies. Derricotte served as a member of the editorial staff of the New York Quarterly from 1973 to 1977 and cofounded Cave Canem, a summer workshop retreat for African American poets, in 1996.
Since her first book in 1978, Derricotte has courageously examined the powers and influences, agonies and ecstasies of family relations. Dedicated to a grandmother who owned a funeral home and who never offered her Cadillac Fleetwood to drive her granddaughter and daughter-in-law home after their weekly visits, Empress of the Death House (1978) does more than relay the pathos of mother and daughter always being forced to take the bus and to remember their lower status. In this book, formal experimentations abound—"disappeared" punctuation, radically staggered lines, stanzas of varying and unpredictable length, ampersands and abbreviations employed for suggestively casual diction ("yr"), capitalization used only for emphasis. These disruptive techniques complement the volume's forbidden topics—deep and abiding anger toward the family all black women are expected to protect and raw articulations of being hurt and stifled by one's own people.
Natural Birth explores subjects considered too "low" and socially transgressive for poetry—childbirth and an unwed mother's responses to being hidden away from public knowledge in a special home, to being pummeled by an impatient doctor's procedure, and to being separated from the life her womb had protected for nine months. Though she incorporates the period into her technique much more frequently than before, Derricotte uses italics, prose segments, staggered and rhythmically commanding schemes for lineation, and titles underscoring conflations of objective and subjective time so readers are reminded that meanings are never simply a matter of word choice. When she reads from this collection, the texts are transformed into rocking, rolling, rhythmic, erotic performances. Through her near ecstatic readings, Derricotte implicitly reminds her audience of the truth of the situation: what is un natural is not the birth out of wedlock but society's systematically abetted brutal, slashing response to it.
In Captivity, Derricotte speculates more boldly on the debilitating effects of a perpetually powerless status. Though her technique is somewhat more conventional than in the previous two volumes, prose segments, arresting lineation, and unpredictable stanzaic division still underscore subject matter that is even more unconventional. In the prose poem "Abuse," Derricotte portrays a daughter seeking maternal protection by speaking out about abuse by the janitor and abuse by "Daddy." "Mama" seeks to fend off consciousness, responding: "Don't tell me that, you /make me suffer." "On the Turning up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses," a nine-stanza poem of regular, never disrupted four-line stanzas, mirrors "Mama's" attitude of desperate resignation.
Poignantly, Derricotte's most radical subject is examined in the most formally regularized poem, as if to emphasize the fact that the victims are held captive even in death, where they are scrutinized anonymously and only within the confines of the television. Yet this poem's speaker dares to ask the type of question "Mama" refuses her battered little girl: "Am I wrong to think /if five white women had been stripped, /broken, the sirens would wail until /someone was named?" The speaking of lost lives long overlooked, their tragedies denied, is equated with exhuming those rendered a "living dead" through neglect.
Tender (1997), Derricotte's fourth book of poetry, is divided into seven sections on topics ranging from the violence of slavery to contemporary domestic violence. The title poem serves as a hub from which each section radiates as Derricotte explores how violence destroys mind, body, and spirit. Derricotte, a self-described "white-appearing Black person," focuses largely on the varied identities a woman takes on through her roles as wife, mother, sister, and daughter, and how each of these identities can lead to violent outcomes. The psychology of race and gender also comes into play as Derricotte's poetry speaks of what it means to pass for white in today's society.
Derricotte's racial identity forms the core of The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (1997), which contains excerpts from the journals she kept following her 1974 move to an all-white upper-neighborhood in New Jersey. She expresses both her pride in her blackness and her shame and self-hatred in allowing others to think her white in passages like the following: "All my life I have passed invisibly into the white world, and all my life I have felt that sudden and alarming moment of consciousness there, of remembering I am black."
Derricotte unflinchingly reveals the emotional turmoil caused by the constant internal struggle over her identity. She describes the ways in which her ambivalent appearance affected every aspect of her life, from riding in a cab to her relationship with her husband. The deeply intimate and impassioned journal entries that make up The Black Notebooks are by turns moving, hilarious, and painful. Derricotte won several awards for The Black Notebooks, including the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the 1998 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award for nonfiction.
Tackling bloody, bruising, and bruised subjects in her poetry, Derricotte launches complex and caring critiques of American society in her persistent poetic attention to lives of disenfranchised African American women. In doing so, she forces readers to grapple with her contention, proclaimed in her 1991 Callaloo interview, that "a lot of what doesn't get talked about gets translated into violence—racism, sexism—and gets worked out in families as physical and emotional abuse." She still believes "we are prisoners of what we don't know, of what we don't acknowledge, what we don't bring out, what we aren't conscious of, deny." And thus Derricotte has dedicated her formidable talents to producing poetic work that is indisputably "a wedge into the world."
Creative Writing: A Manual for Teachers (with Madeline Tyger,1985).
CA (1985). CANR (1991). Oxford Companion to African-American Literature (1997). WW Among African Americans, 1998-1999 (1997). WW of Writers, Editors and Poets (1989).
Other references: Callaloo (1991). Ikon (1986). Kenyon Review (1991). Paris Review (1992).
—MARTHA NELL SMITH
UPDATED BY LEAH J. SPARKS