Poets sing their songs in spite of resounding echoes of indifference. Combine a poet's sometimes hidden voice with already marginalized status and the result is a well-honed secret, a coded music of triumph filtered through despair. What better way for poets to take the edge off the solitary nature of their craft than to band together, share work, share ideas and create a safe space for new work and new voices? Cave Canem (Latin for "beware of the dog"), co-founded by ***image1***Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte a decade ago, sets out to do precisely this, specifically for African-American poets.
Five of Cave Canem's members share their work in Santa Fe courtesy of the Lannan Foundation's Readings and Conversations series. In a departure from the usual format for these evenings, the poets have the stage to themselves rather than being joined by an interlocutor. Eady and Derricotte are in attendance, as are Terrance Hayes, Frank X Walker and Patricia Smith. Collectively, the poets epitomize both Cave Canem's success and the vast range of styles and aesthetic approaches in the current African-American literary scene and, more broadly, the American literary scene.
Smith is most known for slam poetry, the rough and tumble form that brings the page alive onstage. Her energetic innovations in performance poetry helped define a vital, immediate, layered and moving slam style for an entire generation. Smith is a four-time winner of the National Grand Slam poetry competition, and she appeared in season two of HBO's acclaimed Def Poetry Jam; Santa Feans who have headed north for the Taos Poetry Circus have witnessed the simultaneously incendiary and tender honesty of her performances.
Performance and poetry also marry in recent work by visiting professor of poetry at City College of New York, Cornelius Eady. His texts, in conjunction with the music of legendary jazz cellist Diedre Murray (who added rich textures to Henry Threadgill's sextet recordings in the late 1980s), mark the emergence of a new African-American musical theater, with works such as You Don't Miss Your Water, Running Man, Fangs and Brutal Imagination staged in New York. Eady unabashedly engages thorny themes in his work. In Brutal Imagination, for example, he captures aspects of the white imagination's depiction of African-Americans, drawing largely on the astonishing case of Susan Smith, the white woman in South Carolina who murdered her two sons and invented an imaginary African-American carjacker as the perpetrator.
Derricotte (who, like Eady, has a list of awards, fellowships and publications several miles long) is similarly suspicious of the myth of color-blind America. Derricotte comes at her own ***image2***awareness of truth versus fiction from two ironically painful perspectives: having been born both middle class and light skinned. What appears to be privilege or advantage ends up as neither; in her 1999 book Black Notebooks, she says, "My skin causes certain problems continuously, problems that open the issue of racism over and over like a wound." Or, put more succinctly, "Racism does funny things to mirrors." Yet Derricotte's voice is known for incisive wit, heart-stopping turns of phrase, complex layers and resonance.
Poets Hayes and Walker further mark this landmark event. Hayes' latest collection, Wind in a Box, is his third full-length book of poems, following the award-winning Muscular Music and Hip Logic. Walker is not only a Cave Canem member but is also co-founder of another organization designed to provide support for writers, the Affrilachian Poets.
With poetry shaped from introspective recollection and longing, ranging to songs jagged, arch and in your face, Lannan's Cave Canem evening promises to be a one-of-a-kind event.