CMU poetry professor Terrance Hayes remembers discussing Cave Canem with Amiri Baraka, considered the first last poet before the recording artists The Last Poets and a pope, of sorts, to black poets internationally. Years ago, Hayes, as a Pitt grad student, helped English professor Toi Derricotte with producing the prestigious Cave Canem program that provides artistic and professional development for aspiring black poets.
You'd think Baraka would have been delighted, knowing there existed a vessel like this for training the next generation of Jedi-Etheridge Knights.
"No, he was doggin' them, though," says Hayes, laughing about it. "He's like, 'What's up with that Latin name?' and saying it was just a bunch of seditty Negroes."
Baraka likely was speaking from the perspective of the Black Arts Movement of the late '60s and '70s in which poets were bred from the community and the corners -- roses grown from the concrete, as rapper Tupac Shakur once put it. Last year Cave Canem's summer workshop retreat landed 50 fellows, 60 percent of whom identified themselves as professors, instructors or educators; 70 percent had obtained or were studying for their master's degree and/or Ph.D.
Maybe the event is too academic for Baraka's tastes, but for serious black writers looking to improve upon the legacies of Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni and other giant black poet fore-parents, the choice selection of participants at Cave Canem -- Latin for "beware of the dog" -- only proves that they mean business. It ain't open mike at the Apollo.
Though "it could have easily become that -- something for uppity Negroes," says Hayes. "They've kept it diverse, truly reflecting the richness of our community as poets."
The faculty this year -- the program's tenth -- includes Cyrus Cassells from Texas, whose erudite and romantic glossolalia is neither for brutes nor dummies; Ghana- and Jamaica-raised Kwame Dawes, whose poems carry Afro-Caribbean vibrations; Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate and a distinct messenger of wise-quality, formalist writing; and C.S. Giscombe, from Penn State, who encompasses all of the free-spirited musical counter-reckoning of Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra.
Most important, though, says Hayes, are the kinship and connections created. Cave Canem is where Hayes met his wife, Yona, who also teaches writing at CMU. When mentioning names of fellows who've passed through Cave Canem, Hayes recognizes most of them instantly.
Says Hayes, "It's just indicative of the kinds of friendships and lifelong relationships that are formed there."