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Cave Canem offers black poets a place to hone their craft

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Cornelius Eady, a visiting professor of poetry at City College of New York, is resting behind his desk at the tail end of class. Students are gathering their things and streaming out the door, except for one who lags behind with a hurt look on her face and a string of questions that Eady doesn't know how to answer.

"What's wrong with me? Why doesn't anyone understand my work?"

She's one of the very few black students Eady has ever seen pass through the poetry program, and after he struggles to comfort her, he'll write a poem about their conversation titled, aptly enough, "Why So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing."

So when Toi Derricotte, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, shared with Eady (and his wife, Sarah Micklem) her dream of creating a summer retreat and workshop for struggling black poets, they knew exactly where she was coming from.

Nearly seven years later, Cave Canem (pronounced Kah-veh Kah-nimh) is still cranking out annual workshops, regional retreats and a series of highly regarded readings in clubs and cafés across the country, all of which are playing an important role in what many think is slowly becoming a new American poetry renaissance.

Even more important, says Sarah's mother and Cave Canem director Carolyn Micklem, is the transformation in the roughly 150 artists who've passed through its cloistered, intimate programs.

"Toi and Cornelius were really amazed the first year," says Micklem. "It's like a spigot was turned on, and this enormous gush of emotion came through. People were laughing and crying."

Cave Canem participants, who go through a screening process before being invited to one of the weeklong annual workshops (which take place at various locations around the country) have been just as generous with praise for the community that has forced them to grow creatively and emotionally.

"From the very first night that I arrived, my experiences at Cave Canem indicated that I was entering a group of poets who would have a profound impact on my life," writes one participant. "I discovered that we never had encountered an environment where we felt our work was appreciated and critiqued on its face as real poetry, and not pigeonholed or dismissed as the work of marginalized individuals."

And that's probably Cave Canem's most important contribution to both the poets who've studied with them, and the readers who've benefited from their output: Many of these artists had never considered the idea that maybe they weren't so different, after all.

"I think [Cave Canem] will change the face of black poetry," says Micklem, who believes that the nonprofit organization is also acting as a sort of outreach opportunity, letting other minority poets know that they're not alone. The effort seems to be working. This year, for instance, 160 poets applied for a spot at the retreat to be held in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, but only 30 were accepted. In years past, they've welcomed as few as 17.

The retreats themselves, not surprisingly, are anything but a vacation. Many faculty members are widely published professors and Cave Canem even counts Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa among its ranks.

"There's a very strong emphasis on the work," says Micklem. "People have to perform. But the culture of Cave Canem is such an important thing, so talking goes on day and night."

And because Cave Canem wants to foster an ongoing sense of community long after the workshop or the retreat is over, fellows are invited to return for a second and third year. Part of the group's mission, as Micklem explains it, is to foster not only the artistic, but also the professional development of emerging African-American poets, and those who've had the opportunity to make Cave Canem an annual experience have gained success and confidence.

"I don't think I had the courage to submit [poems] at all before I came to Cave Canem," writes a former fellow. "I had [work in] a few publications but I only submitted because someone else told me to."

This Thursday at the Andy Warhol Museum, co-founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady will be reading original work along with Terrance Hayes, who teaches at CMU, and Pitt faculty member Marilyn Nelson, who has won a number of awards for her sixth book, "Carver: a Life in Poems."

Nearly everyone involved with Cave Canem, however, is quick to point out that there's really no such genre as "black poetry."

"That's the thing they love about [the retreats]," Micklem explains. "Because of course there is no one style among African-American poets. Cave Canem readings are not dull."

Perhaps Jarvis DeBerry, a 2001-2002 attendee, and a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, put it best when he offered this word of caution to the group: "I really think y'all need to warn folk who apply: It ain't just poetry that's taking place here.

It's transformation."

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