JGO: Cave Canem was formed in 1996. What was the inspiration for creating “a home for black poetry?”
AM: Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady recognized that African American poets were profoundly under-represented in the literary canon, academia, workshops, the world of publishing and literary awards, and elsewhere. Though the Dark Room Collective, founded in 1988, made a historic impact, in 1996, most African American poets were still writing in isolation. In her introduction to The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, editor Nikky Finney writes, “Derricotte and Eady wanted to bring Black poets of all ages, abilities and backgrounds together under a planned and organized umbrella. They were clear that Black poets needed to lay eye and ear on each other.” Thanks to volunteer services from several key individuals, including faculty members Elizabeth Alexander and Afaa M. Weaver, Toi and Cornelius’s first effort, a week-long writing retreat with 26 participants, was successful. The retreat inaugurated Cave Canem’s fellowship and community-building model, and also demonstrated the critical need for such a program. Today, the retreat remains our flagship program.
JGO: You’ve been with Cave Canem since September 2006. How did you come to be a part of this organization?
AM: Before joining Cave Canem, for over six years I served as Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum, CT. As gratifying as it was to deliver the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, a national chapbook competition, poetry on public radio, and education-through-the-arts initiatives for youth, eventually I felt that working for a literary organization would better match my experience, temperament and goals. Leading Cave Canem presented itself as an opportunity, and after strong urging from my good friend Kate Rushin, a Cave Canem fellow, I applied for the position of executive director. While at Hill-Stead, I’d curated festival readings featuring Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tim Seibles, Major Jackson and Kate Rushin; and Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Smith and Lucille Clifton had read in the series before my tenure. I was already aware of the extraordinary community of poets that Cave Canem attracted and nurtured.
JGO: How did Cave Canem get its name?
AM: When Toi shared with Cornelius and his wife Sarah Micklem her vision of starting a writing retreat for African American poets, the three agreed to work together to make the dream a reality. While vacationing in Pompeii, they discovered a fitting symbol for the safe space they planned to create—the mosaic of a dog guarding the entry to the House of the Tragic Poet, with the inscription, "Cave Canem" (Beware of the Dog). In designing Cave Canem’s logo, Sarah introduced a visual metaphor by breaking the dog's chain. Since inception, Cave Canem’s name and logo have stood for the culture-shaping role that the organization plays: a protection for poets and a catalyst for unleashing vital, new voices into the literary world. Again, Nikky Finney: “What these brilliant, passionate poet-teachers pushed out, via Pompeii, was a new planet; but what they also touched was an heirloom."
JGO: For me, the weeklong retreat was a source of strength as an emerging black poet. What’s been your experience putting it together year after year? Also, how many fellows have been a part of the weeklong retreat?
AM: Many functional aspects of the retreat stay fairly constant, such as arrangements with the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg’s Conference Services—routines that reduce everyone’s labor over time. For me, the excitement year to year is the unique brilliance of participants, from fellows to faculty members, to guest poets, to staff. The poetry saturation I experience at readings and fellow-led workshops re-energize me for the rest of the year. The program has benefitted from Amanda Johnston’s leadership as Retreat Coordinator and Dante Micheaux’s as Interim Retreat Coordinator, and from the terrific work of retreat staff. Nicole Sealey’s contributions as Programs Director as of June 2014 is allowing me to focus less on nuts-and-bolts. So my role has evolved over time, as has the role of fellows, currently numbering 379. Now, very many see themselves not only as fellows and Cave Canem community members, but also as stewards of the organization.
JGO: Tell me about the book prizes?
AM: With 13 individual volumes in print, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize has jump-started the careers of such poets as former U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, and Major Jackson, a Whiting Writers’ Award winner. This first-book award for African American poets continues to expand the portfolio of American literature and helps disrupt received notions of what makes a poem valuable. Rotational publication by Graywolf Press, the University of Pittsburgh Press and The University of Georgia Press propels each winning collection into the field with the highest imprimatur, ensuring a robust readership. We’re excited that F. Douglas Brown’s Zero to Three will be released later this year and Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thornin 2015.
The Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize is a second-book award for African American poets, offered every other year. The award celebrates and publishes works of lasting cultural value and literary excellence. Launched in 2009, three books have been published to date, with Jonathan Moody’s Olympic Butter Gold forthcoming in 2015.
In addition to publication, both competitions confer a $1,000 cash prize and a feature reading.
JGO: At the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I heard co-founder Cornelius Eady describe Cave Canem as a foundation. Could you elaborate on the foundation aspect?
AM: A 501-c-3 non-profit, Cave Canem is a literary service organization. Unlike such foundations as Jerome and Lannan, which award direct monetary grants, Cave Canem serves Black poets and poets of color by delivering a robust program of services intended to advance their artistic and professional growth. A key secondary goal is permanently inflecting the literary landscape, so that space for all writers and all literatures will continually expand.
JGO What have been the milestones in Cave Canem’s history? (Feel free to include links.)
- 1996: First retreat held at Mount St. Alphonsus Conference Center, Esopus, New York.
- 1997: Cave Canem incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
- 1999: Regional workshops conducted in four cities.
- Cave Canem Poetry Prize established.
- Carolyn Micklem hired as Director.
- 2001: Legacy Conversation series launched.
- 2004: Administrative headquarters established in New York City.
- 2006: Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade published with University of Michigan Press.
- 10th Anniversary Celebration held in New York City.
- Alison Meyers hired as Executive Director (as of August 28).
- 2007: The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South published with The University of Georgia Press; national book tour conducted.
- Lannan Foundation awards three-year grant of $150,000 for general operating support.
- 2008: University of Pittsburgh commits five-year funding in support of annual writing retreat at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg
- Poets on Craft series inaugurated at The New School.
- 2009: Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize launched.
- Cave Canem moves administrative headquarters and establishes programming space in Brooklyn, NY.
- 2010: Cave Canem South, a three-day workshop co-sponsored with the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, held in Columbia, South Carolina (Kwame Dawes, director).
- Cave Canem becomes a Literary Sponsor at the 2010 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair.
- Cave Canem becomes a Program Partner at Brooklyn (NY) Book Festival.
- 2011: Cave Canem partners with Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press (Detroit), to publish biennial Cave Canem anthologies.
- 2013:Cave Canem participates in MAPP International Productions’ New York City-wide, eight-month retrospective, “Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited,” with a multi-media performance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
- University of Pittsburgh renews $140,000, five-year grant in support of the retreat.
- Graduate fellows’ class gift: record-breaking 100% participation and $3,795 raised over 12 months.
- 2014:Fellows raise nearly $15,000 for general operating support with a Virtual Rent Party.
- Graduate fellows’ class gift: 100% participation and $5,000 pledged.
- Yale University’s Beinecke Library acquires Cave Canem Foundation organizational papers, 1996-2012.
JGO: What do you think is the biggest challenge for Cave Canem in the future?
AM: Resource development. The funding environment grows increasingly competitive and challenging with every year that passes, especially impacting our efforts to secure new sources of foundation, corporate and government support. Sustainability over the long term is Cave Canem’s key priority.
JGO: And the flip side of the question—what do you think is the organization’s biggest opportunity moving forward?
AM: Resource development! There is good potential for growth in individual giving among Cave Canem’s expanding community of fellows, workshop poets, friends and supporters. Fellows’ many significant accomplishments, including major awards and fellowships, continually raise the organization’s visibility and enhance our ability to attract new audiences and donors.
Alison Meyers is a poet and fiction writer, twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Executive Director of Cave Canem Foundation , NY, previously she served as Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum, CT. www.alisonmeyers.com
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Misery Islands (fall 2014) and Underlife (2009), both published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (masspoetry.org) and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. January blogs at poetmom.blogspot.com.