Founded in 1996 by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte, Cave Canem nurtures and supports the work of African-American poets writing across a wide aesthetic and generational spectrum. What started as a one-week summer workshop funded out of the organizers’ own pockets has evolved into an influential literary organization with year-round classes and readings, an annual first-book prize, anthologies, a board of directors, and more. Its faculty may constitute the most exciting and significant group of U.S. poets assembled under one “roof.” To a certain extent, then, Cave Canem is ably fulfilling its original mandate to counter a sense of isolation felt by many African-American poets.
Yet despite this concentration of forces, a quick perusal of current literary magazines, publishers’ book lists, or the faculty rosters of nearly any MFA writing program reveals that African-American poetry remains woefully underrepresented. Poets of color are frequently hired to fill out creative-writing departments long after they’ve been stocked with white writers. Most poetry journals and presses publish writing by minorities to a degree one step removed from tokenism. The reasons for this situation are many, not all of them nefarious. For more than a decade, spoken-word poetry and hip-hop have enticed younger writers away from the page and toward the stage. For many poets, conventional routes for professional success—published books parlayed into tenured creative-writing jobs—are inaccessible or unappealing.
Nevertheless, from Guggenheims to NEAs, from prestigious book contests to Natasha Trethewey’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard, a number of Cave Canem faculty and alumni have done quite well. Tracy K. Smith’s Duende received the James Laughlin Award, the only major U.S. prize given for a poet’s second book. Her 2003 volume, The Body’s Question, won Cave Canem’s first-book competition (as did Trethewey’s previous Domestic Work). In Smith’s earlier collection, real and imagined travel serve as metaphors for the discovery of self and other. Parts of the book take place in different countries, and nearly everyone—including the author—is an immigrant crossing linguistic, cultural, and national borders: “I speak another language, I told her. I love.”
Duende continues to expand Smith’s impressive range. One poem is written from a young Native American’s point of view as he’s shuttled between foster homes. Another is spoken through the voices of four abducted African girls forced to marry guerrilla fighters. Smith even imagines herself as a dog in Andalusian Spain. (Cave Canem means “Beware of the dog.”) There are love poems and divorce poems. There are more travel poems. There are poems incorporating documentary scraps from the U.S. Constitution, a captivity narrative, a Dwight Eisenhower speech on domino theory, and Frank Zappa lyrics. Throughout, Smith’s tone is ruminative, while grounded in the details of everyday life: “Sometimes, this poem wants to wander/Into a department store and watch itself /Transformed in a trinity of mirrors.” If W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness is regularly intoned during discussions of African-American culture, Smith’s poetry seems to ask: Why stop at just two?
Opening with the sweep of “History,” a mythopoeic encapsulation of human civilization in seven short sections, Duende concludes with “The Nobodies,” an elegy for those marginalized by these same forces of “development.” Smith conjures myth as the origin of various personal and collective experiences that eventually wend their way toward disillusion: “Every poem is the story of itself./Pure conflict. Its own undoing./Breeze of dreams, then certain death.” The result is a restless mode of belief in which redemption takes the qualifier “if.” Stylistically, this means Smith’s newer poems are more ragged around the edges, in the process shedding some of workshop verse’s imperative to finish every poem on the knowing note. After all, Lorca’s idea of the duende refers to what can never be fully spoken during those moments when life and death blur.
Although in the United States, the duende tends to be the province of intro-to- poetry students and male writers nearing midlife crisis, Smith renews its still-vibrant possibilities. She does so by embracing love as the most difficult knowledge, its pleasures inseparable from loss. “I won’t change. I want to give/Everything away. To wander forever,” Smith confesses during an imaginary conversation with her mother, whose death she threads through the book. To be perpetually hungry renders home—both literal and metaphysical in Smith’s work—elusive. Finding place within exile and individuality within community have always been central tensions of African-American life. Smith roots their interplay in the body—not as what one understands best, but as the surface upon which history is most intimately written.