Essays, Recent

A Triptych on Toi Derricotte

by Bettina Judd | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, February 26, Toi Derricotte will read and discuss her work at 7:30 pm PST. Tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at the SAL website.

1. Do Not Pay Attention to the Poet Behind the Wall: Toi Derricotte in Workshop

“I think that memory . . . is in the service of the biggest psychic need.” 
– Toi Derricotte in The Black Notebooks

In the summers of 2007, 2008, and 2011, I sat at a seminar table with a small cluster of poets trying to unpack an unnamable thing that we were to reach for in our poems. It was somewhere on the axis of vulnerability, veracity, marrow, and repressed memories. A way to place oneself in the bed of a poem, lay bare, and be transformed. “like opening the chest & / Throwing the heart out with the gizzards.”[efn_note]Toi Derricotte, “Speculations about ‘I,’” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), xix.[/efn_note] The circle got around to me and Toi (pardon my familiarity here, it reflects the familiarity of the space that she and Cornelius Eady built that is Cave Canem) looks at me and says that she sees in me, a brick wall. She asked, “What is behind that?” Something is soft there, I surmised, and yet there was another brick wall behind it protecting a vulnerable, something else. I still rail at this wall, the veils and yet more mortar, brick, stone, concrete, rebar . . . I do want to be a better poet.

That is to say that Toi Derricotte’s workshop asks that we do for poems what we want the poems to do for others. To be wide open and funky with ecstatic truth:

It took so many years, the self 
breaking like a pod, so many years 
to pull up the details 
of cruelties that were so quickly 
buried—so that one could go on!—to bring all that 
to consciousness, to hold that pain 
for years until you learn both 
the holding and the writing . . . [efn_note]Toi Derricotte, “After All Those Years of Fear and Raging in My Poems,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 6.[/efn_note] 

She asked that we make poetry do real human work. Not the human work that has to do with being seen or known as human to an outside world—the reach for affirmation by the enlightenment’s champions—but practice, taking notes, making those notes sing into a poem that forges the kind of being that is more real than the human that humans think they are. To mine for this means to wrestle with the contradictions of being both in the poem as a beating heart and the maker of that poem. A delicate but sacred balance that Derricotte, having mastered practiced it to precision, can reflect on with the singular pronoun:

I am not the “I”
In my poems. “I”
Is the net I try to pull me in with.[efn_note]Derricotte, “Speculations about ‘I,’” xx.[/efn_note]

It’s funny to read a poet read themselves in this way. To interrogate her own desires for the page on the page. She makes every poem a workshop for being. The poem is the necessary vehicle for a kind of transformation that is being. Even to the young poet writing a poem within Derricotte’s poem, there is the epiphany of the poem as inner-life transformation:

Where is he today? Jermaine
Grier, a boy who once heard
a poem and followed it
out of the burning place within.[efn_note]Toi Derricotte, “Among School Children,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 10.[/efn_note]

At those summer seminar tables poets try each June to reach for the thing, or try to hold back tears, or try to produce the promised awakening that Jermaine, or the Jermaine within Toi, had found. The poem will tell us the depths to which we will need to go.

2. “Blackness: You Know it When You See It” or “Who needs Heidegger when you have Derricotte?”

Proximity to death, matters of color, hair, and bone, bifurcated consciousness—whatever Blackness is, it is never only a descriptor of physical features. No, those are too unstable and mutable. Neither is it a matter of shared experience. Privilege, nation, wealth, skin shade, proximity and allegiance to power make experience diverse and unreliably reported. It is not a matter of sight that one knows when one sees it, but it is alive. It is vibrant in its emergence. Or how one comes to know their Blackness is Black and that means something. Like Briana in Derricotte’s poem “Workshop on Racism” who, “came home from school screaming in agony.” Why? Because she found out, and her classmates made it clear to her, that “’black’ is not a color, it is a / blazing skin.”[efn_note]“Workshop on Racism” Toi Derricotte, Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 30.[/efn_note] There is no assurance in knowing when you see it, even when you inhabit the body, unreliable toward the so-called “fact of blackness:”

All my life I have passed invisibly into the white world, and all my life I have felt that sudden and alarming moment of consciousness when I remember I am black. It may feel like I’m emerging too quickly from deep in the ocean, or touching an electric fence, or like I’m a deer stuck in the headlights of an oncoming car.[efn_note]Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 25.[/efn_note] 

Here, the Fanonian emergence acts in reverse: the state of emergence becomes a state of emergency: the panic, shame, ugly feeling that is the tether to Blackness made by the discourse and inescapability of race in this country. Even when you think you have left (and have you left or drifted into the lull of whiteness?) you are snapped b(l)ack into the stressed and weathering body. 

The Black Notebooks is a difficult text for its attention to shame. Shame is one of those odd feelings where empathic feeling might cause for shame to be shared. My racial shame is not Derricotte’s though we may share it in some ways. Where she says, “My desire to escape is indistinguishable from my desire to escape from my ‘blackness,’ my race, and I am filled with shame and fury,” I think of every, “I don’t think of you as Black,” every, “You’re not Black black,” a well-meaning-white-supremacist offering of humanity that I understood when it was said. These are, of course, childhood things but they are the situations that linger in the emotional realm, aren’t they?

What they mean is that they don’t think of me as the black of their imagination. I have come alive as a person which means that, invariably, I cannot be black. I know this, and this knowing is shameful for me, sudden and confining because here I have been, talking with someone who essentially has said that I have passed for white by simply being. That I have left my community of darker hue for the benevolence of their presence. I am now their imaginary raceless friend. I have participated in that, unwittingly, and now, I have a choice to make: align myself with the not-real negroes of their imagination, break from the lull in which I have crept (and maybe I knew I was there too?), call the situation out, simply say, “screw you,” and sit at the table with the Black kids. 

No, my shame:    I said, “I know what you mean.” 

3. The Exclamation of Toi Derricotte

These are the thoughts (who taught them to me?) that pass through me when I sit down to write a poem: 

The prose poem is a lazy thing. The confessional voice is a feminine-thus-unserious thing. The “I” in the poem is a cheap way to produce intimacy. Exclamation marks should be spare—one poem in one’s whole lifetime can feature a single exclamation. Never end a line with a conjunction. 

Of course, no poem comes. Or a sparse and incomplete thing already strained like a too-solid bowel movement is all I can muster. Yes, I called that poem excrement. I already flushed it, too bad. 

These imagined rules are well meaning. They attempt to focus the writer (myself) to use my words more precisely, to think about enjambment, how the line leads into the next and produces compelling new ways of feeling. It sets aside conventions that could be easily reached for to convey emotion and challenges me to think artfully beyond the expository. These rules, however, threaten to cloud the mind and the conventions warned against may never be accessed for their usefulness or innovation. These rules produce another form of hackneyed art: that which imitates the poem and does what the poet thinks the poem should do, rather than doing what the poem asks to do. 

Really, I just want to write about the exclamation mark / exclamation point.

I have to recall that in my young grammarian life—we’re talking kindergarten—I learned that the exclamation point is used to demonstrate strong feeling or assertion. It is a period that dances, sings, shouts, or slams the door. So emotional, it is a punctuation relegated to the informal. (In that sense, perhaps the inverse of the semicolon.) The Chicago Manual of Style mentions, for example, that it should be used sparingly to be effective and also goes into detail about the messy feelings that this particular form of punctuation might invoke.[efn_note]“The Chicago Manual of Style Online 6.71: Use of the Exclamation Point,” accessed February 21, 2021,[/efn_note] The manual also warns against the use of exclamation points within brackets, for example, as they might be interpreted as “contemptuous.”[efn_note]“The Chicago Manual of Style Online 6.73: Exclamation Point as Editorial Protest or Amusement,” accessed February 21, 2021,[/efn_note] How funny that the manual is concerned with adverse feelings of the reader. Emotions are so messy, who knew punctuation could set us off?

The exclamation point reminds me of Toi’s voice. Even as I read aloud to myself, the poem goes on in my particular voice and at the mark Toi leaps out—I can see and hear her reading the poem to me:

Today Lorca and Pound 
fell off my shelf. 
They lay there on the floor 
like a couple of drunks. 
How humble are the lives 
of books! 
How small their expectations!

There is a way that Derricotte reads that sounds like a smile, even when the poem has nothing to smile about. It doesn’t manage to soften the blow for the devastating poems, for devastation sings through with brightness that is so rare in a reading. To hear a poet read a poem and actually sound like they actually want to read it—how rare and refreshing! When was the last time you read something self-aware enough to place an exclamation point where it belongs because astonishment, excitement, and/or surprise are within the range of feeling one can write about and be a serious poet?

There is another place where the exclamation point rings out for me in life, and that is in the signature of the late Lucille Clifton: “Joy!”

I am probably thinking of her too much, in that way that when one is writing a book everything in the world seems to converge into the book so that everything and thus nothing has meaning. But Toi knows and loves Lucille Clifton (I stay in present tense so as not to center this dimension when it comes to Ms. Lucille—channel and conjurer) and writes with her still in I:

But Lucille 
must have given me 
breath, because after she died, I 
noticed my lines 
started to look 
a lot like hers! She had told me, 
when you lose the flesh
you gain more power. In fact, 
that’s the only gold 
a poet counts on: the power 
to give it away . . .[efn_note]Toi Derricotte, “Gifts from the Dead,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 17.[/efn_note]

Perhaps here is where Toi and I can think of her, together. Toi begins I with the quote: “Joy is an act of resistance.” She also knows Lucille Clifton and her directive to joy! Reflecting on Clifton after her death in 2010, Derricotte starts with Clifton’s celebratory poem that begins, “won’t you celebrate with me.” (Poetry lover, I am sure you already know it. And if you don’t go and read it right now.) Anyway, she starts with that poem because it is Lucille Clifton’s signature poem. And Lucille Clifton’s signature, recall, is “Joy!” 

I have been meditating on Lucille Clifton’s “Joy!” for quite some time now. First, in petulant frustration that I couldn’t extract from her a lengthier signature in the books that I would ask for her to sign. Then, in reflection of what joy! must mean to this woman whose poems are often devastating. At some point in my forthcoming book I say, 

What Clifton conveyed with her insistence on “joy!” was as simple as the declaration you are alive and as complex as the question: why are you alive? Joy was in the miracle of life made evident in the poem. Joy was also in the completion of the poem for the poem’s sake and what the poem signified—the evidence of her existence. This is why Clifton’s work, although packed with difficulty, sadness, and anger, all points to her notorious iteration of joy-exclamation-point. She is alive. You are alive. In the face of destruction, we exist.[efn_note]Bettina Judd, Feelin: Pleasure Politics, Creative Production, and Black Feminist Thought (Forthcoming) (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, n.d.)[/efn_note]. 

The use of the exclamation point makes more complex the concept of joy we might have thought that we knew. Joy! is inclusive of all manner of feeling and its meaning is derived from that complexity. Derricotte tells us that Clifton knew that “joy cometh in the morning,” or rather, “when you lose the flesh / you gain more power,” or “our power becomes / greater when we lose the flesh.”[efn_note]Derricotte, “Gifts from the Dead,” 17; Toi Derricotte, “Another Poem of a Small Grieving for My Fish Telly,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 265.[/efn_note] Derricotte, in her repetition of this wisdom, is telling us something I am straining to think and say, then type aloud because it hurts. There is a proximity to death that we must face, and face with exuberance because it is not the end and that harrowing truth is in joy-exclamation-point. Amid a pandemic, ongoing white supremacist violence, in the so-called post-Trump same-o same-o—Joy! is a call to arms.

In I, Derricotte grieves the friends, loves (her late husband Bruce), and family who have passed on. She is left with their words and their work to reflect on her own. Her poetry runs with that complexity. It gathers the sensuous with the dead, “I feel my / clitoris throb. aroused?  in my mother’s bed? / before the Virgin?” or “When the goddess makes love to me, / she has to pass through my father.”[efn_note]Toi Derricotte, “Untitled,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 276; Toi Derricotte, “When the Goddess Makes Love to Me,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 275.[/efn_note] It engages the grotesque with the tender:

The twisted snarl of his unbelief turned everything good into something undeserved, so that nothing convinces enough—no man or woman or child, no play or work or art. There is no inner loyalty, no way of belonging. I cannot trust what I feel and connect to; I cannot love or hold anything in my hand, any fragile thing—a living blue egg, my own baby—in the same way that I never convinced my father I was his.[efn_note]Toi Derricotte, “Beds,” in I: New and Selected Poems, 1st edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), 234.[/efn_note]

Which is to say that Toi Derricotte confronts and writes the funk of life, as Toni Morrison would call it, and deploys the tools of this language that could, possibly, maybe, express that funk.[efn_note]She says, “The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.” Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 1st Knopf (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 83.[/efn_note] 

To exclaim is to cry out. The exclamation point projects that impolite way of speaking from the confines of its sentence up and out of the page. Perhaps this is why I hear her voice whenever it appears in the line, so clear, righteous, and ugly—so vibrant and sure. 

Bettina Judd is an interdisciplinary writer, artist and performer whose research focus is on Black women’s creative production and our use of visual art, literature, and music to develop feminist thought. Her current book manuscript argues that Black women’s creative production is feminist knowledge production produced by registers of affect she calls “feelin.” She is currently Assistant Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington.

She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, The Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. Her poems and essays have appeared in Feminist Studies, Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies. Her collection of poems titled patient. tackles the history of medical experimentation on and display of Black women, won the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Book Prize, and was released in November of 2014. As a performer she has been invited to perform for audiences within the United States and internationally.