Walter Mosley: On Being Black, Being a Writer, and Cave Canem
Celebrating 20 Years of Supporting African-American Writers
The following remarks were given by Walter Mosley at the 20th-anniversary celebration of Cave Canem.
When Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady came up with the idea for Cave Canem, they were trying to address the lack of inclusion of people of color in graduate writing programs—and I respect that. But I do believe that they happened upon a richer vein of language and culture, political revelation and at least a partial blueprint for ethnic (r)evolution.
I am reminded of one of our shining lights, now snuffed out, St. Clair Bourne—the documentary filmmaker who made the successful and successfully suppressed film, The Black and the Green. St. Clair brought five American black nationalists to Northern Ireland to meet and confer with members of the IRA, and Irish Catholics in general. This was a discovery that put Christopher Columbus to shame. It was the revelation of kinship and self-knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic (which was once known as the African Ocean).
And this oppressed nation not only speaks to us of political and cultural connection but also of the poetry in our throats and hearts, unconscious minds and also stitched across our wounds.
The English conquerors not only took the flag and the land from the Irish people, they also banned Gaelic, Ireland’s native tongue. It was against the law to speak, write in, or teach the tongue that formed the heart and soul of the Irish people. And their response was to create secret schools that any child could attend; literally saving the spiritual identity of a people.
From St. Clair Bourne to Toi and Cornelius to the people here today there is a tacit understanding through words, music, and a deep unconscious awareness thrumming up and down the streets of America—we have gone past balancing the graduate writing programs to giving a voice to peoples who have had their souls outlawed by rampant, unapologetic imperialism.
Cave Canem, Cave Canem, Cave Canem, Cave Canem… this is the repetition of an organization’s name but over the years this poets’ refuge has changed. Named after the ancient warning decorating the House of the Tragic Poet, this black dog has learned new tricks, grown to unexpected proportions, and has made a deep impact on the world of poetry and beyond having itself been transformed by the trauma.
Cave Canem has gone from a small group of rough and rowdy aspirants who were only expected to be black and have something to say that had gone unsaid for centuries to one of the most sophisticated cultural institutions in America.
There was a time when black poets were denigrated not because of their poetry and passion but for the political upheavals that often cracked the surface of the sacred Eurocentric sonnets, rondels, villanelles, and sestinas; the blues renditions of these black poets couldn’t help but reveal the hatred showered on them and their loathing in return; black hatred seething so palpably that the truth was as unavoidable as it was unwanted by a white audience that, in the first place, could not imagine poetry coming from those bruised, sensual lips.
There was a time when we were not seen as poets but rather as chroniclers of complaints and threats. We could recite our blues but not without music and dance. At best we could appreciate a form of genius that we would never attain.
For some years I was on the board of directors of one of the oldest, most prestigious poetry organizations in America. Once a year this organization gave a prize for someone whose life’s work in poetry identified them as being among the most important writers in that hallowed profession.
When the time came to choose that year’s recipient we were presented with a longish list that changed very little. You know it. Fifty or maybe sixty of those names that certainly deserve recognition—most of them anyway. If it was sixty then fifty were white men and women, maybe five black people, and then a couple who had Spanish as their mother tongue or culture. I think an Asian name or two made it on the list before I was forced by circumstances to resign.
I used to ask them why there weren’t more people of color, like Sterling Plumpp, say—and Asians especially.
They’d tell me there were no Asians from the old days who wrote this level of poetry. And I asked, “You mean the people who were writing haiku and other forms when your people were wallowing in caves and painting their bodies blue? Do you mean to say that there is no Chinese or Japanese or Korean woman or man here in the United States or its territories who does not practice the forms invented by their ancestors?”
And they’d say, “No… there is not.”
And I would ask if they had advertised and done readings where these people lived and invited these populations to contribute. And they said, “We advertise in the New York Review of Books.”
I wasn’t surprised. Almost everybody in America is a racist but the difference is that so-called non-white Americans know what they are whereas so-called white Americans, on the whole, are incapable of that knowledge.
That’s why we need Cave Canem. A very good reason but not the most important one… but we’ll get back to my personal rating system later.
One day, while I was still an active member of the poetry board, I received an email telling me that a severely rhyming poet of a certain age would be given the vaunted prize. This man was a bad poet (in my opinion), a racist, and an active opponent of the rise of such great poets as Gwendolyn Brooks. When the prize was announced I sent out a universal email declaring that I was going to resign from the board. Though I didn’t say it, I did not want my name associated with the Ivy League bigot they wished to laud.
The president of the board took exception and told me, and everyone else, how wrong and cowardly, duplicitous and divisive I was being. He’s dead now but the subject of race cracking the surface of the poetry board caused five people, including the president, to resign.
I guess I’m like the poets I make fun of some times—I don’t play well with others.
But back to Cave Canem.
I have to say that I am not qualified to criticize or laud this organization in any kind of professional sense. I have not taught poetry for Cave Canem, attended its classes, or helped to form its curriculum, direction, or purpose. I attended the second retreat and one or two after that. I tagged along at a couple of meetings with people that Toi and Cornelius wanted me to meet. I’ve been to more than a few of Cornelius’s birthday parties in the West Village and dozens of readings highlighting Cave Canem students and graduates.
I know quite a few poets who have come out of the programs and many of those who’ve taught there.
I’ve celebrated the CC poets who have won prestigious awards and garnered public recognition; understanding that these accolades are essential not only for the hardworking poets but also to inform cultural pundits that we are here and we are being heard—that if anyone talking about poetry today does not include the myriad poets of color they will be considered outside the mainstream (where all people of this ilk, conscious or not, should be).
Cave Canem is a hardworking institution that supports and works with that unruly constituency— poets, and as I said, nobody ever claimed they work well with others. We can only ask that they work well with words—even if sometimes those words are harsh and unrelenting, angry and even self-righteous.
And so I feel at home here because my understanding, my experience of this institution brings up many feelings I have about being black and a writer in a world that hasn’t given us the kind of support or attention we deserve and more importantly that we need.
I suppose this need for recognition is one of the reasons I decided to say yes to the offer of addressing you here, today.
Poetry has many functions: it enlightens, elates, examines, and, at times, makes us uncomfortable with who we are and what we have believed up until the moment some poem and/or poet disabuses us of our attitudes, values, and convictions.
Amiri Baraka was a master at uncovering and revealing the sordid and extraordinary truths of life in America. He was truly unruly, taciturn—like a dog worrying a bone until there was nothing left but bone meal. He was Rumpelstiltskin, but instead of spinning straw into gold he sucked out the beliefs in our hearts and converted them into truth.
I remember one day when he was just talking, not reading poems or anything. He said, “Used to be I could go down to the corner and hear some jazz but nowadays I have to go to another man’s neighborhood, and pay him, to find out what I got on my own mind.”
If I got a chance to hear Baraka speak, I took it. Like one day when he was doing a public conversation with Alan Ginsberg. Ginsberg said that there needs to be a new canon of literature for America’s young people. He thought that this canon should include the Bhagavad Gita, The Koran, the teachings of Buddha and Confucius, and many other esoteric texts.
I was thinking that I’d never graduate from the high school where Alan was the principal.
But Baraka said, “No, Alan, the canon is in the classroom. In almost every school in America you have students from many different backgrounds. From Scandinavia to Ethiopia, from the Navaho Nation to Mongolia. All you have to do is ask the students about their heritage and come up with a study plan for the people right there in front of you.”
Baraka was one of the best of us—ever. He devoured poetry and it leaked into every notion, idea, word, and gesture of his life. He was pedestrian and divine, political and a parent, a black man who refused to allow the so-called white world to define him. And he was flawed, very much so. And so am I. And so are we. His life speaks loudly that you don’t have to be perfect to be yourself. We don’t need the good manners and protocol of the Beefeater or some French king. We don’t have to respect the office, the shield or the articulation that seeks hegemony over our beautiful lives.
I suppose that this beautiful imperfection is also why I agreed to address you here today. It is because I worry about who is setting the standard for us.
Many years ago I was in Chicago for a literary festival. Haki Madhubuti took me in tow and brought me to a party at Gwendolyn Brooks’ house. She and I talked about this and that and after a little while the topic turned to Toni Morrison. Gwendolyn told me that June Jordan had called her to sign a petition complaining about Toni not getting the National Book Award for Beloved. June said that the petition was to appear in the New York Times.
Gwendolyn told June, “…why would I want to beg those people for their award? I don’t need them to tell me I’m doing right. We should make our own awards.”
I was moved by Ms. Brooks’s stance. It was, like her poetry, plain language nested in complex ideas. What the writers wanted was simple and it made sense. Beloved was a benchmark for us, for America. And for so many major black writers to get together in unusual harmony was a great moment. But… to value the honors and accolades meted out by the white literary establishment might well have deleterious results in the long term.
Are we here to count prestigious awards granted to the few? Are our successes to be measured by the institutions that for so long saw us as inferior beings hardly worth a moment’s regard? Is a teaching gig at Iowa or Harvard the goal of Cave Canem?
Or is that black dog our totem? The vicious, chained, angry creature that is out to wreak blood and pain, fear and respect from those who would keep her so tethered.
That first retreat at the Mt. State Alphonsus Conference Center in Esopus, New York was one of the most magical periods in my life. Twenty-six students of poetry came from many a hardscrabble place—people who wanted to articulate the primal scream they had lived with in silence, and, in a metaphysical sense—for generations. What Cave Canem offered these young (and not so young) aspirants to poetry was the power to speak to power; the chance to tell the truth and to examine and reexamine that truth in a safe environment without having to be saddled with the ignorance of the so-called white establishment’s interference, meddling, and false interpretations.
I go to Cave Canem events nowadays at AWP and other places and sit in the audience of hundreds and listen to the long list of accolades that the readers have garnered. But for me that’s no different than the Academy of American Poets, The Poetry Society, and other such literary organizations that have as their goal the highest level of work and recognition among a small group of individuals.
Don’t get me wrong, these grants, medals, prizes, and rewards are wonderful things. But for me such recognition is at best ephemeral; transient praise for a specialized few who stand apart in their craft, technique, and of course—their superior art.
For other organizations these accolades are actually the highest form of recognition. But for Cave Canem these ritualized celebrations are only a foot in the door. We aren’t here to struggle our way to the top and then to be called the best or the greatest.
Our job is to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be heard and to be able to speak, no matter their level of excellence. We are here in this place today to make sure that the silence imposed upon our people will be dispelled permanently, now and forever.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying anything that Cave Canem is doing is wrong. It’s just an impression I’ve had for some years now that the capitalist goals of corporate-cultural America have slowly begun to infiltrate the expectations of this extraordinary organization.
If somebody asked me what I thought the purpose of Cave Canem is I’d say it is there to give voice to those who have been muzzled by the white institutions who grant the awards, teaching jobs, and who jealously guard the doors of entry against the common woman and man who simply want to be heard.
What else is poetry but the failed attempt of the disenfranchised to hone their language and their words toward the unreachable goal of truth; to have those truths echo across the boulevards and avenues, forests and broad plains. This language, despite the level of its style and form and brilliance, can bring any and all of us the east coast, to the African Ocean.
This, for me, is the goal of poetry in the hands and hearts, minds and mouths of the Black Poets. I’m not interested in what or who the poetry institutions claim. I celebrate my excellent brothers and sisters that are rewarded, no matter by whom, but the reason I love Cave Canem is the man or woman of any age who is drawn to that chained dog wanting more than anything to set her free. We won’t have to ask who let the dogs out because it is us.
And what about excellence and mastery? Do I let those treasures fall by the wayside? I honestly don’t know. There are some extraordinary poets around me. But I really doubt if poetry can truly penetrate your heart if that heart hasn’t tried to learn how to express itself in similar terms.
I want to celebrate all of us. And I do not want the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award or even the Nobel to dazzle my eyes to the point where a simple rhyme, some lame meter, or a half-told tale would keep me from seeing the attempt behind the poem. The young man who was arrested in his algebra class for standing up for himself the only way he knew how or the teenaged woman told to learn the rote lessons imported from the other side of town.
All of this brings me back to a time before there was a Cave Canem, nearly 30 years ago at the first Dodge Poetry Festival. I went to a panel that had some kind of name like, Becoming a Poet, something like that.
The panelists were Carolyn Forche, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, and Etheridge Knight. They spoke in that order.
Carolyn decided to tell us that she somehow realized that she was a poet when having dinner at the table of a dictator somewhere in South America. She was trying to say to him that he needed to deal with his enemies. His response was to take out a bag of mummified ears and throw them on the table. “These are my enemies,” he told her.
Ruth spoke of grinding poverty in the Northeast Kingdom of rural Vermont. One award bought her a refrigerator and another fixed a dying septic tank. Her life felt hard and unremitting.
Lucille said that she was homeless the first time she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, she and her daughters were living in their car.
By the time I had heard these stories I was sure that I’d never be a poet and I was half convinced that I should give up writing completely. It was just too hard—even for the white people.
But then Etheridge pulled the microphone close and began to speak in almost a whisper. I knew that he’d been in prison for eight years for armed robbery so I thought that he’d be the final nail in the coffin of my literary aspirations.
He said, “I became a poet when I was in the penitentiary. I defined myself as a poet when I was in the penitentiary. And once I had defined myself, as a poet, I went to the library to find out what it was I had become.”
This last testament was the single most important moment in my own decision to become a writer. It was pedestrian and at the same time under pressure but Etheridge didn’t for a moment pay heed to the obstacles he had to face; it was only the treasure of his own soul that made the final cut.
This is for me what the best of what Cave Canem might be. A place where a clear eye and an open heart is all we need to transcend the chains of our would-be masters. That, for me, is award enough and the true estimation of the art in our hearts.