Toi Derricotte is one of America’s premier poets, the author of five collections of poetry and a memoir, most recently, The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). She is the recipient of the following awards (and more):
The PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry (2012)
Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, The Undertaker’s Daughter (2012)
Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania (2009)
Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists
Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. (2008)
The Distinguished Alumni/Alumnae Award from New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science (2008)
The Elizabeth Kray Award for Service to Poetry from Poets House (2008)
The Rockefeller Foundation, fellowship (2006)
The Guggenheim Foundation, fellowship (2004)
The Pushcart Prize (1998)
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Black Notebooks (1997)
The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award in nonfiction, The Black Notebooks (1997)
Nominated for the PEN Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir, The Black Notebooks (1997)
New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Black Notebooks (1997)
She also co-founded (with Cornelius Eady and Sarah Micklem) Cave Canem in 1995—often described as the Home for Black Poets. The goal was to create a safe space where up-and-coming Black American poets could find their own ways under expert tutelage. Over the course of five years the program participants spend one week for each of three summers, working intensely on their poetry. The results have been and whole new group of poets (spanning several generations, but skewed to the younger) who have found outlets in publications, in graduate-level programs, teaching, leading programs of their own, and winning notable awards.
The film chronicles Derricotte’s history, growing up in Detroit, her first marriage to artist Clarence Reese, the birth of her son, Tony, her marriage to Bruce Derricotte and their move to New York, and, later, New Jersey. Then comes the story her creations, book by book. First came the Empress of the Death House (1978). Then Natural Birth (1983), Captivity (1989), Tender (1997), The Black Notebooks (1997), and The Undertaker’s Daughter (2011). It also covers her career as a university professor—20-plus years at the University of Pittsburgh—and as a co-founder of Cave Canem. At the heart of the film is the story of her life fueling her creativity. The result is art.
Of her has been written:
Derricotte’s poems push readers and practitioners into the hard work of seeing with rigor, intelligence, and grace. Her intellect and imagination continue to forge new territory in the field of poetry, challenging what we think a poem might be and what we think it might do in the world.
− Dan Chiasson, Aracelis Girmay & A. Van Jordan, PEN/Voelcker Award Citation
Honest, fine-honed, deceptively simple. . . deadly accurate, “more merciless to herself than history,” Toi Derricotte’s poems are as unique as her point of view. And it is the specificity, the fine observation of that viewpoint…which makes it at once accessible and revelatory to readers, whatever their origins, whatever their preconceptions of the possibilities of poetry.
She was elected as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012.
The film was made possible in part through support from the Michigan Humanities Council and the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
This is producer David Schock’s third poetry documentary. The first was Jump Back Honey: The Poetry an Performance of Herbert Woodward Martin and the second was StarbyStar: Naomi Long Madgett, Poet and Publisher. All three poets are linked by Madgett’s publishing, and a fierce determination to write their own stories and defy categories.