Twenty-Five Years of Cave Canem

In Conversation with Malcolm Tariq

Every April, we observe National Poetry Month by honoring how integral poetry is to our past, present, and future. But this year, we wanted to expand the celebration outwards, and spotlight other organizations and their work in keeping poetry vital, alive, and accessible for all, especially now. As we celebrate our seventy-fifth year here at FSG, 2021 also marks a major milestone for the Cave Canem Foundation, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Black poets founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. We spoke to Programs and Communications Manager (and poet) Malcolm Tariq about how Cave became and remains what Nikky Finney heralded as “the major watering hole and air pocket for Black poetry,” and how you can help support their essential work.

Work in Progress: 2021 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cave Canem—how are you planning on celebrating this momentous milestone?

Malcolm Tariq: The yearlong anniversary will begin in June 2021 and will extend until spring 2022. The kickoff event will be the Cave Canem twenty-fifth Anniversary Reunion in June, which will we announce plans for soon. The reunion is primarily a celebration of the Cave Canem Fellowship and the Cave Canem Retreat, our first program and our annual flagship event, that started in 1996 with our first group of fellows. We’re hoping to reconnect with the nearly 500 Cave Canem fellows from the past twenty-five years as well as provide public programs featuring key stakeholders and partners that have been vital to our history. It will be a rich week, and we’re happy that we’re able to host something like this virtually. Other events we’ll be planning throughout the year will focus on other areas of the organization and key moments in our history.

WiP: Can you give us an overview of how the organization has grown and changed since its inception twenty-five years ago, and also tell us what you envision for the future? Have the events of the last year affected or shaped that vision in any way?

MT: I recently had a conversation with co-founder Toi Derricotte where I shared how I discovered Cave Canem while still in high school and she gave me the full story of how she had ideas for Cave Canem long before the first retreat was held in 1996. It’s a story of persistence and passion that I see as intertwined with Derricotte’s own personal development as a poet. That’s how personal Cave Canem is to many people, including myself. Cave Canem has grown from a group of poets meeting in a monastery in Esopus, New York,

to a nonprofit with a growing full-time staff, a network of presenting and publishing partners, and a full menu of public programs and workshops. Its model of fellowship has influenced other organizations such as CantoMundo, Kundiman, and The Watering Hole. Last fall, we also witnessed the launch of Obsidian, a space for Black poets in the UK started by Cave Canem fellow Nick Makoha. The history, legacy, and influence of Cave Canem runs deep. It’s grown tremendously from what Derricotte and Cornelius Eady set out to do all those many years ago.

Something that’s important for me and my role here is to use our anniversary year to not only see where we’ve been and to celebrate what we’ve been able to do, but to do some thinking and strategizing with our team about where we want to go. The pandemic has been very unfortunate for families, communities, and several social and arts industries, and it’s made many of us stop and reevaluate. Cave Canem was started to create opportunities and a community for Black poets, and its success in accomplishing that is notable. But what next? How are the conditions from 1996 different from 2021, and what can we do to address those issues? And, more importantly, how can we partner in meaningful ways with similar organizations serving poets of color to foster a sustainable literary ecosystem that centers the various goals that artists of color have for ourselves, and not what the industry indicates we should be doing?

WiP: How has the all-digital world affected Cave’s initiatives? Have you been able to serve a broader range of poets than you have in the past?

MT: Before the pandemic, we were working on expanding our programs to audiences outside of New York City by developing one to two virtual initiatives. Since fall 2020, all our programs and events have been virtual. We’ve found that it’s not only easier to connect with various audiences during this time, but that it’s also an opportunity for us to engage presenters from all over the world. We recently hosted a chapbook launch with O, Miami Poetry Festival for Wale Ayinla, winner of the 2020 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Between Ayinla and the two guest readers (Mahogany L. Browne and Layla Benitez-James), at least three countries and three continents were represented, which also made for a rich discussion after the readings. Likewise, it’s also been a time for us to try out partnerships with organizations and festivals outside of the New York City area that we otherwise would not have the resources to participate in. When the pandemic is over, we’re hoping to keep at least a couple initiatives virtual. These will most likely include First Books, a program that invites a poet with a recent debut to be in conversation with a poet who inspired their writing and whose first book was published at least five years before, and Writers Worktable, which provides insight into poetry and the literary world beyond craft.

WiP: In May 2020, the Poetry Coalition national alliance launched the Poetry Coalition Fellowship program, a three-year pilot program that will offer paid fellowship positions to five fellows per year who will each assist a different Poetry Coalition organization for a forty-week period. Cave is one of the five organizations that hosted an inaugural fellow in the program, starting in September 2020. Can you speak a bit about the success of that program so far?

MT: It was an honor to participate in this program, which is designed to address the underrepresentation of arts administrators of color in the literary landscape. We’ve learned a lot from our fellow, Christopher J. Greggs, and he has shared that it has helped him gain real experience and opportunities to expand his portfolio as a communications and design professional. Being present in Poetry Coalition meetings has introduced him to a large network of literary professionals who are invested in his journey. We are so excited to watch the program blossom in its second year. The Poetry Coalition just learned the names of the organizations selected to host fellows in the second year of the program, so be on the lookout for those calls for applications later this spring.

WiP: What are some ways Cave strives to remain accessible to all Black poets in the literary world?

MT: There are a few things we’ve done to address financial barriers in poetry. Since last spring, we’ve eliminated all submission fees for our book contests, which has resulted in a slight increase in entries we receive for these opportunities. Most of our programs remain free of charge, but the few that we charge admission for are low-cost or offered on a sliding scale. Because of funding we received for the community workshops we host in our Brooklyn, New York space, we’ve recently been able to provide $250 stipends to poets who complete our seasonal workshops.

Over the past year, the staff has been working to make our online spaces more accessible. We’ve been working with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, Cynthia Norman, for many of our events. Having her insight has been helpful for thinking through different possibilities to engage poets going forward. She’s taught us that ASL brings a level of meaning that is not always conveyed in subtitles, though these are also extremely useful. Even our viewers who can’t understand ASL feel the sentiments that she brings to the space. We’ve also been working with a disability and access consultant in order to not only start discussions about these things, but to really integrate them into the culture of our workplace and our organizational practices. The Cave Canem staff is very small, and it’s been a rewarding experience to have these regular spaces for collective deep thinking and reflection that are often packaged in one-time trainings.

WiP: What’s the best way for someone passionate about empowering Black poets to support Cave’s work?

MT: We always love to see our audiences grow, especially now that we host online events and classes. The most direct way to support Cave Canem is to make a monetary gift to further our ongoing work of supporting Black poets. If you are as passionate as we are about support Black artist communities, please consider joining our recurring donor program, Notebooks & Pens. Another way to show support for our mission is to share resources. Soon we will announce the recipients of our inaugural Starshine and Clay Fellowship, a development opportunity named in honor of elder Lucille Clifton. Last summer we were approached by LOGOS Poetry Collective and EcoTheo Review who wanted to help further our mission. They presented some initial ideas, and we worked together to actualize a project that centers the needs of Black poets. The partnering organizations do the fundraising to provide honoraria and other related costs and incorporated fundraising opportunities for Cave Canem. It’s a unique partnership and it’s been an honor to work with LOGOS and EcoTheo Review.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that these are things you can do for organizations doing similar work in your communities. Cave Canem is but one organization, and there are many other nonprofits who also need support and rely on individual donations to maintain the services they provide. Some of the organizations I donated to last year include Kundiman, Split This Rock, and Black Art Futures Fund.

Malcolm Tariq is the author of Heed the Hollow (Graywolf, 2019), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he is the Programs and Communications Manager at Cave Canem, a home for Black poetry.

Read Cave Canem’s blog, Dog Bytes.