Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Oft-honored poet Toi Derricotte is a Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh.
Awards: Public Poetry Project, Paterson Poetry Prize, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Nonfiction, Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Nonfiction, National Endowment for the Arts Grant, New Jersey State Council on the Arts Grant, Rockefeller Foundation Grant, Guggenheim Foundation Grant, Maryland State Arts Council Grant, Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry
Born in Michigan, Toi Derricotte wrote poetry from a very early age, concentrating on her relationship with her abusive father, feminism, slavery, and her attitude toward motherhood. She has written poetry collections, memoirs, and various essays; much of her work has been acknowledged with awards, fellowships, and prizes. She was a featured poet in the Pennsylvania Center for the Book's 2012 Public Poetry Project. Derricotte founded the Cave Canem Foundation and is a Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh.
Born in 1941 on April 12 in Hamtramck, Michigan, Antoinette (Toi) was the only child of Benjamin and Antonia Webster. She began writing poetry and journaling at a young age, capturing her experiences as a light-skinned African American and an undertaker's daughter. Her father played a heavy role in her upbringing by abusing her and exposing her young eyes to the perils of death during his career.
In 1962, she married Clarence Reese and had one son with him before divorcing in 1964. She took time to focus on her schooling, earning a degree in special education from Wayne State University in 1965, before she began teaching children who had disabilities in the Detroit school district. In 1967, she married Bruce Derricotte and moved to New York City.
With a newfound voice, Derricotte published her first poem in the New York Quarterly in 1972. Her first collection, The Empress of the Death House, was published in 1978, detailing her personal experiences with death, abuse, and her concerns with being a mother. Her provoking distaste for female suppression had critics comparing her works to those of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Derricotte followed with the collections, Natural Birth (1983), Captivity (1989), and Tender (1997). In 1998, Tender won the Paterson Poetry Prize.In Captivity, she addresses the persistent issue of race and inequality as it slinks from the years of slavery into modern times. With its sometimes shocking yet deep-rooted style, this third collection of poems had critics comparing Derricotte's work to that of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
In addition to poetry, Derricotte has also published the memoirs: The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (1998) and The Undertaker's Daughter (2011). The former was selected for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Nonfiction from the Cleveland Foundation and also won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Nonfiction. She has also had essays included in The Best American Essays—"Beginning Dialogues" in 2006 and "Beds" in 2011.
In 1996, along with Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte began the Cave Canem Foundation with the intention if "[remedying] the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in MFA programs and writing workshops." Per the foundation's publicity statement, "Cave Canem is a home for the many voices of African American poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets." What began as a gathering of 26 has since grown to a national fellowship of over 300 poets.
Among many other awards and prizes, Derricotte has been granted fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Maryland State Arts Council. She was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 2009 and was awarded both the Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in 2012.
Toi Derricotte a Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh and, at the time of this writing, a member of the Marsh Hawk Press' Artistic Advisory Board.
The Empress of the Death House. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1978.
Natural Birth. New York: Crossing Press, 1983.
Captivity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.
Tender. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. New York: Norton, 1997.
The Undertaker's Daughter. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
"Beginning Dialogues." The Best American Essays 2006. Slater L, Ed. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.
"Beds." The Best American Essays 2011. Danticat E, Ed. New York: Mariner Books, 2011.