Cave Canem poets and founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady along with guest Amiri Baraka read their poems at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus on Monday, June 18th as part of the annual Cave Canem Retreat.
The reading took place at Village Hall, and Eady began the reading with a poem about Thelonious Monk. Eady noted that his line “The emotion frozen in these lampposts can be sung” was inspired by a story about the great jazz musician: Monk would walk around busy streets putting his ear against lampposts, listening for the city’s buzz. Eady also read “Billy Holiday” and ended his set with a selection of prose poems dedicated to his father. The poems’ titles are adaptations of song titles like “Papa was a rolling stone.”
Toi continued the night telling stories of her youth in Patterson, New Jersey where she would stand outside the former home of William Carlos Williams; she would imagine WCW in his attic, naked, dancing grotesquely in front of a mirror. Toi read sections of the poem “Burial Sites” from her new book The Undertaker’s Daughter. Toi explained the title of her book, which not only refers to her childhood in a family of undertakers, but also to the undertaking of a creative act, and the ways in which it can transform the creator’s relationship to the inspiration for the creative act. Toi’s book allows the reader into the author’s complex relationship with her father. Toi also read a new poem inspired by the vibrancy of the Cave Canem Retreat, as well as a poem inspired by a conversation with Ruth Lilly Stone. To paraphrase, “‘Ruth, do you hope your poems are immortal?’ ‘Toi, if I like your poems, and you like mine, what does it matter?’”
All three poets read to an enthusiastic audience, and Amiri Baraka received a standing ovation as he approached the podium. A voice from the crowd begged, “NIGHTMARE, READ NIGHTMARE!” Amiri Baraka smiled and said, “One of my fans,” but the voice refuted “ONE OF YOUR CHILDREN!” Many of Baraka’s symbolic children sat perched, waiting for the poet to speak. Baraka began his set by saying that he was once arrested in Newark for possession of two guns and a poem. Baraka read his poems “Play Dat” and “In Town” along with several others, and then ended with his poem, “Somebody Blew up America,” which led to the Governor’s (New Jersey) decision to eliminate Baraka’s title of Poet Laureate. The audience seemed to hold its breath as Baraka delivered the poem’s final lines:
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the Devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who
Whoooo and whooooooOOOOOOooooOoooo!