Poem of the Week | March 25, 2019

This week we present “Re-Reading Jerry Stern,” an excerpt from Toi Derricotte’s new collection I: New & Selected Poems which releases this week.

Toi Derricotte’s most recent book is The Undertaker’s Daughter. She has received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcarts, the Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem in 1996. She is Professor Emerita from University of Pittsburgh and served on the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors. “Re-Reading Jerry Stern” is from the forthcoming book “I”: New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte, (c) 2019.All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.


Re-Reading Jerry Stern


I realize that I no longer want to write perfectly constructed and “deeply meaningful” poems. I see what a great gift it is if a writer just truthfully records the way her mind moves: seizing on one thing, one connection, and running with it like a cat might run behind an unwinding ball, wherever it goes—down the back stairs (which, today, for some reason, seem to be dusted with years of unswept flour!), unrolling down a hall and into a back bedroom (though why was that particular door left ajar?).


Author’s Note


All my life I’ve been trying to “fit” myself into an imagined aesthetics. I never read a black poet in the mostly white grade schools, high schools and universities I attended, and I think, on some deep level, I thought I was lacking something, that I was not worthy. If I wanted to be read, I would have to find a way to “pass” through the barriers that excluded black writers.

In the 60’s and 70’s, the white poets I was studying were writing about their personal lives, and I was drawn to explore these subjects. But these were the years when black poets were responding to racism with a resounding cry of self-affirmation, “Black is Beautiful!” The 60’s, in times of the Moynihan report—which had promulgated ideas that black families lacked the values of the larger society and were largely composed of absent fathers and mothers on welfare—was not the right time for a black poet to air dirty laundry.

It was the support of women writers, in particular, lesbian feminist writers like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, that gave me permission and encouragement to write whatever I needed to write. This was underscored when I became a graduate student at NYU and studied with Galway Kinnell, who told his students to “Speak the unspeakable.” The roadmap to my work has always been through fear. I hoped that writing would remake me.

Pursuing subjects that were “dangerous” put even more pressure on aesthetics. “Art is my only defense,” I often said. I wore the poem as armor. But why couldn’t I just write poetry from my heart? That is always the question.