Who Do You Think You Are? — A Conversation with Toi Derricotte, The Undertaker’s Daughter

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

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The undertaker’s daughter

Terrified at a reading to read
poems about my fears & shames,

a voice in me said: Just
open your mouth.

I read about Anubis, the God of Egypt

who ushered the dead
to the underworld, who performed the ritual of

the opening of the mouth

so they could
see, hear & eat.

Had it been my father speaking,

giving me back that
depth of taste & color,

fineness of sound
that his rages stifled,

twisted and singed shut? I had though

it was a woman’s voice —
though I had hoped

all my life that my father would feed me
the milk my mother could not

make from her body.
Once, when I opened the door & saw

him shaving, naked, the sole of his foot
resting on the toilet, I thought

those things hanging down were
udders. From then on I understood there was a

female part he hid — something
soft & unprotected

I shouldn’t see.

Pittsburgh subscribers, please come see Toi Derricotte red along with fellow HEArt contributor and reader, Vanessa German:

Saturday Poets-In-Person: Toi Derricotte & Vanessa German
Saturday, Sept. 20 3 pm – 4 pm

Carnegie Library Of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA

This is the inaugural reading of a new series, 'Saturday Poets-In-Person,' at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Toi Derricotte and Vanessa German will be the featured readers on Saturday, September 20th, from 3 to 4 pm. The reading will take place in the International Poetry Room on the second floor of the Main Library.

Who Do You Think You Are? — A Conversation with Toi Derricotte, The Undertaker’s Daughter

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: After reading The Undertaker’s Daughter for the first time, I was struck with the sheer bravery (a word used a lot with poets willing to take risks in their work, which some days seems plentiful, and others, totally lacking). That is the kind of work that HEArt Online supports and looks arduously for — an unflinching, personal vulnerability that opens a door for a universal audience — lets them feel something that might change them or taps a knowing deep inside. The themes — child abuse, skin color, the coming to terms with damage from both, the reclaiming of self/sexuality, are so unabashedly autobiographical. Was that harder? Does it feel raw? Does it feel right?

Toi Derricotte: Thank you for your careful reading of the book. I appreciate it. I feel like I've always used my life for my content and it's really no different than people using, you know, historical information or … there are just all kinds of ways that people find to shape their imagination. I find that there is a connection between what I'm going through and what I've gone through and how I can make something out of that that seems to be transformative. It seems to me that when I work on something and make it into a work of art — which often takes twenty years to change something from a personal observation that I might write in a journal or notes to myself — the moment that I hear the click of a box, as it's been called, I feel that I've moved on to other material, other work to do.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: The book opens with “Burial Sites,” which lays the foundation for your father’s abuse, his intolerance for slowness, independence, thinking “he was the ruler of my body.” It is very difficult to read, him pulling you up by your hair and expecting you not to react with any anger, emotion, fear. Like no response is the right response. This book is a response, is it not?

Toi Derricotte: Oh, that's a really good point and is, I guess, a way to say that the human spirit never dies. And I do believe that sometimes things go underground. It happens in history, I think; it happens to generations of people, but I don't think things are lost. I don't think pain is lost, I don’t think abuse is lost, and that is in the particular sense. In the larger sense of social abuse, societal abuse, I think one of our gifts as human beings, in our genes, is to carry memory and what we do with that — to respond to it — is what is really a saving grace for humanity.

So nothing goes to waste and we create out of what has been buried and left behind. We regenerate, we relive. One of the things that happened to me is, after the book was published, I was asked to do readings and I couldn't read “Burial Sites” out loud because every time I did, I would go through the pain I felt in remembering those occurrences with my father. And to show you how the creative process works, once you start on a journey, I feel that the creative process itself carries you, and something came to me that said, “Well don't say the stories, sing them.” I had sung at readings before, but this gave me a very practical way to be a performer of these pieces rather than the writer who had experienced these things. It was another way of gaining distance and emotional control.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: Two very strong, repetitive images in the book are your bed, how it was a very important place to you, but always needed to be packed up and hidden, and your mother’s focus on cleaning or work as a way to gain redemption or to validate or survive her existence.

Toi Derricotte: That’s so interesting, Leslie, that you notice that. The name of the piece was “Beds” originally and the way I wrote it was I had been trying to access specific memory. You know, it’s easy to say general things about abuse; it is very hard to bring back exact articulation of moments. And that’s the difference, I think, in creating a work of art, that you have to do that. You can't be general because if you want to create a work of art, you can’t bore people. Part of the process of a work of art — the purpose of it — is to reach others so that they, too, can sense the human connection. It’s about love, and when you're just talking to yourself, you don't have to go to those depths, you can sort of say, “Oh, I feel really frightened today” or “I feel so sad and nobody loves me,” but you can’t cheat your reader, you can't lie to the reader. You really do have to say something that can move them.

Like I said, my first effort at this was probably about 20 years before the poem was finished. I was looking for structure that would help me to write it, and I read a collection of essays about memories associated with a necklace, and I thought, “That's very good structure; I’d like to try that.” I was looking for structure that would help me bring all of these things back and put them into some kind of order, and so what I decided to do was use the beds that I had slept in from my infancy, and that's how I wrote the piece: going from one bed to the next, and at some points as I was going along from my crib to my first bed to my second bed, other memories emerged. During those time periods, I was able to catch eating at the dinner table when I was three. I think there were quite a few memories of eating with my father and so in the process of structuring it, finally, I knew that it could say something larger to incorporate the theme of the book as the undertaker's daughter, which is this idea of burial and rebirth. That's how it got to be named “Burial Sites,” because repression is a kind of burial and I was talking about repression and memory and transformation.

And you’re right about my mother’s cleaning, her trying to redeem herself, get some validation. I've come to believe that she was abused sexually in her childhood and that she never told anyone. Of course, this is the way most victims go through their lives and how they live their lives in some ways, to try to forgive themselves because they feel dirty and shamed. And so I love that you’ve seen that, because it also speaks to a lot of ways mothers don't protect their children because they couldn’t protect themselves. And this is part of the theme of a larger — the larger issues that had to do with slavery. You know, when people are totally helpless, how do they begin to have a self? I think in my mother's generation, that her mother was so busy working to give her daughter some sense of physical safety, you know, to have a home, to have money, to buy food, to buy clothes. I think that her mother did everything she could to think about to raise the next generation to a greater degree of security and to move away from the vulnerability that women, black women, had felt because they were considered beasts and inhuman. I mean, that’s what slavery was about. Even in the Catholic Church, they couldn’t be nuns because they were beasts and that, of course, justified slavery.

So how do you escape? It's not just about money; it's about consciousness and other people’s way of thinking of you, but how do you change that? I see this as many generations of struggle. I am so happy that people see me as being strong and when I’m needed, come back to me and say, “Hey, Toi, you did this, you wrote this.” Because we all struggle with the same feelings; we all want to be recognized and we all want to be strong. We all want to live our lives and be independent, and we all struggle with the question, “How do we love ourselves and other people?” I see the work that I'm doing in Cave Canem — an organization I co-founded — as a way of going back to my grandmother and my great-grandmother, as a part of that redemption. To have been one of the victims of racism gives me something concrete to recognize as part of the spiritual journey that we’re all undertaking toward love.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: Another thread throughout the book is size, what it means to want to be small, unobtrusive, desired for that unthreatening position versus a whole self, a being that is necessary to contend with, to hear, to think for herself. In “Dolls,” for example, your mother squelches the very act of your emerging, and yet as an artist you have emerged wholly as a self to be heard.

Toi Derricotte: I think one thing is that our parents are doing two things at the same time, and it seems like that’s sort of the way it is with humanity. We have something in our head that says something is either good or bad, and I think that within all of us, it is just this way of trying to survive in balance, get ahead a little bit. So my mother, when she was teaching me to be small, this was part of her own fear of not being seen. So on the one hand, she was trying to protect me, and on the other hand she was squashing me, killing me. You feel both things as you get older and hopefully you have compassion for your parents’ struggles and for your own. Yeah, I think that you hear those voices inside you, and in order to do, to just do … what do I want to say? To just play and try new things, you do have to break cycles and it is terrifying. And once you do it, it doesn't mean you'll never do that again. It's just part of the process of living your life and trying to put in place supports — therapy and medicine and AA. I’ve needed all of those things — and friendship — people who recognize your strengths and can mirror that back to you. I think that’s the thing: The mirrors get broken and unless we find some extra mirrors that we can go to to validate that we are a whole being …

We need to put those whole pieces out into the world — it could be books, it could be friendships, children, the things we invest ourselves in that come back to us. And I’ll tell you the truth, I find it in surprises — little surprises — like how well you've read my book. I’m serious, that’s a reflection back that says, “Hey I did something right here, something that came back to me.” You don't always have it so personal. There is a barn swallow that just comes up to these butterfly plants in my window. I believe those are mirrors that let you know life is okay, you’re going to be okay.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy:  I need me a barn swallow.

Toi Derricotte: You have them. You have plenty of them. Just look for them. You’ll find them. Just look. There they are.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: I’m guessing you didn’t really express this to the world until much later because people would've thought you were crazy.

Toi Derricotte: Oh, they did. They did. The reports back from my family were that my problems were all of my own making — made up. But it's interesting, through several channels, I did have validation — even from my mother, who finally was angry at me, not because I told the truth, but because she finally recognized it as the truth. It was just that I told it. I told, and that was the final violation. And if you think of that coming from a person who never told, you can see how upsetting that would be. We upset our parents  because of their own limitations, and that's the sad thing. We go to them looking for this mirror that we’re okay, but sometimes they just don't have that mirror in themselves to reflect back. And so I think my mother was doing the best she could. I was very fortunate in that I did have a cousin — I didn't have brothers and sisters — but I did have a cousin who remembered very well many of the incidents; she was there. There are some things that she remembered that I had forgotten. God bless people in our lives who remember some of the things that have happened to us in our childhood. You are so lucky if you have people who go back that far with you.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: You also call into question the idea of the tapes that run loops in our head — the words we tell ourselves, the voices we hear from long ago, the “who-do-you-think-you-are” voices. In “Burial Sites,” you say about your father that, “Thinking was the thing about me that most offended or hurt him, the thing he most wanted to kill.” This is a strong call to women, but also to humanity — anyone who is expected to be quiet and unseen. Can you speak to that?

Toi Derricotte: I feel we have soul mates, eternal soul mates, and I think sometimes they are one of our parents. I think my father's a soul mate, and I love him desperately — I always did and I always will. Just a few weeks ago a woman did a tarot reading for me. I didn't know that she did this, and it happened very spontaneously, very last moment. As soon as she sat down and put these cards on the table, she started weeping. She could barely speak. Her makeup was all smeared and she was gasping, and she said, “Your father's here. He’s beside you, and he’s so sorry for what he did. He didn't know anything so beautiful could come out of him.” And I know some people don't believe in anything like that. Maybe a part of me doesn’t, but a part of me does, and I’ll tell you why: Your life goes on and things lead on to other things. It’s a pathway. The Talmud says you make the past by walking. There's nothing there. There is no proof of anything. You can't prove there is a God or not a God. You could spend your whole life studying science and you will never know. There’s no proof, but you make the path, and I believe there is this connection between those who come before and us, and it's only by making that true in my own self that it becomes real. So you're the one who's in charge of making it real in the world. There is no reality; you're in charge of that. And that’s what we do when we believe, when we trust, when we work for something. We make it real by choosing that, and that's what I do.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: You also deal with a struggle you have confronted in many of your past works: The idea of “passing for white” and what that means in the poem “Sunday Afternoons at Claire Carlyle’s.” This is at the center of what HEArt Online looks at — at how skin color changes everything — and doesn’t. Again, a hard poem to read, especially the way it deals with people of color trapped in the societal pressure to avoid one another simply because of skin color and what “whiteness” has afforded them.

Toi Derricotte: I think it’s fascinating that my mother would tell me these stories that were so fraught. I mean, I’m five years old and she is telling me these stories about race. I was her friend. I guess she could tell me things. It’s quite wonderful in a way, that she saw me as her friend, at least when I was younger. But here she was and she was so alone in her childhood because she grew up in this family, with this wealthy, white family in the South, where her mother was the cook. She looked white, and she wore the hand-me-downs of one of the girls in the family. She would go out of the gate and the white kids would be there to beat her up because, you know, what was this little black girl doing in these nice clothes? And then she would walk over to school on the black side of town and the black kids would be waiting to beat her up because, who was she with all her white stuff?

She really had no friends and so she grew up very lonely. That was in Detroit during this period of time when a lot of black people were moving into neighborhoods instead of living altogether in the black part of town. We were in the middle class section, Conant Gardens. There were wealthy sections, a lot of businesses, of course, before desegregation, that were owned by black people that were doing very well. There were national black insurance companies. People were very wealthy. There was a group of people that my mother and father belonged to, all light skinned. They all could pass and some did and some didn’t, but it was a sort of taken for granted that they would come together on Sunday and nobody questioned anybody about whether they passed in the rest of their life or they didn’t. That wasn't part of the need to defend yourself. People figured you did the best you could.

And so this one time my mother is downtown walking down the street and she sees this other man who is passing. She is not passing. (This is something that you can do in your mind, because nobody could tell by looking them.) But my mother had decided in her own mind that she wasn’t passing, and this man had decided, in his life situation, that he was. And my mother, who looks white, saw this man coming up the street, and, of course, they could have just spoken and kept walking. Nobody would have seen anything but two white people talking. But my mother crosses the street so that she wouldn't encounter him, as if she was a dark, black looking black person who he might be ashamed to talk to.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: It’s interesting, because I read it the other way. I thought that she thought he wasn’t passing well enough and she didn’t want to be seen with somebody who was, perhaps, darker.

Toi Derricotte: No. I think you could read it many ways. I think of it even now, the sadness of this thing that people do in their minds. It’s those voices inside us that tell us to be afraid, to be there, and we have to move. She was afraid. I think it was just a subject that maybe she had so many complex feelings about that she physically got herself out of the way.  

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: So one cannot talk to you about this book without focusing on Telly the fish. I love this sequence of poems, which feels like a re-claiming of self in its devotion — a tribute to the realness of love — “a love you can stand.” Can you talk a little more about this? I know Telly was real, but metaphorically, I think you use him as a vehicle to explain some kind of opening, a realization, a process of recovering.

Toi Derricotte: Telly is a Betta fish [Siamese Fighting Fish] and a lot of people tell me strange stories about them. The males are red and blue — two colors, some are red and some are blue. They have that beautiful long tail; that's what people love so much about the males. But they have to be kept in separate bowls because they will kill each other. I think I didn't really know what was going on. I just thought he was a fish. But I didn't, and that’s again, too, the way we assign meaning to the world and it's there for us to define, to put meaning on, to love and hate.

At the time, I wasn’t able to have a relationship. Relationships are still hard for me. But they often say that people who are in mental institutions and in hospitals — and children — if they have an animal around, they are the best healers in the world. So I was able to have a relationship with a fish.

Part of figuring out what our work is in this world is working through relationships. Is our work to be a writer and be alone and just do our work? Are we destined to be in a little tower somewhere typing and experiencing our emotions deeply and putting them down on paper? That’s a question that each person has to answer, and I think a lot of women have a harder time with that than men, because there are a lot of men artists, that if they had a relationship, that relationship was to serve them as writers or artists, and I don't think a lot of women have had that kind privilege. Generally, if they do decide to do their writing, that primary relationship is to themselves and their writing. I think they have ended up living by themselves. Maybe that's changing now, I don't know.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: Your final poem in the book, “The Undertaking,” is very powerful — a resolution of sorts — an acknowledgment of the personal strength it takes to break free from an abusive past, to know oneself, to forgive. The book, I feel, takes us through this process and leaves us in a healthy place, which is the power of poetry and writing generally: To speak the struggle, the shame, the anger, and then the possibilities — good and bad. It is about change.

Toi Derricotte: You know, Yeats talked about spiral in a gyre. He talked about things not changing linearly, but like a gyre going deeper and deeper, spiraling deeper and deeper, and I do think we still keep revisiting. Writers write the same thing over and over. The themes stay the same, but they use different material. So if you think about their work over a long period time, generally there's a theme that keeps surfacing. I think for me the theme has been redemption and change and transformation. It is partly the Catholic burial and resurrection from my childhood, that spiritual theme of death and rebirth that I get from the Mass. I celebrated the Mass every day of my childhood when I was in Catholic school, and that's the imprint of what I know of some kind of universal, spiritual underpinning of the universe that comes from that training I had very early.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: Do you still feel like a Catholic?

Toi Derricotte: I do feel like a Catholic. I don't go to church; I go to AA meetings, which I feel is like church, better than church, because people actually talk about real lives and reveal themselves. They give each other courage and help you to learn how to accept yourself and be a part of something bigger than you — all these really positive things that I think in church you sometimes don't get. But that doesn't mean I won't go to church at some point in my life. Many poets did as they got older. T.S. Eliot was one. I think one thing is that as much as you want to make art, you have to always know — I always have to know — that you are you are doing something …

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: … It’s about connection, isn’t it? For me it’s about really communicating. I don’t really care how beautiful something is, if it isn’t speaking to someone …

Toi Derricotte: But I think, also, to make the best art, you have to be willing to sacrifice the art. I mean to really make the best, you have to even have “what’s art” up for grabs at all times. That's why there is prose in that book, because I couldn't get it to be other than that. I had to challenge my own definition, and so in these ways I think whatever you’re doing, whether you’re doing poetry or what you're doing here today — interview — to grow as human beings, we have to keep challenging our own definitions and our own safety in those definitions. And so it's just sort of aligning yourself with the universe anyway, because things are always changing.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: That’s interesting, because we just came back to the beginning, what I said about risk taking. Because really no art is valuable unless there is risk taking in it, which either the artist or the art does — or changes the artist or audience somehow.

Toi Derricotte: Well, really, that’s what your magazine is all about — HEArt Online.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: We’ve been really fortunate to get the work we’ve gotten this year. Powerful, meaning full of risk taking.

Toi Derricotte: Yeah, I'm happy to be a part.

Toi Derricotte has published five collections of poetry, most recently, The Undertaker's Daughter (2011). An earlier collection of poems, Tender, won the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks, published by W.W. Norton in 1997, won the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Recognized as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 2009, her honors include the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry for a poet whose distinguished and growing body of work represents a notable presence in American literature, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America; two Pushcart Prizes; the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists; the Alumni/Alumnae Award from New York University; the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, Inc.; the Elizabeth Kray Award for service to the field of poetry from Poets House; and 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. More than a thousand poems have been published in magazines and journals, including poems in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The Paris Review, and many others. Derricotte's essay, "Beginning Dialogues," is included in The Best American Essays 2006, edited by Lauren Slater; her essay, "Beds," is included in The Best American Essays 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem Foundation. She is Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh and serves on the Academy of American Poets' Board of Chancellors."