Cave Canem, a nonprofit group founded to nurture the work of African American poets, has won the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for service to the American literary community. This is the first time that the $10,000 prize has been awarded to an organization instead of an individual. Previous winners include Maya Angelou, Dave Eggers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and James Patterson. The foundation’s choice is a strong demonstration of its renewed commitment to supporting diversity.
Based in Brooklyn, Cave Canem was started 20 years ago by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady “to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape.” Its tuition-free writing retreats at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg support more than 50 African American poets every year. The organization also offers prizes, workshops, lectures and readings throughout the country.
In a statement released today, Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said: “Cave Canem’s innovative and effective literary activism has been transformative to the world of letters. Their ongoing commitment to provide supportive channels for African American poets to thrive has yielded works that enrich the world’s literary culture.”
Derricotte and Eady conceived of the organization while touring the ancient city of Pompeii. When they saw the words “Cave Canem” (“Beware the Dog”) on the floor of the House of the Tragic Poet, they were inspired to create a safe space for African American poets to work. Since then, Cave Canem fellows and faculty members have included some of the most celebrated poets in the country, including Terrance Hayes , Tracy K. Smith , Lucille Clifton , Yusef Komunyakaa and Natasha Trethewey.
In reaction to the National Book Foundation award, both founders modestly turned attention away from themselves. Eady, now a professor of English at the University of Missouri, said in an email to The Washington Post: “While it’s wonderful to have our work seen and acknowledged, it’s a larger joy to count the ways the work of the over 300 fellows who have gone to Cave Canem has rippled through the American poetry scene. Though we didn’t have the term for it then, it’s clear to me that one of the points we were trying to make as we started out is that ‘Black Poets (and Poetry) Matter.’ ”
Derricotte, a professor emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, also expressed gratitude for the award’s acknowledgment of the organization rather than individuals: “It recognizes the importance of the discourse within a widely diverse community of African American poets in the shaping of our American literature.”