As someone who (stupidly) only recently discovered poet Toi Derricotte, and is scrambling to get caught up on her oeuvre, the recent release of her anthology “I”: New And Selected Poems is fortuitous timing. With the paperback edition newly available, and the hardcover and Kindle editions still readily available, I engaged Derricotte in the following email interview to find out how this collection came together and why she decided now was the time to assemble it.
It’s obvious from the subtitle what “I”: New And Selected Poems contains, but whose decision was it to put this book together?
After my last book [2011’s The Undertaker’s Daughter], I knew my next book was going to be a new and selected. At my age, and with five books of poetry already published, it seemed like the right next step.
However, I didn’t actually start working toward it until my editor at University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester — a great editor of so many awarded poetry books — asked me when I’d have a collected ready.
After I made the decision, the book came together easily. My other books have taken years to put together, but this one came together in a few months.
So, who decided that “I” should be New And Selected Poems and not just Selected Poems or Collected Poems?
I suppose I could have just put together my previous books, but my new poems sort of bring my old work forward. I realized when I put the book together that the work has been heading in the direction toward my healing from trauma. So the new poems were very important, to bring the story up to date.
When it came to the new poems, how did you decide what to include in “I”: New And Selected Poems and what to hold for your next collection?
I just gathered together my best new poems and put them in alphabetical order. That’s how I organized the new poems in the book and that’s how the poems seem to make sense, to almost tell a story. It was a gift because I usually spend months deciding how to arrange poems in a book. I’m writing new poems but haven’t thought seriously about another collection.
And then, for the Selected part of “I”: New And Selected Poems, there are poems from your five previous collections: 1978’s The Empress Of The Death House, 1983’s Natural Birth, 1989’s Captivity, 1997’s Tender, and 2011’s The Undertaker’s Daughter. Who decided which poems from those books to include and which to leave out?
As I said earlier, previous books have taken me years to put together. As D.H. Lawrence said, “A book of poems is a serious thing.” But this book came together very easily. Ed Ochester said, “Just go through your books and chose the poems you love.” And that’ what I did.
Your first book, The Empress Of The Death House, is out of print and hard to get. How did that factor into your decisions as to what to include and what not to include?
I just chose the poems I love, as I did for the other books.
Unless I’m mistaken, the new and collected poems in “I”: New And Selected Poems are all free verse. What is it about free verse that you either like so much or just feel works best for what you’re trying to convey?
I never think of my poems as “free.” Though my poems don’t rhyme (I often bury rhyme or assonance inside of a line rather than at the end), they are anything but “free.” I sometimes revise a poem a hundred times. Every word, punctuation, and space has to fit. And I know it’s finished when everything is in the right place, as if I’ve put together a puzzle.
The new poems are your first since 2011’s The Undertaker’s Daughter. Are there any writers, or specific poems, that had a big influence on these new poems — either individually or collectively — but not on the older ones in “I“?
Several of the new poems mention favorite poets of mine: Ruth Stone, Jerry Stern, and Lucille Clifton. During this time in my life, going from middle age to what is called “old age” (though God knows I don’t think of myself as old) I relied on the wisdom of those poets, especially their fearlessness, humor, and love of poetry. I thought less about the poets of dramatic turmoil as I had earlier in my life, say Plath and Sexton.
Now, some of the poems in “I”: New And Selected Poems previously appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Birmingham Review, and others. Are the versions in “I” the same as they were in those journals, or did you change anything about them?
I am a great reviser. I will revise a poem until the editor takes it out of my hands. I even changed the title for my fourth book of poetry, Tender, on the day it was supposed to go to press.
This interview is going to coincide with the release of the paperback version of “I”: New And Selected Poems. Aside from being lighter and thus easier to carry to the coffeehouse, is there anything else different in this new version?
No changes. And, you know, I didn’t know the paperback was coming out. Thanks for telling me. I remember they told me a paperback would come out a year after the book was published. But I had forgotten when that would be. After the books are finished, I move on.
Finally, if someone enjoys “I”: New And Selected Poems, they’ll undoubtedly go out and get your other books. But once they’ve read all of those, what Selected Poems collection of someone else’s would you suggest they check out and why that one?
Some of my favorite books of selected poems include books by: Chris Abani, Yehuda Amichai, Amiri Baraka, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, C.P. Cavafy, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, Stephen Dunn, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, T.S. Eliot, Martin Espada, Carolyn Forche, Jack Gilbert, Allen Ginsberg, C. S. Giscombe, Louis Gluck, Robert Hayden, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Erica Hunt, Angela Jackson, Randall Jarrell, Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakaa….and I’m only at the K’s!