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Journey to Cave Canem

"There is no place on this planet, no ground, no air, no sanctuary, no wharf, no hermitage, no refuge, no time, like the one week each summer when Black poets descend on an unsuspecting space and it becomes Cave Canem.” —Nikky Finney, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South

Photo Credit: Marcus Jackson, 2019

For years, I coveted a spot at Cave Canem. First, I had to get over my own doubts of it ever happening. One year I thought to myself, why am I even applying? I was dissatisfied with the poems in my application and although I checked off all of the deliverables, I didn't hit submit. That would have been my second time applying to Cave Canem. I heard stories of poets applying as many as 5 or 7 times before getting in. I think I tried a total of three before I got those highly sought after words: "we are pleased to inform you that you have been selected..." It was 2019. I did a happy dance randomly throughout an entire week every time the thought popped into my mind that I had finally been accepted into Cave Canem. That year, I had been rejected for multiple other things including an application I had star recommendations for. Ask a poet how many rejections stand next to the acceptance letters and I guarantee you, the rejection line is longer. But when it's a yes? It's like sweets satisfying a craving.

The first time I went, I didn't know what to expect. I got off the plane and walked through Pittsburgh Airport to where a coach bus would bring me and other participants to the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg campus for our weeklong retreat. I looked at the signs in the airport to make sure I was going the right way. I had an early flight that day and that meant that I'd have to wait for a while. I sat mostly by myself and as the time got closer, I decided to head to the lower level to wait. The last thing I wanted was to be waiting that long and still manage to miss the bus. And then something magical happened. Black poet after Black poet made their way to the same spot. We all knew what we were there for. We cheered and smiled with each other. In June, if you are ever in Pittsburgh airport and you see Black poets congregating, looking fly and tired, there's a strong chance, they are on their way to Cave Canem.

I've written some of my favorite poems like "the girl dream" late in the evening or early mornings along with other fellows working to produce new poems each day for the next workshop. It's amazing what happens on a time crunch in community. It's certainly an immersive experience of iron sharpening iron. We eat meals together, workshop together and share poems in the evening open mics. We question, we explore, we write, we fellowship. One week feels like much longer. And when the last of us gets back home, we think of when we'll be back again. Every fellow gets to attend three retreats. This year, I'm off to complete my third and final retreat. Cave Canem has given me friends, focus and safe space to write freely, to not have to explain who I am; for that I am grateful and I am honored to be part of an incredible legacy of Black poets, Cave (pronounced Kah-vay) Canem poets, under the tutelage of brilliant minds and bards who have stretched and inspired my writing craft. I cannot wait to be a part of the magic one last time.

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