CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In 1996, a group of about 26 African-American poets met in Esopus, N.Y., to work and discuss literature. The gathering was the beginning of the Cave Canem Institute, a nonprofit that, according to its website, is dedicated to providing “a home for the many voices of African American poetry” and cultivating “the artistic and professional growth of African American poets.”
In the last 17 years, the organization has mentored some of the nation’s top poets, with its fellows garnering numerous awards and publishing more than 170 books. Last year, poet and Austin Peay State University graduate Raven Jackson joined the organization as an intern. Recently, she was promoted to Marketing and Communications Fellow.
“Working at Cave Canem has helped me immeasurably,” she said. “Since starting, I have worked with poets I have admired for years, and gained skills that will be invaluable to me in the arts management field.”
Being associated with such an organization is a major accomplishment, but it’s simply one of the many artistic achievements Jackson has had since leaving APSU. She graduated in 2012 with a degree in corporate communication and enrolled that fall in the Master of Fine Arts program at the famed New School in New York. Not a bad move for someone who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she first entered college.
“I often think of the day my undergraduate fiction professor, Barry Kitterman, pulled me aside and asked if I had ever thought of going for an M.F.A.,” Jackson said. “Until then, I’d never seriously considered making writing my career. And I’ll always be indebted to Barry for giving me the extra push I needed to pursue things I had previously believed were unobtainable.”
Jackson recently finished her first year at the one of the top M.F.A. programs in the country. Several graduates of the program have rereleased books through major publishers, such as HarperCollins, Knopf, Viking and Simon and Schuster.
“Studying in New York City has helped my writing immensely,” Jackson said. “When I moved up here, I told myself I’m going to do this – move to a city I’ve never been to, leave my friends and family, quit my job – I was going to do it right. And I’ve kept that vow I’ve made to myself. I came to New York to write. And I’m in love with the fact that I’m up here doing exactly that.”
She’s already had success with her writing while in New York. Her poem, “Mississippi,” recently won the Vera List New School Art Collection Writing Award. The award is given out annual to New School students who write the best critical or creative work inspired by pieces in the school’s art collection.
“It’s funny because I almost didn’t send a poem in, so the fact that I won really taught me a lesson,” Jackson said. “You can never win or lose if you don’t run the race. And I think that lesson goes for submitting to journals as well. I’m learning how to let my work out into the world more.”
Information on Cave Canem is available on the organization’s website, cavecanempoets.org.