A paradigm shift happened when Demetrice Anntía Worley ’82 earned a Cave Canem fellowship in 2004.
The weeklong retreat, which she attended once a year for three years, was the first time she was able to immerse herself in her craft. Her daily poems received feedback from writers such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown. That’s when Worley wasn’t talking with writers like renowned playwright August Wilson.
“We had people there from (ages) 21 to 91,” she said of the experience. “It was the first time many of us were in a place of all Black poets. That was the very first time I said, ‘I am a poet’ ... It was a life-changing moment because in 2011 my book of poetry, ‘Tongues in My Mouth,’ came out. Had I not become a (Cave Canem) fellow, I know my poetry would not have been as strong.”
Her view might seem at odds when compared against a career filled with many accolades and awards, including Worley’s poem “On this day, at this moment a ghazal,” published in “44 on 44: Forty-Four African American Writers on the Election of Barack Obama 44th President of the United States.”
But perseverance and determination are part of her nature, honed by generations of women who had to fight for the opportunity to better themselves. Worley’s third great-grandmother was a slave, while her grandmother, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi, became a 1940s cosmopolitan woman living in Chicago. Her mother was the second Black girl to integrate her white elementary school. Worley had 40 rejection notices from publishing contests and book publishers before Main Street Rag Publishing Company accepted her manuscript.
“That’s what gave me such strength, was to know the women who had made the way so that I could be here at this moment.”
Women’s voices factor strongly in the collection beginning with poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s quote, “Your silence will not protect you.” It’s a fitting line for poems dealing with issues like domestic violence, rape, oppression, redemption and freedom.
Some of the entries have real-life events as their inspiration. The crown of sonnets “Femicide/Femicidio ~ The Murdered and Disappeared Women of Ciudad Juarez, México” is about hundreds of women missing, mutilated or killed in that border locale since 1994, discarded as fugitives and prostitutes. In the last sonnet, Worley laments — like the Mexican women who have lost loved ones — over the Black women in Peoria who’ve met a similar, tragic fate.
Famed writer Kwame Dawes calls Worley’s work, “committed to the task of truth-telling and political daring” that combines “impeccable poetic timing” and “delicate management of sentiment and emotion.” Like Dawes, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Rob Prescott, who has served alongside Worley in the English department for 30 years, has enormous respect for her talents as well as her fortitude in bringing her work to fruition.
“I have a privileged understanding now of the profound inner strength she developed from her youth and throughout her amazing career,” he said. “You will catch glimpses of it in her poetry, and the compassion she feels for others’ struggles, trauma and triumphs that resonate with her own lived experience.”
However despite such praise, Worley has struggled with fallow stretches brought on by self-doubt.
“Our artistic talents do not die; sometimes they are forced to sleep and smolder waiting for fresh air so that combustion can begin again,” she wrote on her Facebook page in 2015. “I am a poet and for a 10-year period I did not write one word. Since I, as an individual, obtained the freedom to be myself, my words have never left me again. To everyone reawakening, welcome back into being yourself, and best wishes for the birth and life of your new self.”
A quiet, avid reader
Worley grew up in Chicago and developed a love of reading at age 4 when her mother taught her by pointing out letters and words in the newspaper. She and her two younger brothers made frequent trips to the library where Worley would get as many children’s books as she could carry. When she finished with those, she got permission to get books from the young adult section.
“I just learned so much about the world once I did that,” said Worley. “At night, I was in my bedroom and there was a little piece of light. I would sit there and read, then I’d go to sleep. But I still wanted to read.”
Her parents exposed her to as much of the world as possible, including opera, which confused the 8-year-old at the time. But her parents explained it was important for her to know what an opera was. More enjoyable were trips to the Ice Capades, museums and the zoo.
After earning an honorable mention for an eighth-grade essay in a Chicagowide contest, Worley began to consider a writing career. Her confidence grew when one of her short stories placed in a competition hosted by the Peoria Journal Star, followed by it placing at the national level.
“That really assured me that maybe I had talent.That’s what I came to Bradley with — a sense I could do creative writing — it’s when I probably started to take (writing) seriously.”