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Credit: Chris Abani

 

An interview with Kwame Dawes, multiple award-winning author of twenty-one books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays.

He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. He was recently honored with a Windham-Campbell prize for his “poetry of compassion, moral seriousness, and depth that resonates across continents”.

In this exclusive interview with Kwame Dawes, we talked about his latest award: the Windham-Campbell Prize, his commitment to African and Caribbean literature particularly, love for music, interest in place and mobility, partnerships on furthering literary developments, and so on.

 ***

 

Umezurike

I want to begin by congratulating you on the Windham-Campbell Prize and asking you how you feel about receiving such an illustrious recognition for your dedication to literary excellence. Your being honored with such an outstanding award means a great deal to many young African-Caribbean writers who look up to you. What does this prize do for you? What is going to change for you now or what has possibly changed since you found out that you were one of the eight awardees? How would you evaluate its significance to your practice and career?

 

Dawes

I will be honest and say that I am still trying to work out how to answer this question. The curious thing is that the expectation is that the prize will change my life. My anticipation is that it will not, not because it is not a massively significant thing, but because I have learned for years to shape my life as a writer around a stable space of discipline and pleasure that is unaffected by loss, tragedy, want or great gain. I have limited control over the circumstances of my life, of what people say about my work, of how much money I have because of my work, and so when I was eighteen, with no pennies to rub together, I vowed personally to my art, that old vow, “for better or for worse, for richer or for power, in sickness or in health…etc.” I have held to that. I am grateful that this award places no obligations on the recipient but recognizes that writers live in the world, have bills, have credit woes, have families, and so on. So, this prize will be useful to me, to my family, to the things and people I value. I suspect that the prize will bring my name to more people—I believe they call it fame. I have enough irony in me to appreciate the fleeting fickleness of this thing, and frankly, it does not interest me greatly. Many years ago, I was selected by a Canadian outfit as one of the “almost famous” writers. At the time, I imagined myself way past “emerging,” and so my friends had a good laugh at me for my mediocrity. At the end of the day, a cluster of people came together, considered my work among the work of thousands of writers, and deemed it worthy of this award. That is genuinely gratifying and affirming. I will tell you something funny, a few days after the announcement, I got a letter of rejection from a major residency, reminding me, of course, that I may well be still “almost famous.” Many have written to congratulate me, and the ones I am touched by are those from younger writers who say, “It gives me hope.” I am not sure what is their motivation for what we do, and I try to instill that idea of the contract or vow with our art and our self as the driver—I hope this is what comes through at the end of the day. Nothing was promised to any of us.

 

Umezurike

You have been called the busiest man in literature. Your body of work reflects this compellingly. Now, you have this “significant gift from Windham,” do you see yourself slowing down a little and going for a vacation soon? Or do you still feel the pressure to remain as productive as ever?

 

Dawes

Well, I am absolutely certain I am not the busiest man in literature. I like the James Brown of it that Kevin LeGendre was alluding to when he called me that so many years ago. But can you imagine James Brown “slowing down”?  No, nothing will change. I really do find space for my life and for the people I love. That is not a money thing, it is a priority thing. So, no, nothing will change.

 

Umezurike

It sometimes strikes me that writing is an act of attempting to affirm one’s beingness, or inscribe some sort of transcendence on the face of the world. As if being a writer, one is compelled to write against time, against space, against [one’s] death. If I may ask, what do you think you are writing against – or writing for?

 

Dawes

I don’t mean this flippantly, but I don’t know. The things you list do sound rather lofty to me, and at the same time they seem quite ordinary in the way that all humans must contend with the question of the meaning of things, and the fact of our mortality. So, I am not so sure that it is writing per se that drives us to these places, rather, it is reflection, contemplation and thought, and what writing does is leave some kind of record of these things. I am not writing “against” death, but in response to the fact of my death. I suppose, philosophically, that is not an especially novel idea and so many great writers and artists have written about this a lot. On the more personal level, I recognize that there is something absurd about trying to “exist” beyond one’s death. In truth, what is happening is that one is trying to enjoy the imagined prospect of living beyond one’s death. When the biblical philosophers declare, “all is vanity, a chasing after the wind,” or when Beckett observes wryly in Godot, “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” theirs is an observation of the fate of the dead as observed by the living. We lament at how our ancestors have been forgotten, how time consumes memory, and so on, and so we, through a peculiar quality of empathy and fear, wish something else for ourselves.  We therefore build pyramids, and hope. We write great books, and hope. We establish endowments and hope. But I do want to leave something for my family to return to, for my children and if and when they have children, for their children and so on. And maybe I want that to be expanded to my “people,” my “tribe,” such that if I can make something of value in the world, something that speaks to the truth of my lived world, then those who come after me will have that to think about, to witness, to enjoy. The fantasy of longevity is the pleasure, not the reality, because I will be dead by then, if you see what I mean. But here is the truth. I don’t go to the page with any of that in mind. It is enough to find the strength and confidence to make a poem each day than to have to freight on it all that weight. No, publishing does that, archiving does that, diaries, do that. At the end of the day, making art is very present for me, very NOW.

 

Umezurike

I am interested to hear about your earliest contact with music since critics have often highlighted its influence (reggae and jazz) in your poetry. What is your sense of the relationship between music and poetry? I am curious to know which musicians are your favorites. Which poets would you be caught reading their work more than once? What do you look for while reading a poem?

 

Dawes

I am not sure how I can describe my earliest contact with music. I have grown up, like most people born since the advent of the record player, the radio and the emergence of broadcast culture, with music as a ubiquitous presence. I also grew up in Ghana and so I heard songs attached to church, to traditional culture, to theater, to rituals of age and much more. My father, a Jamaican living in Ghana, used music, songs from his childhood, folk tales and popular songs, to teach us something about Jamaica—that other place for us. So, music has occupied my life, and singing songs has not been far from us. Indeed, we have fascinating family legends around music, including an amusing story of marching through JFK in the early sixties singing the International. One of the ways I got to connect with and become assimilated into Jamaican culture when we moved there in 1971, was through listening to popular reggae music on the radio. A young woman and friend of the family who was a fledgling actress, had, for some reason, one of the most impressive Rock Steady and Ska record collections in her possession.  When she stayed with us, we played her music. She introduced me to all the Jamaican music that was popular in the decade before I arrived on the island. The fact is that while we were not trained musicians or child prodigies by any stretch, we were a family of kids that liked music, sang, chanted, learned lyrics by heart collected records, taped music from the radio and on and on. Not remarkable. But I was fortunate to come of age at a time when roots reggae was in its zenith of maturity and power. I knew then, even at a young age, that something important and historical was happening, and I paid attention. When I was eighteen years old, I was teaching part time in a high school, and I experimented with using deejay lyrics to teach the poetry of Wordsworth. I used the lyrics to teach the students all the elements of prosody, the literary terms, and much else. I did this out of desperation and instinct. Music continues to engage me. I have never questioned the poetry of song lyrics. My view has been for a long time that the song lyric is merely another poetic form with its own rules and demands. I wish I could say I have a greater command of music theory and even all the nuances of jazz. I have a practical relationship with music. I played in a band, I have written many, many songs, I have performed, and I have written a good deal about music and its cultural relationship to poetics and aesthetics with my fairly limited command of music theory. I also know that there is musicality in poetry simply because poetry, as with much considered and deliberate language, engages with rhythm, sound, and repetition—all of which are present in music. Poetry is an aural form of art in as much as it is engaged on the page; it is performative and that allows us to use the language of music, both as metaphor and as practical and actual language, to discuss and understand poetry. About what poets I read. I read so much poetry as an editor, as a reviewer and as a teacher, that I probably return to writers I admire a great deal simply because I have to teach them or talk about them. I will confess that being a poet makes reading poetry a peculiar challenge because as much as I read for enjoyment and pleasure, I tend to want to, if moved by work, respond to it, be challenged by it as a writer, or write against what I have read. I read some writers to test the quality of my work after years of practice. I suppose the more poetic books of the Bible are distracting enough for their teachings, their meditative qualities and for their uncanny familiarity, to allow me to enjoy them or at least return to them without the tyranny of imitation coloring the reading. But this is the cost of being a professional, I suspect. One is fully aware of what is going on under the hood and so one wants to understand this more, to test it, to discover the tweaks and the variations, and so on. So, I know you are looking for a list, but I won’t supply you with one.  “Favorites” are always flawed because one never remembers all.

 

Umezurike

In Requiem, the poem “Burial at Sea” inspired me to write a poem about bones under the sea. The dead bones of migrants. Permit me to share a few lines with you: “if they don’t speak/of bones in brine/hands for/remains that the water doesn’t keep/if they don’t feel.” Can you say a little about how poetry can help us to have conversations around the growing “horror of this crossing” in the Mediterranean? Is poetry powerful enough to articulate such ungraspable image? What is the place of poetry in today’s politics of fear and hate?

 

Dawes

I am certain that language is always inadequate if what it is being compared to is reality. And yet, I would temper that statement with the suggestion that memory, and the rituals of remembering are not the equivalent of experience, but they constitute a necessary and profoundly human dynamic that allows us to cope with trauma and to delight in beauty. Language, and in this instance, poetry, offers a way to preserve and retrieve experience, and in this sense it’s perhaps even more powerful than experience for it seeks to find the language to repeat the experience and to interrogate the implications of the experience, the nuances of the experience, the complexities of the experience, the varied range of truths contained in the experience.  Language allows us to reflect and poetry is, by practice, reflective—it is founded on the notion that we are considering language to achieve meaning. This consideration is not a small thing, it is an important thing. So just as our humanity has routinely and doggedly sought art to record experience and to enact the function of memory for long enough to turn it into a fact of prehistorical experience, it seems to me that poetry offers a way to construct our engagement with the past. For years Africans have lamented the absence of monuments to commemorate the middle passage and its horrors, and so have sought to build virtual monuments in art. Those existing monuments, whether in fiction, in music, in art, in film, in music, or poetry, have shaped my own sense of how to build a monument of honor and remembrance. So, my list is long and inexhaustible, but here are some. Requiem was written as a letter to Tom Feelings in response to his remarkable artwork in his book, The Middle Passage: White Ships-Black Cargo, and I am indebted to him for that truly monumental and haunting work. You will hear echoes of great reggae anthems by Burning Spear, Third World, Peter Tosh, the Congos, Bob Marley and The Wailers, dancing through this work. And the music of Nina Simone, Quincy Jones, Sweet Honey in the Rock, is important here. Toni Morison is a giant literary presence at the heart of this work, and for poetry, the works that helped shape the book include: Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, David Dabydeen’s Turner, Walcott’s Omeros, Elizabeth Alexander’s American Sublime, and Marlene Nourbese Phillips’ Zong, to name a few. And in theatre I find myself deeply shaped by the work of August Wilson and Dennis Scott in the making of this work.  Poetry, like all art, is essential to our lives today. I appreciate that we like to speak of “these times” as especially remarkable, and who am I to say they are not? But what I will say is that much of what I see around me is very, very familiar, and so my work continues as is true of the work of other artists. It is attractive to speak of “these times” as special because it a twisted way it exonerates those who held sway in “better times” from culpability in the horrors we see today. As a writer, made the way I am, I can’t accept these illusions. “If you know your history, then you will know where I am coming from./ You won’t even have to ask me/ Who the hell do I think I am.”

 

Umezurike

What insights have you garnered over the years from your commitment towards promoting and publishing literature? In hindsight, what career would you have pursued if you hadn’t found poetry or is it the other way around? Can you talk a little about what poetry mean to you? Why does poetry matter at all?

 

Dawes

The short answer is that I have never been able to speak of myself as being a professional poet, despite what I may have said about being “professional” earlier. Of course, I allow for the possibility that one can be professional in whatever one is doing, and by that I mean proficient, disciplined, focused, driven and assured—perhaps there is another word for this.  My profession is that of a teacher. I have always expected to write whether I taught, practiced law, or played in a band. I suppose I don’t confuse the two things. I have never imposed on my art, the pressure to feed me. This is not a luxury nor is it a commitment to the notion of the “starving artist”. It is simply an acceptance of the conception that my devotion to my work will be mitigated by how well I do that work, and not by how well I am paid financially for doing that art. Maybe it is an immigrant’s pragmatism that has become something of a source of freedom. I do not recommend this approach to most people, especially Americans who like to monetize everything that they deem to be valuable. I was not raised like that, and so I am unable to think in those terms. I decided to be a teacher when I was seventeen years old. I wanted to teach.  I saw something valuable in teaching and I recognize in it something that I did quite well and enjoyed doing.  I am doing what I have wanted to do since then and I suspect that is my profession.  My father was a teacher, so was my grandfather. I have siblings who are teachers. I am good with that. I also write—but that sits on me like my identity practiced sits on me. I am happy to be paid for the art I do. And I am helped when I am valued for what I do, or better put, when what I do is valued.  I also am, not shy in asking to be paid for the work I do.  I hope I am being clear.  The difference is that I do not do these things to be paid. I do not write well to be paid.  I have many friends who have a completely different view, and I am smart enough to know that all artists must find their own engine to delude them into making art.  At the end of the day, the art is the thing. So, maybe, I can’t answer the question you are asking because it presumes an either/or praxis: write or do something else.  I have found myself to be a both/and type.

 

Umezurike

The nomadic life is something you are familiar with, right from your childhood. What is it about movement that fascinates you? Why is it important for you to address issues of movement in your poetry? How have your sojourns in different continents and wanderings around the world affected your sense of what home is, and what truths have you gleaned thereof? Do you still grapple with the idea of home? Or is it something you have let go due to age and time?

 

Dawes

I would only use the term “nomadic” metaphorically, and even then, rather carelessly and irresponsibly. And if I have ever described it as a problem or a challenge to be solved, I may have over dramatized things a tad. The fact is that I have found home in various places. I have always been clear about that. The process of finding home in various places is something that people do routinely and increasingly in this shrinking world. So, of course, I am interested in the philosophical and practical implications of “home” because there is lots of good art contained in it as an idea. I believe that all writers, at least the ones that I admire a great deal, are trying to contend with the idea of home, the meaning of it—the meaning of belonging and un-belonging.  So, if the sense is that I have “grappled” with home in the past, then since I don’t think much has changed for me in that regard, I will say that I am still interested in the meaning and implications of home.

 

Umezurike

Talk Yuh Talk (interviews with Anglophone Caribbean poets) remains influential in Caribbean literature and it helped me frame my ongoing interviews with Nigerian poets, some of which have been published in Brittle Paper and Africa in Words. I wonder if you see yourself doing something similar (like the Book Fund) for Caribbean poetry. Is it something you have given some thought to?

 

Dawes

The thought has occurred to me, of course, but it is important to say that every single one of the many initiatives I have started has been strategic and addressing a need in the most effective and most impactful way possible. While there are some similarities across various countries and societies, the truth is that each region, each field and each circumstance demands a strategy tailored for it.  The truth is that with the advent of Peepal Tree Press 20 odd years ago, Caribbean writing, especially Caribbean poetry, was given an important gift: a venue where the poets’ work could be considered for publication at a most professional level. Virtually every year on the short list of the premiere literary prize in the Caribbean, The Bocas Prize, Peepal Tree boasts multiple books on the list.  That says a great deal.  Compounded by the presence of a knowledgeable and generous editor like Jeremy Poynting, a man who has never lost sight of the importance of trying ensure a publishing culture that does not replicate the old colonial patterns, committed to creating a space for writers to have a publishing “home” and to define the tradition in which they are working, the Caribbean has been fortunate. So Caribbean poetry has had something that African poetry has not had in a long time, and one could argue, barely had with the Heinemann series. But Africa is not the Caribbean.  Just the mere scale of things is worth noting.  So while there is much to be said for creating models across the post colonial world, it is critical that we understand the scale of size that drives any effort to achieve something continent-wide in Africa.  APBF was a response to this absence. But you are right in recognizing that Talk Yuh Talk was driven by a desire to establish a collective sense of Caribbean poetry and thus seed critical responses to the work of Caribbean poets. This, I felt, was a necessary intervention. The Calabash International Literary Festival Trust was established to offer workshops, seminars and a context for the celebration and development of Caribbean writing. Poetry and fiction, especially, benefited from the series of workshops and seminars and the international festival that Calabash brought to Caribbean writing. The repercussions and ripples, if you will, are easy to see in the plethora of literary festivals in the region that have followed Calabash, and in the attention that Caribbean writers have received because of that platform. Few people know this, but the first poetry box-sets I initiated were done for Caribbean writers through Calabash. Before The New Generation African Poetry Box Set Series, I also established a successful chapbook series for South Carolina poets—so there is precedence. My current enterprise in the Caribbean is to engender the establishment of viable literary presses in the region, and through a series of collaborations and partnerships, we are about to roll out the first of these enterprises that I believe can have a tremendous impact on Caribbean writing and publishing. At the same time, we are not done with Africa. Amongst other things, we are trying to look closely at poetry book distribution across the continent and to arrive at some strategies to improve that process. And, of course, we are embarked on major digital and archiving work with African poetry and poetics that is tremendously necessary and exciting.  So much work to do.  My point is that I tend to find myself developing initiatives in response to needs that are just not being met. So far, so good.

 

Umezurike

You have collaborated with Chris Abani, Matthew Shenoda, John Kinsella, and Kevin Simmonds. Would you like to talk a little bit about these collaborations? What have the experiences been like? Are there some highpoints that you still fondly remember? I wonder if you can elaborate a bit.

 

Dawes

The list of people I have partnered with on so many projects is tremendous. I remain grateful for these partnerships because, frankly, nothing we have done would be possible without these partnerships. At the top has been the ongoing partnership with my wife Lorna, who has helped shape every effort I have been involved with.  From the days we worked together while in Fredericton, Canada, in 1991, putting together the 100 plus letters of application for teaching jobs around the world, dreaming, worrying, hoping and then acting with the sense that each move was defining our future in profound ways.  Matthew Shenoda and Chris Abani are dear friends and men with whom I share the passion for poetry, for family, for culture, music, and jokes. But these are smart and generous people and I see them as people who I can turn to in crisis and when I need brilliant people with skill, clout, experience and humor. We think alike. They were grounding figures in the formation of APBF and we have continued to partner in public and private ways on so many things. The APBF editorial team is one of the most efficient, generous, brilliant, and resourceful groups of people I have ever worked with.  John Keene, Matthew Shenoda, Chris Abani, Bernardine Evaristo, Aracelis Girmay, Phillippa ya De Villiers, and Gabeba Baderoon are all tremendous artists in their own right, but great collaborators in this work.  My work with John Kinsella is a special partnership because it is purely about writing in conversation with each other and in the process, we have become good friends. I have never actually met John, but we have written four books of poetry together already and the number keeps growing. He is also a brilliant writer, and a man deeply committed to the environment and to social justice issues. Kevin Simmonds is a long-standing friend of mine who has worked with me as a musician, setting my work to music and with whom I have performed a great deal of work. You may know that Kevin is a remarkable poet whose work should be read by many.  Partnerships have ranged from the efforts I have seen bear fruit with Bernardine Evaristo, Charlene Monahan Spearen, Marianne Kunkel, Jeremy Poynting, Johnny Temple, Andre Lambertson, Sope Olyalaran, and the list goes on. Two of my most impactful friendships and partnerships have been with the amazing Justine Henzell and Colin Channer. Most people know of our partnership in the formation of the Calabash International Literary Festival, but the things we have schemed and made happen and continue to make happen is quite significant. No doubt, I am leaving out so many people.

 

Umezurike

Thank you very much for your time, Kwame!

Dawes

And thank you, too, Uche.

 

 

*****************

About the Interviewer

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar at the department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta. His research interests include postcolonial literatures, print culture, gender and sexuality studies. An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), his work has appeared in several print anthologies such as On Broken WingsDream Chasers, MigrationsAfrican Roar 2011, Daughters of Eve and Other StoriesWork in Progress & Other StoriesA Generation Defining Itself (Vol. 8),Weaverbird CollectionNew Nigerian WritingWater TestamentCalvacadeAuthor Africa, and Camouflage, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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