Kwame Dawes on Rhythm, Diaspora, and Political Poetry
"All poets are political. We are political by our noise and by our silence."
In October 2015, I attended a conference at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where I talked to PhD students about publishing and creative writing, and where I attempted to meet Kwame Dawes, the Chancellor’s Professor of English and Glenna Luschei editor of the Prairie Schooner, though I was greeted only by the exterior of his brown office door and a placard containing his name. (“Sorry, Kwame is out to lunch,” I was told by a staff member in Andrews Hall). Mr. Dawes’s reputation and presence is felt among these halls where, besides being known for his virtuosic poetry and teaching, he is talked about for his kindness and mentorship, a quality that proves invaluable to the dedicated students and writers at University of Nebraska. For me—the interloper of this university setting, the one trying to get a glimpse of Kwame never mind pick his brain—he is the embodiment of experimentalism and identity-seeking poetry, the point at which Jamaican and Ghanaian music and American culture meet.
Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962, but spent his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, his interests are rooted in the African diaspora and experience, but are vibrantly expressed by the Caribbean reggae aesthetic—an expression that gives his poetry musicality, movement, candor, buoyancy. He has published 21 poetry collections since his first book, Progeny of Air (Peepal Tree, 1994), and is the author of many other plays, fictions, articles, as well as the editor of numerous anthologies, including Eight New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, which publishes this spring from Akashic Press. Dawes has been awarded numerous prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship, an Emmy, and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
I emailed with Kwame to discuss his new work, the act of bringing more attention to African poetry and its role in the grand scheme of racial relations, and how musical roots inspire text.
Matthew Daddona: You have an impressive eight books coming out in 2016. How do you separate the business of publishing, editing, and marketing from the act of writing? How do you find the time?
Kwame Dawes: Well, they are separate, I suppose. I do the things that need to be done when they need to be done. Writing is a constant. I don’t recall ever saying that I don’t have time to write. My view is that there is far more time available to us than we think. But I also recognize that in life we set priorities and we somehow manage to allow those to carry us through. I like writing, so in very much the same way that I manage to find time to watch Hulu, Netflix, HBO, or ESPN, because I enjoy doing those things, I find time to write. I have a memory of hearing Lucille Clifton in a casual conversation with some younger writers responding to a question about how she managed to find time to write while raising a family of six children, saying simply, “I wrote shorter poems.” This resonated with me because it reflects Clifton’s commitment to her art, but also her willingness to admit that even as artists we are products of our world—all our experiences are part of the material that we employ in our art. So, how do I find time? Well, I had no idea it was lost.
MD: I’m interested in your commentary on lyrics and music, and the rhythmic current between them. Your book on Bob Marley was groundbreaking. Do you always write with a beat in your head? Are African writers such as yourself more attuned to hear that beat?
KD: Oh, I don’t think so. I think that good poets are attuned to the rhythms of the language they use, and better poets find a way to manipulate the possibilities in those rhythms to create something that carries those rhythms. There is very little that is complicated about rhythm or meter in poetry. We are trying to be sensitive to the rhythms inherent in all speech. We can find ways to track those meters and actually score them. Once we can score them, they become useful tools. In this sense there is a relationship to music, which is more obviously engaged with rhythm. I am sure I write with a beat in my head, but that beat is likely there because of the beats I have read, and the sounds I hear in speech of all kinds. When I edit, I listen for patterns, ways to create a deliberate effect with those patterns. Some African writers hear the King James Bible in their heads, some hear drums, some hear trees, and some hear the syntax of poems they have read and liked. In other words, I don’t think African poets are especially different from other poets in that sense. But in the same way that some people are great dancers, some poets are extremely gifted or well trained in the manipulation of rhythm.
MD: You published a poem called “Island Memory” on BOMB, where one stanza goes:
This archipelago is a trail
of memory. On this old path
I find a new poem, a new
way of seeing myself.
These are strange pauses—
young tender islands.
Could you talk about that stanza? What are you describing there?
KD: This is quite funny. One of the dangers of writing a lot of poetry is that I become something of a deadbeat dad to them. Which is why when people say that their poems are their children, I frown. No, no. I really love my children. I care about them. I remember their birthdays, I remember their names. Poems? Well, you know. Sometimes, like now, it takes me a minute to get over that sense of seeing them for the first time. I smell Kamau Brathwaite all over this poem—his elegant metaphors of the archipelago in poems like “Negus” and“Pebble” obviously influenced this piece. But it strikes me as an original lyric thought that poems are pauses, a qualifying of the less original, though quite true, thought that poems are a way of seeing myself. And so I am suggesting that my poems are like these islands of the Caribbean archipelago—connected and separated, at the same time, but wonderfully rich with possibility (which is Brathwaite again, “something torn and new…”).
MD: The forthcoming anthology you’ve edited with Chris Abani, New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Boxset, features eight chapbooks from emerging African poets, culminating in a beautiful boxed set. Is there a common theme that emerged from these writers, or a theme you found in collecting their work?
KD: I am sure that there are some connecting themes, but I have not paid attention to those. I am more interested in the wonderful variety of poetic styles and formal practices that are defining this work, which is as varied as the continent of Africa itself. And this is what we expected and what we find especially exciting. These are books that undergo a great deal of sensitive and engaged editing. We work hard to understand what the poets are trying to achieve and to work with them to achieve this as powerfully and movingly as possible. I think, though, that what Chris and I have seen is a certain dogged contemporary fixation—an urgent passion about writing the present in all is contradictions and complications. These are modern Africans, in the way that modernity is always in flux and shifting with time. They are not modernists—they are present and urgent.
The challenge of publishing African poets is not complicated. It is the challenge of entering a market that seems to have willfully failed to engage African poetry in any serious and concentrated way.
MD: What is the hardest challenge in releasing African poetry? Has the American market been resistant to it or has it, simply, never been bombarded by it? You’re a tastemaker for not just African poetry, but American poetry as well. Could you talk about where those distinctions and crossovers lay?
KD: I am resistant to the word “tastemaker.” Perhaps I do not know what it means. I certainly would not use that to describe myself. I have worked hard to understand a wide range of poetic traditions and the contemporary poetry that comes out of those traditions. In some instances, I am part of these traditions and I have grown as a writer as I have come to understand these traditions. The challenge of publishing African poets is not complicated. It is the challenge of entering a market that seems to have willfully failed to engage African poetry in any serious and concentrated way. Publishing poetry is challenging because we function in a world that is driven by models of value that are predicated on money—on capital. I believe that art has intrinsic value in itself, and that the creation of art should be a necessary feature of any society. I believe, therefore, that the arts should be subsidized if they cannot sustain themselves along the typical market values of capitalist societies. The challenge was always going to be to find the funds to make this possible. But the challenge for many publishing houses around African poetry has been a very weak acquisition model. Those who acquire books have either not been interested in African poetry or have been wholly ignorant of the poetry. By establishing an editorial structure and a network system that would allow us to solve that first problem, we got rid of one hurdle. Then winning the support of people like Laura Sillerman allowed us to find the funds to help subvent the cost of publishing these books and to, in the process, reduce the level of risk faced by those who have agreed to partner with us in publishing these books. We have worked to develop a genuine network of organizations, institutions and individuals who are influencers in Africa and stakeholders (as folks like to say) in the fate of the poetic arts in Africa. This has helped us to get things going. The model that we have created is a smart one, and one that has drawn on many successful enterprises that have managed to make a difference in the arts over the years.
MD: Which is where the African Poetry Book Fund comes in, right?
KD: The African Poetry Book Fund is a beautiful thing. Let’s be frank. It is obscene that before the African Poetry Book Fund emerged, one was hard-pressed to find a single press devoted exclusively to publishing African poetry written in English. Yes, there are a handful of presses in a few African countries that publish some poetry from those countries, and there are the occasional presses outside of Africa that have published some African poets. But no equivalent of a Copper Canyon, a Blood Axe Books, a Carcanet, etc. focused on African poetry. We did not start a press, but we started a publishing strategy that would function as a press in its devotion to acquiring work and building an active pipeline of African poets, in partnership with presses willing to work with us. I believe that this model has legs. And it has happened because of the ways in which publishing has changed, and because of what we have been able to do with advanced communication technology that we sometimes take for granted. The members of editorial team of the APBF live on three continents, and yet we feel as if we are a few rooms away from each other. Chris Abani, Bernardine Evaristo, John Keene, Matthew Shenoda, and Gebeba Baderoon are all brilliant and successful poets, and are all busy and seriously engaged individuals, and they are all remarkable volunteers who make this work happen.
MD: So are there future chapbook anthologies planned?
KD: Our initial goal is to publish a box-set each year for ten years. We have now completed three box-sets (hence the number “tatu” on this latest issue) with a total of 25 or 26 New Generation African Poets, and we are now working on the fourth. At ten years we will have published chapbooks by as many as 80 African poets. But we will also have published full-length volumes by about three or four poets a year and we will have brokered the publication of many other full-length books of poetry by other publishing enterprises. The goal is to see African poets published. There are many ways for poetry to be consumed. Books are not the only way, but books are one way. And African poets should appear in books as well. So we are committed to books. This is the strategy.
MD: I’m curious to learn your observations about the sharing or dissemination of poetry in Africa. How does that work?
KD: The challenge of answering this question is that Africa is treated as a thing that can be spoken of as a singular thing. Even I am forced to do this sometimes with reluctance. But it is important that we be conscious of this problem, and keep it in mind as we discuss such matters. As it happens, Africa is a massive and varied continent full of different countries, as you know. There are major cosmopolitan cities in every country in Africa and so everything you might imagine that happens in a 21st-century city will happen in an African city. Of course, there are cities that are under some strain in some parts of Africa, but those are conditions of our time. So of course there are “public readings,” “book launches,” “slams,” and much else around poetry in Africa. There are book festivals, there are workshops, and so on. But there are struggles. And these revolve around the publishing of poetry and the distribution of poetry in African countries. Like most other parts of the world, creative writing programs have not been common at colleges and universities in African countries. There are a few exceptions, but the culture of creative writing programs that proliferates in the U.S. is fairly unique and does not exist in African countries, nor does it exist in many other parts of the world, if we are to be honest. Also, there are very few prizes, fellowships and awards for poets in most African countries. We are trying to create opportunities for poets to get their work published. We believe that this can happen with greater attention to strengthening the mentoring of promising poets and expanding poets’ access to a wide range of contemporary writing from Africa and from around the world. We are joining forces with remarkable outfits like the Badilisha Poetry Exchange based in Cape Town, that has created a splendid online platform for African poets. As African poets start to know each others’ work, I believe that something quite important and necessary will happen.
Africa is treated as a thing that can be spoken of as a singular thing. Even I am forced to do this sometimes with reluctance. But it is important that we be conscious of this problem.
MD: For the 2015 Pen World Voices festival, you joined Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple and poet Ladan Osman and discussed the importance of diverse voices and particularly the publishing of Caribbean and African poets. Is there a sense that African poets are more political than U.S. poets?
KD: No. All poets are political. We are political by our noise and by our silence. I do not regard the label “political” as especially helpful in determining what is going to happen in the poems. When a poet writes racist poetry, she is being political. When a poet writes about trees, he is being political both by what he chooses to write about and what he chooses not to write about. So, no, I don’t think African poets are more political. But I think that we believe that if a poet writes about poverty, they are being political. I believe if a poet does not write about poverty, he is being political.
MD: I like that answer. I think of the countless quotations throughout history about how silence is sometimes protest. I guess I’m wondering about poetry’s role, particularly African-American poetry, in this American world of racial unrest. How or should or could poetry respond?
KD: I have asked myself that question. And by that I mean I have asked myself, “How do you respond to this Kwame?” And the very question actually answers the question for me. I am not asking Kwame, the poet, the question. I am asking Kwame, the person, the question. And Kwame, the person, has long understood that his body responds to things that happen to him and that he sees in multiple ways. As a poet, I have never tried to separate my person, my body, my world, from what I write about. And so I find that my work reflects the things that I experience and feel and think and so on. I admire Nikky Finney because she tries to do the hard thing. I admire Claudia Rankine because she tries to do the hard thing. The hard thing is to face the things that confuse us, that leave us feeling answerless, and then keep pushing in, keep thinking, keep staring at it and eventually trying to find a way through it—towards meaning or sincere response. It is hard work. But they, as Nikky Finney likes to say of poets, “cannot come to the page lightly.” I am grateful for them in the same way that I am grateful to Gerard Manley Hopkins for trying to find the language for his conflicted and broken relationship with God in “Carrion Comfort” or the way Kamau Brathwaite looks at the grand complicated and impossible history of black people in the diaspora and writes a beautiful poem, The Arrivants, about it all. Poetry is my companion through the world. I want to be the author of good companions for people.
MD: That Chris Abani “Taxonomy” poem you read at that same PEN event was particularly potent, with that refrain “Name it,” which takes on exclamatory properties as the poem goes on, an almost Amiri Baraka-sense of repetition and call-and-response. There’s this line: “Name it Africa is our heart.” What is the heart of Africa? What is the heart of Africans who write poetry or live in America?
KD: I think you have to ask Abani this. I think we must read his use of the word Africa in the same way we think of how Walt Whitman uses “America” or Langston Hughes evokes “America” in “I, Too,” and how Amiri Baraka uses “America” in “Who Blew Up America.” They are all constructing this incantatory synecdoche around a fetishizing of entities that are massive, grand, and complex. There is a long tradition of that kind of thing, and I suspect that the last thing that any of these men would want to do is to then proceed to say, “what is the heart of x?” For my part I have no answer to the question “What is the heart of Africa?” as much as I don’t have an answer to the question, “What is the heart of America?”, and America is a single nation that pretends to speak only one language, whereas Africa is 50-odd nations, with hundreds of languages, and thus with hundreds of worldviews and discourses, and cultures and much else. Someone might say, “The heart of America is Donald Trump.” Would we be cool with that? Well, it is true. But it is also true that the heart of America is Bey in formation. It is Prince at a Golden State Warriors’ game. It is Steph Curry’s three pointer. It is Hank Williams. It is corn.
The hard thing is to face the things that confuse us, that leave us feeling answerless, and then keep pushing in, keep thinking, keep staring at it and eventually trying to find a way through it—towards meaning or sincere response.
MD: Kwame, what is your aim as a poet/professor? Are there particular lessons you wish to impart on your students?
KD: As a professor I plan to continue to advance the critical and a scholarly work around writing from Africa and its diaspora. I see myself as someone who encourages, supports and produces this kind of work. I see myself as part of a long and impressive tradition of thought and creative endeavor and I want to give all I can to contributing healthily and productively to that tradition. I want to be a witness of how I found this world and how I left it eventually. I also teach the writing of poetry, but to say I teach poetry may be misleading. I have studied poetry, how to read it, how to write it, and how to enjoy it. I understand the craft, and I appreciate its mysteries. I have a deep respect for the tradition of the craft—for the practitioners of the craft of poetry. I think hard, wrestle valiantly, and make every effort to try to understand what a poet is trying to do. Then I believe my role is to help the poet do this thing better. I am a sympathetic reader who wants to see the work succeed, but I also work hard to understand why a poem may not succeed. If I can communicate this to another poet in a way that makes him or her want to keep writing and to get better at what he or she does, then I have done my job.
MD: Your new collection publishing this spring, City of Bones, focuses on the past and present African diaspora through lyrical poems. What “music” influenced you during the writing of this collection?
KD: Well the “music” is literal. I have said many times that I write out of a reggae aesthetic and this book is not different. There is much about gospel, the blues, jazz, American folk, highlife, classical music, great popular songwriters, and so on that undergirds this book. And perhaps most of all, I have so immersed myself in the music of August Wilson’s characters, in the splendid poetry of that abundant voice—or I mean voices—that I have quarreled with and embraced and fled from and returned to that music in poem after poem. The music in these poems is very close to home for me—and I have come close to achieving that strange collapsing of the rich noise of African and African Diasporic voices and sounds that exist in me. Yes, “noises sounds and sweets airs that give delight…” and decidedly hurt, because “when it hits, you feel no pain.” It is a brutal beauty, I hope. And can I say that this book is extremely dear to me because I think I am writing poems that are urgently about where we are. They are lyric poems, and I am grateful for the great pleasure they have given to me. Hopefully they will give others pleasure.
Feature photograph by Eliza Griffiths.