Kwame Dawes is the author of nineteen books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. He has edited over a dozen anthologies. His latest collection, Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon) appeared in 2013. 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.
Interview carried out by Jack Little.
Published in issue 39 of The Ofi Press.
1. How important is collaboration for you in your art?
At its core, I do believe that all art is collaborative whether the collaboration is conscious or unconscious. And by collaborative I mean that all art emerges out of some kind of engagement with other art whether that art is from the long tradition of artistic expression in our world, or whether it is a calculated gesture of two or more artists working to create new art together. It is in these ways that I regard collaboration as important to me. But I should not mislead. The extent of collaboration is dictated by the genre. Writing for the stage is inherently collaborative. I expect actors, designers, directors, musicians, promoters and so many other people to be involved in some way in the production of what I have written. I have to think about them at some point in the process of writing and rewriting. I do not have to think of so many people in the same way when I am writing a short story, a novel or a collection of poems. When I write a song, I am usually writing it for a whole band or gathering of musicians to bring their creative talent to bear on the work. A significant part of that creative process has to be filled with consideration, and it has to be marked by the gesture of serving someone else’s art. I enjoy such work. But I also enjoy the work that entails serving my own impulses and talents and feelings. I can confess here that as a writer, I allow myself to be influenced by or challenged by the work of other artists—whether they be writers, photographers, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, sculptors, painters, architects, etc. I like to place myself in brilliant artistic spaces and allow that encounter, that elation of being moved by art created by extremely talented people working at the top of their games, to serve as a trigger for me to want to make art—this trigger is a beautiful thing. And the business of seeking out such triggers is willful, calculated and part of my creative practice. Strictly speaking, these are not collaborations because the complicity of the other artist(s) is not necessary for me to do this work. Indeed, I don’t care whether they know that I am "collaborating" with them, and more often than not, I do not acknowledge this “collaboration” anywhere near the finished product. But anyone who knows my work—anyone who has encountered my work in the public sphere will know that I also get deeply involved with complicit collaborations. Typically, these collaborations foreground the idea of performance, and in my case, much of this work is driven by the coming together of artists who are interested in finding a way to join together talented work created to make something new—something that is what it is in its own right. Such collaborations, like the poetry, music and photography projects that I have done with musicians Kevin Simmonds and John Carpenter, and photographers, Josh Cogan and Andre Lambertson are extremely exciting for me, but I can’t say that they prompted my writing. In fact, my writing often preceded this conversation, and so did their own work. Then in conversation, we saw something happen that is just simply distinctive. A few days ago, Kevin Simmonds (a remarkable poet in his own right) posted a performance of my poem “Skin” set against his amazingly moving musician composition performed by one of the most inspiring set of musicians I have ever worked with. There is a recording of me performing this piece with the group, but Kevin’s performance of the piece is a revelation. There are few better examples of the nature and power of collaboration in creating something that could not exist without collaboration that this performance of “Skin”, especially in the version that does not include my voice.
2. Do you think poetry can be a vehicle for change in society? Or does it have a different role?
Poetry, as with much of art, can allow us to practice the art of empathy. Empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination—the capacity to imagine how someone else is feeling or seeing. Poetry demands that we engage this capacity to imagine in empathetic ways. Not all poetry does this, but most of poetry does. Empathy is not merely a gesture of feeling, but a gesture of intellect, an act of willfully transporting oneself into someone else’s space. I believe that this gift is one that has to be practiced. I believe the capacity to empathize can atrophy. We know this by the ways in which we train assassins and soldiers to somehow suspend empathy in order to be effective on the battlefield. Some of the greatest politicians have a striking deficit of empathy—it makes them better politicians, but it diminishes their capacity to be functioning human beings. I am not going to begin a campaign against the psychic wounds we inflict on our people in an effort to survive in a dangerous world, but I am suggesting that art, and especially poetry, can introduce this impulse towards empathy in ways that can affect change. So yes, poetry does change things as long as we people use the capacity to empathize and feel with can change things. Racism, after all, is predicated on a failure (willful or otherwise) to empathize with those who seem different from us. I believe that while the precepts of my faith, the healing of the wash of love that comes through community in this faith, has played a major and miraculous role in making me a better human being, my immersion into the world of art, into the rich and beautiful imaginations of artists over the millennium has played a significant role in shaping me, granting me a capacity to feel with and a desire to try to understand people who are quite different from me. That said, poetry should not be mistaken as a substitute for action, for protest, for voting, for resistance, for teaching, for feeding those who must be feed, for an embrace, for solidarity, and where necessary, for sacrifice. When Marley invokes the idiom “talk is cheap” in his song “Heathen” he is not suggesting that we should not talk, he is rather saying that while it is easy to say “What a man sow shall he reap”, it does not make it any less true. Poetry is, in that sense, “cheap”, but “the hotter the battle, a de sweeter the victory.”
3. In a previous interview with Guernica Magazine you mentioned how your biography reflects “constant migrations, and the contraction of our sense of what is near and what is far”. Do you believe that connection and interconnection is important for poets?
I am fascinated by this question because I think it is touching upon something that is really hard to explain about the creative process, and here I mean the process for me, although I suspect it works for others. I do find that one of the great pleasures of writing is the strange absence of assurance and exactness that it constitutes. In other words, I actually believe that the notion of coming at something “slant” is less about the finished product of what we write, but about the way we can create a willful ignorance and uncertainty around us which then allows us to discover things that we may not have really known about ourselves, things we did not know we knew. This thing is based on the haunting knowledge that I have always had that I really “know” only the tiniest percentage of what I more deeply “know”. Science seems to suggest that we are barely scratching the surface of our brain’s capacity, and I have a feeling that this is fundamentally true. After all, I often feel decidedly daft about so much. And even when I speak with certainty and authority, I am usually aware that I am acting, basically pretending that I am assured. It is a necessary pretense since we would just not be able to get anything done if we did not allow for this pretense. So the lack of constant connectedness (as you put it) strikes me as a necessary condition for discovering through writing. And so very often writing poetry helps me to know things that I did not know I knew. I do enjoy the revelatory pleasure of this part of the process. That said, I also think that there is something necessary about being aware of those connections that form us. I believe that the assurance of home, of family, of culture, of tradition—all of these things, which constitute a certain kind of stable connection—are necessary for artists to be able to make themselves vulnerable to the riches of ignorance. I struggle to explain this, but I will try. One of the most pernicious effects of colonialism was to deprive the colonized of any sense of centeredness and connection with self and culture. Colonialism placed the value of culture in the hands of the colonizer, leaving the colonized with a sense of cultural inadequacy and hopelessness. This was not accidental. It was by design. It was a willful violence. And this is why one of the more important (for the artist) acts of de-colonization has been to recover a sense of rootedness in one’s culture, in one’s cosmology, in one’s understanding of the world. “Roots natty roots,/ Dread bingy dread,/ I and I a de root”. This is Bob Marley’s claim in his revelatory and prophetic song “Roots”. “Got to survive,” he sings, “In this man made down-pression”. The collective “I and I” is at the same time a singular pronoun. The claim that inside of us lies our root, our grounding, our foundation, is such a powerful and necessary act against the colonial enterprise, and frankly, all of Rasta is engaged in a creative and necessary act of recovery—spiritual, cultural, geographical, philosophical and aesthetical. So as a writer I seek grounding in reggae, in Ghana, in Jamaica, in the black diaspora, in the affirmation of my cultural and racial identity even when that racial identity is a product of racism. It is complicated. But this rootedness, as much it it grants assurance, also allows space for discovery, for uncertainty and for the great space inside of which art can thrive, flourish and satisfy.
4. Where do you consider “home”?
I live with my family in Lincoln, Nebraska, and that is home. I travel to South Carolina where I lived for 19 years, and when I do, I have the distinct sense that I am going home. When I go to Jamaica, I know I am going home. I say I am going home. My siblings and my mother live there. And when I travel to Ghana I know I am going home. My cousins are there. I was born there. That, too is home. Home as a concept, is only useful when it is serving some practical purposes. Home is sometimes a shelter. Home may not always be a place we like to be. Sometimes home can betray us. We can be connected to home, shaped by home and still fear home. And home keeps shifting with the pragmatics of our lives. Sometimes when say home we are not speaking of a physical place by a memory—a landscape of the memory—and for many of us that is a palpable a home as any. In our world of constant migrations, the idea of home can seem quite unreliable. And yet, we have to negotiate our homes with a sense of assurance and sometimes, no small amount of jealousy when we see people who have so little doubt about what their home is—after all, they can show us the graves that go back centuries, they can show us the homestead or the building that has been in the family for centuries and centuries. So that, too is part of what home is. We know that when we claim a place as home, we are violently wrenching something from someone else. And so psychic homes appeal to me. For years I have answered this question by saying that home is where I want to be buried. And in some ways I think this is true even if in the most academic sense. After all, there is no necessary connection between where I want to be buried and where I want to live. The dead cannot be murdered, the dead cannot be raped, the dead cannot starve—the dead communes with the dead, and so some homes where burial would be lovely are likely places where the living would simply not be lovely (unless, of course, we are trying to hasten the journey to the home of the dead). I do envy those who have a simple answer to this question. But my answer is not simple. I do like the complication of this.
5. What would you say is the most important marker of your identity? (Nationality, occupation, etc.) How does this impact upon your writing?
So-called “markers of identity” are relative to where one is, I suspect. I am never a black man in Jamaica. Not really, although when I am on the tourist crowded North Coast, I am. I certainly am not a black man in Ghana. In fact I feel more Jamaican in Ghana than anything else. I just have to open my mouth and the game is up. In Haiti I try not to speak when I can, so that everyone will assume I am Haitian. But even when I do speak, I know I am, in so many ways, connected to the African people of Haiti. But in Lincoln, Nebraska, I am a black man. In America, my blackness is definitely a marker in that I am made aware of it more often than not. I hear some people say they do not walk around aware of their color. I would love that, but I am always aware of my color in America because I need to be aware of how people see me and the baggage that comes with what they see—some of it magical and some of it not so magical. But my race does not affect how or what I write, not in a direct way. Indeed, I make every effort not to think about how I write in those defining ways. I am aware that how I write has been shaped by the complex pool of my discourse, but I try not to foreground this while I write because I write in the most isolated place I can think of—in my head. And there the possibilities are wonderfully varied. I suppose the fact that I am a man of fifty-two years represents a marker for me. I am a man. That is a clear marker. It defines me in many ways. I suppose being a man with a Ph.D., is a marker for me. I suppose being married to a woman for twenty-four and half years is a marker for me. I suppose being a father of three is a marker for me. I suppose being Jamaican is a marker for me. I suppose not being Jamaican is a marker for me. My point is that I can’t imagine that “markers” mean anything until they mean something. When I walk into a classroom, I am a teacher. If the students don’t expect this from me, they will pretty quickly. It’s what I do. The last thing I offer as a marker is that of being a poet. I am not willing to entertain the idea that being a poet makes me a certain kind of human being. If it does, I don’t want to know what that kind of human being is, because the moment that I start paying attention to it, I will somehow lose myself in the marker and not in the thing I do, which, among other things, is to make poems.
6. Do faith and spirituality have an important role to play in your life?
I am a Christian. There is a narrative of my faith that involves of a journey through culture, identity, family, and intellectual wrestling with the meaning of faith. But at the end of the day, my declaration of faith does not fall into the category of proclamation, but the mere description of a condition. That I call it a condition may sound a tad heretical, but it actually is not. At the end of the day while I use language of choice for my faith, the truth is that this faith came upon me, chose me and has, mercifully, stayed with me despite it all. But I was always open to the orthodox notion of Christian faith, but at the time of fullest openness, I was sixteen years old and in those formative moments, a series of occurrences created the myth of my faith—touchstones, if you will, that I cannot dismiss. So that is my condition—a believer. But as much as this is a defining part of my identity—a marker, if you will—it is manifest in my work simply by the presumption of feeling, thought, and the way of understanding the world that I can’t slip away from. My work, as I have said, reflects my discourse, which I would define as the stuff of my life. Tellingly, the task of my life as an artist is to find the language that is most able to capture the complicated truthfulness of my faith. And even the most rudimentary understanding of lived Christianity would reveal that inconsistency; confusion, fear, joy, assurance, anxiety, uncertainty, anger and much more are all part and parcel of this condition. Briefly, I was anxious that I would lose my credibility as an intelligent person by engaging this faith, but that idea was quickly undermined by the recognition that those who claimed intellectual superiority by their lack of faith were in many ways mis-locating their notion of intelligence. Anyway, being a fool is quite engaging in the right hands. So the question of my faith and its relationship to my writing is moot. Above all, I live according to what I understand to be the tenets of my faith. My writing reflects the full range of complications that surround this faith. Trying to therefore discern the meaning of my faith through my writing may prove disappointing. But it is what it is.
7. How was your experience in Mexico during the Mexico City Poetry Festival? How did it compare with other cultural centres around the world?
I have more than survivor’s Spanish so the sensation of my visit to Mexico City was, not, as it is in some cities where the language is a complete mystery to me, one of trying to make one’s way underwater—meaning muffled and shaded by the confounding way of an alien language. No, in Mexico City the sensation was of one constantly coming up for air into a brilliant and visually stimulating world of color and meaning, followed by the merciful dip down into the depth of silence and shadow to rest the weary brain. So much for metaphors. The truth is that I enjoyed my time in Mexico City less so for what I saw in the city, which was not more, but more so for the exchanges with poets from around the world and from Mexico. Some poetry festivals assume the existence of a poetry sub-culture, and this festival is exactly that kind of festival. There is something affirming about this. I found the audiences to be engaged and generous. I was especially moved by the kindnesses shown to me by members of the audiences with whom I spoke after my readings. I would love to return for an extended visit—long enough for my Spanish not to be a strenuous act of constant mental translation, and long enough for me to tick off various people and places that I want to see. One of the great gifts of the visit was my chance to find Zurita’s latest book of poems that I knew was printed in Mexico and which I could not find online. I found it in a lovely bookstore. The book is one of the most beautiful works of printing I have seen. The simplicity of the binding, and the way the thing flops open at every page like a leather-bound worn bible would is something to behold. The poetry is not half bad either. And then there is this thing I tweeted. I heard someone say, “Maestro, maestro!” I looked around to see to whom he was calling. And then I realized he was calling me. This moved me immensely. That said, the most overwhelming sensation about my visit was the clear sense that there is a rich store of learning ahead of me as I think of Mexico, its history and its remarkable models of cultural practice; its arts, and its contributions to world literature. I relish what I do know, but relish even more my ignorance. I do because I can look forward to tremendous discoveries.
8. Can we hope to see any collaborative projects between yourself and Mexican writers in the near future?
We have had some discussions about the publication of a collection of poems by me in Spanish. I am hoping that this will happen. It would be great to return to Mexico to launch such a book. And this time, I promise I will read my poems in Spanish. I left with quite a satchel-full of books by contemporary Mexican poets and I am looking forward to learning more about that literature. I am sure that future collaborations will happen. The one great thing about this trip is that I no longer have to sheepishly and ridiculously admit that I have never been to Mexico. We can now begin.