By Teri Ellen Cross Davis
This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.
The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.
Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at: www.SplitThisRock.org.
We offer a sliding scale of registration levels, and opportunities to volunteer in place of a registration fee. Registration is open online until March 28, 2018. Visit the registration page to register or volunteer now.
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Kwame Dawes has authored thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and essays, including, most recently, City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern, 2017). Speak from Here to There (Peepal Tree Press), co-written with Australian poet John Kinsella, appeared in 2016. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska where he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English, a faculty member of Cave Canem, and a teacher in the Pacific University MFA Program in Oregon. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May of each year. Dawes is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Learn more at his website. Photo by Andre Lambertson.
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Teri Cross-Davis (TCD): With 21 published poetry collections since your first book, Progeny of Air in 1994, how do you think the poetry publishing industry has changed (or has it?)
Kwame Dawes (KD): Progeny of Air was published in the UK and I was fortunate enough that Peepal Tree Press existed at the time, as it was in the early stages of filling a major gap for the publishing of Caribbean poetry that was a longstanding problem for the Caribbean. I was extremely fortunate to have a home in Peepal Tree Press, and even though it limited the extent to which I was known, read or even appreciated in the US, I had the space to grow as a poet, take risks, and benefit from the remarkable editorial skills and commitment of Jeremy Poynting.
My first US publication happened years and four books later when I won the Hollis Summers Prize for Midland. I will admit that I wrote and designed Midland to enter the US market. Jeremy Poynting agreed with me that this would be a good career move, and so I submitted that manuscript to over forty venues in the US. I knew it was an important and solid book, but the fact that it was rejected (albeit with extensive letters) by so many US presses, reminded me of just how difficult it can be for an immigrant poet in the US. I was not surprised that Eavan Boland, an Irish poet working in the US, was the judge who selected that manuscript for the Hollis Summers Prize.
A lot has transpired since then in American poetry, especially for writers of color. I am confident that any study of the constitution of judging panels for prizes and awards in the US over the last decade will reveal that they have become increasingly more diverse, and as a result, writers of color have had a better chance of winning awards. This is not a matter of tribal loyalty, but the simple fact that more diverse panels bring broader knowledge, understanding and familiarity with a wider set of poetic aesthetics, and this has meant that more voices have been heard and appreciated in the US.
The advent of intense social media in the last decade has also introduced a culture of hype that has come to shape the way we understand poetry today. This hype is predicated on what I call the “Columbus-Imperative." Largely white publishers are constantly recycling a narrative of “discovery” of writers of color who are young and the “great new thing” out there. It is a pernicious habit because it is seductive to the writers, who struggle to not be convinced by the hype, and whom when eventually abandoned by the industry for the next new thing, find themselves deeply confused and sometimes petrified by the prospect of matching that early hype and adoration. The hype is also picked up by well-meaning liberal arts outfits, again led largely by white directors, who construct a system of value, not necessarily on the maturation of poetic craft and skill, but on the tyranny and seduction of topicality.
It is almost churlish to complain about this as the fact is that poets of color are getting some more play than ever before. But it is important to recognize that this is happening, and to admit that so much of what is deemed reviewing, is in fact consumed by this hype. I am not suggesting that the current industry is inventing “flavor of the month” practices, but it is especially apparent these days, and sadly, it is doing a disservice to so many poets who, above all, need secure and supportive poetic “homes” where they can grow, take risks, and have a realistic sense of their development over time.
But enough carping. The fact is that American poetry is in a very strong place. There has never been a period in which American poetry has been as diverse, vibrant and engaging as it is today. This is a good thing. This has happened because of the hard work of individuals, organizations and a general culture, and we should remain vigilant about ensuring that these gains are not reversed because American poetry is, frankly, the better for this development.
TDC: One interview I read noted that many praise your mentoring. What role do you think that plays within the poetry community? What has surprised you in mentoring poets? What is one particular thing about mentoring that you might pass on to other poets?
KD: The term “mentoring” is a strange one to me. I am happy to be a mentor if those who regard me as a mentor are willing to call me that. But I feel it presumptuous of me to declare myself a mentor.
My commitment is to support poets, to open doors for poets, to find ways to create a space in which poets can grow in their skill and can produce work of power and strength. The initiatives I have started have all been prompted by the most obvious needs in the world. In South Carolina it was clear that we simply did not have a publishing culture for poets to match the energy of poetry writing existing in the state. With poet, Charlene Spearen, I to change that with the South Carolina Poetry Initiative.
In Jamaica, it was clear that the absence of training, exposure and awareness at the highest level to support literary writing and publishing was limiting our ability to launch the careers of very talented writers. With Colin Channer and Justine Henzell, I started the Calabash International Literary Festival, with its seminars, workshops and sophisticated plan of creating a branding of Jamaican writing. We regard the emergence of writers like Kei Miller, Ishion Hutchison, Margaret-Ann Lin, Garfield Ellis and Marlon James (to name a few) as successes in that regard.
In the UK, in the early 1990s, an exciting cadre of black poets who were dominating the performance stages around that nation, were acutely aware that they were not having the same impact or access in publishing. Bernardine Evaristo invited me to lead extensive workshops for Black poets in the UK in a series we called The Afro-Style School. I did this for six or seven years, and it is almost impossible to name a single successful black poet in the UK, who cannot be, in some way, tied to that ground-breaking series.
Finally, five years ago, it became clear to me that African poetry was just not being published in manner commensurate to the talent and energy existing among poets on the continent. In five years, The African Poetry Book Fund, with its amazing team of volunteer editors and mentors, Chris Abani, Bernardino Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, Aracelis Girmay, Gabeba Baderoon, John Keene, and Phillippa ya de Villiers,) has transformed the landscape for African poetry. This is no exaggeration. These are just a few small examples that I hope explain how I work. I have done similar work through my editing roles with Peepal Tree Press, with Prairie Schooner and through my involvement with organizations like Cave Canem and so many others.
I have skills and vision in this regard, and I see myself as merely carrying out a role in support of the writing community. I do not expect every writer to do this kind of work. It is not for everyone. But without it, so many poets would simply not emerge. Is this mentoring? Maybe. But I regard it as something more than that. I work to advance the work of poetry in the world.
TCD: You don’t stay in one genre. You’ve written fiction, articles, plays—any advice to other writers who start off in one genre but feel called to others?
KD: I am not being flippant or facetious when I say this, but my answer is, “Do it.” I believe that these lines are somewhat unhelpful and unrealistic, and what should guide whether one works in different genres or not is talent and discipline. The poet writing fiction must know that she gets no special breaks for attempting fiction—it better be good. Similarly, novelists attempting to write poetry should not whine about how this is new to me, when someone says the work is not good. Look, the fact is that poets are just more ordained than other writers, but there is no need to harp on this—that would be so rude! ☺
TCD: You said once that “poetry is your companion in the world.” When has it benefited you the most, having this companionship with poetry?
KD: I think it was Emerson or some nineteenth century American thinker who equated the capacity for contradictory thought with humanity and intelligence. He may not have been talking about poetry, but I would say that poetry offers us the capacity to carry in us and express the contradictory impulses that make us human. Poetry helps me to know what I am thinking and feeling. Before I make a poem, I really think I know this, but poetry, for some reason, helps me to truly see this.
TCD: You have said many times that you write out of a reggae aesthetic. When did reggae begin to talk to you? Has it always? Can you define the political and the spiritual within that aesthetic? Is there anything that reggae can express that poetry cannot? And vice versa?
KD: As you might imagine, tackling such a question in the context of an interview like this is unlikely to be successful. It has taken me a few books, many articles and many, many poems, to work through this issue. I moved to Jamaica from Ghana in 1971 when I was nine years old. I have known and lived with reggae since then. It was the music that marked my coming of age, and it has been a key part of the soundtrack of my life. I came to reggae with the same level of hunger, need, and quest for understanding and belonging that I characterized my relationship with Jamaican culture and language.
Reggae music of the sixties and seventies became inextricably connected to Rastafarianism and all the related revolutionary and post-colonial faith systems of Jamaican society. The quest for an aesthetic in this music is marked by an effort to identify what might be crudely defined as qualities of “beauty” in this music. I learned a great deal from African American thinkers and artists like Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, and Kalamu ya Salaam who sought to extract from the Blues and Jazz, a poetics that could be transferable to the literary arts. In Cuba of the pre-revolutionary era, Nicolás Guillén, was developing his own “Son” aesthetic derived from “Son” music. These are just some of the necessary acts of artistic independence and creativity which include the work of poets like Kama Brathwaite, Ntosake Shange and big, large-visioned philosopher-artists like Sylvia Wynter and Wilson Harris, that appealed to me and influenced my aesthetic ambitions.
I knew instinctively that reggae was a critical part of the discourse that shaped my view of the world and my engagement with the world, and so I sought to discover a way of speaking to this. My book, Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic seeks to make the case. In this sense, it is hard to offer an answer to the question of whether there are things that reggae expresses that poetry can’t, as it presumes that these two things are different. At best, I would say that it is true that the song and the poem can have different capacities, but this is true as a general truth. But when I speak of the reggae aesthetic, I am speaking about the aesthetic undergirding the music.
TCD: You have worked with Kevin Simmonds and others, pairing your work with music. What effect do you think music has on your work? Do you feel like your writing changes after each pairing; or when you move from one genre to another, do you ever feel the effects of that genre on your poetry?
KD: I don’t honestly know whether music has an especial effect on my work. I suppose the danger of speaking about a reggae aesthetic is that people mistakenly come to my work expecting me to be writing songs. I write poems, plays, stories, essays, and songs. Those are genres. Poetry, in the western tradition and in the African tradition and the traditions of so many other cultures, is deeply connected with the idea of song and music. I am not saying anything special or new here. So, it is inevitable that my poetry will reflect elements of musicality, as is likely with the work of most poets working today. Above all, I am aware of sound, aware of the ways in which poetry employs song, and this just makes me a poet seeking to master all the various elements that are available to the poet.
My collaborations with Kevin Simmonds, a dear friend and an artist I truly admire, have been characterized by one key principle: I respect that he is a gifted and talented musician who is producing music of the highest quality to partner with my poetry which I hope is up to the task. I really enjoy working with talented people in their fields. What results is new, and, more importantly, what I can’t produce on my own.
TCD: With your book on Bob Marley, I think one can safely say you know Marley’s music. What songs would you suggest to listen to in this current political climate?
KD: In 1980 a year before his death, Marley released Uprising. There is a grim sense of seriousness and hints of deep psychic disquiet found in the urgent and blunt lyrics of this album. Most people remember “Redemption Song” from this album, but for our times, the song, “We and Dem” remains profoundly instructive, emotionally honest, vulnerable and revelatory.
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A Review of Duppy Conqueror by Major Jackson (New York Times)
Excerpts from “Illuminations” with John Kinsella (Boston Review)
KWAME DAWES ON RHYTHM, DIASPORA, AND POLITICAL POETRY: An Interview, by Mathew Baddona (Literary Hub)
Kwame Dawes: The Harmonizer, an interview by Camille Goodison (Guernica Magazine)
Poems at Poetry Foundation
An archive of Dawes’s poems at Poetry International
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Teri Ellen Cross Davis is a Cave Canem fellow and has attended the Soul Mountain Writer’s Retreat, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work can be read in: Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC; and the following journals: Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Gargoyle, Natural Bridge, Torch, Poet Lore and The North American Review. Her first collection, Haint, by Gival Press, was published in 2016. She lives in Silver Spring, MD. Photo by Mignonette Dooley.