September 8, 2006

Five Questions With Kwame Dawes

Kwame DawesBorn in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of that lush place, citing in a recent interview his "spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music." His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius remains the most authoritative study of the lyrics of Bob Marley, and his groundbreaking collection of essays, Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic, describes the experiences and modalities of Jamaican postcolonial writers who are embracing an aesthetic which unites body, emotions, and intellect and brings into a single focus the political, the spiritual and the erotic.” An author of twelve collections of poetry, Dawes’ most recent collections are Impossible Flying (Peepal Tree, 2006) and Wisteria (Red Hen, 2006). In 2007, Akashic Books will publish his novel She’s Gone. His awards include The Forward Poetry Prize, the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and the Poetry Business Award. Founder and director of the USC Poetry Initiative, Dawes is the programmer for the Calabash International Literary Festival held in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, each year, and is the Director of the Calabash Writer’s Workshop.

1. How have you managed to remain so prolific over the years?

To be honest, it is only when I look at the raw facts of the matter that I concur that I have been prolific. I have published twenty books in twelve years. Okay. And that is not all I have been doing. But as I go through my day, I feel like a man who is not doing what he should be doing. I feel I have been slack about my writing, I feel I should be writing more. So there is a strange contradiction at work here. And it simply leads me to the fact that I am not sure I can answer your question. I can say, though, that I have always said that I feel no assurance that I will always have something interesting and compelling to write and so while I am still having ideas that seem engaging to me, I will continue to write. I have never experienced what people call writer's block. I do believe it exists, and I suppose I live with the anxiety that at some point it will overtake me. So while I have managed to avoid it, I will work at what I need to be working on. I have been blessed with the capacity to write a very quick and competent first draft. As a result I have a lot of first drafts lying around. I come to them whenever time allows. But the effect is that I have many projects on the go at the same time. This is both a blessing and a curse, I suppose. Still, the bottom line is that I am doing what I enjoy doing, and so I will simply accept that I produce as I produce as a condition of who I am. I will enjoy is benefits and accept its challenges. It has occurred to me (and has been said to me) that I probably write too much and that this has affected the quality of my work. I do think that this is nonsense. One may quarrel with publishers who publish me, but not with me for writing. After all, writing is a practice, and one can't be blamed for doing too much of it to get better at it. Anyway, I do think that my work continues to grow, to improve and I am grateful for this.

2. What did you learn in the translation of Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius into German? Why German?

Nothing much. I was not involved with the translation. Actually, the publishers did not even inform me that the book was translated. My thirteen year old son was surfing the net and came up on this news. I then ordered a copy to make sure that it was true. So it remains a peculiar thing to me. I do know that German books are longer than English books. I have gained almost two hundred additional pages in the translation. Even when I don't want to be, I am constantly prolific.

3. How has the experience of now living and working in South Carolina changed your writing?

I have always said that at least four of my books of poetry would not have been possible without South Carolina as my home. Midland, Jacko Jacobus, Wisteria, and Requiem. These are works that entirely rooted in this space. And in other books, South Carolina features greatly. But why wouldn't it? I write from where I am and what I have seen and experienced. I have lived here for fifteen years and I have some roots here. I remain an alien, but I also am a happy southerner at the same time. I am glad I landed here, though. The richness of the history, the sophisticated presence of Africa in the culture, the complexities of American life at its most basic and direct--these are all part of the rich realities that have sharpened my sense of the world. I write to understand the world around me. I therefore write the world around me.

So there is, at some level, something quite unremarkable about my writing so much about South Carolina. Having said that, I should add that I do see myself carrying out an important work here as a writer and I think South Carolinians agree with me. I suppose it is so much easier for me to identify with this state because it is such a Third World space in terms of ethos and sensibility and it has its own quarrels with the larger American idea as do many people from developing countries, from the southern hemisphere. Finally, I should say that the need to understand, the need to give voice to the unvoiced stories of this space, and the fact that buried in this soil are the bones of so many Africans--people I like to call my relatives--makes me feel a strong connection with this place.

4. You frequently wear the "hat" of editor. Is there a difference between selecting poems for Red vs. Wheel and Come Again?

Not really. Here are the points that are constant: One is looking for the best work. One is looking for work that is consistent with the theme of the anthology. One is trying to create a work that is readable for the general reader--one is not trying to do an academic exercise.

The difference, of course, is that with Red, I am engaged in an anthology that is rooted in a larger idea of showcase the new work by black writers in Britain. This is a quite basic impetus for an anthology, and yet it is one that I responded to by trying to impose an arbitrary theme on the process. I chose Red out of a hat. I am not sure if it will work, but we shall see. The proof will be in the kind of work I receive. Fingers crossed. Wheel was a work based on a hunch. I had a hunch that since the arrival of reggae, more poets than one would imagine were actually engaged deeply in the reggae ethos even at times beyond themselves. The insidiousness of reggae in the world and especially in the Caribbean has ensured that an aesthetic has emerged and has seeped into our creative psyche. I wanted to demonstrate this in the anthology. I missed some crucial works--two amazing early poems by Walcott and a few others--but the larger project was quite successful. Yes, I was consciously trying to give credence to a theory, to an idea, to a hunch, and I think this worked out well. It is also a cool anthology with a splendid preface by Colin Channer.

5. Some of your more recent collections take their inspiration from the work of artists. How do you go about writing poems based on an artist's work?

I must say that this process has seemed to me like stealing. But stealing is no sin when it comes to art that is inspired, yes? I simply try to write what happens to my brain and heart when I see a work of art. I really try to avoid simply re-describing the work of art. After all, to do that would be so redundant and a disrespect to the artist. Instead I respond. I bring my baggage or my discourse if you will. I vamp off the art. I create "vershans" in the old reggae sense of finding a dub vershan of some master text to create a counter master text. I enjoy this kind of work because in sense I am given a distilled series of images, tough, well-conceived a concentrated, and then I am to use that to spark poems. The effect is inevitably surprising for me. I am taken to places that I would not normally enter. So while it is true that a lot of my recent work has grown out of this dialogue, the greater truth is that this has been a feature of my work from the beginning. I am in good company, of course. Maybe we are all trying to write "Musee de Beaux Art" all over again--yes, I am being ironic.


Next week: Preston Allen, author of Churchboys & Other Sinners.


Stephen A. Bess said...

I enjoyed reading this. I especially like what he said about his connection with South Carolinians. The culture is rich there. I learned that living in Savannah, GA for 5 years. I'll have to check out some of his writing. I haven't read his work.

Thanks for this and I'm looking forward to future interviews.

Kgotso (peace) ~

Jdid said...

very interesting

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Jdid.
Please watch out for Preston this week.

SherronT said...

I knew Kwame from the 'old' days in Jamaica. It is refreshing that even though he has grown and expanded his 'space' he has not lost that down to earth, straight shooting quality.
Thanks a mil!!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Sherron T.

Greetings & Welcome,

No, he hasn't and it's good to see that as he has gotten older, his writing has opened up to newer vistas.