Ghanian-born, Jamaican-raised Kwame Dawes is a man of more letters than most of us can imagine. He is a poet of great strength, generosity and kindness, and takes the reader to places very few writers in English are capable of going. His work on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica (http://livehopelove.com/) won him an Emmy award for New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming, and drew much-needed attention to a situation that had yet to be fully articulated to a large audience.
Recently, he has edited an anthology of Jamaican poetry, Jubilation!, celebrating fifty years of Jamaican independence, he is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, and finds time to be the editor of the literary magazine Prairie Schooner, an American journal renowned for award-winning writing and its support of emerging writers (please support it!). You can follow all his other endeavours on his website, KwameDawes.com.
In this podcast Kwame talks about his life in Jamaica, the country’s transition away from its socialist years and its slow struggle to cope with its sufferers of HIV/AIDS, the responsibility of poets in times of political and social difficulty, and his experiences as a self-assessed ‘bad journalist’.
He also reads three poems: “Impossible Flying” [5:30], “Boy Blue” [13:40] and “Joe” [29:30].
From “Impossible Flying”:
We move with the slow preservation of a people saving their strength for a harsher time.
Each tendon of your body throbbed with the lightness of a body prepared for flight and my betrayal was to become the burden, the anchor, you had for years longed to shake off.
(On Jamaica’s transition in the early 1980s from socialism to a more pragmatic capitalism in line with the United States, and his recent book Impossible Flying): In many ways, I think, many in Jamaica wanted a break, wanted to fly, and there’s a curious way in which what we call madness is one of the most profoundly logical reactions to trauma, the escape, the way to cope.
I often think I have this odd, anatomical aberration of having a cess pool in my brain, and it just takes stuff in without any sort of filter, fortunately there’s a filter coming out – god knows it took a while but I finally got it in place, and I do change it every so often because it gets clogged!
It’s only when you come to the page that you realise what you were aware of. Writing brings stuff through to me. If we don’t, if the poet, who is the one to articulate through the mastery of craft and language what is felt, what is seen and the world sees, that Pope idea of what is so often felt but never so well expressed, I think the poet has a kind of responsibility to be the one who manages to articulate this world for society. The third impulse is the quest for beauty, in the things that seem ugly but have a beauty in it, I think there is something transformative about writing poetry because it turns it into beauty by the very act of making it into craft, something that is crafted. It’s like the blues – we think of the blues as sad music, but it can’t be, we dance to the blues, we laugh and we drink and we party to the blues, so what kind of sad music is that? Blues in its structure takes the chaos of life and turns it into this art, this song.
I don’t mind if people saying I write about tough things if there’s a beauty that emerges out of it.
The poetry is the relief, in the midst of the ugliness, the difficult things that I saw there [in Haiti].
From “Boy Blue”
When I sing, I know how to fly, and how to reach where the water eases the spinning in my stomach, and this blood is not my enemy when I sing.
I treat them [poetry and journalism] as very different, and I’m very disciplined about keeping the two separate. And journalism is frustrating, very frustrating. Even talking to this kid, he would say something, and I knew what he was saying behind what he was saying, it’s obvious. But for the article, if he doesn’t say it, it isn’t happening. It’s almost insensitive, because you have to get them to say it. And sometimes a person’s eyes are tearing up and they’re telling you, ‘this is how I felt about it’, and the human dynamic – you get it. But writing that their eyes teared up in an article: the editor’s going to say ‘well, it could have been dust in their eyes.’
But I’ve come to trust the value of the cold, hard journalist piece that allows a human dimension but demands a sort of critical justification. But my salvation in that context is that I’m a poet as well. I can go away and make the poem that is the human moment. The poem is not reporting, it has its own integrity and logic. It’s not a reporting mechanism.
I resist not being emotionally involved in a story. I’m not a good journalist. I’m faithful to the demands of journalism, but in terms of the ethics of those dynamics and those relationships, it’s a profound struggle.