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Q&A: Kwame Dawes

zamantungwa | February 19th, 2012 | Q&A | No Comments

“I have decided to stay focused on being present and writing for the present moment as fiercely and beautifully as I can.”

Kwame Dawes states towards the end of an essay about timeless poetry¹. A statement that clearly defines of his approach to poetry and, perhaps, the reason why he continues to write poetry.

It’s easy for one to be intimidated by Kwame Dawes. I mean, he has been publishing his poetry consistently since ‘94, in ‘96 he published two collections. He is the editor-in-chief of Prairie Schooner; he has published numerous essays about writing. He ran a project documenting the 2009 Haiti earthquake through poetry. He is the director of Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica. He’s a professor of English and runs writing workshops all over the world… All of this can leave you feeling very intimidated and expecting an intellectual snob.

He is not any kind of snob. He is a generous with his knowledge and his ideas. As a storyteller, his work isn’t just inspiring; it opens the mind to the world. The evocative imagery lets you journey with him all over the world and take a peak at something you may never experience first hand. In this Q&A, he answers questions about experience and writing candidly

PP: how has being born in Ghana, growing up in Jamaica, being based in the USA and traveling the world informed your writing?

KD: I was born in Ghana my father was Jamaican my mother was Ghanaian. When we moved to Jamaica, that is, to the New World, we were engaging in this ‘middle passage’ journey, three hundred years ahead. I had to start to find places of home because in a sense being a Ghanaian with a father was Jamaican who kept saying, “Jamaica was home” or “there’s a home in Jamaica,” I’ve always had this bifurcated kind of view of the world. A world that I’m both in and am outside of. So, when we were in Ghana I always had this imagined Jamaica. Whatever he told us wasn’t necessarily accurate but it was a myth of an away. When we got to Jamaica then Ghana was my home. I had a place outside [of Jamaica]. I was looking at Jamaica with new eyes as an outsider yet I was part of that space. That is a condition that I think is the condition of the artist.

I think the artist is always both inside the world that we are in and yet outside looking in. My last life journey, forced that of my youth and I use that in the way that I engage in writing – being both inside and outside the moment. That’s what we call empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling so thoroughly that we can then act upon it. Sympathy we just ‘feel with’ while empathy has distance. The artist is an empathiser because you have to have a little distance. The artist is going to ‘feel with’ through the imagination and then be able to express that through language. I believe all people should write poetry, I think writing poetry is the way to exercise the muscle of empathy. I think it humanises us.

Kwame became the editor-in-chief of the Prairie Schooner and quarterly journal that is attached to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. the journal is eighty five years old! with such notable contributors as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Charles Bukowski.

PP: how did you approach going into something with such a history and legacy?

KD: I approach it as I approach most things. I go and I find out as much as I can about the journal and it’s history. At the same time, they knew who I was when they invited me to come there so they expected to expand its clientele and subscribers and also the people who publish it. It’s a great organization and a great staff that I work with. It’s an opportunity.

PP: we tend to see poetry as a very limited place to work in. a lot of poets, i work with are usually young poets approaching 30 are already leaving poetry because they want to make money. so you, working on an 85 year old journal and i on a 5 year old journal, what has your experience been for you being in poetry for so long?

KD: I think poetry is vocation. I think you become a poet and you treat your process of writing petty as an ongoing learning experience. I’m never going to be completely satisfied with any poem that I have written not because I don’t think the poem is strong but because I’m acutely aware, constantly, of the limitations of language and the limitations of my facility of language to capture the idea or the vision that has entered my head. My task for the rest of my life will be to bring those two things as close together as possible. In other words to raise my language to a point where it can capture my imagination and capture my ideas and my emotions. So, for me, poetry is an ongoing exercise but it’s also the process of how we engage the world.

I observe the world, I feel the world and I try to use language to express the world. In many ways, much of my poetry is about finding a language to tell the story of the experiences that I’ve encountered. And to do that in ways that create beauty. And beauty is not pretty, beauty is not something cute, beauty is that sense of accuracy about the experience. And the art of poetry elevates that. Poetry is an ongoing existence there’s no sense that I’m done with it.

I know that there’re many poets that come into poetry as performers and the challenge with performance poetry is that the demands on the poet are quite different. You’re on demand [as a performance poet] is to be interesting on stage but your productivity is not highly demanding. You can do five poems and work the circuit for a year. I can’t do that. As a poet, I’m producing a hundred poems a year and editing and writing those poems. But what happens with the performance poet is that there’s a sense in which you are more connected with popular music and popular culture. The life span for most people is very short because there’s the next hot thing that’s coming. Also there’s a challenge with maintaining your craft because, where does your craft go after you’ve been on the circuit for so long? It’s very difficult to be in the [performance] circuit. It’s very tiring. You spend so much time learning your words, learning your lines that you don’t spend enough time reflecting and thinking and writing about experience, which I think a poet needs to do. I think what happens to poets who are in the performance scene who burn out, what used to be a living by gig money, etc, eventually peters about because the hot new talent is coming behind you and you’re tired of competing. So you say “I need to do something else with my life.”

PP: so how would you advise these poets who are in that space right now. for them it’s the poetry that’s gone ‘bad’ is not the performance scene?

KD: What I advise them to do is to learn the craft. Any poet who starts off writing has only begun to scratch the surface. Poetry is a craft; it’s not economic at all. It’s like a carpenter. You don’t hear an apprentice carpenter saying, “I don’t build tables, I only build chairs or I don’t use hammers I only use a screwdriver.” They are trained to know everything about carpentry. That’s how they become a master carpenter. Eventually, you may specialise in church benches but you have to know how to play. You have to know how to use sandpaper. You have to know how to use all the different machines. You have to know the quality of wood from all over the place and the more you have that knowledge the greater your ability to work.

If you went to a carpenter and said to them I need you to build me a table and he says, “Come back next week, I’ll have your table.” And you go back next week and he says to you, “I haven’t done the table yet, I haven’t felt it yet.” What are you meant to do with that carpenter? “I have carpenter’s block.” You fire that carpenter.

I think sometimes poets forget the craft and get involved in the spiritual part of being a poet. The sort of idea that the poet is some kind of authentic thinker. That may be part of poetry but that is a small part of poetry. That will take care of itself; the real task of poetry is to bring your capacity and your skill with the craft to match your idea. Musicians learn everything they can about their instrument not because they are going to play every song but because they want to have a choice in what they are going to do. If you do only one kind of thing as a poet, then you’ll always produce that same kind of poem over and over and frankly, you’re not going to be interesting.

PP: i was reading your essay about timelessness and timeliness; i was grappling with the same issues wondering who will read my poems in fifty years time. because i want them to feel what i was feeling. at the same time when I read older poets like the Ingoapele Madingoane’s and others they still work and still hit me in that place. in your experience with workshopping and the poets that come to these workshops, do you get these kinds of questions?

KD: People will ask me these kinds of questions but some are resistant [to the answer]. Because it depends on what stage they are in their careers. You know, when a poet is performance poet and they are hot, they don’t hear a whole lot because they are hot, they are celebrities. But eventually, and I’ve seen this again and again with poets like Roger Bonair-Agard, Patricia Smith, all these poets in England and the US who were major performers and were slam poets, eventually they come back and say I need to learn this craft. I need to know what I’m talking about. So it depends on where they are when they come to the workshop.

And my craft in the workshop is to simply build an honestiness about what our limitations are. Poets need to be honest about what their limitations are. [When] I say [in a workshop] write a line, an iambic pentameter line, the typical response is “that’s western stuff, I don’t write like that” when the truth is that you can’t, you don’t know. You’re saying, “I don’t do that” not because you’ve tried and then decided you prefer not to. You can’t do it because you haven’t trained your self to do it to then [be able to] make the choice. So my task is to say that there’s a range of things we can learn as poets. Even as we’re coming down to truth, being as honest and as close to our voice and our language as possible, we are also trying to take the language and the craft to a point where we do justice to the ideas [we have]. Poets are never short of ideas. What poets are short of is their craft. Ideas are dime a dozen. We’re not the only ones that have great ideas. Anybody has a great idea, great concept and great thought. The difference between that person and the poet, even the performance poet is that we have some craft but the poets who are committed to this for life will build [their] craft over time and keep challenging themselves.

Do you stop with just the poetry of your little community or your country or your continent? Are you interested in reading poetry from Japan or China or Macedonia, just trying to learn what poetry [there] is all around? What you can gain from it? What skills you can learn from it. If we forget that poetry is a craft with skills that we learn then we are doing ourselves an injustice. So that’s one part of the things I focus on at workshops.

Do you stop with just the poetry of your little community or your country or your continent? Are you interested in reading poetry from Japan or China or Macedonia, just trying to learn what poetry [there] is all around? What you can gain from it? What skills you can learn from it. If we forget that poetry is a craft with skills that we learn then we are doing ourselves an injustice. So that’s one part of the things I focus on at workshops.

PP: i find that there is a lot of the “i” in the poetry, telling people about the self. in your approach to writing poetry, with your multicultural identity, how does your identity feature in your poems?

KD: My sense of identity is defined by having moved around so I’ve seen different parts of the world and I’ve seen different people. The ‘I’ in the poem is a very interesting concept. Frankly, I thing people are delusional about how interesting they are. We think we’re more interesting that we really are. We’re not that interesting. I think it’s a delusion because we are in a generation that’s very I-centred. It’s a generation of “I” and therefore it’s my story, my truth. We say that a lot. And sometimes we say that as a defense. I think it’s delusional in a sense that art is about selecting what is interesting and the best art manages to identify what is more interesting that was it not interesting. Some people give the impression that everything is interesting and that is not true. Then something happens to you, and I say what happened? You edit what happened to you so that you make it interesting. If you were to tell me everything that happened from the beginning of the day until now, we’d be fast asleep. What you do as a storyteller is you pick those things that are more interesting that allow us to have an emotional engagement with what you’re saying. That selection is a very careful skill and we have to develop the skill to know how to self-edit and to construct experience and to construct narrative so that it’s interesting. So in a sense, for me having seen so much in the world, I just add to my pool of things I can select from.

I’m interested in people, I listen to people, I store it. If you ask me what I remember, I don’t know. But when I start writing there’s a faucet that starts to flow and I begin to pick things that were locked in my memory. Writing releases that. But I’m looking for that which is interesting. That’s what we call an image. A woman said to me one day when I was in Haiti: What do you think I’m worth? A prostitute said that, not as a come on, as a statement. That stayed with me and that became the basis for a poem I wrote called Bebe’s Wish². She said many things to me but that – What do you think I’m worth? [It] stayed [with me] because that is fascinating. One of the keys for a writer is being able to know what is interesting. That takes skill and craft.

PP: in terms of engaging with the craft, how else would you tell the writer that’s feeling burnt out and suffering a writers’ block?

KD: The first thing I would say to you is banish the concept of writers block. It’s not true. It’s something we made up. It’s a great idea. What does writer’s block say to you? Here’s what happens, you come to write and you can’t think of anything to write so you say I have writer’s block. Which means, you didn’t do anything; you’re blaming the writer’s block for your problem, right? It’s the block; it’s that nasty block that keeps running around blocking everybody. But it has nothing to do with you.

The truth is writer’s block is essentially that maybe you don’t have anything to say. What you have to do is to say to yourself as a writer, even if I don’t havte anything to say, I must make myself ready for when I have something to say. So for me [that means] craft, practising. I write haikus, I write essays. Some of it makes no sense. It’s not really good stuff but I’m learning. So [that] when the idea comes, I’m ready for it.

You have to examine yourself and ask ‘what is driving my writing?’ If that’s all that drives you to write you need to expand the things that make you want to write. I don’t give myself many excuses. If we have a workshop and say we’re going to write a poem now, a third of the people will say they don’t write on demand ‘I have to feel it’ then I say then you’re not a serious writer. You can write on demand because everything you write is not necessarily going to be brilliant. Some of it will be bad but you need to do it to keep the practice going.

It’s like the carpenter again, what are you going to tell the carpenter? We’re not that special, poets are not that special. Because we’re poets, we’ve written enough about being poets to make everyone think we’re special. We’re not special. We’re just like the carpenter. [Except] he’s more reliable.

¹“On Timelessness,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/04/on-timelessness/
² http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sExAkB6zyc4

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