I was fortunate to hear Kwame Dawes read with Li-Young Lee, when both were members of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature selection jury in 2005. Dawes rhythmic voice, the deep empathy his work conveys, and his presence left a considerable impression, and I’ve since followed his work. I was pleased to read his journalistic account of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Jamaica in the Spring 2008 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. Only later did I learn about his website documenting the experience, LiveHopeLove, for which he won an Emmy. I later read his collection Hope’s Hospice for Year of Poetry, about which I wrote,
We corresponded by email. I found Kwame to be both incredibly gracious and outspoken, an unusual and pleasant combination. I look forward to following his recommended poets on Molossus.
Thanks for your time. Your new book, Hope’s Hospice, is about the impact of HIV/AIDS on Jamaica, a topic you investigated for the Virginia Quarterly Review. From what I understand, you didn’t intend to write poetry about the experience. Is that right? How did the poems come about?
Actually, I expected to write poems about the experience. I always expect to write poems when there is something to write about. What I did not intend to do was have the poems be a part of the project. I started to write the poems before I thought of how they might be a part of the journalistic project. The poems, though, come from a different place. These poems came from the place where all my poetry comes from. I write to find my way into understanding experience. I often don’t arrive at understanding, but I write to try to make some sense of it all. I write poems to preserve experience—it is a vain attempt to try and capture the mood and feeling of a moment, of a person, of an experience. Somehow I have come to think that by writing about experience, I somehow grant it a certain reality that it wouldn’t have otherwise. I imagine that the instinct is one that seeks for immortality—an act that is pushing against the reality of our mortality. I wrote in response to the people I met. I wrote in response to the questions I had. I wrote these poems because I could not find any other way to express the contradictions and emotional complexity of what I was hearing, seeing and feeling. Poetry allows me to function outside the realm of facts, to reach for truth—truth that is never uncomplicated and that is never free of contradictory impulses. The poems in Hopes Hospice are no different from the poems I have written in response to the art Jonathan Green or to interviews I have done with elderly African American women from Sumter, to a remarkable collection of African Art or to my grappling with the complicated relationship between my brother and me. In each instance, my quest is to find beauty, to turn experience into art. It is a strange and beautiful alchemy. The laws for that kind of thing are quite different from the laws of journalism. Here, the poem as artifact, as something esoteric, comes first.
I’m often skeptical of political poetry—because I feel like it is political first and poetry second. There do of course exist notable exceptions. Your collection strikes me as one of them: the subject matter at hand is political, but you’ve humanized it, made it real. Was there a conscious effort to avoid direct politics? To address them?
I am never skeptical about political poetry because I think that all poetry is political. Sometimes the politics are more apparent than other times. But all art is political. This may seem like a game in tautology, but I am suggesting something else. I am suggesting that for me politics is a part of the human experience, and so as an artist interested in the human experience I have to be political, or I at least have to be aware of the politics of human experience. I suspect that your skepticism is not so much for political poetry but for poetry that seems to be written in service of a clearly prescribed political agenda. While I do think that such poetry has its place, I understand why one might be skeptical about the aesthetic efficacy of such poetry. The thing is for me, HIV/AIDS cannot be reduced to the word “political.” HIV/AIDS is a human issue—an issue of how humans live, have sex, and die. It is as fundamental to what shapes all art as anything else might be. How can I then encounter the beautifully tragic lives of so many people living with the disease and not seek to find the art in those lives? There was only one conscious effort when it came to writing the poems, and that effort was to be able to empathize fully with the subjects of my poems, and to be able to find the right words to make songs out of what I was seeing and hearing. Remember that I write poems to work my way through experience. I write poems to preserve experience. I write poems to find beauty in experience. I write poems when straight prose won’t do. I write poems when I am moved by what I am experiencing. The thing is that I believe that the very act of writing a book of poems about people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica is political. But for me, there is no contradiction there. The poems must stand up as poems.
How do you think poetry engages with the topic differently than journalism?
I can only speak from my experience as a journalist and as a poet. As a journalist, I found myself needing to articulate what I saw and heard within certain defined frames. I had to be as committed to fact as I could be. I could not say someone felt something unless they told me they had felt what I imagined they felt. I could not make a connection between the taste of a June plum and the way a woman spoke of her fear of dying in a piece of journalistic writing because one half of that impulse was not “factual” and not rooted in conventional ideas of truth. As a journalist, it was hard to explain that despite the suffering and pain that these folks I was becoming friends with were experiencing, they were still enjoying life, laughing, having sex, seeking love. And where in a journalistic piece, the seemingly most insignificant things would likely have to be jettisoned from the piece, I could turn those into poems of great significance. Where I had to actually be there, in time and space for the article, for the poem, I only had to be there in mind and empathy. The poem’s credibility is not found in the supportive facts but in its craft and shape, in its capacity to transport the hearer into the world created by the poem. Having said that, I have to say also that both things are necessary. The journalistic piece has a different function and it is a compelling one—a necessary one. At the same time, I hope these poems demonstrate that the poem is also necessary.
You won an Emmy for your website http://livehopelove.com. That’s crazy. A poet wins an Emmy. Tell me about that experience.
The craziness of this I am not sure about. To be quite honest, I have not imagined myself winning the Emmy as a poet, but as a part of a journalistic project. This Emmy is for journalism and we worked our tales off as journalists to get this story and that is what the recognition is for. But the award is also for innovation and the fact that we found a way to tell this story by employing the powerful mechanism of poetry and photography and web-design. You see, I am proud of the fact that the poems were at the center of the creative impulses that put together this site, because we could demonstrate here what I have always said about the importance of poetry (and art) to human society. Art teaches us how to empathize; it teaches us how to feel what others are feeling and thus it allows us the capacity resist the instinct to harm others. Look, not all poets are humanitarians. But poetry can help us to find our humanity and to find the humanity of others. So what is crazy is the opportunity that this kind of journalism opens up. Often, journalists are myopic and are incapable of seeing beyond the confines of their driven agendas. These days, having a broader sense of how information is carried and how people respond to experience is becoming increasingly necessary for the journalist. At the same time, poets can be just as myopic, and can willfully detach themselves from the rest of the world out of some misguided notion that they are keeping themselves pure and untainted by the world. This project at least challenges such notions, asking poets to think of what they can give to folks working in other areas, and to do so, not by changing who they are as poets, but by being poets.
Do you have plans to produce more online media? I think the project makes your poetry incredibly accessible for people who might not otherwise engage with it, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how the literary community might better use new media to promote poetry.
I have no new ideas about how the literary community might use new media to promote poetry because people are doing this a lot and some are having good success at it. I said at the beginning of this interview that my writing is not so much driven by projects but by my need to somehow record the projects of my life. I agree that it may well be that having poems so closely tied to issues that do not seem directly connected to poetry might open the way for others to start reading poetry. But I have to say that I do think that this is just one of many ways that this can be done. The work I do in South Carolina with the South Carolina Poetry Initiative is fully rooted in this basic philosophy. We seek to place poetry everywhere, not just on the internet. We seek to place poets in residence in all kinds of unexpected and expected places and to challenge people to think of poetry as simply a part of life. If this project has managed to do this, that would only make sense to me since it is what I am about. I am working on a new project that is based on this project. We are seeking funds for a project on HIV/AIDS in South Carolina. It will also engage the arts in telling this story. The aim here is to speak up about something sad that is happening in this state that is now among the leaders in the country on new HIV/AIDS contraction, and yet far back in terms of funding to treat this disease. I want to tell stories. I want people to learn something about what is happening here. Maybe I will write some poems to cope with what I learn, but that is not my first priority. It is to get the project done.
Poets aren’t always the best collaborators. How was working with photographer Joshua Cogan? What could he capture that you felt like your poems couldn’t? What could you poems do that his photos couldn’t?
I don’t know that poets are not the best collaborators. That has not been my experience at all. On the contrary, I direct the University of South Carolina Arts Institute whose mandate is to generate new interdisciplinary projects in the arts at the university, and I have found that the most flexible, collaborative and engaged are the poets, not the musicians, not the artists, not the actors. Dancers come a close second. I am sure there are easy explanations for this, but I certainly don’t think poets are poor collaborators. I certainly enjoy collaborative work. I have worked on nearly a dozen major collaborative projects that have generated some really good work. Josh Cogan and I did not actually work together in the conventional way. We talked. He read my poems, and then he traveled to Jamaica with my poems as a blue print for the photos he took. I trusted him when I saw some stunning images he had on his iPhone from his work in East Africa. We talked about the choices that the journalist and artist have before them when they tell stories. They are busy editing the narratives of the lives they encounter. We spoke about how much we wanted to allow the dignity of the subjects to shine even as we told painful stories. We talked about grace. We talked about the metaphors and symbols in images. We did all this talking before he had read my poems and before he had taken any photographs. Then he saw the poems and called me to tell me that he was taking the poems and not the prose pieces I had written with him to Jamaica. Josh and I are planning to collaborate on a few other projects. This kind of dialog makes sense to me. I am enriched by such collaborations.
As you’ve explained, you write to find your way into understanding experience. What are you experiencing now, what are you writing about?
It is always tricky for me to talk about current writing projects. Talking about writing projects seems to suck the energy and freshness from the process. Or maybe it is something else. Maybe it is that when I talk about a project I somehow define it before it is really defined in the writing, and this too sucks out some of the energy and discovery of the writing. I am working on a novel and on an extremely long movement of poems. That is the most I can say. I am also doing a great deal of editing work and rewriting. Peepal Tree is publishing three volumes of my plays (most of them were written in the 1980s), and so I am working on print editions of these plays, which is an interesting endeavor. I am also editing two new collections of verse: Back of Mount Peace, which will appear before the year is out, and Wheels, which appear sometime next year. I have also just “put to bed” a new novel, Bivouac, which is in press right now, and should appear in December. This novel has been on my desk for more than ten years, and so it is good to finally get it off the desk. I think it is a good piece of work. We shall see. I am editing several anthologies—all exciting and quite different work. Red: An Anthology of Black British Poetry (Peepal Tree Press) will be the latest collection of Black British poetry. The unique take on this project is that all the poems will vamp around the theme “red.” I am also editing a collection with the University of South Carolina Press called Seeking: Writers Respond to the Art of Jonathan Green, which is a South Carolina project that has generated some amazing poetry and prose based on Green, a remarkable South Carolinian painter. I am also editing a collection of my father’s writing (poems, fiction and essays) called Fugue and Other Writings, which will appear at the end of this year. This has been a powerful experience for me, causing me to revisit his work with greater care. My father, Neville Dawes, had a small corpus of work, but the work is quite engaging and compelling. Finally, I am editing So Much Things to Say, an anthology of 100 poems by poets who have read at the Calabash International Literary festival. Akashic Books is publishing this anthology and the proceeds from sales will go towards the Festival. An amazing roster of poets appears in this world anthology. These three anthologies will all appear in the spring. Of course, I am thinking and experiencing a good deal, and I am writing new work, too, but I can’t say a great deal more about these.
What about reading? Any new poets to look out for?
I read a lot of poetry because of my work as an editor, a inveterate blurb-writer, and as someone who programs writers, so I won’t speak of the poetry I have read because of these more professional encounters, although I have discovered some really nice stuff this way. I recently read everything I could find by Anne Sexton, and this was a revelation. I found virtually everything she had written in paper back in a small used book store in Manhattan and I devoured the work, then went searching for her face and voice on YouTube. A fascinating and tragic poet. I just finished listening to a stunning unabridged version of Ulysses, by Joyce, which I have been reading in bits and pieces, too. This novel is doing a number on me because of its modernity. I had completely forgotten just how much Joyce shaped 20th century poetics. Finally, I am doing a lot of reading and listening around the work of Thelonious Monk and the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. There is a new biography of Monk that is consuming every minute I have free, and I am listening to his music all over again and finding myself answering a lot of question I used to have. I am startled that I can’t find a full-blown biography of Dunbar. He is a fascinating writer and his story is at once tragic and instructive. But if you really want to know what new poets to look out for, let me give you three names: Nii Aykwei Parkes, a British-based, Ghanaian poet who is not quite new, but his first full blown volume of poems will appear in the spring. Ishion Hutchison, a gifted Jamaican poet whose debut collection comes out in the spring, as well. He is the real deal. Christian Campbell, a Bahamian poet of immense energy and intelligence, whose first collection will come out in a few months, as well. I am high on these poets. Check them out when they appear. Finally, a poet that I am sure everyone is talking about is Valzhyna Mort, a Belarusian poet based here in the US. Her work is remarkable—outrageous and yet so vulnerable—but above all, so carefully crafted. She just had a couple of pieces in Poetry. I say that not because it is an imprimatur of achievement, but simply because her poems in that issue are beautiful and worth checking out.