Interview: Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana, raised in Jamaica, and now lives in Nebraska. He writes poetry (19 books of it), fiction, nonfiction, plays, and reggae music. He is an English Professor, an editor, and an absolute treat to talk with. Here, he discusses when and how he writes, a human being’s responsibility, and what he would like people to know about the world.

How do you describe yourself?
The basic facts are that I’m a husband, I’m a father, I write, and I teach. I’m very passionate about teaching. In many ways, those things give meaning to how I live and what I do in my life.

I live in community. I am somebody of faith, I’m a Christian, so that affects – at least I hope it does – the choices I make in life. But at the end of the day, that’s it.

How do you describe your work?
I work in multiple genres. I’ve published fiction (novels, a short story collection), a great deal of poetry. I’ve written for the theater and worked in the theater for many years. I have been a scholar, a critic, and a journalist. I played in a reggae band for many years, I wrote many of the songs for that band.

All of those things seem to make sense to me because fundamentally, and I guess most conveniently, I regard myself as somebody who is a storyteller. I am engaged in stories and the many ways in which stories manifest themselves and unfold and affect me. So, it sounds wonderfully eclectic, but the truth is I don’t feel at all divided by any of that. It’s just what I do, who I am.

What’s the pace that you tend to live your life at?
I think my productivity suggests that I work at a really rapid pace, and I think that’s relative. I think I move at a very slow, easy-going pace. I procrastinate a lot. I happily get distracted a lot. I can watch Hulu, Netflix, HBO NOW, ESPN all day, that’s fine, I’m good with that. So, I don’t think I move at a frenetic pace, but somehow I’ve been blessed with the ability to produce at a pace that looks like I’m frenetic.

When do you write or create?
That depends on what I’m working on. Just two days ago, I was in my study doing what I normally do, which is research, which means I was watching Netflix. For some reason, a thought came to my mind and I [started] writing this poem, and I hear my son, who’s 22, say, “GOTCHA!” Then he says, “You’re writing a poem, Dad. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen you write a poem.”

The point of that story is to say that somehow I find spaces to work. And I do so wherever it’s allowed. I don’t feel tied down to a particular place or a particular time. So I find space to work in the middle of all kinds of things.

But the truth is my family is always flabbergasted when a new book comes out because they wonder when I did that work – they don’t know. I’ve never ever said to them, “I need a few hours to write.” I might say I need some time to mark papers. But I’ve never said, “I need some time to write.” That phrase has never come out of my mouth to my family.

Holy guacamole! Are you able to work on writing in your mind when you’re driving or at the grocery store? Is part of you always engaged in that way?
I’m constantly sort of collecting. I think that’s how I’ve described my – if you want to call it – process. My mind constantly pulls in things.

I’ve used sort of cheekily the idea that my brain is a cesspool. I just keep taking a lot of stuff in and then when I come to write, the wonderful distillation takes place and the kind of weird selectively comes when things start to come together.

When I’m working on fiction, though, I do a lot of thinking through scenes. I think a lot about it as I’m driving, going about my business, listening intently to people talking to me – so they think! One of the things that doesn’t happen to me is I’m just sitting there and I don’t know what to write. I don’t understand that concept. I just don’t get it.

For some, not being able to write or create can come from a strong internal critic. Do you not have that or are you able to modulate it?
If I sit down and don’t think I have anything to say, I’m very comfortable with that position. I just move on, I watch another movie. Eventually, it will come. Because – and this is the key for me – I enjoy writing. It’s something I like to go to. So when I go there and I find myself in that wonderful helter-skelter place, almost a kind of tight rope walk, especially working on a poem, one’s just not sure where it’s going or what’s going to happen and the discovery of what happens, it’s a rush, and I enjoy that.

I love my critical thoughts to be out of the way as much as possible while I’m doing that process of drafting. Because I always know that I can come back and fix stuff. I allow myself that freedom. I think that’s a conscious thing that comes from experience – of never really having that sort of precious relationship to everything that I write.

Here are some facts: I’ve published 20-odd books of poetry, I think that those represent maybe 20% of the poems that I’ve written. I may be being generous there, it may be less than that. So I don’t have that sense that everything that I’m going to write has to be in perfect condition because it may suck and I’m good with that. As long as I’m alive, as long as I have strength in my body, I can write again. I can do another one.

Do you think a writer has responsibilities or a duty at all?
I don’t think they do by being writers or storytellers. I think human beings, we who live among people, have a responsibility to live in ways that enhance the community, ways that generate kindness and safety for others, that support people, protect people. And it’s my expectation for a plumber, for a teacher, for a scientist, as well as for a writer, to have that human quality.

I meet people and I like them and I respect them and I admire them often because of what they do within their sphere as human beings. I don’t think a writer has any extra special obligation. I think a writer has some opportunity to articulate experience because we are engaged in the business of communication and of managing language and using language. But other than that, I don’t have that expectation of them just because they’re writers.

What is the strangest thing about poetry?
That poets think it’s the most normal thing in the world. I suspect that most people don’t necessarily think that. But I have to say that I suspect that the impulse of most people is to be engaged in poetry, to be moved by poetry.

Through the 20th century and up till now, we’ve had this proliferation of music through the recording industry. We’ve had great poets performing – from Ma Rainey to Bessie Smith, from Howlin’ Wolf and Paul Simon, to all the hip-hop artists, these are people trading in the lyric. They’re trading in the poem. As human beings, we’re drawn to it. We’re drawn to the idea that something has been articulated with such clarity and such accuracy. The thing that’s being articulated is abstract, it’s intimate, it’s deeply personal, and we can be moved by it.

So even though people may balk at the idea of poetry, I think that’s the product of an education system that creates a category of poetry that says this is what it is, this is what it looks like. But as human beings, we are inclined to language and to the use of language that is essentially poetic.

Today, we have a proliferation of access to the same songs, to the same poetic experiences across the globe, in a way that wasn’t true before that. So, I think that impulse [to be engaged with poetry] is there, and I’m comfortable with that notion because I think that’s what allows me to be comfortable sharing a poem with anybody.

If someone feels clumsy with words or doesn’t think they could ever be a poet or a writer, how can they become one?
There are parts of the act of being a poet that we can control and then there are things that we can’t control and don’t really understand. As far as I’m concerned, if we can’t understand it and can’t control it, we might as well just let that go and just let it be, the rest is not our business as T.S. Eliot says.

But the part that we do have control over is the part that all craftspeople have control over, which is the craft. When I began to write, I never had a command of language because I didn’t have a broad enough vocabulary. Well, I’ve learned more words. That gives me more command of language. When I began to write, I didn’t understand the mechanics and the internal structure of a metaphor. I learned that, I studied that, and I began to understand it. When I began to write, I didn’t understand how rhythm works. I learned it, I mastered it, and now I can do it.

The point I’m making is I don’t think anybody can say, I’m just born to be clumsy with language. There are some of us who have learning and language disabilities and those you have to recognize as the conditions we contend with. But on average, I think we come into the world with a certain capacity for language and the rest of it is the work that goes into mastering it and using it well.

When I was in high school, a bunch of [us] did imitation poems of writers. Some of my friends were really good at it. I admired them. I wasn’t as good at it, but I plugged on.

Well, none of them are writing now. I kept doing it. There was nothing special about me at that time, but I got better and better because I stayed at it. I needed to stay at it and they didn’t. So the need part, that may be that uncertain part that we don’t know about, that we have no control over. But the part we can control is learning the skill, learning the craft until we are better and better at what we do.

What would you like people to know about the world?
Two things keep coming back to me. There’s tremendous beauty in this world, and at the same time, there’s incredible cruelty in this world, and that those two have to live together is the conundrum of my existence, the pain of my existence.

I’m sitting here today thinking about the emotional trip that has happened from hearing about the shooting in Minnesota and the shooting in Dallas. These are two things coming together to confuse and hurt and pain and frighten me. And this is while I’m staring at a skyline, looking at trees, seeing the kindness of strangers around me. It’s a contradiction.

As I wrote to a friend today, “Poetry is the only language I can use to articulate this tumultuous contradiction and conflict and uncertainty and fear and joy all at the same time.” So I write poems, and poems give me a vehicle for me to articulate those contradictions, which at the end of the day I think become the articulation of our human condition.

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