Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Poem: Kwame Dawes

Continuing with the theme of congratulations, I want to extend my heartiest best wishes to another poet, Kwame Dawes (1962-), who was one of the select few recipients of this year's John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships, an honor accorded to artists, scholars, scientists, and others who have achieved a high level of distinction in their fields. Kwame combines many talents in one person. A prodigious, acclaimed poet, featured before on J's Theater, he has published a dozen or more complete collections since the early 1990s; yet he has also published novels, a book of short stories, a biography of Bob Marley, and a play, and edited at least five books of poetry of various kinds (Reggae poetry, Black British poetry, Caribbean writing, and poetry from South Carolina). This constellation may seem a bit unusual, but it touches upon Kwame's background and his connections within and across communities. A native of Accrah, Ghana, he grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, attending the University of the West Indies for college, before heading to the University of New Brunswick in Canada for graduate school. He taught literature and creative writing for 20 years at the University of South Carolina, achieving the Louis Frye Scudder Professorship of the Liberal Arts there, while also directing the USC Arts Initiative, and advising the student publication Yemassee. In the last year, he has moved to the University of Nebraska, where he holds a chair and also edits the highly regarded literary journal Prairie Schooner

But I'm not done; during his South Carolina years, he deeply engaged with the local and state arts communities, serving as director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, whose annual poetry contest he established, and whose winning books he edited. His links to South Carolinians took other forms, including works like his book Wisteria: Twilight Poems from the Swamp Company (Los Angeles: Red Hen, 2006), which he later translated into a musical work, with artist and photographer Kevin Simmonds, the staged version debuting at Royal Festival Hall in London.  I could of course go on, but I'll only mention one further thing before getting to one of his poems; between 2007-2009, he again collaborated with Kevin Simmonds, and photographer Andre Lambertson, on a project documenting the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Jamaica. I previously blogged about this important effort, titled Hope: Living and Loving with HIV Jamaica, or Livehopelove. It is still live and if you haven't visited it, I urge you to. As all this background suggests, Kwame is indefatigable, but he also draws from many different rivers of experience, and his poetry reflects this pluralism and richness. His poems bear the influence of the Jamaican, Caribbean and Anglophone literary and popular cultures of his youth; Diasporic exchanges also nourish his poetics; his decades in Canada and the United States brought him into closer contact with American and African-American poetries, and he has influenced poets in his turn.

The poem below, from Wisteria, comes directly out of his experiences and time in South Carolina; its immediate story, of a domestic who worked for a segregationist (the real story, not the Hollywoodized The Help version), is American down to its phonemes (though a similar sentiment we know exists not just in countries that have had legalized apartheid, like South Africa, but throughout the colonial and post-colonial world). The younger poet's witnessing, however, is universal, one starting ground of and for the art itself. "I, scavenger poet / swoop and pick // at the living thing"--isn't this what so much poetry, so much literature, so much art does? There is an ethical grounding here, too. The poet isn't just taking to make something out of someone else's life, but seeks to bear witness, and the fidelity of the voice he listens to, records, is crucial: "I let my mother down / and commit sins of the soul."  He does not back away from her truth telling realization, nor from his role in setting it down, but for both poet and lyric speaker, the fact of seeing the now blind segregationist have to live with his beliefs balances this out, providing a "gourmet of irony" different from, and yet not so different from that of the poem.  So here, then, is Kwame's poem.


     Your story told,
     Your poem made,

     I, scavenger poet,
     swoop and pick

     at the living thing,
     to make my own

     feast of metaphor
     gourmet of irony.

He said those words,
spat them out in my face:

"Not as long as I live
will I see no colored child

riding a school bus."
Roosevelt looking down

like God almighty,
and the flag curled in the corner.

Well, he never saw them,
those colored children

climbing onto the yellow bus
books in hand, and riding,

but someone whispered it into his ear
while he stared into the black.

My mother never said rejoice
in the infirmities of others;

sometimes I let my mother down
and commit sins of the soul.

I am singing this song for him
and dancing on his grave:

"What you wish for,
that's what you're gonna get."

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