Our Poet of the Month interview series continues with an in-depth conversation between the magazine’s Assistant Poetry Editor Jamie Osborn and Kwame Dawes, described by Elizabeth Alexander as ‘one of the most important writers of his generation’. Read on for Kwame Dawes’ thoughts on the connection between his work and his faith, the influence of reggae, and the importance of ‘deep historical connections’ and finding the myths that shape our lives.
You were born in Ghana, but grew up in Jamaica. You are recognised as a leading Caribbean poet, but have written extensively on the influence of the African diaspora. Do you feel that you have a dual identity, or have your different backgrounds merged? Are they even “different” backgrounds at all? How does this affect your poetry? I’m thinking also of the fact that on your website you have the banner “All memory is fiction”—how do you feel you relate to your past?
I believe that the motto “all memory is fiction” is one that I will continue to plumb for meaning for a very long time. I should say that the motto is not exploring issues of truth or veracity. By “fiction” I am referring to the act of constructing narrative, or, in this case, reconstructing narrative. All memory, then, is a reconstruction of experience and that act of reconstruction is predicated on selection, elimination and the management of ideas around the circumstances of our art of remembering. In many ways, I am drawing attention to the artifice of memory, the artistry in the business of memory.
All of this has fairly little to do with my sense of identity. I embrace multiple identities and see no problem with that because they have the coherence of my past experiences in the world, and also have a philosophical coherence that is useful to me. I was born and grew up in Ghana. I have many relatives who live in Ghana. My mother is Ghanaian. For many years I traveled on a Ghanaian passport. Indeed, I did not secure US citizenship until 2010, despite having lived here for many years. At the same time, my father was Jamaican and I had my formative years in Jamaica in high school and university and beyond. My immediate family lives in Jamaica. I sound Jamaican and speak Jamaican. I believe that I am a product of the Caribbean or West Indian literary tradition. At the same time, I lived in South Carolina for many years, and there is little question that the experience has shaped my work. I have understood myself as part of the long tradition of Africans in America, and that legacy is important to me. The African American community embraced me in South Carolina and I welcomed that embrace and the things I learned about this part of the African Diaspora. These connections have grown out of the pressure of racial construction that has been aggressively punitive and exploitative in the world, a pressure that has shaped a wonderful culture of affinity and solidarity. At the same time, it is academic in the sense that the historical lines of migration that have given rise to the current shape of Africa and its diaspora are rich with cultural dynamics and truths that deserve celebration and exploration.
For a writer, these deep historical connections, these narratives, if you will, are a rich source for creative possibilities—for myths, for a sense of identity and place and for narratives of survival and achievement. Finally, in a historical moment that has produced such remarkable creative phenomenon as reggae, jazz, art, theatre, and much else, emerging from this diasporic tradition, I welcome that opportunity it gives me to find affinity and possibility. I do not feel divided in any way. Like most people in the world today, I have access to multiple distinctive cultures and I have been able to find a fruitful narrative of meaning in all of them. When I say that Jamaica is Ghana after the pressure cooker of one of the most virulent forms of slavery known in human history, I am developing a narrative of meaning and belonging, but this is what myth is, and there is no question that one of the tasks we have in life—all of us—is to find use for the myths that shape our lives.
I have published about twenty books of poetry, and these contain maybe ten percent (and this is likely overly generous) of the poems I have written, and I am now fifty-two years old, so I am bound to have good reason to feel guilt and unease about so much that has happened to me, about what I have done or not done and what I has been done to me and to others. I don’t think that is especially remarkable. I suspect that another person might find in my work a great deal of humor or optimism and all that. The truth is my poetry does reflect much about what occupies me and as a person of faith—as a person with a conscience, I think—I suspect those feelings will somehow enter my work. At least, I hope that is the case. These two poems are curious because I don’t know if ambivalence is the prevailing tone—I suspect that what you may be seeing is a willingness to treat the poem as a camera that takes an emotional and visual picture with all the selectivity and positioning that that entails, and thus allows the viewer/reader to add the necessary material that allows them to leave the images with something.
The “collective conscience” you mention is possible, and it simply means that a lot of people discover that they feel guilty about the same things that they have done together, or at the same time, or to the same people at different times. It should exist. So should collective repentance, collective confession, and collective healing. It does not preclude individual responsibility. This is what poetry, at least in my world, achieves well—it allows the poet to be an individual carrying her own burdens, while at the same time opening a space for the community to identify with that feeling and to find their own hope and creative possibility in this act of empathy. Yes, at some level, the poem is about the “deals” we make to get by and how they can compromise us. But the drivers of our compromises are not vague entities—they are forces of political and economic influence and control. The courthouse is to bring us some justice, some illumination, but the darkness seems to be encroaching, nonetheless.
‘Purgatory’ has that annoying way of making the reader feel as if he is discovering some about me, about my biography. It does not help if I say in interviews that it is a persona poem and I was simply attempting to capture the language and feelings of a sort of invented character. That is the truth, but not the whole truth. I have never been interested in cars in the way the speaker is, and I do not have the kind of relationship with my dead father that is suggested here, but the core sentiments—the capacity for behavior that is disgusting and insensitive, well of course, I have to recognize that the capacity is in me—which is what makes the poem a lyric. The two poems you mention are responding to the amazing drawings of American artist, Jon Gregg.
Following on from that, I suppose, I am intrigued by the attitude towards religion expressed in your poems. Both the poems that you have published with The Missing Slate contain allusions to Christianity, but the opinion suggested in the poems is perhaps ambiguous. Could you explain how religion has informed your work?
The attitude may be, as you say, “ambiguous”, but my attitude to my faith is complicated rather than ambiguous. A brilliant poet, Eduardo Corral, recently said in a talk he was giving, something that I may be paraphrasing badly, but that has become something of a mantra for me: “Doubt should drive shotgun, never let it take hold of the wheel.” He was talking about attitudes to writing, and the advice is exceptionally brilliant for its honesty and wisdom, but for me it is doing so much more. It works for my faith as well. I do not regard my attitude to the Christianity that has shaped and guided my life for at least thirty-four years as ambiguous, but it is complicated, even as it is enriching and necessary in me. In the end, I think of T.S. Eliot, who himself wrestled with the pointlessness of his art and the “still point” of his faith, who wrote in the ‘Four Quartets’, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I used this phrase as an epigraph to a poem I wrote in 1995. It still resonates for me today. I find profound comfort in leaving those things that are not my business to those whose business they are—and in many ways, where there are questions around my faith, I am happy to leave them for a time when I can ask them. I just want to be in the room to do so.
You have an interest in reggae and have said that reggae musicians are amongst the most influential Caribbean artists. How do you see the relations between music and poetry? Your poetry often takes a regular form, but frequently deviates from conventional expectations of that form— does that have anything to do with music, do you think?
I am not sure about some terms that you are using—namely “a regular form” and “conventional expectations”. So I am tempted to cheat a bit and say that my poetry is probably as regular and as conventional as contemporary poetry is in form, and I suspect that I am meeting the expectations of most readers of contemporary poetry as it relates to form. But asked in the context of reggae, I can only say that the most defining influence of reggae on my work is not “formal” in the sense of the physical shape of the poem or in the thing that most people seem to expect when I say I am a reggae poet—rhythm or accent. These are there, and I know they are there, but reggae is a music form that is quite basic in its innovation, and so its radical power lies in the philosophical and cosmological breadth of the music and the ideologies and aspirations and histories that have come to shape this music. It is in that sense that you might find in the two poems published in The Missing Slate a consistency with the reggae aesthetic, as I have coined it. After all, the poems are at once lyric expressions as they are engaged with the collective imagination, the poems have a sensuality in them, and yet a political engagement. The poems, further, are spiritual in the sense that they presume a world-view that involves the spiritual. I believe that reggae’s remarkable power lies in its capacity and inclination to contain all those different impulses in a single lyric, in a single composition. Not all reggae does this, but roots reggae sets that as a working template for all variations of the form. Dub offers a wonderful non-lyric demonstration of this thing. It is harder to articulate it, but those elements are all there, but more than that, the wonderful mutability of reggae while maintaining its core identity is one of the things that allows me to be a poet working in different forms while somehow maintaining a core drum and bass. Reggae, I suppose.
These two poems seem to explore the artifice in the quotidian, it is true, but I can’t claim this quality for all my poems. That said, I am not sure that there is ever anything but the quotidian. In other words, even when there is pomp and splendor there is probably a streak of fecal matter in the briefs of the King. I am as interested in the alarums as I am in that telling streak—that thing that makes us all human beings who will eventually die and become quite ordinary things. I can’t say that poetry represents anything for what it is. I am not sure though that the elevation of things is the opposite of representation. Instead, I think that poetry heightens our perception of what is out there—it complicates and simplifies all at once. Poetry distils and muddies. This very contradiction prevents me from being overly doctrinaire about what a poem is. That is healthy. I am always more interested in how a poem understands the challenges of language. I can’t help but think of that wonderful whimsical song by Paul Simon, ‘Rewrite’,
I’m working on my rewrite,
Gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash.
In the end there is gratitude—“thank you for listening to my prayer”. It is a beautiful song in the classic way that Simon is so aware always in his songs that he is writing songs, he is making poems, he is reconstructing experience in art, and I like that. That is what I want to do, and even sometimes “turn it into cash.”