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The Harmonizer


December 15, 2011

The Emmy Award–winning poet and crisis reporter on Haiti’s continuing struggles and Jamaica’s AIDS crisis, how Afro-Caribbean music has influenced the writing of V.S. Naipaul and Langston Hughes, and his new role as editor of Prairie Schooner.

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An earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale rocks Haiti at the start of 2010. The damage to the capital, Port-au-Prince, is total. It’s the last thing Haiti needs. Soon there are people living in the streets, in their cars, and on the pavement, avoiding homes in which it is too dangerous to sleep. Nearly every building has suffered some kind of structural damage, from the presidential palace (known as the White House) to the shantytowns common around the city. The morgues are overwhelmed, and instantly there are 1.5 million displaced people. Towns in the eastern Dominican Republic prepare for tens of thousands of refugees, and quickly the border has to be reinforced by soldiers. Kwame Dawes, with a team including a photographer and a cameraman, has been commissioned by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to cover the HIV/AIDS situation in Haiti (following his Emmy-winning multimedia project Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica, also called Live Hope Love). Given this new context, Dawes’s project sounds almost quaint.

By the end of the year, American news reports had moved on from tales of devastation—the deaths and injuries from being crushed; crude emergency amputations; hurried mass burials without the benefit of a ceremony; the missing and displaced—to what Sean Penn had to say about hip-hop superstar Wyclef Jean’s run for president of Haiti. Also by then, Kwame Dawes and his team were wrapping up a full year’s worth of reporting. The rate of HIV prevalence in Haiti in adults had decreased over the last decade to an estimated 1.2 percent by 2009. Ostracism by friends and family remained a major concern for many, meaning a life of secrecy, yet the people he met opened up to tell their stories.

Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica, an interactive website featuring essays, photography, music, film, and poetry, was rewarded with an Emmy in the “New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming” category. Dawes, who was born in Ghana and spent his childhood in Jamaica, describes the poems as “incidental… and inevitable.” His work in Haiti resulted in similarly fruitful collaborations with local artists, including his upcoming trilingual anthology, A Bloom of Stones, featuring the work of Haitian writers he met as he traveled the country.

When it was time for Dawes and his team to return stateside, all flights in and out of Port-au-Prince had been canceled. Nearly a year after the earthquake, Haitians still contended with food shortages and poor living conditions. The upcoming elections were good reason for frequent roadblocks—“You had to be careful how you moved.” Dawes and company set out at three in the morning for the border with the Dominican Republic—“When the rioters were asleep”—then made it from the border to Santo Domingo. Four dark-skinned men crossing from Haiti meant frequent military check-stops. Dawes’s description of the Haitian demonstrators’ demands for more responsiveness from their elected officials as “all in a day’s work,” could apply to himself; the man was once described by The Independent as “the busiest man in literature.”

For nineteen years, home for Dawes was South Carolina, where he founded the South Carolina Poetry Initiative and the University of South Carolina Arts Institute. One of his latest anthologies, Home Is Where presents the poetry of over two dozen poets from the Carolinas writing about the South as home. Two recent anthologies, Red: Contemporary Black British Poetry and Jubilation: An Anthology of Poetry Celebrating Fifty Years of Jamaican Independence continues this work featuring the writing of international poets from a variety of schools.

Dawes now teaches at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he is also editor-in-chief of Prairie Schooner.

—Camille Goodison for Guernica

Guernica: Was the Haitian project related to your Live Hope Love work in Jamaica on HIV and AIDS?

Kwame Dawes: It’s the same outfit. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded the work and hosted it, and I am sure that they did so given the effectiveness of the work that I did in Jamaica on HIV with Live Hope Love. But this project was prompted by a call I got from Andre Lambertson, the gifted African American photojournalist on the day of the earthquake. He said he wanted to go to Haiti to tell their story and he wanted me to travel with him if I would be willing. I agreed, and three of us: Andre, Lisa Armstrong—a remarkable journalist—and I visited Haiti several times. I was there four times in eight months to tell the story of the earthquake, of the folks living with the disease and much else. Of course, the model of Hope carried over, and so poems, photos, music, news articles, blogs, essays, documentaries, and a host of other forms of storytelling were employed to tell that story.

Guernica: What was that like?

Kwame Dawes: It was a powerful experience. What remains with me is the simple truth that so many people trusted us, told us their stories and opened up their lives to us. Haiti is going through a hard time still, and when we were there they were still shattered by the deaths, the destruction, and the concerns for the future. Yet people were hospitable, thoughtful, helpful, and above all, incredibly articulate about their sense of the world, their despair and their hope. My concern is always that I can do justice to what I see and hear. I believe this is what drove Andre and Lisa as well. And together we told some important stories, I believe. And in some instances, the stories may have made a difference for some of the lives of the people we met.

Guernica: With Live Hope Love in Jamaica, and the stories you heard in Haiti, did you have any reservations about doing these investigations?

Kwame Dawes: No, no doubts at all. When people open up and share their stories, you have a responsibility to tell these truths truthfully and with the same quest for grace and beauty that you see in them. No one tried to discourage us at all. People were careful, and we were careful about protecting people. Many shared with us in secret. Many remain “in the closet,” so to speak, about their disease. And we respect that, given some of the experiences that people we know have had. At the same time, the issue was not so much reporting about outcasts, but reporting about people who have had to live in secret.

Guernica: What about image or negative stereotyping?

Kwame Dawes: On the matter of how this revealed things about Jamaicans—to be honest that did not cross my mind. This is Jamaica, this is the world. This is Washington DC, this is New York. I am most interested in people. I try to capture their complexity and contradiction and beauty. It does not matter where they are from. I think that the kinds of stereotypes that people have about Haitians or about HIV sufferers exist because we don’t realize that these are our brothers, our sisters, our aunts and uncles, our neighbors. They are us. And I don’t mean that in some metaphorical sense. They are literally us. This disease is no respecter of persons. Any of us could find ourselves with the disease, and then what? We tend to stigmatize as a way to deceive ourselves about our invincibility. But it is a delusion. My work, I believe, undermines that deceptive project and rather than draw us into stigma, it opens us up to our shared humanity. At least that is what I hope it does.

Maybe that is the power of poetry. It somehow transcends news cycles, and becomes a part of our collective imagination.

Guernica: Are you still in touch with the Haitian artists you met?

Kwame Dawes: I am still working with the poets on the anthology, so I am in touch with them, yes. We will be heading to Haiti in the spring to launch the anthology and to share the work we have done with folks there.

Guernica: Has there been a response from Jamaicans on your Live Hope Love project?

Kwame Dawes: We took the whole project to Jamaica two years ago. We held a really moving event at the Philip Sherlock Centre at the University of the West Indies, and many of the folks who I interviewed for the project attended. We had a few panel discussions about HIV/AIDS and we had some of the folks talk about their lives. It was a beautiful time. What was most gratifying to me was when a few of the folks who were featured in the work came to me and took me aside, one-on-one, to tell me how much they appreciated the work and how much they liked it. They liked that their story was being told with dignity. It was a touching thing.

Guernica: So the impact was positive.

Kwame Dawes: It is hard to determine how these projects impact a society, but I can at least be grateful for the few people who have told me how much the work continues to touch their lives. Maybe that is the power of poetry. It somehow transcends news cycles, and becomes a part of our collective imagination. That is the beauty of the art form I like to play with.

Guernica: The project won you an Emmy here, which is unusual for a poet, and it’s received other notable awards in the states. Was it similarly recognized in Jamaica?

Kwame Dawes: Yes, I should also say that the project won a major award in Jamaica for its work on HIV and AIDS and has been recognized by HIV organizations in Jamaica for the value of the work. That means a lot.

I work with musicians routinely, and we continue to combine music and poetry in ways that I think are meaningful.

Guernica: What about the Calabash Literary Festival, which you helped found and which took place annually in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica?

Kwame Dawes: Calabash was a tremendous success for ten years. We are now looking at ways for the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust to continue promoting and supporting the arts in Jamaica. In 2012, the Trust will be mounting a literary festival in the spirit of Calabash. The festival is called Jubilation and it is specifically designed to celebrate Jamaica’s fiftieth anniversary of independence.

Guernica: You’re working on this.

Kwame Dawes: We are continuing to look at other ways for us to do the kind of important work that is needed in the arts in Jamaica for the future. I can safely say that you have not heard the last of the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust. This year I have traveled through Europe, South America, and Africa, and wherever I have gone people speak of Calabash. This festival has become a model for how such festivals can be run. We are proud of this work. It is all challenging. Funding is a challenge. But hopefully we will find a way to continue the work that we have been doing.

Guernica: Music was part of Calabash and your professional work includes performance often, especially musical collaborations. How about personally?

Kwame Dawes: I no longer play in a band. I try to include some singing in my readings and appearances. I work with musicians routinely, and we continue to combine music and poetry in ways that I think are meaningful. I expect that I will write more music in the future and I will continue to have music as a part of my life.

Guernica: Your kids play.

Kwame Dawes: I am grateful that all my children are musicians—real musicians. That is something that means a great deal to me.

Guernica: What instruments do they play?

Kwame Dawes: My son is a drummer, my eldest daughter is a classical bass player, and my youngest daughter is a violist.

Guernica: And you’ve obviously enjoyed your own musical collaborations over the years. What are you currently listening to?

Kwame Dawes: Every morning I work out to my alphabetical playlist on my iPad. I have hundreds of songs and I am now dealing with the Ds. I basically like to be surprised by what I hear. My playlist is eclectic—lots of jazz, lots of classic rock, lots of blues, lots of African music, but mostly reggae music from all kinds of places. Sometimes I will stop and focus on an artist. I just listened again to Paul Simon’s Surprise and Third World’s early albums and Burning Spear’s Live in Paris. Much of what I do listen to these days though is the radio—usually public radio. I download podcasts. I try to be distracted by sensible conversation. No music, no artist is consuming my imagination these days.

South Carolina has been home, and to be honest, it was easier for me to define myself as a South Carolinian than even as an American.

Guernica: Whatever it is you’re working on you seem to see your audience as a global one. How do you explain yourself?

Kwame Dawes: My answer to this is fairly simple—look at my biography. Here is a thumbnail sketch. I offer it not because I think it is unique, but because I think it reflects our current world of constant migrations, and the contraction of our sense of what is near and what is far. My grandfather, a Jamaica born to African ex-slaves, moved to Nigeria in the early 1900s as a missionary. His wife’s parents were from Jamaica and from Wales. My father was born in Warri, Nigeria, before moving as a child to Jamaica. My mother was born in Ghana, her mother was a Fanti from Cape Coast, and her father was an Ewe man from Togo. She met my father in Ghana, where my father was teaching after returning to Jamaica from Oxford in the fifties, and then leaving for Ghana.

Guernica: Were you born in Jamaica?

Kwame Dawes: I was born in Accra, Ghana. We then moved to London, England and then to Jamaica. I met my wife in Jamaica. She was born in England. Her father is Jamaican, and her mother was born in Panama of Jamaica parents. My wife and I got married in Canada…

Guernica: Where you were a student.

Kwame Dawes: Yes, where we lived for a few years before moving to South Carolina.

Guernica: You have relatives from all over then.

Kwame Dawes: Ghana, Australia, England. Jamaica, Canada, all over the U.S., Germany, all over Africa, and on and on. I am a black person. I come out of an experience of exile and migration. I have always felt myself to be at once at home and away from home at the same time. It is inevitable that my perspective will be international.

Guernica: This comes from your dad.

Kwame Dawes: I don’t take this awareness for granted. My father, a staunch Pan-Africanist, traveled a great deal. I believe that many lives around us now can reflect this strange pattern of migration and movement. The question is: are we aware of it, and do we embrace it as a kind of birthright? I do. And yet, I feel deeply connected to at least two homespaces—Jamaica and Ghana, and more recently, South Carolina.

Guernica: The Ghana and Jamaica connection seems related to your biography. And South Carolina?

Kwame Dawes: I have dear friends in South Carolina, folks who made my life there wonderful and meaningful. Two of my children were born there. South Carolina’s governor awarded me the highest award for the arts in the state. I was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. I have lived and worked among the folks in Sumter, South Carolina, for so many years. South Carolina has been home, and to be honest, it was easier for me to define myself as a South Carolinian than even as an American.

Guernica: How?

Kwame Dawes: The rich and complex history of South Carolina is the history of the African diaspora, and in many ways, I felt acutely the sense of this collective memory of migration, suffering and transformation while living in South Carolina. The state taught me a great deal, and I am grateful that I arrived in South Carolina when we moved to the U.S. Finally, I have to feel a deep sense of gratitude to South Carolina because it is there that I wrote the bulk of my literary output. Some of my books are fully about that state.

Guernica: So why did you leave?

Kwame Dawes: Well, the last few years in Columbia, South Carolina were quite challenging. Over the past two years, it became increasingly clear that the relatively new administration [at the university] and I could not see eye-to-eye on the importance and value of the Arts Institute that I was directing, to the university and the state. Eventually the Arts Institute was closed down.

Guernica: What were the reasons?

Kwame Dawes: The Arts Institute was designed to promote and celebrate the arts at USC through a granting program that supported primarily interdisciplinary art projects that also involved community collaborations. Our task was to encourage the creation of these projects, support the planning and implementation of them, and promote their existence on the campus. We worked closely with faculty and students to create about 120 such projects in the space of four and a half years. We also sought to promote the work of the artists on campus. For much of that period I was designated the Special Advisor to the Vice Provost for the Arts. The new vice provost did not think much of that portfolio, alas.

Guernica: This led to the institute’s closing?

Kwame Dawes: The institute was shut down ostensibly for financial reasons. However, there were clear ideological and strategic differences between myself and many of the artists on the campus, and the upper administration.

Guernica: Like what?

Kwame Dawes: Their feeling was that it was not fit to make interdisciplinary projects such a critical aspect of our work, and beyond that I think the vice provost simply wanted to have oversight and control of the granting of funds to faculty. The Arts Institute was run by an advisory board made up of all the chairs and directors of the various arts units on campus. Ultimately, despite much effort on my part to keep the institute going the administration decided to close it down.

Guernica: And Nebraska has now welcomed you.

Kwame Dawes: Nebraska became interested in having me and I found the prospect of editing Prairie Schooner an exciting one. Hence my family and I made the decision to move after nineteen years in South Carolina.

Guernica: This is a big change after twenty years, no?

Kwame Dawes: It was a difficult decision, but my basic feeling is that USC did not have the imagination to see how to make the best use of my talents, interests, and work ethic at this time. I, of course, think this was a mistake, but where they may have failed, Nebraska has proven to be a wonderful, welcoming place with tremendous prospects.

Guernica: You obviously established deep roots with the South Carolinian poets you worked with and got to know through your years of work through the Poetry Initiative, how are you adjusting to your new life?

Kwame Dawes: So far it has been good. I have a good staff at the Prairie Schooner. The journal is well-funded and supported and there is a great deal of enthusiasm for new and innovative ways of doing things. It is a venerable institution, and has a tremendous reputation established over eighty-five years of continuous publication.

Guernica: Immediately, what do you hope to do?

Kwame Dawes: My primary task is to ensure that this work continues. But I also hope to bring all the things that make up my being—my international perspective, my work as a writer and an anthologist, and my work with writers all over the world—to bear on the work I do with the Schooner. It is all quite exciting. I am used to work so none of that is daunting. Indeed, I have had more hectic times in my life.

My quest has been about trying to understand the genius of this musical phenomenon that has somehow effectively taken the world by storm—a music created in the tiny island of Jamaica.

Guernica: Tell me about Home Is Where: An Anthology of African American Poets from the Carolinas and A Bloom of Stones: A Trilingual Anthology of Haitian Poems?

Kwame Dawes: One of the blessings and curses of my life is that I carry so many projects at the same time. A Bloom of Stones is an anthology of poems by Haitian poets written after the earthquake. While I was in Haiti last year, reporting on HIV/AIDS after the ‘quake, I held several soirées with Haitian poets and soon decided that it would be good to put together such an anthology.

Guernica: And in three languages.

Kwame Dawes: The poems will be in Kreyol and French and both translated into English. The work is powerful, moving, and exciting. There are some wonderful poets that have come out of Haiti and this will showcase some of that work. I also wanted to re-establish some of the lost bridges between the English-speaking Caribbean and the French Caribbean. Hopefully this will do it.

Guernica: And your South Carolinian anthology?

Kwame Dawes: Home Is Where is an anthology of poems by Carolina poets—North and South—who are African American. I was approached by Hub City Press to edit this anthology and I have had a wonderful time putting it together. It will be released this month.

Guernica: Are there more anthologies in the works?

Kwame Dawes: I am also expecting the publication of three additional anthologies next year. The first is called Jubilation and it is a collection of poems celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaican independence. The collection will be out in the spring. Also expected then is an anthology called Seven Strong which collects the work of the seven winners of the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize which was organized by the South Carolina Poetry Initiative. It is an exciting anthology because it also includes some engaging, brief essays by each of the poets. Finally, also in the spring, Seeking will appear. It is an anthology of poems written in response to the art of the South Carolina painter Jonathan Green, that I edited with Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina. Green is an amazing artist and these works celebrate his genius and reveal his impact on the literary imagination of the state of South Carolina. Lots of work.

Guernica: You’ve mentioned the importance of the “reggae aesthetic” to your work. How has it guided your work in general and your most recent novel, Bivouac in particular?

Kwame Dawes: Writers like Langston Hughes, in his quest for an aesthetic that was not slavishly subservient to Euro-American culture, turned to black music—the blues, jazz, and negro spirituals—for some essential sense of creative understanding that one could call an aesthetic. The aesthetic, as I understand it, is really about the way in which we understand beauty and speak and think about beauty.

Guernica: Beauty as artists would speak of beauty. As an ideal.

Kwame Dawes: Things that appear to have some resonant value. Hughes sought his sense of beauty, and some key principles about black creativity in black music. He allowed that engagement to shape the work he wrote. He did so because he felt that by understanding the music of his culture he would be tapping into an aesthetic that was first interested in speaking to the African-American sensibility and that was not being distracted by a quest to address and engage the dominant white culture, or what he called American Standardization. In a sense, then, Hughes was looking for an aesthetic that was of the African American people and shaped by the demands of communicating to and with African American people.

Guernica: Although there was always a mixing.

Kwame Dawes: Right. In the Caribbean, we have seen the impact that a sophisticated reading of Calypso has had on the writing of people like V.S. Naipaul, Earl Lovelace, and Kamau Brathwaite.

Guernica: In Natural Mysticism you attempt to do the same with reggae music.

Kwame Dawes: Indeed, I have tried to show that even beyond themselves, our writers have been shaped by some of the key elements of reggae music that could be understood to form a broad and sophisticated aesthetic. I have sought to break down the shape and nature of this aesthetic and I have done so both by observing the way reggae has helped to shape the literature produced during the seventies and beyond, and also, as a way to ground my own work in an aesthetic understanding that makes sense to me.

Guernica: A cultural response to multiple repressions, you’ve said.

Kwame Dawes: My quest has been about trying to understand the genius of this musical phenomenon that has somehow effectively taken the world by storm—a music created in the tiny island of Jamaica. This is powerful and I have sought to understand and to allow the principles I have seen in the music to help shape my aesthetic as a writer.

Guernica: An entire worldview.

Kwame Dawes: In reggae I have a model of artistic excellence and possibility that is challenging and inspiring. The poem remains a demanding thing—an object to be understood and shaped into my own sense of self, the same is true of the play, the novel, the short story. Yet, for some reason, I approach these existing genres with the kind of confidence that the reggae artist approaches any song floating around out there. By reggae-fying those songs, they demonstrate that there is such a thing as a reggae ethos. This is extremely exciting to me. Understanding the reggae aesthetic is essential to successfully enjoy and appreciate my work.

Guernica: And in Bivouac?

Kwame Dawes: In Bivouac one of the most obvious nods to reggae music comes at the end of the work. It is the voice of Burning Spear that is evoked in the iconic exploration of memory and history, and the profound engagement with the land of Jamaica and the myths of faith and identity in which I locate the poetics for the final sequence in the work. It is a journey of return, but it is also a journey marked by a desire to define home in the wider context of the world. That is a very specific example.

Guernica: You’ve defined the “reggae aesthetic” as engaging the spiritual, political, sensual, historical, and lyrical all at the same time.

Kwame Dawes: Yes. This has granted me a certain kind of poetic permission to write work that is all of these things and yet that is grounded in a sense of place and a time. For me, reggae music and its aesthetic are touchstones in both simple and complex ways. Reggae’s capacity to be a folk music that is created in a wholly modern context of the recording studio (and sometimes that is the sole performance space) is riddled with the kinds of contradictory impulses that we have come to expect from the post-modern. I revel in this, for it gives me, shall I say, permission.

Guernica: In Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius,your book looking at the lyrics of Bob Marley, you mention some biographical details, memories of your father and of your youth during the politically wrought period of the seventies. How personal was Bivouac?

Kwame Dawes: I believe that all fiction is personal and all writing is at some level personal. As you may know, my motto is: “All memory is fiction.” It could just as easily be: “All fiction is memory.” Unpacked, these two statements defy the ease of logic, but offer some really important truths about narrative art, at the very least, and about memory. So I would say that all art is personal.

Guernica: The seventies and eighties, the time when the novel was set, were formative years for you in Jamaica.

Kwame Dawes: The novel has very little bearing on facts. However, I have pulled scenes, plot moments, and some character traits from the world I know intimately, and I have constructed a narrative that borrows even from actual writings by my father, as well as from other sources. The fictional impulse is to tell a good story. The situations that happen to Ferron have little bearing on my own life. Writing the work, therefore, was not an attempt to excavate my past, and thus it was not a difficult work to write in terms of the emotions of it. I enjoy telling stories, and I enjoy piecing narratives together to create a full tale. What I can say, though, is that there is much in Bivouac that speaks to how I feel about Jamaica in the seventies and eighties. It is not everything that I feel. It is what works for this novel.

Guernica: Your other works?

Kwame Dawes: Wheels is a collection of poems that was just published. It is my sixteenth collection and it contains many of the poems written in Haiti. Wheels is structured ambitiously around the Book of Ezekiel, and yet it is filled with work that reflects, I believe, my effort to come to terms with the turn of this century—the upheavals, the collapsing of distance and time, the tragedies, the anxieties and the politics around us. All of this is coming from a poet closing quickly to his fiftieth year. Whatever may be lyrical in the collection grows out of the desire to explore the implications of this passing of time. There are regrets, but there are rich memories and a tentative hope in the future: “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I have always liked the poetic possibilities of that construction and truth.

Guernica: There is also another collection of poetry?

Kwame Dawes: Back of Mount Peace, a moving love story in verse that begins with an image that I salvaged from a very vivid dream: a woman standing naked and bewildered on the face of a mountain. The poems in Back of Mount Peace, most of them are in sonnet form, or in a form I invented for the sequence. They unfold the story of how the woman got there and what happens when she is found by a man who discovers she is suffering from amnesia. Writing this reminds me that there is something novelistic about the piece. But poetry allows me to do so much more with the very ideas that are evoked by the story of a woman suffering from amnesia and a man who has found her and fallen in love, and how they must manage memory and the threat of memory.

Guernica: Anything else you want to mention?

Kwame Dawes: I should plug my anthology Red featuring black British poetry. It is an important volume that speaks to the work I have done in the U.K. over the years with black British poets, work that has meant a great deal to me.

G

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