Q&A with Kwame Dawes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 7:04pm

Ghanaian-Jamaican poet and author Kwame Dawes might just be literature's Commitments - the hardest-working writer in the world. Now a professor of English at the University of Nebraska, after doing the same job at the University of South Carolina for nearly two decades, and editor of literary journal Prairie Schooner, he is also the author of 16 award-winning volumes of poetry, plus numerous novels, non-fiction books and plays. Born in Ghana, he lived briefly in London before moving to Jamaica aged nine and staying there until his mid-20s. In Hong Kong for a residency at City University, he spoke to Richard Lord.

You are, among other things, a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a collaborator in numerous other literary ventures, an academic, a festival organiser and a magazine editor. How do you find the time for it all?

I'm driven by two basic things. One is deadlines. But also, I've come to trust that I'm processing several things in my head at the same time. I just know when something seems ready to be put down.

How do you approach the business of actually creating poetry?

The making of poetry is something of a freak show. The poet must understand empathy - the process of becoming but not totally becoming, identifying with someone but not being so wrapped up that they can't imagine a way out. As a young poet, I was worried that I was exploiting people and their lives - that they'd see themselves in my work and be offended. That was my hubris. I thought I was writing them, but I wasn't - I was writing poems. I have absolutely no ability to reproduce these people in poems. Poems have shape and form. Their lives do not. A poem is not what a person is.

You also write fiction and non-fiction - is your approach to them different?

Fiction for me is very interesting. In a sense I'm trying to do the same thing [as in poetry] but taking a lot more words to do it. The impulses are quite similar, whereas non-fiction is a different impulse. You ask a woman, "How does it feel that you gave your son HIV at birth?" and she says, "It's OK". I look in her eyes, and it's not OK. She knows I know it's not OK. But in a journalistic piece I can only say it's OK. I'd have to press for a quote: "Are you sure?" As a poet I've got enough - I can create that moment in all its truth without having the facts.

You've moved around a lot, and the theme of displacement comes up a lot in your work. Where do you feel displaced from?

Jamaica is really important, but a lot of the defining moments of who I am come from being a Ghanaian, and a Ghanaian in Jamaica. Being on the outside is not a negative for me - it's productive. And my writing is almost always reflective - my understanding of who I am came through writing. I realise that most of my life is spent not so much in a process of becoming but in understanding who this person is. That's the burden of being a writer.

You're possibly the world's leading academic authority on the lyrics of Bob Marley. How did his music come to play such a big role in your life?

I was doing my A-levels in Jamaica in 1978, studying [T.S.] Eliot, [Gerald Manley] Hopkins and so on, and applying all the practical criticism I'd been taught. Bob Marley's album Kaya came out. I heard Kaya and I thought: I'm not sure I understand this. But I used the same practical criticism skills to understand his lyrics, and I realised I was listening to a poet. Marley did something really extraordinary: he expressed himself politically, but he was spiritual. He allowed for contradiction.

How did you end up reporting on HIV/Aids in Jamaica for LiveHopeLove, your project with the US Pulitzer Centre? And how different was it when you then did the same thing in Haiti, a country with which you're less familiar?

About five years ago, I was approached by the Pultizer Centre, which has a remit to present foreign news to a US audience, with a proposition and I said no: "One, I'm not a journalist, and two, I'm not an expert on HIV/Aids. Tell me: why would you come to me?" They said: "We want a writer, not a journalist, and we need someone who understands that society - the HIV/Aids community is the hardest section of any society to break into." With Haiti, I felt like I was walking into a familiar place, with a culture I could understand. But what was different was that a catastrophic earthquake had just taken place. HIV/Aids sufferers there had created a remarkable network of support systems. Everyone expected HIV to go up after the earthquake, and remarkably it didn't happen, because the network was underground so it was built for a crisis. I think of that work as beautiful. What stood out was the trust that people showed me. I am grateful for that - it was a gift.