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.