Sentinel Poetry (Online) #54 ISSN 1479-425X
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002
Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede
In the Cradle of History
Amatoritsero Ede: In commenting on the collection, Shook Foil, you said: “It has become clear to me over the years that my writing is driven as much by thematic concerns as it is by formal preoccupations…” How does form interact with theme in your poetry?
Kwame Dawes: Each of my books of poetry reflects a preoccupation with both theme and form. Much of this is not always calculated or premeditated, but there is a sense in which my interest in certain formal qualities at a given time will shape the work I am doing. When I began work on the long poem, Jacko Jacobus, I knew I was writing a large narrative work, and I had become fascinated by the two-line stanza that was not quite a couplet, but that created a finer poetic shape that allowed for the quicker pace and the almost Psalmic dualism that I wanted to achieve in the collection. When I was writing another long poem, Prophets, I was likely influenced by Derek Walcott’s Omeros, not so much by its metric patterns and rhyme, but for the way that the three-line stanza seemed to lend itself to stretches of narrative verse that were as much interested in the capturing of landscape as in creating the cadence of an epic tone and manner. In Shook Foil I was interested in several things at the same time. I was interested in exploring religious themes, trying to define reggae, and finally in a sequence of lyric poems about Bob Marley and the Wailers. Three distinct forms therefore emerged in the collection. I wrote the poems not in the sequence that they appear in the collection, but with a consciousness of what I needed to do formally for the poems that fitted into a certain section. The poems that explored religious themes borrowed comfortably from the psalms in both the rhetorical form as well as the physical construction in the work. The “Tentative Definitions” (of reggae) are all terse, short-lined verses because I sought to capture something emblematic, something that would suggest a credo of sorts. Finally the poems with longer lines – quite sprawling in their appearance on the page were the narrative pieces that explored Marley and my engagement with his art and the people around him. Later when I started to work on Midlands, I sought a more eclectic formal presentation as the book is not a long single-themed poem. Instead it is a collection of varied poems. “Inheritance”, perhaps one of the most successful of the collection is a long poem which began as a free verse lyric with multiple stanzas; but gradually the poem became something tighter and what people might call more formal. I began to work with syllabics and intentionally employed metrics for effect. In other words, I am always thinking of the shape of a poem when I am writing it and sometimes before I have started to write the poem. I regard my ability to write in meter or to employ a range of western forms as unremarkable. These are just tools that I can employ for effect when I want. Having that facility is important to me as much as having a facility with other poetic forms that may not emerge from the western tradition. I think of many models when I write poems and they help to shape the poems. Reggae music, reggae ethos and ideology all form part of this formal engagement.
A.E.: Shook Foil is subtitled ‘a collection of reggae poems.’ One remembers the syncopated rhythm of Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry or the Jazz influenced rhythm of some of Langston Hughes poetry. How does reggae inhere within the spirit of Shook Foil?
K.D.: I have spent a long time trying to argue that the reggae aesthetic is not merely a formal issue but an issue that extends beyond that. Indeed, the idea that the jazz in Kamau Braithwaite’s poetry manifests itself merely in the physical shape of the piece – its syncopations – represents a limited reading of what Brathwaite attempted to do and what he achieved. No doubt the syncopations, as you put it, are part of that achievement, but Brathwaite was arguing for something broader than that. He was arguing for a sensibility, a way of viewing the world, a way of engaging the concept of improvisation as ideology as part of the jazz aesthetic. Jazz has had great treatment in this vain from Brathwaite, Baraka (Amiri), Albert Murray, Houston Baker and many more. Langston Hughes himself, when talking about the blues in his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, begins to show that the blues is more than just the formal metric and rhyme scheme, but an ethos a way of engaging the world. Others would extend this concept in quite fascinating ways. I come to the reggae aesthetic with that intention. It is what I am at pains to point out in my book, Natural Mysticism towards a New Reggae Aesthetic, in which I propose that the reggae aesthetic is marked by something more than rhythm. Briefly, I propose that reggae’s “rootedness” in Rastafarianism allows for a mythological grounding that should impact any writer working within its aesthetic. Reggae music is at once a spiritual music as it is a sensual music, a political music, and a music form that has it own distinctive vocabulary and linguistic sensibility. Shook Foil, then, is arguing that the reggae poem is a great deal more than a poem that sounds like a reggae song but it is a poem that arises out of a culture that has been shaped and defined by the advent of this music movement. I am a poet who grew up with reggae music as part of the landscape, and in many ways, the ubiquitous nature of reggae music, as well as its constant relevance to my life have made it almost impossible for me to know be influenced by this music, by this art form.
A.E.: Of course manner (form) and matter (thematic thrust and content) cannot to be subordinated one to the other; rather they should be healthily fused. I was merely concentrating on your musings on form (which I quoted at the beginning of this conversation); focusing, that is, on the outer shell rather than the inner spirit and larger concerns of a poetic piece. George Elliott Clarke found your second collection, Resisting the Anomie (Goose Lane 1995), “less than impressive, especially given its author had received the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize, a British award recognizing an auspicious first collection.” Nevertheless in reviewing your first and third collections, Progeny of Air (Peepal Tree, 1994) and Prophets (Peepal Tree, 1995), respectively, he announces the arrival of “a signal poet.” But his overall assessment of your work after your first three collections is that: “[t]hough Dawes is a vital poet, his work is harmed by one problem: good, vibrant lines are prodded or clouded by laxer ones. In short, he fails to concentrate his poems: prolixity sacrifices exactness.” How have you transcended this critique in subsequent collections?
K.D.: Since I did not agree with George Elliot Clarke then, I did not make any effort to, as you put it, “transcend this critique” in my subsequent collections. Critics are useful in getting people to read a work or in exploring the ideas that are contained in a work, but critics are rarely useful to me as guides to how to improve my writing. I don’t rely on them for that.
A.E.: Would you describe your work as mostly narrative poetry?
K.D.: In as much as narrative poetry means poetry that tells a story I would say the answer to that question is, yes. But there is an implication that if the poem is a narrative poem it is therefore not engaged with the lyric or the image. Very often, a narrative poem is essentially a grand piece of symbolic writing or a work of profound imagism. This answer could have been shorter—I could have said yes or no, but I belabour the issue because I am not convinced that the label of narrative poet will help anyone to know what I write or how to read my work.
A.E.: The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is narrative poetry – and Omeros; nevertheless the reader is unaware of the narration most of the time. There is a chemical reaction between narration and the manner of narration that eats away all borders. Your first novel She’s Gone (Akashic, 2007) just came out. Is there a dialogue between it and your poetry?
K.D.: Not really. Reviewers are intent on making much of the fact that I am a poet. Indeed, many have expected my prose to therefore be quite poetic. I am not sure what this means. I do know that some critics have been disappointed by the lack of poetry in the novel. I know that this kind of critique would not emerge were I not known as a poet. I suspect that being a poet always makes me aware of language and how it is to be used. This is helpful to a novelist, no doubt. But I think I owe a greater debt to my work as a playwright (I have written and seen produced almost twenty plays) in the shaping of the novel.
A.E.: A poet’s prose does not necessarily have to be ‘poetic’ in any hardboiled fashion, although it is sometimes the case, as G. H. Vallins shows in a chapter titled “The prose of Poets”, in The Best English (Andre Deutsch, 1960). Soyinka falls into that category of poets whose prose is fringed by the hard edges their muscular poetry any comments on this?
K.D.: I think writers have prose styles and poetic styles, and while the two things may be related for the writers, I do think that the demands of a theme and a genre will simply draw certain qualities from different writers. I am not suggestion that my prose does not reveal poetic elements, I am just suggesting that fewer reviewers would draw attention to this fact if I was not a poet. I am not sure Soyinka is the best example of a prose writer whose prose style is shaped by his poetry. Soyinka, regardless of what he is writing, is engaged with finding metaphors and symbols to capture idea and experience—I would say that his prose writing is more clearly shaped by his work as a playwright than anything else. Here you will see the theatrical metaphor-a concrete and deeply rooted sense of language that can come off as “muscular.” At the end of the day, however, I think I would agree with Amiri Baraka who I recently read with in New York. He was reading from his new collection of short stories. Someone asked him about the poetics in his prose. He said that all his writing is poetry. He left it at that—implying, of course, that the engagement with the word is at the core of his writing instinct.
A.E.: Sincerely, I believe, and it can easily be discerned, that Soyinka’s writing is mostly informed by a high distillation of language that is the hallmark of poetry. It is in this sense that I suggest that his prose is first informed by that poetic ‘muscle’ that you will find in Idanre and other Poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt or in the intertextual poem, “Gulliver”. I think he is a poet first. The Nobel citation describes him as “one of the finest ‘poetical’ playwrights that have written in English.” So it is not too far off the mark to say that his poetry or mastery of that form informs his plays, rather than the other way around. You have 12 collections of poetry to date. How have you managed to remain so prolific, given your preoccupation as an academic as well?
K.D.: I am not sure. I don’t think of myself as prolific as I live from day to day. I am working. I have ideas and I write them down. I believe that I have been blessed with the capacity to do many things at the same time. This is no something I could have trained myself to do. I do not regard my academic work as a preoccupation. I teach because of my passion for teaching and it is as critical to my life and the quality of my happiness as writing might be. I have ever used anything as an excuse for not writing. Perhaps there will be a slow down, but I will continue to generate work as long as the ideas keep coming.
A.E.: Well, “preoccupation” is a euphemism for the dangers of cold-blooded academicism that can overtake the poet academic, and the interference of very cerebral literary theory. Perhaps what I should have asked is how do you separate the academic from the poet, any tensions?
K.D.: I don’t understand the term “academic” to be quite honest. Lately, the term has become something of an insult, so I would rather not embrace it. There is nothing wrong with the cerebral, nor does it run counter to the production of art, as far as I am concerned. I am trying to say that these dichotomies that you present may work for others and may bother others, but I have never struggled with this idea. I have always seen myself as part of a larger community that is not confined to the university or to the “academic world”. I don’t have multiple brains working that have to somehow be reconciled. I write about what fascinates. I write about reggae because I love reggae and I think it is a remarkable phenomenon. I have worked hard to make sure that whatever I do as a scholar or a writer, or as an arts facilitator and organizer, grows out of a passion to make things relevant and meaningful to as many people as I can reach. I have never believed that Shakespeare belongs to the academia exclusively. I have always tried to remember where Shakespeare was when he was alive. This is why I don’t see the tension that you suggest, nor do I feel any need to separate one thing from the other. I am a storyteller, I am a teacher, and this is true whether I am talking about T.S. Eliot, or Bob Marley, or Jacko Jacobus.
A.E.: The recent reading you gave of She Gone in Ottawa was followed by a discussion in which V.S. Naipaul came up. What, do you think, has been his legacy for Caribbean literature, irrespective of his rumoured self-deprecating politics?
K.D.: I think it would a mistake to think of Naipaul “irrespective” of anything. I also feel awkward speaking of his legacy as if he is dead. Naipaul is a great writer—a great craftsman and someone who devoted is life to making a living from writing. He offers a brilliant model for any aspiring writer. He is a careful, conscientious artist who has given himself fully to making work that is skilful, insightful and provocative. We have watched him grow, evolve and reveal so much of himself in book after book over the years. He writes about the Caribbean or the West Indies as a man who grew up in a colonized environment, a man who might have been hopeful about the post independence Caribbean and who may well have been disappointed by what he saw. But he wrote about his disappointment with a commitment to what he has, I am sure felt to be true. The West Indies is a really small place in terms of population, and to have produced so many giants of literature is no small thing. Naipaul is a product of the region. He knows this as do all of us. Naipaul’s self-deprecation is a part of that quality of self and part of his own way of coping with the region, and with himself. Eventually, his art will be judged for its thematic and ideological content as well as its craft. This is what should happen. For my part I am better off having read Naipaul.
A.E.: In The Fortunate Traveller (FSG, 1981) Derek Walcott humorously alludes to Naipaul as V.S. Nightfall – due again to Naipaul’s ideological self-positioning, do you think Walcott was justified?
K.D.: To make a pun on Naipaul’s name? Why would he need justification for that? It is funny. It is a fourth form joke. We nicknamed boys at school and the nicknames stuck because they capture something about the person we are nicknaming. Walcott is a notorious teaser and he nicknamed Naipaul because Naipaul is rather gloomy in his view of the West Indies. This is not a startling attack. It is a joke, and a good one.
A.E.: Caribbean literature has come of age, with writer like Jean Rhys, Wilson Harris, Samuel Selvon, Walcott, Naipaul, Lovelace and many more. What has been the impact of this tradition on your own writing, both poetry and prose.
K.D.: I suppose it may be fair that the fifties and early sixties saw the “coming of age” of Caribbean (or West Indian) literature, but the tradition does go back a bit longer and with a longer list of names. Any good writer from the region or who has any interest in writing about the region would do well to pay attention to some of the writers you mentioned, not so much to imitate (although there have been worse sins), but to place in context the development of the Caribbean imagination in the twentieth century—a process that will help to locate one’s own poetics and sensibilities. I came to West Indian Literature primarily out of curiosity. My father had a good collection of West Indian books on his shelves, and as a teenager, I used to scour his shelves for books with salacious writing between the covers. Put simply, I was look for smut. His library was impressive because he also had American novels and British novels, along with an impressive array of writing from Africa and Asia. My search for smut led me to some quite lofty literature including Mongo Beti’s The Poor Christ of Bomba, and virtually all of Edgar Mittleholtzer. But it also led me skim books that, while not generating the bounty I had hoped for, still hooked my interest in narrative. Soon I was not skimming, I was reading. I was drawn by the familiarity of the landscape, by the language, and by the sense that these writers were telling stories about people with whom I was familiar. We read West Indian writers in high school and by this time in West Indian history, it was possible to think of great writers as West Indian writers. By the time I began to think of writing, I was aware that I would need to see what other writers had done before me. I started as a playwright, so reading the plays by West Indian writers was an important process for me. That I pilfered freely from these works was inevitable and necessary. But most important to me was the fact that I could read the works of writers who had actually performed these plays on the very stage I was working on. Yes, the sense of tradition was critical to me. But I also had a troubled relationship with tradition in that since my father was, himself, a novelist and poet, I wanted to find a way to not feel the pressure of his legacy on my own work. I felt comfortable as a playwright because of this. And yet, when, later, I began to write poetry seriously, I came to rely on his voice, his poetic voice, as a tutor, a kind of guide through my own quest for a voice. Above anything else, these writers taught me possibility – the sense that if they could do it, so could I. They gave precedence. They set a high standard, but their work also reminded me that the world I was seeing in front of me at the time was desperate for a chronicler – someone to bring fresh insight and literary intelligence to the realities. I found this an exciting challenge. Walcott and Brathwaite, along with so many of the poets and novelists, had worked through the headaches of colonialism – they had, in the process, managed to start or to set in place a literary discourse that was not as heavily overshadowed by an anxious relationship with the European masters. It was a refreshing thing to have my own ‘masters’, in other words.
A.E.: It is interesting to discover, in the course of this chat, that your literary gifts might be genetically coded and transferred! Is it possible to lay hands on any of your father’s work; any titles?
K.D.: I resist the idea of the genetic coding. It does not quite stand up to close scrutiny—not to me, anyway. But I tend to be more compelled by nurture than by nature, if you see what I mean. Nonetheless, to answer your question, yes. My father’s two novels are The Last Enchantment and Interim. He also published a collection of poems in the late fifties titled, In Sepia. I have not been able to find a copy of that first modest run. I am now working on editing a republication of The Last Enchantment and In Sepia. These will appear in the next year. He is also heavily anthologized in most West Indian literature anthologies. He also published critical papers and edited a number of important titles.
A.E.: The reference to ‘genetic coding’ is meant in a lighter sense. No writer has his gifts handed down like a robe. You say that Caribbean literature goes further back than the 50’s and 60s. True enough. At least Aime Cesaire started publishing as far back as 1948; and in 1935 he coined the term ‘negritude’ to inaugurate a cultural/literary movement that began in Paris, and which inaugurated the beginnings of a black modernist aesthetics linking writers from the Caribbean, African-America and Africa itself within the background of an overarching black modernist and black internationalist cultural moment, under-girded by a Pan-African politics. Thinking along the same lines of a black internationalist literary cross-influence, and considering your ‘immediate’ filial Caribbean-African background, as distinct from an ‘historic’ Diaspora persona, how does being Ghanaian and Jamaican inform your work; do you ever write about Ghana?
K.D.: I do write about Ghana. I do have a clear “historical” diasporial identity as well. My father’s family come from a people who were enslaved in the Caribbean, as well, and who would later return to Africa at the turn of the last century to reconnect. My mother is Ghanaian, and that sense of her history and her present, have formed part of the way that I understand the world and write about it. Ghana comes to me as memory, but it comes to me mostly as ‘grounding’, a sense that my Africanness is very immediate and that my understanding of how the histories of the African Diaspora collide and merge is an important part of what I have gained by the accident of my birth.
A.E.: Which particular Caribbean writer has been a more direct influence?
K.D.: The list would be rather long, actually. The obvious figures are those I have mentioned already, but I can think of many others that continue to shape what I do as a writer. My relationship with writers amounts to a combination or admiration and quarrel. This tension is necessary. But different writers have given me different things, and what they have given to me may not represent the core value of their work or the fullness of what I have gained from reading them, but their value to me as writers influencing a writer is often quite specific. I can say, for instance, that Walcott always made me rethink form and gave me permission to indulge in the richness of language and the grandness of poetic ambition. Brathwaite pushed me to look for an aesthetic and a language to talk about such an aesthetic. His example would lead me to look at the cultural space that was shaping me and for the larger idea of seeing one’s work within a larger movement. I am grateful to him for leading me to the reggae aesthetic, through the spirit of his quest for a jazz aesthetic—a quest that did not always hold hope in the context of West Indian writing. Lorna Goodison continues to teach me about the honesty of voice—her writing manages to find a poetic that captures the Jamaican language in its full range, and this is no small thing for a poet writing out of that space. V.S. Naipaul’s dogged commitment to the profession of writing and his sharply insightful take of human behaviour strong focus on the details of human life is something I continue to learn from again and again. So many individual works by so many writers continue to challenge me and to allow me to feel as if I am embarked on something quite important as a writer. Needless to say, these are not the sum of my influences. I regard writers from Africa, Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia as influences, as well.
A.E.: Kwame, thank you for your precious time; wishing you more creative success.
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