Poetry and Song: The Sublime Spirituals of Kwame Dawes


Emily Sernaker recently interviewed Ghanaian born, Jamaican-raised poet Kwame Dawes for the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB). Here is her introduction and a short excerpt of the interview. See full interview at the LARB.

A FEW DAYS INTO January 2018, I heard Kwame Dawes give a lecture on “The Poetry in Music / The Music in Poetry” in Oregon, at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. Dawes had just been named one of the new chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, along with Marilyn Chin and Marie Howe. He was continuing a professorship at the University of Nebraska. He was also continuing as editor of Prairie Schooner and in his work with the African Poetry Book Fund, which publishes four full-length books of poetry and a new series of chapbooks every year.

Dawes’s lecture on music was among my favorites at the residency, and I picked up his most recent collections, including City of Bones: A Testament (2017), at the student bookstore. “Most recent” is a slippery term with Dawes. For example, when we first corresponded about this interview, City of Bones was recent. Since then, he has at least two new books out, including a reprinting of 1995’s Prophets and, co-authored with John Kinsella, A New Beginning: A Poem Cycle. Dawes, who was born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, is a prolific poet with more than 20 collections, as well as an established playwright, novelist, journalist, critic, musician, and synthesizer. He is the author of the authoritative study on Bob Marley’s lyrics and is responsible for a number of innovative mixed-media projects and anthologies, including the recent responses to the work of artist Romare Bearden.

When I saw him again in April, he was reading at Split This Rock’s social justice poetry festival in Washington, DC. Actually, he wasn’t reading — he was singing. He opened his presentation with a lesser-known Bob Marley chant, “Roots natty roots / dread bingy dread / I and I a de roots,” which created a sense of calm and suspense over the audience. His gift for rhythm remained in his delivery of poems — some of praise and some of mourning. I could see the audience nodding at familiar sounds and delighting in surprise as he invoked the tactics he showed us in the craft talk three months earlier, like creating patterns with poems that reward the listener by matching expectations, then changing the patterns to counter expectations and emphasize important shifts.

In our interview, which occurred over email in May, he discussed many of the takeaways from that January lecture, including the role of music in verse and the overlap between genres. We spoke about how our childhood memories of poetry inform our current understanding of the genre and how that entry point into the work is usually closer than we think. [. . .]

[. . .] City of Bones is full of music, with scenes in church, conversations with ancestors, sounds of nature and breath, instruments, spirituals, hymns. Bluesmen play throughout. In what ways did you seek to utilize music to engage with the larger story of African diaspora?

I think you have answered your question by your observation. You might have said the plays of August Wilson are full of all the sources of music you listed above and more. Wilson was drawing on jazz, on classical music, on the collage improvisations of Romare Bearden, on the call-and-response of folktale telling, on prison songs, on the echo of West African chants and rituals to feed his work. It is inevitable that any “good ear” would have to pick up much of this and use it with glee in the poetry that is claiming to be “inspired” by Wilson’s art.

Some of the most brilliant commentaries on blues are made in Wilson’s plays, and he himself would speak at length about the ways in which he handled the monologue and the long speech as a kind of blues narrative form and structure. Wilson wrote deep inside black tradition, and he relished all the possibilities there, possibilities that writers like Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, among so many others, would talk about beautifully and movingly when they spoke of their nascent poetics and literary aesthetics. I bring to this conversation my own rootedness in African music, both from my childhood and my later adult life, and my long-established engagement with reggae music and its aesthetic.

City of Bones is thick with allusions to calypso, to reggae, to samba, to highlife — forms that Wilson does not speak of explicitly, but that he would have also heard in his own immersion into music and culture of Africa and its diaspora. Wilson, in many ways, writes a play of deep authenticity to region, to cultural history — what some would even call a purity of care to accuracy and authenticity. I have enjoyed breaking through that with the intrusion of my narratives, my other cultures, and my sense of the pan-African experience that is both confirmed and bolstered by Wilson’s work. So there are accents that I hear in Wilson that arise from the South Carolina landscape where I lived for two decades, and I bring other accents to the poems in City of Bones to remind us of the ways in which the African experience has followed sea currents and trade winds and the paths of abuse and horror and survival around the globe. Maybe that is what I could call an “achievement” of the book. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/poetry-and-song-the-sublime-spirituals-of-kwame-dawes/#!

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