Poetry and Song: The Sublime Spirituals of Kwame Dawes




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.

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EMILY SERNAKER: How can existing songs within us — nursery rhymes, hymns, chants, and prayers — inform our approaches to poetry?

KWAME DAWES: I believe that some of our earliest experiences with poetry come from the hymns, songs, rhymes, and chants that we hear as children. Nonsense stories, language play for the sake of invention and delight, are all part of that barrage of poetry that we deal with as children. We learn mystery and fear through incantations and prayers. We learn the gap between sound and meaning and we learn to dig deeper or simply ignore it. The fact is, that not even technology has changed that reality for us. These informal and sometimes formal ways in which we encounter the poetic are important in instilling an impulse toward language and mystery and the power of language to bring clarity.

What happens after that period is what determines whether we grow to love poetry in its more formal sense or not. Some cultures and some periods in history are known to formalize the engagement with structured and artful language sooner and for a longer period than others. Popular music, the radio, television, computers, and much else, have complicated the ways in which we encounter the poetic, but I like to think that much of the magic is still there. I do remember as a child believing fully that words chanted could effect change, could haunt, could curse, could, as we would say in Jamaica, guzum circumstances and experiences.

What shatters that magic of those early moments is when we discard that element of delight, play, and mystery for the business that happens in the middle-school classroom that turns the play of language into study, into labor, and into a negotiation between certainty and received assurances of meaning. We stop associating poetry with something everybody does, but with something related to academics and study. I am not talking about the difference between spoken word and book poetry, as some are wont to do. The tyranny of form as a polemical force crosses both of these genres, and sadly, even the spoken word rarely enters the atavistic realm of mystery and incantation that I believe should be part of the poetic impulse. It is not, either, a distinction between so-called “academic poetry” and “popular poetry.”

The difference is largely specious, for there is mystery and magic and sentiment in work that we like to call academic inasmuch as there is formal rigidity and conservatism in so-called popular street performance poetry. These labels do not get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is the poetic impulse, and I am increasingly of the view that the closer that poetry gets to prayer — to something spiritual, if you will — the closer we come to a genuine poetic sense.

You’ve described your recent collection City of Bones as having particular urgency. How was creating it different from other collections?

I write to understand the world I live in and to discover what I think and feel about that world. I also write to write. The truest answer to that pesky “inspiration” question is that I am driven to write by the desire to write. The process of writing, the way it makes me feel, that is what gets me back to the page.

City of Bones arose out of my intense study of and love for the plays of August Wilson. I have been taken by the work of a number of playwrights in my life — playwrights whose work I have spent a great deal of time reading and, where possible, viewing. Some names that come to mind are Athol Fugard, Ntozake Shange, Dennis Scott, Wole Soyinka, Michel Tremblay, and Caryl Churchill. For years I worked as an active playwright, so this kind of focused examination of their works makes sense. The list is a far longer one and includes single plays by gifted artists like Patricia Cumper.

In my own training as a playwright, I have read much of the Western canon of plays in English and in English translation, and, of course, the works of African playwrights, Asian playwrights, and so on. So it is a thing for me, as they say. Wilson was a revelation; and I was in awe of the audacity of his project and his remarkable success at achieving it before he died. I simply wanted to be in conversation with that work as a way of conversing with myself. So I made one basic and ambitious decision. I bought 10 notebooks, and vowed to write as many poems in response to each of the plays in his 10-play cycle. The task is not completed, but the job is — the job of making a collection of poems in dialogue with August Wilson. All the plays have some echo and voice in the collection, some more than others. But I regard these poems as deeply personal, even though many aren’t personal in nature.

I suppose I come to the poems with the attitude of a very sloppy actor who has decided to pick and choose what snippets of language from the playwright he will use and then selfishly lets his emotional “interpretation” of the plays shape his performance and, in the process, go as far as quarreling with, echoing, stealing from, and departing entirely from the work of the playwright. The last thing I am doing is retelling Wilson’s plays. Instead, I am treating Wilson (and this is the best I can do by way of explanation) as thousands of artists have treated William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, the Bible — as a rich source of poetic allusion, reinterpretation, tradition, possibility, and stories.

The truth is, we have a strange kind of permission that Jamaicans delightfully cast as “t’ief from t’ief, God laugh,” meaning when a thief steals from another thief, God laughs. The suggestion is one of a certain kind of comeuppance, but we also embrace it as a kind of permission without judgment. Cervantes and Shakespeare were, by any standard, famously inveterate larcenists, so there is something almost necessary about the “conversation” with tradition that is built into my project. Perhaps such projects require a buffer of centuries to avoid some of the inevitable weeds, so to speak, but I truly enjoyed the poems that emerged and the hard work that followed of culling them to fit into a coherent collection of verse.

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.

Do you see the trumpet from Wilson’s Fences (and Gabriel’s eventual inability to create sound) as particularly devastating?

The possibilities of interpretation here are immense. The most obvious read is to see this as a tragic moment, a moment in which the muting of all music and thus all articulation is completed. But there is something else that happens in performance, and I think when the actor does not look devastated, but actually acts as if he feels that the effort has been worth it, that this is something he will continue to do until a sound will come, we are then left with a sense of hope.

Wilson’s hope is also hard won and something that has to be wrested out of tragedy. And Wilson is making it clear that every single act of hope and joy in African-American life has had to be hard won. For when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., we are, like Jesus’s disciples at the Last Supper, anticipating the crucifixion. The same goes for Malcolm X, for Medgar Evers, for Angela Davis, for Zora Neale Hurston, Tupac Shakur, Bill Cosby, heroes, villains, victims, and victimizers — the story of the African American arrives at hope and joy, true terrible calamity; and that wind, that long wind of sound, is at once a sign of breath and a sign that there is a long way to go. I can hear people saying that this is true of all people. Perhaps. But here Wilson has made this particular tragedy into monumental art, and it has become a gift for all others to carry with them. It is what Bob Marley did. It is what great art does.

The poem “Stop Time” centers around the concept of a joyful pause within a moment of singing spirituals. How did the three-stanza structure help you achieve the tone you wanted for this poem?

You know, the blues form is basically a three-line form, and it does evolve around repetition and a kind of satisfying “punch line” in the third. That is normal. I was actually fascinated by the gaps that much black music relishes in — the way that black music makes use of syncopation to create a sense of anticipation, and anticipation that happens when the body and mind continue the rhythm even when the music has stopped playing. When the music returns, there is something like an orgasmic whoosh of delight in the way we have kept time, the joy that the beat has returned, and the addictive desire for yet another testing of that faith.

I don’t think I have managed to capture everything or even most of what that sensation is like in the poem, but it is a good failure, as they say. Just listen to a good dub track by King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry and allow your body to be mesmerized by the rhythm, and then listen for that moment when the bass drops out, leaving all the high stuff — keyboards, high hat, guitar — going, and then feel what happens when the bass returns. Whoosh! It enters the belly. That is a kind of stop time. In gospel, funk, and other forms of black music, even in the way the clave works, we get smaller versions of that pleasurable syncopation. To then make metaphorical that sensation into so much that has meaning for a people who have suffered and triumphed is one of the great pleasures of making poems.

Can you speak about this passage from “Stop Time”: “And here / in this chapel the world is held / in the cradle of a song, and for this / one moment, he knows how to walk”?

I do believe that the pleasure I mentioned above is the “walking” that is an affirmation of presence and existence in the world. Reggae dancing in its many forms has amounted to a kind of walking, various ways of stylizing the walk. And the walk is massively important because a people who is moving both because it has been forced to (and so is still alive by walking) and also because it is seeking to connect with creation and live in it, is a people aware of its very history and presence. Oh, language, how it fails us! I do know that I wanted to capture this difficult truth that sometimes, in the moment of spiritual sublimation that comes with worshipful singing and dancing, there is a way in which we are enacting this movement inside the world; and it is as if, contained in this moment, in this space, in this chapel, if you will, is everything that it means to be alive.

When I have felt elevated enough to want to and actually utter tongues that are incomprehensible to the mind, it has often happened when the body and mind seem to have found themselves at this crossroads where it seems possible to conceive of the world in one moment and space. Yes, it is an impossibility, I know, but it is also a genuine sensation; and to walk, to skank, to move in that space is perhaps what I hoped to capture in those lines. What did Derek Walcott say? “There are things that my craft cannot wield.” Poetry is a constant failing for me. But as I have said earlier, sometimes there are good failures, and the rest is not our business.

As editor of Prairie Schooner and co-editor of New-Generation African Poets, thousands of poems come across your desk each year. What is the biggest mistake writers make in regard to sound?

I limit my ideas of “mistakes” to rather small and arguably broader categories like lack of originality; cliché of idea, rhetoric, and language; overwriting; pretentiousness; mishandling of sentiment; clarity of thought and language; inconsistency of form; and incomplete thought. Are these mistakes? No, these are just the failings of poems we all write, and often they show up quickly. I say this to say that “mistakes of sound,” which I am not sure I could identify consistently, would have to do with the problems that come with unnecessary distractions that certain gestures can cause in a poem. If rhymes are overly predictable, then they suggest a lack of judiciousness in their use and a misunderstanding of what delight original and surprising rhymes can generate. Sometimes incongruity in sounds — assonance and discordant sounds — can be a good thing for a poem, so such “mistakes” are really not mistakes, are they? I believe that everything in a poem must serve the poem in some centralized way.

There has to be some kind of rupture, intentional in its place and presence, when the pattern established early in the poem is broken because of this matter of anticipation, which you mention. So, Walcott said, we should be truly careful about our first lines, and if they are good, we should trust their guidance. And if we choose to change the pattern, we should know that the reader is still carrying those first lines and will have a visceral reaction to the shift which, he argued, we should regard with the kind of reverence and respect that covenants demand. I mention Walcott here because I think he is talking about matters that connect with sound and music in poems as well. Of course, we all know that song (which is one way to think of poetry that goes back deep into our history as humans) is built on repetition and change — anticipation and what follows that, either disappointment or satisfaction. So poetry is no different in that regard.

Are there new choices poets are making in their work that excite you? Who are you looking forward to reading in the coming year?

I am a friend of poets. I am someone who works with poets. But I am deeply involved with curating the poetry that is coming out of Africa these days. And every time we publish a new collection by an African poet, it feels as if something remarkable and transformative is happening. So I am looking forward to all the new books of poetry by African poets being published by the African Poetry Book Fund. I will name three poets who, I believe, we should pay careful attention to whenever their new work appears. Mahtem Shiferraw from Ethiopia, Tanella Boni from the Ivory Coast, whose work has been translated elegantly by Todd Fredson, and TJ Dema from Botswana. Chris Abani is about to wrap up a new collection that is stunning, and Graywolf Press will be releasing Ilya Kaminsky’s long-awaited second collection this year. Striking work. The list could go on and on, but I will stop there.

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Emily Sernaker is a writer and human rights professional. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesMs. magazine, McSweeney’sThe SunRattleNew Ohio ReviewGOOD MediaThe Rumpus, and more.


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