by Annie Paul
(page 1 of 2)
Just back from writing poems in India, internationally acclaimed poet and UWI alumnus Kwame Dawes sat down with Annie Paul for an engaging discussion about his life, his alma mater’s role in shaping him as an artist and the Emmy Award-winning LiveHopeLove project.
Kwame, you’ve just got back from New Delhi. “I have been writing poems out of it,” you declared when I contacted you about this interview. Could you tell us briefly what took you there and any reactions to Delhi you may have had? You mentioned this was your first visit to India.
I had three reasons for visiting New Delhi. The first was to present two readings, one at the India International Centre at an event organised by the India Poetry Society, and the other was a reading/lecture at the University of New Delhi’s South Campus. I enjoyed these readings especially because of the attentive and sophisticated engagement that the audiences had with my work, and because it was gratifying to have such a warm and meaningful welcome by other writers that I met. The second reason for my trip was to reconnect with a dear friend of mine, the really remarkable Indian poet, Sudeep Sen, who, along with his family, were my hosts in India for this trip. The chance to meet Sudeep in his own country and space was especially good and I had a chance to meet his smart son, Aria, for the first time. Sudeep Sen was responsible for my third reason to be in India—which was to simply be there and to encounter its richness and complexity in a short time. In a matter of a few days I saw the Taj and several other major monuments, and had a crash course in the history of Delhi. I truly enjoyed my trip largely because there was so much to take in and there was this familiarity, a sense of connection even as I felt outside of the space. I intend to return to India often. I am learning a great deal about poetry in all different languages, and making very important connections with scholars and writers there. And the shopping was fantastic. But the highest point for me in India was the food. I have now been quite spoilt having eaten some of the most superb meals in a matter of a few days.
To contextualise this interview you’ve recently been in the news for your participation in the Emmy Award-winning website project LiveHopeLove.com which was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This was quite an extensive project which ingeniously used a number of different media to communicate the urgency of living with HIV/AIDS. Has the experience of being part of such an innovative multimedia project influenced the way in which you work now or are you pretty much still a poet who works in traditional ways?
Actually, the project found me already working in these “non-traditional” ways. I suspect that was one of the reasons why I was approached to work on this project. To be honest, I believe that what I do by engaging with other art forms, the actual lives of people to generate my work is quite traditional as far as I can tell. So coming to this project I was expecting to find myself writing poems around the people I met and the places I would visit. I did not plan to use these poems in the project, but once they were written and once I had a chance to share them with the team, it made sense to use them. The truth is that I have always worked in multi-genres. My book, Bruised Totems, is based on my response to the quite impressive Bareiss Collection of African Art. My book, Wisteria, is based on interviews I conducted in 1995 with African American elderly women of Sumter, South Carolina. Those poems were set to music by poet and composer, Kevin Simmonds and have become a dynamic performance complete with a fourteen piece classical ensemble. My book, Requiem, is based on the art work of Tom Feelings, the amazing African American artist (The Middle Passage: White Ship/Black Cargo). Those poems, too, were set to music by the guitarist and composer, John Carpenter, and that has been performed with a jazz/blues/reggae combo. Yet another book of mine, Brimming, is based on the paintings of South Carolinian artist, Brian Rutenberg, and those poems have been performed by actors, dancers and musicians in a performance simply called “Brimming”. Indeed, my most recent collection of poems that will appear in a month, Back of Mount Peace, is, in many ways, based on the paintings of the artist, Jonathan Green. Throughout my oeuvre, one will see these connections. I can trace some musical or artistic trigger in most of my poetry and that is the way it should be. So the idea of tackling history, or social issues, or music with poetry has always been part of what I have done. Not a very complicated thing. At the same time, I should say that though my subject may be history, or politics, or some social issue, it does not have any bearing on the task of making poems. Poetry is what I am doing. I am still engaged in the “traditional” ways of making poems and the work has to stand as poems above anything else. I am wrestling with language, with rhythm, with metaphor, and so on. So this project has not changed what I do as a poet and what I do as an artist. It has changed my life, however. I now know more people; know them and admire them, and these are all people I would not have known had I not done this project.
You suggested at the launch here at UWI in July 2009 that Hope’s Hospice was not something you proactively set out to do; that it was more or less something that fell into your lap. “I didn’t choose this gig. I would not. I say that confidently,” you were quoted as saying. What did you mean exactly? It almost sounds as if this wasn’t a project that would have aroused your interest normally. Could you elaborate?
Actually, the one thing I can say is that the project did arouse my interest. That is why I responded positively to the invitation for me to do it. But I can also say that the project was not on my radar screen. I was not thinking about doing a full blown journalistic examination of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. But I have always been interested in that subject. HIV/AIDS is a compelling issue because it is thick with tragic implications and all the stuff of human complexity. It is about taboo, it is about fear, it is about sex, it is about guilt, it is about culpability, it is about responsibility. It is a uniquely complex disease because it carries so much baggage that has little to do with the pathology of the disease. As early as 1987, I began to write about HIV/AIDS. I wrote several short plays on the subject including the piece, Stump of the Terebinth, which has had good runs in Trinidad and in the US. But what I meant by “the project fell into my lap”, is that I was approached to do the project. I did not think up this project myself. That is all I meant and simply put, this is true. I would not, without a commission and a request (both granting me confidence) have chosen to write a ten thousand word essay on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. I would not have had the confidence or the audacity to think I could be informed enough about the subject to embark on such a difficult task. But once the proposal was put to me, and after I did some research, I felt comfortable taking it on, and I did.
For more see www.kwamedawes.com. Also view a YouTube feature on Kwame Dawes and his list of Peepal Tree Press books