Of Literature and Legacy: Kwame Dawes in Conversation with Darlington Chibueze Anuonye

January 13, 2024
10 mins read

Of Literature and Legacy: Darlington Chibueze Anuonye Interviews Kwame DawesBy Darlington Chibueze Anuonye Monday, December 12, 2022.Kwame Dawes is a critically-acclaimed writer and notable scholar, who is based at the US’s University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he holds a distinguished professorship. He is an avid promoter of African and Caribbean poetry, and has mentored some of the most remarkable poetic voices coming out of Africa and the Caribbean. In this interview, the writer, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, engages the poet, novelist and scholar, in a conversation on his writing and life.  Darlington: Let me begin with history. Your grandfather moved to Nigeria between 1905 and 1906, where he had your father; you were born in Ghana from where you left to Jamaica at ten; you attended university in Canada and has been living in the US since 1992. What a journey! And I love how you describe this transition: “The narrative of my journey is an echo of journeys that those before me had made.” This is true, for, as Matthew Shenoda remarked in his brilliant editorial to your collection of poems, Duppy Conqueror, your poetry “is an essential voice of our times, one that has not lost its sense of wonder or its understanding of the past.” How has poetry helped you consolidate the baggage of your hyphenated history into this luminous legacy lighting up a benighted world?Kwame: Poetry—really writing—has been a way for me to account for my history. Poetry, especially, has allowed me to find a formal way to capture the uncertain, the contradictions, the complex of time, history and self in ways that I think allow me to consider myself as a complex of who I am, who I came from, where I have been and where I continue to go. I think poetry, with its commitment to a certain beauty, and maybe, order, has allowed me to unearth connections that I would not quite articulate in normal life, even if I felt it. You see, I don’t believe that poets have extraordinary thoughts by dint of declaring themselves poets. I believe that making poetry allows us, and maybe prompts us, to seek echoes and music, and contradictions and much else in what we can call our lives that can seem profound, and uniquely insightful.  In fact, poetry is the vessel and its making leads to ways of seeing things that can be extremely revealing and helpful.  I should also say that because I have been made accurately aware of my origins, and because those origins have had the accidental effect of charting a larger cultural set of origins, I have, as a writer, felt “called,” if you will, to account for this history, and the result has been a combination of my faithfulness to my personal story, and, at the same time, to what I imagine to be a collective story. Darlington: In November 2016, at the Conversations with African Poets & Writers event, organized by the African and Middle Eastern Divisions, you told the audience that “there is a time when a poem is needed, and when it’s needed, it’s the only thing that is needed and the only thing that will work.” I believe the greatest power of poetry is its ability to become many things to many people, while still being what it is: “the best words in the best order,” to borrow Coleridge’s definition. As Wordsworth insists that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion”, I look to Dylan Thomas, whose lived experience as well as poetic praxis is an absolute measure of Wordsworth’s vision of poetry: “Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenail twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.” It is marvelous, the power of poetry to preside over human emotions. When is a poem needed?Kwame: Oh, I don’t know. And when I think of all those poets saying what poetry is, I find them all doing the same thing that I tend to do when I am asked these questions.  They sometimes are trying to describe what a poem has done for them, or maybe why they write poems.  And we probably all find ourselves back at the same place.  I do think poems, like songs, are elements of most cultures—the ways we organize feelings and thoughts in systems that allow us to understand them better, and maybe remember them. Wordsworth is describing an experience with poetry that reminds me of Emily Dickenson’s much quoted line about the top of her head blowing off—which I am convinced was a passing comment on her part. After all, we all respond to pleasure in different physical ways. All of them show how inadequate their language is to describe something. They have to create narratives to answer people who ask “Why poetry?” But let’s ask why do we even have to answer that question?  Why do you ask me that question? What are you really trying to find out?  Are you asking me to justify why I use my time the way I do? When I said that bit about a time when a poem is needed and so on, I hope you sensed the irony there. I was offering a tautological gesture of avoiding the question.  A poem is needed when it is needed and when it is not needed, it is not needed. Well, no one can argue with that. And that does not answer the question “why poetry?” For thousands of years in so many cultures, people have made poems. I am just following suit because I have found meaning in doing so.Darlington: I’m thinking now of your tribute to your uncle Kofi Awonoor—who was murdered in Nairobi during the Storymoja Hay Festival you had convinced him to attend—and shuddering at the weight of your words to the audience at the Debra Vazquez Memorial Poetry series before your rendition of Awonoor’s poem, “Counting the Years.” “There’s no humor in this reading,” you warned them. “It’s just a grim, miserable stuff” that will make you “wonder why you came out to a reading to torture yourself.” Listening to you read, watching your lips turn into a flute of piercing threnody, I ask myself, is poetry needed now? Then I hear Bertolt Brecht whispering, “Yes, there shall also be singing about the dark times.” How has poetry helped you cope with this and other personal losses?Kwame: My introduction was an attempt at humor—sardonic humor to mask deep anxiety and disquiet. I don’t like discussing the matter of Kofi Awoonor’s murder and my proximity to the moment. I really don’t. I will say that I have found myself writing poems during difficult times. Sometimes I have published those poems. The decision to publish such work is quite different from the need I have felt to write the poems. Maybe writing these things down takes me as close to understanding what I am feeling at a given moment as I might get.  I could talk to someone, but then I am negotiating their feelings to, and the whole moment is quite different—it is filtered through multiple histories and feelings. So writing a poem has come to mean something for me, and I suppose this is why I write poems in dark times, as it were. I don’t think I could make the claim that doing so has helped me cope. I don’t know. I suspect that it helps me to articulate why I am implying—not as an explanation, perse, but as a way of seeing it for what it is. Darlington: Whether fiction, nonfiction or poetry, you believe that “art generates empathy” and that “all acts hatred, bigotry and racism are predicated fundamentally on a lack of imagination and incapacity to imagine what somebody else is feeling.” I suppose that your childhood experience of exchanging letters with your pen pals from other countries and cultures helped to expand your vision of the world and amplify your desire to relate vicariously with that world through writing and viscerally with it by living. Did you ever imagine that one day a pandemic like Covid-19 will emerge, disrupt the world and test the limits of our empathy, our faith, and our hopes as artists, as human beings?Kwame: I am not sure that all art “generates empathy”. I think art can be a means towards empathy. After all, not all writing is about human subjects. No, I did not imagine the pandemic. But we have had pandemics. I have lived long enough to see the effects of disease, stigmatization, death, and social transformation.  I don’t know if COVID tested the “limits of our empathy, our faith and our hopes” as you put it. I can’t think of so much that existed before COVID, never left during COVID and continues even now, that tests all of these things.  I have said many times that empathy and its presence in the world is old as anything I can think of related to human beings. There is nothing profound in suggesting that empathy is a means of finding human connection and hope. I suppose what I am saying is that the human condition is such that we are always going to be challenged to address how we care for each other and how we live in this world.  It may be a war, it may be a pandemic, it may be an earthquake, it may be a riot, it may be a personal illness, it may be a sporting competition… You see what I mean?  COVID makes us think of what calamities await us as human beings, and how we continue to live through them. Darlington: Kofi Awonoor and Bob Marley gifted you friendship and inspiration, respectively. Over the years, you have merged the two gifts into a significant whole and kept the tradition of giving alive. Seeing what you, Chris Abani and Bernadine Evaristo have done for contemporary African poets on the continent and in the diaspora; from African Poetry Book Fund Chapbook box series to Sillerman First Book Prize to Brunel International African Poetry Prize—now deservedly renamed Evaristo African Poetry Prize—you have made giving more gracious than we had ever known. Thank you. One spectacular thing about your achievement with APBF is that you do not attempt to control narratives or define what “African poetry” should be; instead you observe from a respectful distance, allowing space for diversity in craft, while providing writers with the much needed agency and visibility. So, thank you, again, for making it possible for this new generation of African poets to read and be read. What are your future plans with respect to this continued agency?Kwame: This enterprise has been a blessing for all of us who have been involved, and see what has transpired in the last few years has been a high point in my life and work. Thanks for your kind words. The APBF is continuing its work through a series of initiatives including a research project on poetry book distribution in Africa, a few new initiatives including the African Poetry Translation Series and the African Poetry Book Series. We are looking for ways to ensure that the study of African poetry matches the productivity of African poets, and there are multiple ways in which we hope to partner with various entities to see this happen.  I should thank you, though, for the work you have put into this interview, and the research you have done into things I may have said at different points. I appreciate that care. Kwame Dawes is the author of numerous books of poetry and other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His most recent collection UnHistory, was co-written with John Kinsella (Peepal Tree Press, UK 2022). Dawes is a George W. Holmes University Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. He teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is the Series Editor of the African Poetry Book Series, Director of the African Poetry Book Fund, and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. He is a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Kwame Dawes is the winner of the prestigious Windham/Campbell Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the 2022 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.    Image: kwamedawes.comDARLINGTON CHIBUEZE ANUONYE is a literary conversationist and writer. He is editor of The Good Teacher, an anthology of essays that documents the lives and achievements of teachers from the perspectives of their students, curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction and editor of the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. His writings have appeared in Brittle Paper, Black Boy Review, Eunoia Review, The Shallow Tales Review, Praxis Magazine and elsewhere. He is a review correspondent for Praxis Magazine.

Of Literature and Legacy: Kwame Dawes in Conversation with Darlington Chibueze Anuonye

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