“The poet’s language is vivid and visceral; his courage and honesty blaze a path in poem after poem. This is the music of survival and transcendence. Indeed, the poetry of Kwame Dawes makes the impossible possible.” —Martin Espada
“Kwame Dawes is one of the most important writers of his generation who has built a mighty and lasting body of work…” —Elizabeth Alexander
“Majestic is the word that comes to mind reading the finely wrought poems of Kwame Dawes…a sublime talent is needed to fashion poems of such capacious grace and energy.” —Terrance Hayes
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood and early adult life in Jamaica. He is a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and plays. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of Ghana, citing in an interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” Indeed, his book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius remains the most authoritative study of the lyrics of Bob Marley. Of his sixteen collections of poetry, his most recent titles include Bivouac (Akashic Books, 2019), Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon, 2013), shortlisted for the PEN Open Book Award; Wheels (2011); Back of Mount Peace (2009); Hope’s Hospice (2009); Wisteria, finalist for the Patterson Memorial Prize; Impossible Flying (2007); and Gomer’s Song (2007). Progeny of Air (Peepal Tree, 1994) was the winner of the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in the UK. Other poetry collections include Resisting the Anomie (Goose Lane, 1995); Prophets (Peepal Tree, 1995); Jacko Jacobus, (Peepal Tree, 1996); and Requiem, (Peepal Tree, 1996), a suite of poems inspired by the illustrations of African American artist Tom Feelings in his landmark book The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo; and Shook Foil (Peepal Tree, 1998), a collection of reggae-inspired poems. His book, Midland, was awarded the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize by the Ohio University Press (2001). Dawes was a winner of a Pushcart Prize for the best American poetry of 2001 for his long poem, “Inheritance.” His seventeenth collection, City of Bones, published in 2017 along with two UK releases Vuelo: Poemas, a translation of Gustavo Osorio and Speak from Here to There: Poems written along with John Kinsella. His most recent collection is Nebraska (UNP, 2019), a traverse into the intersection of memory, home, and artistic invention. He was also among the 2018 recipients for the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry.
He has published two novels: Bivouac (2009) and She’s Gone (2007), winner of the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Best First Novel. In 2007 he released A Far Cry From Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative. His essays have appeared in numerous journals including Bomb Magazine, The London Review of Books, Granta, Essence, World Literature Today, and Double Take Magazine.
Dawes is also the editor of several anthologies: Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden (Northwestern University Press), A Bloom of Stones: A Tri-Lingual Anthology of Haitian Poems After the Earthquake (Peepal Tree Press), New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Boxset (Akashic Books), When the Rewards Can Be So Great: Essays on Writing and the Writing Life (Pacific University Press), Hold Me to an Island: Caribbean Place: An Anthology of Writing, Home is Where: An Anthology of African American Poetry from the Carolinas (Hub City, 2011), and Red: Contemporary Black Poetry (Peepal Tree Press, 2010).
In 2009, Dawes won an Emmy for LiveHopeLove.com, an interactive site based on his Pulitzer Center project, HOPE: Living and loving with AIDS in Jamaica. It has also won other accolades, including a People’s Voice Webby Award, and was the inspiration for the music/spoken word performance Wisteria & HOPE which premiered at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina. In 2011, Dawes reported on HIV AIDS after the earthquake in Haiti; and his poems, blogs, articles, and documentary work were a key part of the post-earthquake Haiti reporting by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting that won the National Press Club Joan Friedenberg Award for Online Journalism.
Dawes is an actor, playwright, and producer, an accomplished storyteller, broadcaster, and was the lead singer in Ujamaa, a reggae band. Fifteen of his plays have been produced, and he has acted in, directed, or produced several of these productions himself, most recently One Love at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Commissioned by Talawa, Britian’s leading black theatre company, and inspired by Rogert Mais’ classic novel Brotherman, One Love takes us to the heart of the Jamaican soul, as actors, dancers, singers, life musicians, and a DJ draw on influences such as Bob Marley and Lee “Scratch” Perry to tell this powerful parable of desire and denial. Through the years, Dawes has collaborated with musicians and artists to create a dynamic series of performances based on his poetry that have proven to be some of the most compelling and challenging presentations of poetry being performed today. Wisteria is a multimedia performance with composer Kevin Simmonds, who set the poems from Dawes’ book of the same name, to music. The result is an evening-length performance that explores the life of women who lived through the Jim Crow period in Sumter, South Carolina.
Until July 2011, Dawes was Distinguished Poet in Residence, Louis Frye Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts, and founder and executive director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative. He was the director of the University of South Carolina Arts Institute and is the programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May of each year. Dawes is currently the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska, where he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English, a faculty member of Cave Canem, and a teacher in the Pacific MFA Program in Oregon.
He is a regular blogger for the Poetry Foundation; his blogs can be read at www.poetryfoundation.org.
Kwame Dawes has authored 36 books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and essays, including, most recently, Nebraska (UNP, 2019), Bivouac (Akashic Books, 2019), and City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern, 2017). Speak from Here to There (Peepal Tree Press), co-written with Australian poet John Kinsella, appeared in 2016. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He is also a faculty member in the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. Dawes is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Kwame Dawes is not a native Nebraskan. Born in Ghana, he later moved to Jamaica where he spent most of his childhood and early adulthood. In 1992 he relocated to the United States and eventually found himself an American living in Lincoln, Nebraska. This beautiful and evocative collection of poems, Nebraska, explores a constant theme in Dawes’s work—the intersection of memory, home, and artistic invention. The poems, set against the backdrop of Nebraska’s discrete cycle of seasons, are meditative even as they search for a sense of place in a new landscape. While he shovels snow or walks in the bitter cold to his car, he is engulfed with memories of Kingston, and yet when he travels, he finds himself longing for the open space of the plains and the first snowfall. With a strong sense of place and haunting memories, Dawes grapples with life in Nebraska as a transplant.
BIVOUAC (Novel, 2019)
When Ferron Morgan’s father dies in suspicious circumstances, his trauma is exacerbated by the conflict within his family and his father’s friends over whether the death was the result of medical negligence or if it was a political assassination. Ferron has lived in awe of his father’s radical political endeavors but is forced to admit that, with the resurgence of the political right in the Caribbean in the 1980s, his father had lost faith, and was “already dead to everything that had meaning for him.” Ferron’s response to the death is further complicated by guilt, particularly over his recent failure to protect his fiancée, Dolores, from a brutal rape. He begins, though, to investigate the direction of his life with great intensity, in particular to confront his instinct to keep moving on and running from trouble. This is a sharply focused portrayal of Jamaica at a tipping point in its recent past, in which the private grief and trauma condenses a whole society’s scarcely understood sense of temporariness and dislocation. For both Ferron and the society there has been the loss of “the corpse of one’s origins,” and the novel points to the need to find a way back before there can be a movement forward.
CITY OF BONES: A TESTAMENT (Poetry, 2017)
As if convinced that all divination of the future is somehow a re-visioning of the past, Kwame Dawes reminds us of the clairvoyance of haunting. The lyric poems in City of Bones: A Testament constitute a restless jeremiad for our times, and Dawes’s inimitable voice peoples this collection with multitudes of souls urgently and forcefully singing, shouting, groaning, and dreaming about the African diasporic present and future. As the twentieth collection in the poet’s hallmarked career, City of Bones reaches a pinnacle, adding another chapter to the grand narrative of invention and discovery cradled in the art of empathy that has defined his prodigious body of work. Dawes’s formal mastery is matched only by the precision of his insights into what is at stake in our lives today. These poems are shot through with music from the drum to reggae to the blues to jazz to gospel, proving that Dawes is the ambassador of words and worlds.
DUPPY CONQUEROR: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Poetry, 2013)
Born in Ghana, raised in Jamaica, and educated in Canada, Kwame Dawes is a dynamic and electrifying poet. In this generous collection, new poems appear with the best work from fifteen previous volumes. Deeply nuanced in exploring the human condition, Dawes’s poems are filled with complex emotion and consistently remind us what it means to be a global citizen
HOLD ME TO AN ISLAND: CARIBBEAN PLACE (Anthology, 2012)
Exploring the relationships between the Caribbean people and their environment, this anthology brings together poetry, fiction, and other pieces of prose that focus on the Caribbean’s natural and manmade environments with an insider point of view. The writings are divided, relating to various places, including constructed, intimate, and natural ones, in addition to the flora and fauna of the region, which has, in some cases, taken on iconic significance. This collection gives a true insight into both the Caribbean landscape and its corresponding mindscape, bringing together poetry, fiction, and other prose that explores the relationship between Caribbean people and their environment, both man-made and natural. The anthology deals with constructed places such as the plantation, the village and the city, intimate places such as houses and yards, and natural ones such as the sea and wilderness. The last section focuses on the idea of journeying as a matter of personal transformation.
A BLOOM OF STONES: A TRI-LINGUAL ANTHOLOGY OF HAITIAN POEMS AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE (Anthology, 2012)
A Bloom of Stones collects the work of more than thirty Haitian poets, many who live in Haiti and others who are part of the large Haitian diaspora. Among this list are many of Haiti’s most celebrated poets as well as some of the country’s as yet unpublished younger poets. The poems offer a complex and sophisticated range of responses to the earthquake-poems about the rupture of love; the shock of sudden disaster; the hunger for more beauty in the world; the shattering of landscapes; and, ultimately, poems that explore the incomprehensible nature of our mortality. Presenting French and Haitian Kreyol poems alongside their English translations, this tri-lingual anthology is a necessary bridge across languages in the poly-lingual Caribbean, and introduces readers to some exciting Haitian voices. Ultimately, these poems offer, in the midst of tremendous tragedy, a capacity to find beauty, where beauty constitutes truth, even harsh truths, elegantly rendered.
WHEELS (Poetry, 2011)
Kwame Dawes brings the lyric poem face to face with the external world in the first part of this century-its politics, its social upheavals and ideological complexity. If these poems are political it is because, for Dawes, politics has become a compelling part of human experience. The poems in Wheels do not pretend to have answers, nor are specific political questions seen as especially fascinating….[T]hese are poems seeking illumination, a way to understand the world. Dawes frames the sequence around the imagined wheels of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, and then he allows himself the post-modernist liberty of pilfering images from Garcia Marquez’s novels, accounts of slave rebellions, passages from the Book of Ezekiel, the current overwhelming bombardment of wall-to-wall news, and the art of modernist painters, to create a striking series of songs that are as much about the quest for love and faith as they are about finding pathways of meaning through the current decade of wars and political and economic uncertainty. In the end, the poet as prophet knows he is never assured of full illumination or clarity, but the fascinating metaphor of wheels, interlocking and unlocking, provides us with moments of luminosity and sheer beauty.
BIVOUAC (Novel, 2010)
When his father dies in suspicious circumstances, Ferron Morgan’s trauma is increased by the conflict within his family and his father’s friends over whether the death is the result of medical negligence or a political assassination. Ferron has lived in awe of his father’s radical commitments but is forced to admit that, with the 1980’s resurgence of the political Right in the Caribbean, his father had lost faith, and was “already dead to everything that had meaning for him.” Ferron’s response to the death is further complicated by guilt, particularly over his recent failure to protect his fiancée, Dolores, from a brutal rape. He begins, though, to investigate the direction of his life with great intensity, in particular to confront his instinct to keep moving on and running from trouble. This is a sharply focused portrayal of Jamaica at a tipping point in its recent past, in which the private grief and trauma condenses a whole society’s scarcely understood sense of temporariness and dislocation. For both Ferron and the society there has been the loss of “the corpse of one’s origins,” and the novel points to the need to find a way back before there can be a movement forward.
HOPE’S HOSPICE (Poetry, 2009)
When Kwame Dawes was sent to Jamaica to write a piece reporting the incidence and treatment of HIV/AIDS, his visits to support centers and the hospice outside Montego Bay brought him into frank dialogue with both sufferers and their careers, and it is from these conversations that this collection of poems grew. Whilst the introduction of retrovirals has confronted sufferers with the problem of how to live, the hospice is still full of the memories of the recent years when AIDS was a rapid sentence of death. Powerfully illustrated by Joshua Cogan’s photographs, the art of Dawes’s poems makes it impossible to see AIDS as something that only happens to other people, and to marginalize their lives. Here, AIDS becomes the channel along which pass the universal dramas, the archetypal voices, the stoicism, despairs and deceptions of the lives encountered.
BOB MARLEY: LYRICAL GENIUS (Non-Fiction, 2007)
This in-depth analysis of the reggae superstar’s poetry in lyric form delves into the songwriter’s intellect and spirituality with scholarly precision usually more associated with Bob Dylan or John Lennon. Thought of as the folk poet of the developing world, Marley influenced generations of musicians and writers throughout the Western hemisphere. He was a performer who held true to his heritage, yet is still awarded the status of world rock star. Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius features interviews with key people and musicians who knew the man. It’s the perfect companion to Bob Marley’s recordings.
RITUALS BEFORE THE POEM
In terror they will drink water grudgingly
Before the poem comes like a word from a brazen sky
the poet must lie on his side for a year
eating only dry bread and measured bowls of water.
The poet must pour sand over grass and build
the walls of his city. The poet must surround
the walls with the offence of guns; and for days
upon days starve the city of all its music.
The poet’s tongue will grow heavy and his
limbs will be bound with cords so he cannot
move. He will quarrel with God about
the meaning of poetry. The poet will beg for mercy,
lying on his other side for a hundred and ninety days,
his body scarred with the wounds he inflicts on his family.
All this a poet does before a poem so that
when he walks out in mid-winter, his face
will be smooth, his eyes will have the quiet resignation
we call peace and his satchel will be full
of whimsical lyrics about the color green
and the sounds a whore makes in her dreams.
you carry your memories_
tied up in a lip-stick-stained
kerchief in a worn straw basket.
When you undo the knot,
the scent of wisteria,
thick with the nausea of nostalgia
fills the closed-in room.
You lean into the microphone,
smile at the turning tape,
while fingering the fading petals.
You intone your history,
breathing in the muggy
scent of wayward love.
Your anger is always
a whisper, enigmatic,
just a steady heat.
I don’t like ’em
never did, never could . . .
BOB MARLEY: LYRICAL GENIUS (excerpt)
On Saturday, December 4, 1976, Marley had finally managed a few hours sleep. Awake now, he realized that he would have to decide whether he was going to perform at the Smile Jamaica concert in National heroes Park in Jamaica. He could not forget the night before-after all, his wounds were fresh-a homemade bullet had grazed his chest bone just above his heart, and had cut into his right bicep. He was alive. Down in Kingston, Don Taylor, his manager was still wrestling for his life. Marley would tell interviewers that he had dreamt of the assassination attempt a night before it happened, but nothing could have prepared him for the tough decision he had to make.
Read What’s In Print
• Poetry and Song: The Sublime Spirituals of Kwame Dawes – LA Review of Books
• Yale awards eight writers $165,000 Windham-Campbell Prizes — Yale
• Review of Duppy Conqueror — The New York Times
• Interview with Kwame Dawes: The Art of Collaboration — NYU
• Poetry Spotlight: “If You Know Her” by Kwame Dawes — Wall Street Journal
• Kwame Dawes Discuss the African Poetry Book Fund — Sampsonia Way
Listen to Audio
• Kwame Dawes Reads Derek Walcott – The New Yorker
• Kwame Dawes Reads “Before Winter” – The New Yorker