“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 Nebraska (UNP, 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, was 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. He was also among the 2018 recipients for the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry.
He has published two novels: Bivouac (Akashic Books, 2009 & 2019) 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.
In 2022, Dawes was named the 2022 Brittle Paper Literary Person of the Year. 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 Artistic 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.