by Lauren K. Alleyne
Reading a poem by Kwame Dawes feels like traveling in two directions at the same time: the poems are always anchored in the sensory — rooted in rich, delicious detail that grounds one firmly in the poem. However, the poems simultaneously carry an undercurrent, or perhaps it’s a reaching — something larger than you that pulls you toward itself, demanding you abandon yourself and follow it. Over the course of 21 books of poetry (perhaps 25 by now, as Dawes seems to produce and publish books faster than is humanly possible) Dawes’s concerns, of course, shift and evolve (he has written on family, on the HIV epidemic in Jamaica, in the voices of Gullah women and of the sober histories of the American South) but never lose their commitment to transport, to expand the consciousness of all who encounter them. The following lines from the poem “Debt” in his 2017 collection, City of Bones, offer a dramatic example of Dawes’ dexterity in moving his readers between opposing poles of feeling:
… How happy
he was to see her glow with the swell
of the child in her, and then the way
she slipped away, a mattress soaked
in blood, the baby, the girl wailing,
his hands too clumsy to hold this
flesh, what is owed an ordinary
black man with nothing to show for his life?
The poem’s speaker has lost “the girl who carried his seed” in childbirth and within the space of a single sentence, Dawes moves the reader through the girl’s life, full with possibility, to her death in which she is emptied and exsanguinated — her child-heavy belly and her slight, slipping spirit; the speaker’s happiness engendered by the pregnancy to his anxiety of solitary fathering; the baby, just beginning its journey and the speaker looking toward the end of his life. One would also be hard-pressed not to shudder at the image of the bloody mattress, which graphically represents the mother’s death while hearkening back to the sexual act that would have conceived the child. From line to line, image to image, the reader moves — now here, now there — while still feeling rooted in each place. (Are we not drawn to both the wailing baby and her clumsy-handed father?) The poem’s agility forces the reader to move quickly and unquestioningly between the strange and the familiar, the ephemeral and the corporeal, the past and the future. The poem thus becomes a vehicle for empathy, for expansion, for encounter with what is outside of us and, if we let it, ourselves.
I think the poem has universal application, because as long as human beings sing, and long as human beings consider what they say, I think they are engaging in the exercise of using language in a certain way.
Kwame Dawes visited Furious Flower as a part of the launch of his anthology Bearden’s Odyssey and spoke with me at the James Madison University studio. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How do you define a poem? What is a poem to you? What is a poem?
Obviously it’s a difficult question because sometimes we run into this question when we look at something and go, Well, this is not a poem, but I think it has to be problematic, and the idea of the final poetry has to be based on tradition. There is the notion that the poem is directly related to song, to the expression of experience through an organization of language that heightens the articulation of the experience, and that has the benefit of consideration of the way things are said for the way things are said. I think that is really important, and that consideration then relates to the questions: How do we communicate? How do we express things?
The tool we have to express things is language; it is the use of words, the use of all the things that surround words. So a poem strikes me as something that comes down to us through tradition. I don’t think somebody just wakes up having never seen a poem before and decides that after 10 syllables they’re going to stop and then go the next line and then stop — they saw it somewhere. So when people declare I’m so original, I’m like, Nah, you’re not that original. There is a tradition, and the tradition is related, as I said, to song because when we think of all the words we use to describe poetry, to talk about poetry to this day, we’re still talking about things like assonance; we’re talking about rhyme; we’re talking about rhythm. We’re talking about elements that have to do with sound, to do with music, to do with how music is constructed — repetition, refrain, things like that. And we all understand song. It seems to me we all understand the song is again a construction of experience that turns experience and the articulation of the experience into an art, into a piece of art — a thing that we can come back to, look at, return to again and again. So, this is the most basic way that I understand the poem, and that’s why I think the poem has universal application, because as long as human beings sing, and as long as human beings consider what they say, I think they are engaging in the exercise of using language in a certain way.
So then over time all our instincts for something fresh, for something that makes us think, and feel, and express, and how we manage language to achieve that become part of the exercise of poetry. But the judgment of a poem is rooted in what we know, what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard and what has moved us. And, therefore, I think the idea of tradition becomes really important.
I want to hone in on the idea of music, because music is so important in your work. It’s muse; it’s in the sonic rhythm; it’s in the way you read. Talk to me about that in terms of your writing. How do you deploy that sense of music and sound?
Some years ago a woman who was a really great mentor to me when I lived in South Carolina — Ellen Arl, she’s passed away now; she was a Chicago woman who lived and taught in South Carolina for many years — took me under her wing, in her own bullying manner, really to teach me how to teach composition. (I came from a British tradition and students didn’t matter. Here, they did what you told them to do and so she began to tutor me.) But she also was a remarkable poet, and Ellen would read my poems and would talk to me about them. And one day, she was reading through, it may have been Jacko Jacobus, and she said, “I need to talk to you about something.” And she said, “You use sound — there is music and sound in your work — beautifully.” I’d never been conscious of doing this and she started to point it out to me. The two lessons in that for me were, first, there are things that we do by our imitation. The poets that I enjoyed and I sort of paid attention to were people like Hopkins, people like Ntozake Shange, people like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison. And if you think about those poets, what draws you to them is rhythm, but also sound and the way that sound is used. She [Ellen] was pointing out to me something that was happening, and she said, “So now when you’re writing or editing pay attention to all these things that are working and build on that.”
So for me, the other root of that experience, I think, was a fascination with the possibilities of music and a kind of envy of the musician. I think the songwriter is a cheating poet, because of what the songwriter can do — you know, you can take a pretty dumb line and you put a good melody and it’s gonna fly, it’s gonna be beautiful just by the way the line is sung. And so you begin to realize that the sound of a word is as important as the meaning of the word in a poem, and when you get to that point, I think you’re really starting to to enter a space. So I’m trying to replicate melody by the use of assonance, by the use of rhythm and meter because the emotional impact of song is a startling thing. It’s where a melody can move you because of the things that it echoes and it stays in your body in remarkable ways. If I can do that as a poet then I’m doing something. I remember Derek Walcott talking about Bob Marley on this BBC program called Desert Island Discs and he described … he picked two Marley songs, of course — “No Woman, No Cry” and the other was “Redemption Song” — and of “No Woman, No Cry” he said, If I could write and narrate as pure and beautiful as that, a love lyric as pure and beautiful as that, I would be a happy person. If a poem achieves even remotely close to that, I think it’s stunning. Now, I know the poets out there who be going We do better. We are, like, more amazing. Which is true, but a good song is a good song. You know? Whatchu gon’ do?
I know you also have a theater background, which to me seems not sonic, but very visual and dynamic. How does that background play into how you write a poem?
It has to play a really significant role, in ways I don’t even understand the extent of it, but I can tell you one way it really struck me: you know, a lot of my poetry enters the mind of other people. It’s not even quite persona. I’m subtle, and I’ll speak the voice of other people, and I’ll enter their heads and so on. I would say 60 to 70 percent of my work — it could be higher — focuses on women. (Somebody can work out the psychology of that, but I won’t get into that!) And the question becomes: What right do I have? This is a conversation I’ve had with students who write. They want to know: Can I write about somebody not like me? Can I write as a white person, about a Black person? Do I have a right to it? And it’s a really fascinating question because it occurred to me that as a playwright, this question does not come up. The problem with writing plays is, you are writing other people. You have to find how they sound, and that’s the test. Nobody sits down and goes, Can I do this? If you’re doing it then you’re doing it. What I got is that permission. But more important, I felt the burden of doing that, the responsibility that I have to be convincing.
If I cannot empathize with a character, with a voice, enough then I’m failing in the imagination, because the empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination. So the failure to write a character is a failure of my imagination and frankly that’s a failure of my craft so I have to work on that to make it work.
I remember at one point I decided to write a play with a cast of all women because the small company that I had formed, I couldn’t get any guys to join, so I had all these women in the company, and I really had to write plays for these women’s voices. I said, Sure, I’m going to write this play. So I write the play, and I take the play to the cast, and we do a read around, and they just look at me and go, “This is nonsense. We don’t talk like this! We don’t behave like this! Women don’t talk like this: This is foolishness! We’re not doing the play!” And I thought, But I’m the playwright, like, I’m the artist here. I’ve done all this work! But they were not having it. So then I thought, What the heck am I gonna do? This is a crisis! Then I figured I better learn, though I was what, 21? 20? and convinced I knew everything about women because, you know. (Laughs.) So then I get this brainwave — and to this day I think it was divine — read women poets. So I went to the library. This is at the University of the West Indies, and for better or for worse, in 1981 I could get all the books by women poets in the library and put them on the table. I could put them all, you know, whatever that meant. And I read, and I read, and I read. And that’s when I ran into Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls” and that changed my life, that work — the multi-voice, the way that she … all the poetry of it and the sheer raw energy of it. I wrote the play again. I went back to the cast and they said, “Okay, now we can do this — you have to fix a thing or two, but we can do this now.”
Now, the lesson for me was first of all, yes, I can write any voice I want, but there are certain voices I must recognize my distance from and therefore I must work harder. There’s certain risks that one takes, you know — if you’re a white person writing in a Black voice, don’t just think, I’m a writer; I can do that. No, there’s a price that you have to pay to do that, so there’s pressure on you to do better at it. (Also, it’s a myth that we think we write ourselves better; that’s another myth. We think, Because it’s my story I can … no. Maybe part of your work as a poet to find voice is to really to understand and hear your own voice.) But for me writing for the stage cleared all those problems. It showed me the challenges, but also showed me that if I don’t do this then I’m not an artist. If I cannot empathize enough with a character, with a voice, then I’m failing in the imagination, because the empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination. So the failure to write a character is a failure of my imagination, and frankly, that’s a failure of my craft, so I have to work on that to make it work.
Nice, empathy and craft as essentially linked.
Absolutely, absolutely. I think racism is a failure of the imagination. And racist writers are poor craftsmen.
I’ll have to sit with that.
Work in that. (Laughs.)
The story, the play, the poem: they’re all language, but they’re different maneuvers of language. How are those experiences different for you? What allows something to come out in one form versus another?
One of the things I talked about in the past that I think is worth saying again is that, you know, people say, “What inspires you to write?” and I really sort of resist that idea. Partly because it’s not that I sit down and go, “Here’s an idea, okay, should I write a poem about this or this?” It doesn’t work that way, not even remotely that way, for me. What happens to me is — okay, two things may happen to me. One is, if it’s poetry it comes in a different way. What happens to me with poetry is I feel to write a poem; that’s all it is. It’s just like my body says, “Poem.” I don’t know what it’s going to be about, and when I sit down to write whatever, I figure it out. Making the poem is my inspiration, which is not sexy. I mean that’s like saying I need to take a dump, which you know, you just need to do. (Laughs.)
The form that I enjoy the most in its entire process is the play, because the play begins with the idea but it begins to become communal very quickly and that — working with multiple artists and so on — is exciting to me. I find that really dynamic.
To be honest with you, with fiction and drama and the other things, I’m saying I need to write, say, a play. Then I ask myself, What is this play going to be about? I’m not juggling Should this be a play? Should this be a poem? Because they come in the form that they are, there’s no back and forth. And for me, it’s levels of tedium — that’s what it is. Writing a novel or fiction is, frankly, tedious to me; its just words and words and words, all these words! And I just find myself swimming in words. I mean I’ll do it, but I don’t enjoy it. I enjoy the final product, I do, but I don’t enjoy the process of doing it.
I guess the form that I enjoy the most in private is the poem. The form that I enjoy the most in its entire process is the play, because the play begins with the idea but it begins to become communal very quickly and that — working with multiple artists and so on — is exciting to me. I find that really dynamic. So the genre dictates the content and I’m not sitting down saying, I have this great idea, should I write a play? Should I write a screenplay? I’m not thinking in that way. I’m thinking, I want to write something and let’s see what it’s going to be.
You mention the collaboration, the working with others, and I know you’ve done a whole interview about collaboration and why that’s exciting. What are some challenges of collaboration?
The biggest challenge of the collaboration is the beginning of the collaboration; that is, picking the right person to collaborate with. I think once you’ve picked the right people to collaborate with, the rest is gravy. Because the problems arise if there’s a vision that doesn’t connect, right? That creates its own problems, and the uneven distribution of either interest or ability can be a problem. When I collaborate with an artist, I want to give up to them what their genius is. I want that to shape the project, and to know that they will trust my genius, my ability to shape the process. That trust is really important because otherwise the collaboration is pointless. If I keep saying while I’m working with somebody that I could do this better, it’s a problem. If somebody else could do it better, it’s a problem. So the key to collaboration is identifying a shared understanding, and then also a willingness to sort of stay in lanes and appreciate how one affects the other.
But every project is fundamentally different. Kevin Simmonds, who I’ve worked with for years, is a remarkable poet and great musician; I have absolutely no problem handing Kevin a bunch of poems and saying, “Set it to music,” and I know that what he will do with it is going to be stunning and it’s going to change even the way that I see my work. I think and I trust that he respects my words so he will do them justice, he will treat them right. So that collaboration works, but for me it’s finding the right person, the right partner, the right artist to work with. For the theater it’s dependence. I mean, you write a play, you cannot be the play. The actors have to do it, the director, the lighting people — you yourself cannot do it. The trust has to be there.
One of my favorite of your projects is Live Hope Love, which is itself a beautiful collaborative effort. I’m interested in technology as a collaborative partner: How do you see technology as it affects the creative process?
For me this is very pragmatic in the sense that a lot of the work that I’ve been able to do over the years has been brought on by technological changes. It’s sad to think that I’ve seen so many changes. (I’d like to say that the world has changed fast rather than I have lived long.) When I started writing my plays, just to get copies of the play for the cast, I had to get to a Getstetner machine, okay. I didn’t have much access to photocopying. It existed in 1980, but not in Jamaica, not so easily: you’d have to, you know, take out a loan. So, you type on these sheets of paper that punch into this sheet, and then you run that through the Getstetner machine, and it makes multiple copies. This was revolutionary, because before that we had to write out the play again and again. I know that this change happened 30 years before then, but for me access to that was remarkable.
So leap forward to 1990, 10 years later, I’m in Canada and I discover e-mail. In 1990, they’re doing e-mail in the basement of the University of New Brunswick, and I write an e-mail to somebody and it is immediately there. Four years before that, I was communicating with my wife, my then-fiancée, by letters, where you have to wait for the letters to come, and then suddenly somebody tells me e-mail can get there that quickly. So when I think of technology I think of how technology has literally transformed the work that we do. For example, the work I do with the African Poetry Book Fund: all the editing we do with all these poets from all over the world is online. The editorial team communicates online and by digital means; we edit, we do PDFs; we send things back and forth; we work with artists, and so on. It has made more rapid the process of making things happen, so when I say that in five years the African Book Fund has been able to publish 50 poets from Africa, that is because of this technological aspect of life.
And it affects so many things. It affects even the notion of exile, because of our capacity to move and to travel. There’s a joke I was telling the other day at a conference and it’s true: there’s a poet, a great poet in Florida, who likes to talk about things he misses in Jamaica — “I miss my mango; I miss my ackee” — and I thought one day, But you’re in Miami! (Laughs.) First of all, mango grow in Miami, and akee grow in Miami; just go down the road and you can get a tin of akee. As a matter of fact, go down the road and you can get a flight to Jamaica and get all the akee you want! And you’re not running from anybody, so what is this poem? So even poetry must be changed because you can’t sing that lament anymore; the world has contracted.
So it’s a funny way in which technology has been remarkable in that regard. So even the work with Live Hope Love, that we decided to create the platform online, to then use music, to use Josh Cogan’s photographs, to use poetry — all of that is directly because of this access to technology; the Emmy we won for it was for new approaches to reporting. The new approaches were technological approaches, but of course, they affected the form of articulation, the language, the style, the approach, the relationship between sound images and poetry and so on that happened as a result. So for me it’s rich territory. It’s something that has brought tremendous benefit. I’m not the kind who sits down lamenting the loss of the quill. I’m not. I don’t miss it.
Are you a longhand writer?
I write longhand, yeah: poetry. Fiction is just too many words — just go straight to the computer — could you imagine transcribing all that crap? Too much words. But my poetry I write longhand, for the most part.
I had a professor said that when you decide to make this your work, and you’re just surrounded by language all the time, that your relationship to words necessarily changes — you don’t ever really read “for fun” again. Has making this work changed your relationship with language? And what do you do for fun?
Well, you know, being a writer and particularly an editor has changed my relationship to language, but not tremendously. I’m moved by work because it moves me; I found myself able to be moved by work. And as an editor I’m willing to say that I’m moved by a poem that I may not publish because I realize what connects me emotionally to a work maybe exists, but that the poem itself hasn’t achieved it. It’s not finished or as brilliantly done. Like I said, you can get a really sucky lyric and it’s a great song. So I recognize what seems like a contradiction and I’m comfortable with it. I also read a lot: I read on Kindle; I read a lot of nonfiction; I read a lot of fiction; I listen to audio books and so on, and I’m entertained by that. I’m not sitting down thinking, Oh, I should write this; it doesn’t occur to me. So I have a long list of pleasures that I get that way. I guess my other fundamental pleasure, just pure pleasure, is television. Online: Hulu, HBO, Netflix, Acorn TV, I could go on. There’s a show called 19-2, and it’s a Canadian police drama; it’s shocking — like brilliant — it’s Canadian; it’s really good. There’s a French version set in Quebec and then there’s an English version set in Montreal. They just re-did it. It’s stunning. So I’ll spend many hours doing that.
You’ve just relieved me of the guilt I feel every time I’m watching something and think, I should be writing right now, but this Criminal Minds episode is really good.
Nope. It doesn’t bother me one bit. (Laughs.) I’m just sayin’. I was looking at that drama, and I realized they said there are 38 episodes. And each episode is an hour, so I just watched 38 hours! And I thought, This is insane! I felt like I’d started watching it yesterday, you know: What happened? When did I watch 38 hours of this thing? I mean, people say you multitask and yes, I do. I do crossword puzzles and I play Scrabble while I’m watching, so that’s multitasking. So I’m really productive. (Laughs.)
As an editor, you read a lot. What are some common mistakes you see from young poets or people who are sending you things, and what advice do you have for them?
The most fundamental reoccurring problem is a typical thing — there’s nothing new about it: cliché. The failure to recognize just how language is to be used and so on. And you have cliché of language and cliché of idea. I think sometimes we miss that. I think more experienced writers find themselves slipping into the sloth of cliché of ideas. And then there’s a cliché of self, so if I know somebody’s work and they start becoming a cliché of themselves; that can also be a problem. So that’s one that stands out.
The other one that stands out is — and this is a personal thing, I think, it might just be my thing — metaphor. I think the intelligence of form or even an experimentation has to be consistent: if it’s random it should be consistently random; if it is attempting something, there’s a logic to that thing. I think sometimes the thought hasn’t been carried through enough. Similes and metaphors are traps where that happens often, right? And people sort of fob it off, they just go, Well, it’s kind of cute and flashy, but it doesn’t make any sense. And if you dig deeper and ask, Is it really like this? If you push it, you realize that you have not found the right metaphor; you haven’t found the right simile. And we’re attached to sometimes the first thing that comes to us, without the painful, muddy process of saying, Let me try this. Let me try this. Let me try this. Because then it feels like it’s not original — it’s not inspired. I think the lie is that the first one is magical. That’s not true. That’s not true. That just proves to be not true, not the case for me anyway. My first thoughts are not necessarily my best thoughts.
So when I say no to a poem, it’s not always because of, you know … so 80 percent of the time, I’m saying, Look, this poem hasn’t come together. Maybe less than 80. But for the most part I’m putting together an issue that should have a coherence and should have this dynamic relationship.
I read an interview where you push back against the term “tastemaker,” but, you’re a publisher, an editor, you’re a judge, so you definitely have a hand in what reaches the public — the readings, the poems and poets that get seen. What are some things that guide you in those important roles?
Okay. So everything is different to me. Every area in which I’m functioning as a kind of editor is different. If I look at Prairie Schooner, the literary journal, the journal is what I’m putting together. I think sometimes people mistake literary journals as “the best of,” and think we’re publishing the best that comes to us. This is not true. I think people should reconfigure what they think we’re trying to do; certainly what I’m trying to do is to make the issue an interesting issue. An interesting issue means we should be able to read that issue and be drawn through that issue in interesting and fascinating ways that move us, that take us through different emotions, that show sides of things and so on. I’m interested in constructing an interesting issue, which is different from saying I’m doing the “best of” because the “best of” would mean this — and I’ve used this example many times, but it’s true. Because it happens. There was a period where I was getting a lot of poems by middle-aged men about remembering — not middle-aged; they were like in their fifties and sixties — and they were remembering their first love, right? And there was one season where I had about 15 of these poems that had made it through the round and got to me. Now on their own each of them was kind of interesting, but after reading two of those I was going, Really? Are we doing this again? And now of these 15 poems, eight of them may have been much stronger than a poem about boats sinking in the Atlantic, right? They may be technically stronger. But I’m not going to publish 15 poems about dudes remembering their first love. That’s not an interesting read unless I do a special issue on dudes remembering their first love. I’m going to use the sinking boat; I’m going to mix it up. So when I say no to a poem, 80 percent of the time, I’m saying, Look, this poem hasn’t come together. Maybe less than 80. But for the most part I’m putting together an issue that should have a coherence and should have this dynamic relationship. So that’s one process. That’s not a “best of” process, and therefore I don’t pretend that we publish the best writing in the world. I don’t know what that looks like.
Now if I’m judging a contest, that’s when I’m really gatekeeping; that’s when I think I’m really involved in this process of eliminating because you’ve got to pick one winner out of 200 or 300. Well, okay, I have to pick one, right? Does that mean the rest of them suck? Each one who loses is going to feel a little sucky about it, but the truth is, that’s not what it means. There’s something limiting about that process, and it’s kind of a crazy process. But I always think of myself doing multiple things: I also recruit work; I also acquire work; I also edit many writers’ individual work to push forward in different places, so every time I see something that I think is promising and interesting, I can be an advocate for it. And I think that balances my whole attitude of this whole idea of determining taste and so forth. I think what drives me most is that I’m working with Caribbean poets, African poets, finding a vehicle for their work to shine and to be put out there because there’s been a bias for whatever reason in publishers taking that work. And it’s good work as far as I’m concerned, and in that instance I’m certainly involved in a very aggressive action of trying to bring work to people, and that’s hugely important to me. So I guess I’m in the position that you could call power — I have some power; but I’m not deluded by this power because the power has to be understood in a certain way. If you say, I sent you some poems and you didn’t like them, that’s power, yes. Right? But I also have gone out to look for poems. You see what I mean? So there’s another act to that power that I think is different.
So you situate yourself more as an advocate than a gatekeeper, it sounds like.
I have firsthand experience of one of your magical powers having you as my editor — the ordering of poems. You talked about it a bit regarding the journal, but how do you do that with your own work? What are some of the things you do to make a coherent collection?
That’s one of the greatest joys in my life: I love to organize a manuscript. I cannot express how much I love to get a pile of stuff and then to think, How do we present this in the best light? How do we take this from here to there? All these voices and so on. To me, it’s really a matter of thinking of the entire book, and it’s about thinking of the book as a grand tone poem. A series of tones. That you’re introducing the voice, you know, so that the reader can emotionally connect to that voice and trust the voice early enough so that they will then go on the excursion, take risks, trust the voice going through. And sometimes I’ll make a note and say, We don’t trust you yet. You can’t put this poem here; we don’t trust you yet. We haven’t reached a point where we say, It’s worth it to go with you, because you see, what happens when people read, they’re reading with the understanding that this is going somewhere. If your plan is to disappoint them and that’s your desire, then you have to get us to trust you enough to say, I buy your idea of disappointment as a valid sort of artistic emotional moment. But building that trust seems to be one of the more important things.
And then, the collection has to have a kind of connective trajectory that helps us to find echoes. Then you play all these wonderful games of using words that echo each other, put in poems beside each other that don’t seem obviously related, but there’s a word, there’s a line, there is something that is echoing, and the reader is going through and thinking, This is really coherent but I don’t know why. It’s very exciting to be able to play that through and organize it in sections thinking about would a section work or should it work through as a whole … I find that to be incredibly exciting. Titles! How titles work with other titles; what an epigraph can do to a poem: all of these things strike me as part of something beautiful and remarkable. And I love doing it. And I think I do it really well because I get a kick out of doing it. I really do. There are lots of things to think about, you know, because I think a book is a whole thing. It’s true especially about a collection of poems because it’s true sometimes we dip through collections, but if we were to sit through 60 pages or 70 or 80 pages, it doesn’t take that long to read a collection, and you want to have that journey; you want to have that trip, through, whatever that trip is. That, I think is rich. You don’t want to be tired of a form. Say somebody says, Okay, half my book is sonnets, and half my book is this other form. The question is do you just dump all the sonnets together? If you do that, do they work that way? Or do you split them up? All these great questions, right? To me they’re exciting questions. As you can tell.
You’ve written 21 books, and I forget how many of those are poetry books.
No, it’s 21 books of poetry. The rest, you know, we’re going up into the 40s there.
I stand corrected.
I earn my Hulu time. (Laughs.)
What are you still learning from poems? About poetry?
I discover what I’m thinking by writing. I don’t know what I’m thinking until I start writing. I don’t know what I’m feeling until I start writing. Well, I know what I’m feeling — if I am annoyed then I am annoyed, but that’s not a poem. The poem is a reflective moment — it’s a moment of reflection, and it’s a moment in which the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things are coming together and they’re expressing, and when I start writing then I’m constrained by form. I’m doing a series of poems with the Australian poet John Kinsella, and we’re working with these Spenserian stanzas and just some really fairly strict form. We’re working in syllabics and rhyme, so it’s a rigid form, and we’re going back and forth, but even as you’re writing in this form, the compulsion of finding the rhyme, you’re also discovering ideas, feelings, meaning and so on and so forth. So I cannot not be writing a poem because as I write a poem, I’m changing, I’m evolving, and the world is changing and evolving, and it helps me to crystalize, or to at least come to some understanding of how I’m engaging this work. How I’m seeing this work. So the pleasure of doing that never never never never never goes away. The necessity for it never goes away.
The other thing I’m very interested in is ekphrasis — working with art. Again, it’s a way of me thinking through and feeling through the things that move me, the things that my eyes see and the things that engage me. So poems are always teaching me because the poem is my way of understanding myself, understanding how I’m engaging the world, how I’m understanding the world. Because we work, we come to understanding through feeling but also through the articulation of language. And in the manipulation and the handling of language, we then discover things, right? Yeah.
So, the world comes in here, and we live in a time where art in general is under threat. And you’ve said in other places that the poem is important enough that it should be subsidized. What is the work of poetry and poem in the world? Why is it so important that it should be subsidized?
So here’s what I would say: I actually don’t think that poetry is under threat. I don’t think so. I think the publishing of it may be under threat, maybe. You know, there’s a notion that I never had, that said I should make my living as a poet. I’ve never had that notion. So if I don’t have that as a burden … Now for you to stop me from writing poems, that’s a different thing, but nobody’s really doing that, at least not in the U.S. currently. Now people will say, “I choose not to write poetry because it doesn’t pay.” I suspect that if that’s the case, good. (Laughs.) Now, you know, should people get paid for poetry? Sure. But the point I’m making is when you take away my ability to write a poem, that’s one thing.
Now, should poetry be shared? We can restrict that, and that’s been restricted forever: it’s been restricted for gender reasons; it’s been restricted for racial reasons; and we are constantly fighting to have voice, to have the work all there, to have the work shared, and I think that process should not be driven by market systems that say that something has value because it sells well or because it can pay for itself. This is a ridiculous idea, and it’s a ridiculous idea especially in the area of art because the value of the art is not what people will pay for it, right? Because people pay for a lot for nonsense, right? I mean, like, pay a lot for a lot of nonsense. So it can’t be that that shows that it’s valuable, and I think that’s why I say that art should be subsidized. But in a sense, is it being subsidized or is it just being paid for what it is? Either way, whatever we call it, I believe that some forms demand it because their currency may not sell as much; you know, a collection of poets may not sell as many as a novel. Does that mean that the novel is more valuable? I don’t think so. Its costs … maybe monetarily … it may be more valuable, but in terms of its impact and its necessity in the world? I don’t think it necessarily is.
And I don’t think it’s a sign of a great work that many people see it. I think we will eventually reach the point where if something lasts beyond its generation and its time, we applaud it and we say amen, but we can’t test that. We can’t know that in that way. So for me, actually, I don’t have the sense that poetry in my lifetime is in a healthy state — it’s in one of the most healthy states. It’s more diverse, we hear more voices, the opportunities to publish abound, and I think some exciting work exists. I expect that with all the exciting work, there’s gonna be stuff that’s just not particularly good, but otherwise we won’t know what is exciting, so that doesn’t worry me at all. I do think that writers need that support, and writers who write work that is not necessarily popular should be supported, and the value of the work should not be predicated on its marketability. I think that’s a mistake.
You are a person who has his finger on the pulse of the many voices of poetry out there: Is there something you would describe as characteristic of the poetry of our moment?
I think what is interesting is how we are writing the body in this world. And how we’re writing about this moment by our silences and our noises, right? So, there’s noise abroad, you know? I’ve seen a lot of writers writing TV poems — when they’re writing their socially conscious poems, they’re writing what they watch on TV. So you can see that there’s an episode of CNN or some news story that they’re writing about in the poems. But that’s because it’s ubiquitous, right? News cycles are coming around and around, so I think that’s happening, but I’m always interested in those poets that do something else with it, that take it beyond that, that really go further in their reasoning, their examination, and position themselves within that space.
It seems self-serving to say this, but frankly some of the best work, the most exciting work I’m seeing, is being written by the poets out of Africa. The poets we’re encountering — whether it’s Ladan Osman or Warsan Shire or Romeo Oriogun — I mean these poets are gifted. They’re not a joke, you know, and my commitment is that they are given the chance to write multiple collections, to build a career that will be substantial. I think one of the problems we have is in the poetry biz today: we’re hyped on over-hyping. A new poet that’s just come up and written one book and we go, like, OMG, this is, like, you know, going to change the universe. It may, but we won’t know that until they’ve written 12 books and we go, The first one was the best. (Laughs.) But we don’t know that, right? The truth of it is, we have to make space for poets to write their second, their third, their fourth book — to grow with their work and to develop the confidence that they’re not burdened with the task of I have to go win this prize, or I have to do these things. But there are exciting words: poets coming out of the Caribbean, for example. I think this is really exciting. Poets coming out of Mexico: there’s some really interesting work that’s coming out from there.
So I’m up. I’m excited about it because when I read a collection that is interesting and is fresh to me, it’s because it transported me into a space I haven’t had access to, and the poet’s standing at the door and saying, Come in: that’s beautiful to me. They’re saying, Did you notice this? And I say, Look! There’s that! What?! That to me is something. And I think a lot of times, the people are letting me into the room, but it’s like, Okay, I’ve seen this. You know what I’m saying? But it’s the doorway: that is language. It’s sort of fresh use and engagement of language. And I think that that’s actually exciting.
So the body seems like a very interesting theme with all these poets and what they’re doing is they’re saying, What does my body mean in this space? How do I write about my body in this space? Or the body in this space? This is not new in poetry, but it has become an interesting way of reading what contemporary poetry is doing, and I think it’s exciting.
The age of embodiment.
The age of embodiment. Yeah.
That idea that I’ve met people, I’ve sat on stage with people, and talked to them about their work and had conversations — some have actually read some of my work. That has been a big deal for me: it’s meant a lot.
What has surprised you most in your own very impressive career trajectory?
What has surprised me?
I was gonna say something facetious, but I won’t. See that’s remarkable self-control, right? (Laughs.) Not a whole lot. No, I would say that the people that I’ve been able to meet and to talk to — like grown people — has been a pleasant surprise. You know, to say that I’ve had conversations with writers and poets who I admire and I think are amazing — that I’ve always admired — I’m grateful for that, and I never take that for granted; I never take it as par for the course. When I went to Iowa in 1986 as an international writer, it was a big deal, you know. I got this gig and I was there as the playwright. I’d barely written a poem (well, okay, I’d written a lot, but they were really bad). And there I remember meeting Ngugi wa Thiongo. This is when … this is 1986, right? And Ngugi was starting to say a lot about he’s not going to write in English anymore and so on. I had read Ngugi at university, so to meet meet Ngugi wa Thiongo was huge for me. I met Gabriel Okara. They don’t probably remember that I met them, you understand, but that was huge for me. That idea that I’ve met people, I’ve sat on stage with people, and talked to them about their work and had conversations — some have actually read some of my work. That has been a big deal for me: it’s meant a lot. Now, my father was a writer, and I grew up with people like George Lamming and Kofi Awoonor coming through my home. So it’s not the idea that I’ve met famous people, but I didn’t know them as writers. When I became interested to meet Kofi later on as a writer, him looking at me and saying, “Look at you, little boy, you become a writer now” — that’s huge for me. That’s beautiful. That means a lot. That’s still a pleasure and a joy.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019.