Verse things FIRST

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Jill Batt­son For the New Mex­i­can

Ihen Kwame Dawes came to Amer­ica in 1992 to teach at the Uni­ver­sity of South Carolina, where he is cur­rently poet in res­i­dence, he couldn’t have been less sure about the no­tion of home, be­long­ing, or his place in the pan­theon of Amer­i­can po­ets. Eigh­teen years later, he has em­braced South Carolina as his home and is re­spected as a coura­geous writer with an orig­i­nal, sen­si­tive voice who self-iden­ti­fies as a “Carolinian poet.” Born in Ghana, raised in Ja­maica, and ed­u­cated in Canada, Dawes reads at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, Sept. 29, as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s Read­ings and Con­ver­sa­tions Se­ries.

Dawes is a pro­lific writer of fic­tion, non­fic­tion, plays, and, above all, po­etry. In his writ­ing, he ex­plores a broad range of topics, from reg­gae to race, and it is a con­crete demon­stra­tion of Dawes’ en­thu­si­asm, cu­rios­ity, and en­gage­ment with the world. “The man­ner of in­spi­ra­tion varies, and it must vary for it to be in­ter­est­ing,” he said in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “But the task of mak­ing the poem is a mat­ter of craft — a tech­ni­cal fa­cil­ity with lan­guage, with form, and with the man­age­ment of sen­ti­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Dawes draws from his back­ground as a play­wright and mu­si­cian in cre­at­ing full-blown pro­duc­tions from his po­etry — but he doesn’t start by think­ing of what else a col­lec­tion of po­ems could even­tu­ally be. “There’s a tyranny in the cre­ative process of mak­ing a poem that con­sumes you and which elim­i­nates all the agen­das,” he said.

His 2005 the­atri­cal project, Wis­te­ria: Twi­light Songs From the Swamp Coun­try, com­bines po­etry, mu­sic, and pro­jec­tions and pays homage to the voices of seven work­ing-class black women from the 1920s and ’ 30s. Stem­ming from a book of Dawes’ po­ems, the pro­duc­tion has been pre­sented in venues in the U.S. and the U.K.

Wis­te­ria came about when Dawes was teach­ing life skills to a group of at-risk youth in a work­shop he calls Rites of Pas­sage at the South Sumter Re­source Cen­ter. When Dawes ques­tioned the kids about the sto­ries of their par­ents and grand­par­ents, it be­came clear that they had no sense of their own per­sonal his­to­ries. “The kids were com­pletely dis­mis­sive of their grand­par­ents. They said, ‘ They have noth­ing to tell us. ... It doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence, and we don’t care about it.’ That both­ered me tremen­dously.” Dawes be­came gripped by the idea that the kids needed to hear the sto­ries of their com­mu­nity el­ders.

At the same time, he started to no­tice el­derly African Amer­i­can women com­ing in to use the re­source cen­ter’s ser­vices. “I did the math and thought that these peo­ple had ac­tu­ally lived through the Jim Crow South. They lived it!” he said. “Some of them have worked, and walked on the street, with white peo­ple who were part of the Jim Crow tyranny in their lives. What are they think­ing? What is go­ing on in their heads? How have they re­solved this his­tory? This was a pure, pure fas­ci­na­tion for me. I wanted to know their sto­ries.”

Dawes recorded the in­ter­views pri­mar­ily for the kids to lis­ten to, but each evening af­ter con­duct­ing an in­ter­view, he was con­sumed by what he had heard. “I needed a way to process the in­for­ma­tion, to work my way through the com­plex­ity of emo­tions,” he said.

He re­turned to the Wis­te­ria po­ems af­ter 10 years, to col­lect them for a book — which, he thought, would be the ex­tent of the project. “You only know what you’re go­ing to work on when you see what you have, es­pe­cially with po­etry,” he said. “I didn’t think I had any­thing, but when I rec­og­nized that I did, I had a rea­son to plat­form the work and tell the story in a dif­fer­ent way.” Dur­ing a meet­ing with com­poser Kevin Sim­monds, who was look­ing to set some of Dawes’ po­ems to mu­sic, the stage pro­duc­tion was con­ceived.

To­gether with the singers and mu­si­cians, Dawes also ap­pears in Wis­te­ria, read­ing his text. “I’m a greedy poet,” he said. “I’m not sat­is­fied to say that I’m just per­form­ing it and that’s enough. I want it to be per­formed, on the page and on­stage as well.” Dawes be­lieves that the best po­ems are able to do both things ef­fec­tively. “I be­lieve it’s equally pos­si­ble to have a poem that res­onates on the page, and be­cause it res­onates on the page, it has tremen­dous im­pact on the stage.”

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