Verse things FIRST
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.”