PLATTSBURGH — Get a hearty bowl of callaloo with bits of August Wilson, Bob Marley and Nebraska with Dr. Kwame Dawes, today at 8 p.m. as part of Black Poetry Day at SUNY Plattsburgh.
The Chancellors Professor of English at the University of Nebraska reads from his works in Krinovitz Recital Hall located in Hawkins Hall.
The event is free.
Born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, Dawes is a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, editor, director, actor and vocalist.
His late father, Neville Dawes, a novelist and poet, was born in Warri, Nigeria to Augustus Levi Severus Dawes, and his wife, Laura.
"Levi" was a teacher and his work in Nigeria as funded by the colonial government and several church societies.
“Then, they moved back to Jamaica when my father was about 2 or 3 years old,” Dawes said.
“So already we've had that sort of conversation across the Atlantic. My father went to school in Jamaica, grew up in Jamaica and then went to Oxford University and moved to Ghana.”
Neville, a professor at Kumasi College of Technology, was excited about Ghana's first Prime Minister and President Kwame Nkrumah, who led the Gold Coast to independence from Britain in 1957.
“That's how how I happened to born in Ghana,” Dawes said.
“My mother (Sophia) is a Ghanaian, so my mother grew up in Ghana. Her parents are from Ghana. My grandfather on her side is from Togo, and my grandmother is from Cape Coast.”
Dawes summered on Cape Coast, but his parents would eventually return to Jamaica because his paternal grandmother was aging and his father wanted to be with her.
“He was also interested in working with the emerging independence situation in Jamaica as well,” Dawes said.
So my father moved to Jamaica and there became the Deputy Director of the Institute of Jamaica and then became the Director of the Institute of Jamaica which is a cultural institute of Jamaica.”
Neville was very involved in Jamaica with cultural policy and publishing.
“He started a press through the Institute of Jamaica that published major writers including Lorna Goodison and so on,” Dawes said.
“That was his thing. My mother was an artist, a sculptor, and also became a social worker and became very intensely involved in social work in Jamaica from the grassroots level up."
COMING TO NORTH AMERICA
Dawes self-identifies as a writer and a storyteller.
“And that storytelling has shaped my teaching, the disciplines of storytelling that I'm involved in which would include journalism, which would include film, which would include theater, which would include music — all of these things I've done and are part of what I think of the capacity to tell stories,” he said.
“I'm comfortable engaging in multiple ways of telling stories, and I'm better at some things than others.”
Dawes attended Jamaica College and the University of the West Indies at Mona, where he received a BA in English in 1983.
Next, he studied at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, on a Commonwealth Scholarship.
In 1992, he earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of New Brunswick.
Dawes had his pick of Commonwealth nations to study at but a New Brunswick professor was from St. Lucia and Barbados.
“He had done work in Caribbean literature, so I wanted to study with somebody who had a sense of Caribbean literature,” Dawes said.
From 1992 to 2012, Dawes taught at the University of South Carolina as a professor of English and served as Distinguished Poet in Residence.
Dawes has never taken creative writing as an academic pursuit.
“All my appointments have been as an academic professor and scholar,” he said.
“And of course, I write but I was was writing before. Writing was one occupation that I was going to do, but teaching has been my profession and my vocation.”
His numerous volumes of poetry, includes “Nebraska and City of Bones,” he has also written several novels, including “She’s Gone,” and his recent, “Bivouac.
“The collection, City of Bones, is poems I wrote in conversation with the African-American playwright August Wilson,” Dawes said.
“Essentially, the poems are in conversation with his plays. I met August Wilson many years ago.
I read his work, taught his work and I regard him as probably one of the great American voices, probably one of the top five that people should pay attention to.”
Dawes wrote, directed, sang and acted in “One Love, a collaborative play adapted from Robert Mais' classic novel, "Brotherman," showcased at the Lyric Hammersmith in London.
This reggae musical celebrates Jamaican music, especially the contributions of Bob Marley, who is also the subject of Dawes' academic study.
He teaches a course on Bob Marley and has written a book, "Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius."
“Marley is complicated, but Marley represents the artist who we needed,” Dawes said.
“Reggae music has tremendous musicians, artists and creatives. I still use Lee 'Scratch' Perry's work in my poetry. But I think what Marley did was sort of create a convenient oeuvre, like a body of work. You could see its progression.”
When the world woke to Marley, he was in the middle of his career.
“From the early '70s through his life in this wonderful, lyric confessional self, a kind of vulnerability to the end of his life where the pressure for him was for spiritual clarity and the desire to prophesy and speak into the world and into society,” Dawes said.
“There is a compelling narrative of great art speaking into the world, yet remaining committed to the lyric power of his art.
“That I think is a model for those of us who feel an affinity to his work and to him.”
'ANY POET'S ENVY'
The late Nobel Prize winner and St. Lucian poet/playwright Derek Walcott described "No Woman Don't Cry" as the great lyric he would have wanted to write.
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
I say, of which I'll share with you.
My feet is my only carriage
And so I've got to push on through.
“Who wouldn't want to rhyme carriage and porridge?” Dawes said.
“That's any poet's envy. There's that, but what is most important to me is Marley showed me that belief and faith, and a spiritual belief does not mitigate against an artistic vision, an artistic world, an artistic ambition.
“In fact, one feeds the other and can do so in positive ways.”
Dawes is a believer, a Christian, who needed the grounding of that confidence.
“To say that in my brokenness and all the problems that I may have, that my art must speak to the entirety of me, which includes my spiritual self and to be able to speak to it in music and in poetry that is honest, vulnerable and powerful,” Dawes said.
“That to me is one of the greatest gifts, that personally, that I give thanks to Bob Marley for.”
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