Kwame on Caribbean Poets and Poetry

Below is an email interview with Kwame Dawes, June's poet of the month. My thanks to Kwame for taking time to share his thoughts with us. As usual, I welcome your feedback on Kwame's reflections.

You have finished two very well-received projects, LiveHopeLove and Voices from Haiti. Are you currently working on other projects, whether solo, or collaboratively?

I am not working on a project quite like either of these two.  There are a few projects that are off-shoots of the work I have done on HIV AIDS and especially on Haiti.  I am currently editing an anthology of poetry by Haitian poets written after the earthquake.  I am also rehearsing on a production of the poems written about Haiti to be performed with musicians Kevin Simmonds and Valetta Brinson. 

I am currently re-reading Gomer's Song because I liked it so much the first time I read it some time ago. It is an interesting collection, especially with the linkages and parallels to the Old Testament book of Hosea. Could you share a bit about what inspired you to write it, and what the writing experience was like for you?

This was a difficult book to write for two reasons: the first was that I decided to tackle a subject that relates to issues of sexuality, sexual abuse and desire and I was doing so in the context of the bible. The narrative of Hosea is fascinating in and of itself, but it is the relatively little that we are given about Gomer that fascinated me.  I did not begin, however, with Gomer.  I began with the central character of the the book, telling a very contemporary story of a Christian’s struggle with addiction, abuse and faith.  As the work developed I found some value in framing the work around the story of Gomer.  The truth is that Gomer’s story opened the work up for me.  This, of course, is not the first book of mine that borrows from or engages Biblical narratives.  Perhaps the most notable example of this is the book Jacko Jacobus in which I retell the story of Jacob and his family through verse.  It, too, attempts a contemporary enactment of an ancient narrative.

What are your thoughts on the state of the Caribbean publishing industry, and what that means for poets in particular?

There are, I believe, not enough publishers of Caribbean writing.  But that has been the case for as long as there has been literature written in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, now, more than ever, with the existence of Peepal Tree Press with its unequivocal commitment to Caribbean writing, and especially to publishing Caribbean poetry, the opportunities for our poets is actually quite good.  At the same time, with the strength of our mid-career and senior poets in the last twenty years, there is, in the minds of many periodicals and publishers of literature in English a place for work from our region.  Simply put, any poet coming along now, can be assured that they do have a chance to interesting a publisher in their work.  It is difficult for a poet to get published under any circumstance, and I do not think that the chances for a Caribbean poet to be published are any less than for any other poet.  That is the good news, I think.

The OCM Bocas Lit Fest was launched around the same time that the Calabash International Literary Festival, your brainchild, was winding down. Are you optimistic about a vibrant Caribbean literary scene, particularly at this juncture, and what are some of the challenges to be overcome, and the resources required to ensure vibrancy?

Calabash was the “brain-child” of Colin Channer.  We then drew together with Justine Henzell to create an exciting and dynamic entity.  Our aim was to produce a well run, professional and visionary festival in the Caribbean.  We did so.  And I think we have achieved one of the most important things possible: the desire in others to create something similar around the region.  There have been many festivals that could be said to have grown out of Calabash—Festivals in St. Lucia, Antigua, Dominica, Montserrat, and Trinidad.  Next year Barbados will have its first festival.  For years, Lasana Sekou has hosted, in St Maarten, an impressive and engaging festival. There is a lot happening.  Since the closing of Calabash in Jamaica, at least three literary festivals have began.  This is a great deal of activity, and while I can’t say that the quality of these festivals is always as strong as it ought to be, I think that the instinct to celebrate our literature is a good one and one that can’t hurt a great deal.  I do think, however, that the work that really needs to be done is institutional.  Apart from festivals, we need legitimate literary awards and we need a few MFA programs in Creative Writing in the Caribbean.  We also need to have more publishing in the region, and greater attention to the development of writers.  These things can happen.  The represent some of the matters that the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust is considering for the future.

Who are your favorite Caribbean poets, and why?

As an editor I would be silly to present you with such a list.  I can say that the poets I encourage people to read right now are Christian Campbell, Kei Miller, Tanya Shirley, Ishion Hutchison and Malika Booker.  There are many more from all over the region and outside of the region who one should read.  I continue to find the work of our senior poets engaging, but it is worth noting Dionne Brand who recently won the Griffin Prize for her work.  She is a truly amazing voice. Again, there are so many more voices that continue to produce excellent work that we ought to be reading even more.  

Who would you say are the emerging Caribbean poets to watch?

I have answered this question above.  The list, of course, is longer, and a good place to find such a list is the Peepal Tree catalogue.

Do you have any advice to share with Caribbean poets?

Keep writing.  Keep reading the work of poets who are like you and those who are not like you. When you think classics, don’t only think of British or even European voices, but Chinese, Japanese, Indian, African voices.  Read and imitate and then allow your own voice to come through.

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