Books: The busiest man in literature

Kevin Le Gendre meets Kwame Dawes, prolific poet, passionate teacher and high priest of reggae
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The Independent Culture
The expression "Wheel and Come Again", the title of the latest Kwame Dawes book, has a special significance in reggae. When a crowd tells a DJ to wheel and come again at a dance in Jamaica, it not only signals their desire to hear a particular record for a second or third time, but also acts as an encouragement to keep on pumping out the music. To keep producing those magical distortions of drum and bass that shake the speakers to the core. This drive towards booming productivity, this urgent desire to keep things coming, has also defined the career of Kwame Dawes.

Since his first book appeared in1994, Kwame Dawes has kept on producing literature at the same rate as a top reggae star like Beenie Man puts out hit singles. He has written short stories and plays, academic studies on reggae music, and several collections of poetry. His debut, Progeny Of Air, won the Forward Prize for a first collection. Edward Kamau Braithwaite, who many consider to be one of the key figures in modern West Indian literature, has described him as a "big new voice of alarm for the Caribbean", and the renowned Guyanese author, David Dabydeen, says that Dawes is opening up a new aesthetic space in Caribbean poetry.

By the winter of 1998, he will have had his 10th title published in four years. In between writing numerous academic papers and directing plays, Dawes has also done stints of acting, broadcasting, and singing in a band. In reggae music, the sound of the drums may start heads nodding on the dancefloor but it is the bass that stirs the whole body into movement. It is the dynamo of forward motion. Kwame Dawes has a lot of bass in his voice.

Where does this seemingly irrepressible urge to write come from? "What has fascinated me always is telling stories. That's what I am; a storyteller. That's the common thread to everything that I do," says Dawes in a matter of fact way. "All I do is use every media available to tell stories. " For Kwame Dawes, storytelling means engaging with his sense of history, identity and community. The bulk of his output to date has seen him locate intensely personal narratives within a wider framework of the societies he knows intimately: Ghana, where he spent his childhood, Jamaica; where he went from boy to man; America, where he now lives and teaches.

Dawes's bibliography to date is full of thematic migrations: Requiem is a poetry collection inspired by White Ships/Black Cargo, Tom Feeling's illustrations on transatlantic slavery, and Progeny of Air takes the reader from the lively classrooms of a Jamaican youth to the more austere settings of Canadian salmon farms, where the author once worked for the government. If reading Kwame Dawes gives a penetrating insight into the socio-cultural complexities of the African-Caribbean diaspora, then hearing him perform his work puts the emotional charge of his "oraliture" into a sharper focus. When he recently appeared with Guyanese flautist, Keith Waithe, at the Battersea Arts Centre, his language took on an impressive weight when set to the bass and treble of his voice. Literally and figuratively, the words moved. Does he approach the stage differently to the page?

"They flow in and out of each other. I don't find conflict between them and I have to be true to that. I think I write with a sense of performance but I don't think that's unusual. I think that, fundamentally, poetry is a performance medium. Look at the way we teach poetry. We talk about onomatopoeia, about metre, about rhyme, about voice - it's all oral."

The divide between performance poets and published poets is not one which has any great relevance to Dawes. As an award-winning writer and accomplished performer, he has one foot in each camp. Having said that, he himself has entered the debate on the respective merits of "street" and "book" poetry. An article of his appeared in the Critical Quarterly, in 1996, in which he cogently argued that many of the so-called divisons were as much political as artistic, and his oeuvre to date has duly attempted to transcend any contrived pigeon- holing. Does he feel that the sign of a great poem is its ability to work both on the page and the stage? "I really believe that. A poem is very much a matter of compression and distillation of ideas, but it's also about rhythm, about the way in which you capture a moment and contain it. When that is achieved, it lends itself to performance, to the 'orature'. When you can bring those two things together, that's when you're really cooking."

The extract below is taken from Some Tentative Definitions, the opening piece of Shook Foil, Dawes's collection of reggae poetry that appeared last year. In performance, the piece does indeed "cook", yet as a piece of literature, the poem captures more than a particular moment in time. It was inspired by a Bob Marley lyric and brings a more didactic slant to Dawes's language. In Tentative Definitions, he uses great evocative power to convey how reggae's drum-and-bass alchemy affects body and soul; Shook Foil is a collection that presents key scenes in reggae culture, and the more you look at Dawes's output to date, the more you realise that reggae has been a defining theme, a kind of rock-steady bass-line in his cultural and creative life.

He has written extensively on reggae as an artform - the more academic cousins of Shook Foil are Wheel And Come Again and Natural Mysticism. Both works present a wealth of analysis of reggae music that is sweetly seductive in form yet deadly serious in content. Dawes reminds me that one of the Caribbean's foremost writers, Derek Walcott, chose Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" and "Redemption Song" when he appeared on Desert Island Discs, and that Marley's power as a lyricist has also been remarked upon by several literary critics. At first sight, Walcott, the archetypal man of letters with the neatly trimmed moustache, and Marley, the pop icon crowned in dreadlocks, seem like unlikely artistic allies, but they are both highly appropriate markers with which to frame the creative pulse of Dawes.

"These two people move in very different ways. Walcott drew me in first as a playwright - when I read Dream On Monkey Mountain and Ti Jean, and saw the productions, I saw the poetic appearing on the stage powerfully and dramatically, and that just blew me away." As for the discovery of Marley, it was very much a family affair. "My father came home one day in Jamaica with Bob Marley's "Natty Dread". He put it on this wooden gramophone and said 'listen to this'."

The Dawes household was ruled by the sound of jazz pioneers like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Dawes senior, to quote Dawes junior, was "strictly Oxbridge, Pan- Africanist, a very serious man". But he was very much aware of the tremendous significance of an artist like Bob Marley, and showed a great sense of purpose in the way he conveyed that to his son. "'Natty Dread' starts to play and it stops, so he says wheel and come again! It stops, we play it again, and after the third time, he says this is one of the most important things you'll ever hear. He left it like that, sat down and finished his cigarette."

That day, in 1975, when he first heard "Natty Dread" has been with Kwame Dawes for the last 20 years. It has shaped him in many different ways, plugging him right into the reggae aesthetic and giving him a clear sense of direction as a writer. However, the relentless production of his own literature is only one half of the Kwame Dawes story. The other is a passion for education. Dawes is a teacher. He graduated from the University of the West Indies, taught at the University of Warwick and currently holds the post of Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. "At the bottom of it all, I'm a teacher and I like teaching. I don't just do it, I like it!" he says with relish. "I like getting vibes back from other people. I like to hear ideas coming through."

Dawes the pedagogue and Dawes the poet are seemingly inter-changeable beings. When he performs his work on stage there are often potted history lessons in between the poems. He might talk about how Bob Marley's wife, Rita, was beset with controversy following the superstar's death or how crucial Ernest Ranglin was to Lee Perry (the former is one of Jamaica's greatest guitarists, the latter its greatest studio producer and one of Marley's early collaborators) or explain the indelible reverberations of the middle passage of the slave trade. In the same way that Dawes draws no line between literary and performance poetry, he also blends art and education quite seamlessly. But where does one stop and the other start?

"The most important thing for me to teach is the way to think - how people can think critically and independently, how people can, in a kind of activist way, not be duped by the seduction of writing, of the craft behind it," he states emphatically. "As a writer, I'm a seducer; I know I'm a liar, I'm a diabolic figure. I want you to believe my narrative so thoroughly that you forget your own values and your own questioning. What I like is if you're bouncing off that and saying hey, hey, hey, I see what you're doing here, I know this guy's got a thing going on here. The principles of analysis are the same. In my classrooms, the discussion easily shifts from TV talk shows to sexuality in Chekhov."

In recent years, Dawes has become an important figure for the new wave of Black British poets, giving a series of workshops in association with the literature development agency Spread The Word. These masterclasses have been attended by the likes of Patience Agbabi, Akure Wall, Jillian Tipene and Roger Robinson. "I think there's tremendous talent there. My role has always been to say 'open your minds, guys'. I think a lot of them were straitjacketed, blinkered, there was this notion that what they were doing was free-flowing but in fact there was a rigid form which was called performance poetry. So I said, 'hey, open it up. Push it outwards and don't just say I want to be a performer on stage - why not be a writer? Why not do all these things and see where it goes?'."

The fact that there have been too few black British poets published in the last decade is a cause for concern to Dawes. "I worry sometimes that they don't generate enough work. I think that the performance-poetry scene has a tendency to work like the pop-music scene - you do a song and then do it every night of the year so it limits the amount of stuff you write and your work won't grow - it's gonna stagnate." That is a fair point. I recently saw the hip New York poet, Dana Bryant, gigging in London and still churning out stuff she'd written four years ago. It did not make me want to rush out and buy her books. Or her records.

At the end of the day, poetry is not pop music in so far as its essence is about the creative seizure of a special moment in time, not the recording of a catchy melody. It remains one of the most satisfying yet demanding of all art forms in so far as it requires a high concentration of technical skill as well as spur-of-the-moment inspiration. And that's where Kwame Dawes, poet and teacher, comes in. "I have to keep pushing and saying, 'come on stretch this thing. Stretch it out!' Writing is no easy gig," he says with a broad, provocative smile. "It's work, man - it's good work, but it's work."

'Shook Foil' (pounds 6.99), 'Natural Mysticism' (pounds 12.99), and 'Wheel And Come Again' (pounds 8.99), are published by Peepal Tree Press

Extract from 'Some

Tentative Definitions'

First the snare crack,

a tight-head snare crack like steel,

rattle, then cut, snap,

crack sharp and ring at the tail;

calling in a mellow mood

with the bass, a looping lanky

dread, sloping like a lean-to,

defying gravity and still limping

to a natural half-beat riddim,

on this rain-slick avenue.