As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Kwame Dawes in response to a video of him reading his poem "Trickster III” aloud. Kwame Dawes wrote letters back to nine of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Kwame Dawes also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
A NOTE TO READERS
The more I hear from readers about this poem "Trickster III" the more I appreciate that there is something accessible about the ideas and feelings being expressed, because in an important way, the last 100 years have introduced the ubiquitousness of music into our daily and very private lives in ways that continue to affect how we see the world and think of the world. For me, that music was Reggae music during my teenage years in Jamaica, and it has come to shape my poetic aesthetic, my understanding of art and of the world in quite important ways. It is enjoyable to see how readers explore the implications of metaphors in trying to do something quite difficult—namely to use words to describe or "define" music. Poetry may fail at this, but what a glorious and generative failure it is.
I hope readers will continue to value their encounter with art and artistry in things they listen to and that they enjoy and and that moves them in a personal way. This is a doorway to art and artistry and to the feeling related to art. And this is quite important because I believe we know a great deal more about art and poetry than we think.
Finally, I will be a crusader for reggae music and encourage readers to study that music a bit by listening to it, and by going to the source—the place where it was invented and where it has grown and evolved. Because of how my experience as a person growing up during the emergence of reggae music has shaped me, I do think that there is value in exploring the world through an exploration of the world's music.
In the end, "Trickster III" is a poem. It is a celebration, not of music, but of poetry. It is a celebration of how poetry can capture so much in life. I hope readers will see that, and continue to enjoy poetry for what it can do for the reader.
Kwame Dawes reads "Trickster III" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Mr. Kwame Dawes,
Hello, my name is Sarah. I’m a senior from Maryland. I do a lot of poetry and writing in my own time, so I really appreciate all the technicality of rhythm this piece invokes. It’s really perfect for the subject! The use of repeated s sounds at the beginning- bassline is sticky like asphalt- it flows so easily it is hard to recognise the effort in creating it. The rest of the piece flows from it like “syrup” as you so aptly put it, punctuated with the staccato t sounds of “tap” and “Light”, and of course “Tacking, tacking out a tattoo to the bassline.” and floats on the legatos of “booms” and “gossamer” and “roots.” This is a poem that is music.
Along with creative writing, I am also involved in many of my school’s band programs. And since we established that this poem is music, I have appreciated it from that angle as well. Many elements remind me of jazz band in particular (though, this may be because I am a saxophonist, and am therefore obligated to love Jazz) It has a crescendo to the line “tacking, tacking out a tattoo…” that almost seems like a shout chorus in a jazz song, before slowly fading back and ending with an uncertainty, as jazz often does with its final note. Was this intentional? I really like it when poems with ambiguity or a question for the reader as it really helps extend the resonance of the ideas. Jazz tends to do the same thing, wrapping up the song with an unexpected chord that almost recontextualizes the final phrase. Did you have a specific genre or song in mind while writing this poem? I tried to look up the origin of the title, as I thought it would maybe lead me to a song or album. But I didn’t find anything. Was the origin of the title from a song, or some other source? If it was from a song, was a live performance? I feel like hearing music live feels more alive than a recording, especially in jazz.
I’ve attempted to write poetry describing music before, but I always get bogged down in either technical terminology that would only be relatable to classical musicians, ungrounded superfluous imagery, or cliche. That’s part of why your poem really impacted me- I’ve never thought of a bassline as sticky before. The image of being a fly on the back of an elephant really solidifies the character of the song- slow, rhythmic, powerful. I appreciate that this poem sticks with the slowness of the piece- molasses, elephants, and syrup, as most poetry about music I’ve seen talks about music as a flash of momentary beauty rather than a driving force to understanding. The image of being a fly also solidifies a feeling I've felt a few times while playing- being a small part of a massive force. Are you a musician yourself? I ask because you establish that emotion with words I’ve been searching for.
I’ve found myself recently much like the ending of your poem. Lost in the morning. Due to the Covid Pandemic, my school is cancelled and many life events- Graduation, Prom, Band Banquets, The School’s musical- have all been delayed indefinitely. And I’m aware of the triviality of these events considering the circumstances, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still feel a bit stranded. I’ve found that my days are blending together without the regular structure, my room is in even more chaos than normal, and uncertainty seems to be the king. But every day, I’ve been noticing that I pick up my saxophone more often. I normally don’t practice much at home, but now daily I find myself in the process of figuring out chords for old songs or improvising my own. And it adds an anchor back to my day. “And I can conjure hope in anything; dreams in my cubbyhole of a room...”
Thank you for your music,
How wonderful the way you have engaged with this poem and understood what it is doing with music. Yes, the influences are there. I played for several years in a reggae band, as the chief songwriter and the lead singer. This was before the internet was ubiquitous, so good luck finding Ujamaa, a Canadian band, on the internet.
Reggae is what you are searching for. And if you learn anything about the origins of that music, you will see that your jazz connection is not off the mark at all. You will delight in the music that may help you locate a recognizable entry point into the music of the poem. Ska. Ska of the early sixties exclusively, which was the precursor of reggae. So have a listen to one of the great trombonists of the 20th century, Don Drummond. He, unlike me, is all over the internet. His band The Skatelites will engage you I am sure. Lots of big band and bebop influences, but a very original indigenous sound of Jamaican folk music and popular music. From there you will find that Dub music of the seventies (my critical music influence) makes sense as a kind of sound track for the poem.
But as you have sussed out, one achieves “music” in poetry by quite ordinary technical gestures. Assonance, rhyme, internal rhyme, consonance, anaphora, meter and various forms of repetition, carefully orchestrated. In the end, though, the poem was part of a sequence I wrote many years ago called, “Tentative Definitions”. I was attempting to “define” reggae music. Shaping a major aesthetic that forms the basis of my art in general.
Anyway, thanks for giving this all this thought. Enjoy the Skatelites. You will see right away where Sting, the Police, The English beat, and every beach inflected party band got the idea of playing ska from.
I hope that this strange world of our pandemic will ease soon, and that in the open spaces, you find your way back to an honest reckoning with art.
Dear Kwame Dawes,
My name is Maryshawntel, I am fourteen years old, and I am a senior at Marshall Middle School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I am writing to you in the commendation of your poem, “Trickster III”. This poem speaks to me! How you feel whenever that song comes up, is how I react to that song that controls me. Your poem makes me think about how music can physically, mentally, and emotionally move someone, and can be an escape for anyone, especially in difficult times.
The poem’s second stanza says “and the bass drum booms my heart, jumping me, jump-starting me”. Already, I can picture your body receiving sudden energy, once you hear that first drumbeat. How everything assembled in the song gives you that powerful kick. In the following stanza, the line “I follow the tap like a fly catching light”, I can tell that the music is grabbing all your attention to its tone, beats, and lyrics; like it’s attracting you! The lines in stanzas six and seven: “and my waist is moving without a cue, without a clue of where we are going” tells me how the music is controlling you; making you dance; knowingly and unknowingly. Because of your descriptive and figurative language, in my mind, I can picture you dancing to the tunes of the song. I can picture how you can’t help but dance to the music, letting it succeed in taking over your movement!
For me, stanzas eight, nine, and ten stand out the most. “Coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back, and I can conjure hope in anything; dreams in my cubbyhole of a room where the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko. This music finds me giddy and centered, but when morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.” Automatically, I imagine how you might feel or what you are going through, during the time you were listening to Reggae music (the time the poem takes place). I thought that maybe you were going through hardships and the setting that you were in wasn’t so comforting. Which is why music was your escape. Reggae music made you feel like you were perfectly fine and that there is hope in the situation you’ve found yourself in. From the imagery that you successfully include throughout the entire poem, I can tell once you turn on that song, your entire world is perfect (the music brings you to another world). The music gives you happiness, stamina, and elation! But once the last lyrics, the last tune, and the last beat pass by, it’s all over. You’re in the real world and back in your situation.
What I still wonder is what exactly were you going through at that time, and was it your inspiration for this poem? And in general, has music been your escape all your life and did it in some way keep your sanity in some situations? I can relate to you! Music has been my escape and has taken over my mindset and body. It has helped me in situations where I am stressed, and I feel like I will freak out.
Asides from your poem, I would like to know the story of you being born in Ghana and being raised in Jamaica (Both of my parents are from Nigeria!), and if there is a culture infusion that you experience.
Thank you for this outstanding piece, Mr. Dawes. I am looking forward to reading more of your work.
P.S. When I first saw your name, I knew you were Ghanian, so I researched you and read about you. And it’s cool how you have a Jamaican accent mixed up with an African accent!
That is a lively and thoughtful reading of my poem. I think you have understood it well. You should know that having written and published so many books of poems, I have lost track of when I wrote a poem or even what was happening when I wrote the poem. Of course, the good news is that this poem remains relevant to me, and my relationship to this reggae music has not changed. So in many ways this poem is true now. But one small detail you should reconsider—escape is not the word I would use. You see, for me, dancing is engaging with experience, it is a way to encounter and confront and counter hardship. When Bob Marley sings, “We chucking to Jah music/ We chucking”, he is using a verb that non-Jamaicans would not know. To “chuck” is to fight back, it is to aggressively confront. And so it does seem as if the song ends and the sadness and “loss” returns, which it does, but notice what happens: I write about dancing. So the experience, even with its hardship, makes me make art, create beauty, create a creative way of encountering and dealing with the world.
How interesting that your parents are Nigerian. My father was actually born in Warri. His Jamaican parents moved to Nigeria from Jamaica in the early 19 century. So technically, I am part Nigerian. LOL. I am a child of Africa, connecting to so many communities of Africans all over the world by the wonderful accident of my family history. And I am proud of that rich vein of Africa that runs through me. Anyway, thank you for reading and enjoying this poem and I hope you find pleasure and thoughtful reflections in other work I have written and the work of other poets.
Dear Kwame Dawes,
My name is Maryam Ahmad, and I live in Albany, New York. I am a senior taking AP Literature and Composition. I am writing to you about your poem “Trickster III”.
Ever since I began really listening to music, when it began to mean something to me, I have tried to put the feeling it gives me into words. It is so hard to describe what exactly music means to me, because it can do so many different things. It can lift you up with joy, or it can strike a chord in a way that brings tears to your eyes. The way you described how music possesses you, and you begin to move with it, made me believe that maybe there is a way to describe music just right.
Your poem drew me in from the very beginning, with your description of how the bassline and the bass drum cause your body to start moving, almost of its own accord. I love the line, “I let the syrup surround my legs / and my waist is moving without a cue”. It is so hard sometimes to resist that bassline, or the resounding chorus, even when in a crowd of people, when breaking out into song or dancing suddenly could be very embarrassing. Music for me has always been a comfort, one of the few constants in my life when change itself was a constant. I have lived in four different cities in the U.S. and India, and I could always just plug in my headphones, no matter where I was, and ignore everything else. My mother got a little tired of screaming for me though. While listening to music, like you said, “I can conjure hope in anything.”
Your rhythm while reading the poem was musical, too. So much so that I wondered if there was a particular song you were thinking of when you wrote Trickster III. Or was it just about music in general? You transition to a darker feeling towards the end of the poem, when you write “coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back”. Do you think there is a dark side to the way music can move people? As you probably know by now, I do not think that way.
You end the poem with the lines “This music finds me giddy and centered, but when / morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.” I felt these lines. I also wondered, does music symbolize love for you? I completely understand the feeling of something missing when the music ends, and I can understand why music may be love too.
Music has been a way for me to find joy and comfort, and to connect with others, like I am now. It gives me great joy to share the love of music with someone. I hope you never lose the joy music brings.
Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful letter. You seemed to have captured much of what shaped the poem. “Trickster” was written at a time when I was trying to find ways to define reggae music. Of course, this is one of the great challenges of poetry—that seeking language to explore things that defy language. Music is one of those forms of art that can do exactly what you say—move us without language, evoke feelings and memories in immediate and quite visceral ways. All efforts to define music with words are going to fail, are going to be inadequate, but if we are fortunate, we will come close enough to make something memorable. I hope I managed that with this poem.
Your story of how many times you have moved across countries and homes resonates with me. I too, I have traveled much, and that was so when I was young. In retrospect, I am grateful for that movement though I know some of the ways it was harmful. But having a chance to carry in me a wide sense of the world, one made up of different people, and having the chance to see that the world is beautiful and ugly at the same time, has been useful in my life.
In the end, “Trickster” is exactly as you have said it, a celebration of what music gives us. But it is also a reminder that the very act of making a poem out of an experience that may not be all beautiful, is the power and hope of art. Instead of deep lamentation, I was able to make a poem out of the experience and that poem has reached others. In many ways, when we think of music that we call “sad”, what is happening is that the artist has made something beautiful out of the difficult thing. And that is a powerful thing.
Dear Kwame Dawes,
Hi, My name is Leo. I am twelve years old and turning thirteen in May. I am in seventh grade and I go to LREI. I also live in New York City, NY and am a vegan. When I read your poem “Trickster III” I felt blown away for a number of reasons. The first reason I loved your poem was because of how it made me feel as if I was in the moment. The line that really does this is when you write “and the bass drum booms my heart, / jumping me, jump-starting me.” When reading this poem, it puts me in the moment of some sort of race because of the words “jump-starting me.” Another line that really put me in the moment was “This bassline is sticky like asphalt / and wet like molasses heated nice and hot.” The words “heated nice and hot” really makes me feel as if I'm running over something that is hot, but not too hot, just the right amount.
Another reason I was blown away by your poem was the last line, “but when / morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.” I feel like the metaphors at the beginning like “I let the syrup surround my legs” make me think of me doing something but then stopping because I am just stuck. Morning is kind of a metaphor for the end of a project because at the end you slow down and then you just don’t know where to go because you have just worked on something so hard. Did you write this poem from experience? Because the way you wrote sounded like it did. This would relate to poetry because if you run out of ideas then you are kind of stuck.
My final reason why I loved your poem was your choice of words. The words were so wonderful; it's like they are giving me advice. For example, “I can conjure hope in anything.” I say that this is advice because it is trying to tell me to never lose hope. It is also trying to say that hope is the most important thing in the world. Was that line meant to be a message? For me, it really tells me to keep believing and never give up. Throughout the poem that seems like something that comes up often and makes sense with the voice of the poem.
I think before I end the letter I want to touch on some of my favorite lines and devices you used in the poem. First up, I want to talk about imagery. The whole poem, in my opinion, has amazing imagery but the line that gives me the most imagery is “I let the syrup surround my legs / and my waist is moving without a cue, / without a clue of where we are going.” This line just really made me imagine someone trying to run without knowing where to go. The second thing I love is the metaphors and similes. My favorite metaphor is “Coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back.” I think this metaphor really represents control and being controlled with a way to escape.
I really think this poem is telling me to follow through with everything and anything in life. This poem really helped me write this letter and thank you for writing this poem.
Hoping for a response,
New York, NY
Thanks for your very thoughtful letter. You have read this poem with great care and I can only say that you have managed to capture what the poem hoped you would. At the end of the day, the poem s really seeking to capture the sensation of dancing to a specific type of music—namely, reggae music. So, yes, this is based on experience, and experience that continues to happen to me today. To dance with abandon is a powerful thing, and I wanted to capture that sensation in language, with the hope that it will teach us something about reggae music, how it works, its dimensions and its deep effect. So that seemingly strange line about “Coolly, deadly roots sound”, is quite a specific reference to some key phrases in reggae music from forty years ago—“Cool and deadly” which refers to a style of drum and bass, and of course, “roots” is a style of conscious reggae music that was dominant in the 1970s, and that still guides many reggae artists today. But you would not have to understand all of this to enjoy the poem and even understand the poem as your letter to me demonstrates.
I hope you will continue to enjoy poetry as you move on in your life. Poetry offers so many rewards for the mind and soul and I believe that you are developing the kinds of skills of appreciation that can only improve your life and the lives of those around you.
Dear Kwame Dawes,
So many poems seem to take place within the minds of their authors, their events occurring in suspended memories outside of our own world. I mention this because I find it astonishing how easily I could relate to the themes and events of your poem “Trickster III”, despite the fact that it seems deeply rooted in your own experiences.
While I am certainly no musician, music is still an essential part of my life. I consider myself an optimist, and I try to find the good in all things, but I know that the stresses of daily life are a heavy burden to bear. Whenever they become heavy enough to prevent me from such optimism, I know that music will always be there to help me. For example, during stressful school projects or anxiety-filled car rides to work, I listen to music to help keep me calm and remind me that even the most stressful of times will pass. The artist most successful--in my opinion--at invoking relaxation and calm is C418. His music perfectly blends a whimsical sense of adventure with calming, jazzy notes.
I find that I am more calmed when I remember the memories associated with his music; I possess a deep sense of nostalgia for many of his works, as I have been listening to them for as long as I can remember. I believe that this aspect of music--its ability to whisk us away from the darkest of times--is intrinsic to the medium, and it is captured beautifully in your poem. I believe that this is especially true in the lines, “Coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back, / and I can conjure hope in anything; / dreams in my cubbyhole of a room where / the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko. / This music finds me giddy and centered, but when morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.” The juxtaposition of the bleak, musicless morning--where one is “just lost again”--with the liveliness of the music-filled venue--where one “can conjure hope in anything”--expertly captures how music helps people escape from bleak situations such as the “cubbyhole of a room” you described, where “the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko.” I especially love the aforementioned line, “I can conjure hope in anything,” as it fully embodies the optimistic nature of music. It condenses the very essence of the entire poem into a single line; music is a force of nature, one that can allow individuals to “conjure hope in anything.”
Fittingly, poetry is very similar to music. Just like music, poetry involves far more interaction with the reader than just regular prose. Just like music, there is rhythm and flow within poetry, and even the way that the poem is read can play a huge role in the expression of its ideas. Were the similarities between the two mediums a factor you considered when writing this poem? Also, I’ve scoured the web, and I cannot find any music-related info pertaining to the words “Trickster III”. I cannot find any poems written by you with the titles “Trickster I” or “Trickster II”, either. Why did you choose this title? If I had to wager a guess, I would say that the smooth, suave connotations of the word “trickster” fit into the cool, slow music described by the poem, but I realize that is a fairly flimsy assumption.
I wish you goodwill,
Thanks for your smart and insightful comments about poetry and about my poem “Trickster III.” Indeed, the poem is attempting to do something that is always challenging, which is to truly capture what music is and what music does in words. But that is always the challenge of poetry—the use of language to capture experience. It is an act of translation, if you will. But in many ways, as you have discovered, it is more than translation, but a kind of recreation based on some other driving force, the creative impulse of the artist. All art tends to be driven by an act of finding a language for experience, and experience can be as broad as anything we want it to be.
And so you are right in saying that the poem reminds us of the power of music and the power of poetry. In this case, the music is specific. You probably went digging through the internet to find me, but I have published, as you may have found out, twenty odd books of poetry, and another thirty books in fiction drama and non-fiction. I have written a lot about this subject. The key is Reggae music. And that is the music you are looking for. The poem offers a few clues, but they are hard to spot if you are not aware on the history of reggae music. And yes, there are in fact poems called “Trickster I” “II”, “III”, “IV” and “V”. Each of them are part of a wider effort called “Tentative Definitions” which are seeking to “define” reggae music. As you can imagine, this is part of a grand effort. Those poems appear in several of my books published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I continue to write poems with reggae as a functional aesthetic. I believe that you will understand easily what is going on there, given your own fascination with music as you have described it in the letter you sent.
I should say, however, that your ability to recognize the emotional path of the poem is quite impressive. The seeming “darkness” of the “cubbyhole” and the roaches does seem to suggest despair, but it is not really seeking to paint a picture of hopeless, just a genuine look at the physical circumstances of my life at the time in Jamaica. The only useful extrapolation there would be that I lived alone. :-). Anyway, music is something that effectively keeps us company in our different worlds, and even when the music ends and one feels a small loss, the very act of writing a poem in response is expression of hope.
Thanks for your letter, Chad.
Dear Mr. Dawes,
First of all, I wanted to say how much appreciation I hold for your poem. “Trickster III” puts into words what mere conversation cannot; the controlling nature of music, of rhythm. Rhythm and sound pull the strings in our bodies like puppets, control our emotions like remotes and fill the holes in our hearts. I consider myself a lover of music. Often turning on a thumping bass for a quick pick me up or spending hours upon hours scouring the depths of my streaming service for the perfect song to add to my “blues” playlist. “Trickster III” captures the way music serenades me. It captures the way it controls me. It captures the way it comforts me. Thank you.
You speak to the enticing quality of music when you write, “This bassline is sticky like asphalt” (1). In reading this line I can feel my legs being rendered immobile, unable to escape the low thump of the bass, but why asphalt? When I think of asphalt I’m reminded of the uncomfortable heat it radiates during the summer or the irritable smell of a fresh pour. Where is your asphalt found? Is the bassline sticky like the asphalt of a new road? A road that charts territories? Does the bass define something new? Or is just an itch to be scratched, such as the fresh asphalt that merely covers the cracks in the road? Personally, I find the lull of the bass comforting, a physical relief and an emotional release. The music overtakes my brain and my mind quiets, words are replaced with rhythm. The bass fulfills urges even I didn’t know I had, it helps me to define myself.
I admire the way “Trickster III” captures the multidimensional form of music. Music is the simple sound of anxiety, a pencil tapping on a desk, it’s the combination of multiple beats and voice to cultivate expression. Music can be layered, just like meaning. The image of the fly captured the layers of meaning beautifully through enjambment. One minute my mind contemplates the simplicity of the bassline as “the tap” (6) can be followed “like a fly catching light” (6), a natural urge to “its rainbow gossamer wings” (7), an image that reminds me of the intricacy of a stained glass window. I find that the underlying motive to the inclusion of the fly becomes jumbled, it resembles the natural impulse to follow the music, to dance but also alludes to the complexity of the “rainbow gossamer wings” an image that prompts in me, the idea of a higher power pulling the strings to human body, just as the wings of the fly were meticulously designed. Deeper reflecting causes me to question: Is music a naturally occurring human impulse or something designed to reveal something much deeper about one’s self?
The stanza that resonates with me the most is “dreams in my cubbyhole of a room where / the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko” (17-18). The “cubbyhole of a room”, to me, serves as a representation of my reality. My nerves are settled, my sadness is lightened, my anger is calmed, my apathy is inspired. Just as your “cubbyhole of a room” can become a distant memory, so can emotions, but only for a short period of time. Music is only a quick fix, a false advertisement, a placebo. The dreamlike quality of music solidifies itself in its own absence, “When morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again,” (20). I too experience a rift in mood, a dreaded return reality; after violently jamming to music alone in my car on the way to school, I must face the quiet, conceal my frustrations and get through the day, until I can get my quick fix again. Music is a drug, controlling your body, morphing your realities, calling you like a sweet syrup.
Thank you again, for allowing me to take interest in the true meaning of one of my favorite pastimes. “Trickster III” has redefined the way I perceive music, and for that I am grateful for.
I am a great student of bass, reggae bass. It can be soothing—that is the cliche idea, I think. But if you are honest, you also know that a good baseline can be disquieting, can be unsettling, and can be a driving force pushing us to places we may not immediately want to go. The baseline is also very intelligent when handled by a great bass-player. There is a way in which intellectual stimulation is at once rewarding and comforting and unsettling. And this is why asphalt and molasses and syrup—all different textures of sound metaphorically presented, appear in the poem. I think you sense this. I also want us to think of urban spaces in Caribbean, where asphalt covers the road, and the city is as much a place of trees in Kingston, as a place of concrete and asphalt—urban and rural at the same time. So music for me is a comfort, as you put it, but it is also a challenge, a disquieting force that pushes me to see things even when they make me uncomfortable. Of course, you put all of this beautifully when you draw on all the allusions tied into the fly, the wings and the relationship between the various instruments and the sounds they make. You are certainly on the right track and I find that exhilarating.
The end of the song is, as I have tried to capture in the poem, is not the end of it, is it? The end of the song, takes me to the poem, and the poem seeks to recapture the physical force of the music on the body, the thing that is remembered as hopeful, if you will. So art repeats itself, and poetry allows us to keep repeating experience in productive ways, I think.
I am actually confirming what you seem to have garnered from the work. So I thank you for your thoughtful reading and for your letter. I hope you will continue to have a life-long relationship with poetry. I do believe that what was instilled in me as a teenager or sooner, was not so much a love for the writing of poetry, but for the reading and enjoying of poetry. I am grateful for this. It has made me a better poet and human being, I believe.
Dr. Kwame Dawes
Dear Kwame Dawes,
Thank you for sharing your intelligence with us, it’s always a great pleasure to read your works and have a sentimental touch like when I throw my voice out, I hear a voice back.
The most recent work I read from yours is the Trickster III. The title reminds me of the concerto titles in piano, like Concerto No.1 movement III. As being a young pianist, I’m honored to find your works as inspiring to my mind but also my career. You said “I let the syrup surround my legs and my waist is moving without a cue”. It seems as an automatic response from the body and brain that we let out intentions to rest, and flow what’s coming from inside of our body. I feel a warm steam rushing from my stomach, all the way up to my throat. It feels like when I was playing my favorite piece of music, my hands were separate from my body. They move as the muscles remembering all the keys and notes, they are themselves. But I am me. I didn’t see a physical piano, I didn’t see the room I was in, I didn’t notice there was a bright straight shooting lamp right next to my head. My body swayed back and forward, my face was tangling, my mouth was humming the melody. My heart is aching, it’s a kind of pain I don’t get when I get off the piano, when my ears are only filled with daily talks or when my fingers are on the counter, trying to wipe off some stains. That’s the trickster for me, reminding me that I don’t need to remain in the real physical world, and I can be everywhere and anything. I’m sure you had the similar feelings at some time, that you don’t know where you are going, but you are going there. And you hold the certainty like you’ve made this decision for over 40 years, even if you are confused. It’s so beautiful, this confusion and certainty is so beautiful. I could be thrown back to 1874 by Tchaikovsky with his Piano Concerto No.1, and I did feel unfit or unreal. I was there, certainly there.
But I woke up sometimes, actually every day. Not like the wake-up we do in the morning that mumbled nothing and tried the best to get out of bed. It’s the time I got off my piano chair, cleaned up my keys, closed off the piano, and left my room. I started to hear my mom talking in the kitchen, my girlfriend drawing in the living room. It feels unreal and unsteady. One time I was so sad that I went back to the world after I finished playing one concerto that I tried to start over again. But the second time, it was all gone. My hands were shaking, I memorized the wrong keys, my body was sweating, not the kind of the swart we get when we are passionate. It was gone and I was lost again. I did not know where to find it, at least it should not be that moment. I felt pity and sad, but I believe it’s waiting for me somewhere, next time.
At the almost ending of my letter, I want to sincerely ask a question. You mentioned in the end of the poem, “This music finds me giddy and centered, but when morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.” When the morning comes or when the loss appears, are you anxious, sad or wondering. Are you waiting for it to come next time, or do we still have it next time? I feel at some times, my piano pieces are one time use. They evaporate when they are done, they reach where they wanted to go and no matter how hard they try next time, it’s never there again. And I could not go back anymore.
Thank you for reading this letter, I hope it finds you well and happy.
Kansas City, MO
Hello Qi Qi,
What a richly written description of a moment in your art. I believe that artists, those who will continue to create no matter what, will stop relying on those deeply moving and dramatic feelings (which come) to make art. I believe that such moments come when they come but they are poor reflections of the quality of the art being made, but better reflections of where our heads are at a given moment. You see, that is why the artist will work no matter how they are feeling. And that is what I reach for.
The poem captures a moment. But what did that moment of “loss” generate? A poem. You see? So when we listen to the blues, we know there is sadness there, but the making of the blues is not, in and of itself, an act of sadness, but a strange and in many ways restorative art of creation. The blues are not a wail, a scream of pain, they are a beautiful rendering of experience—the key word, is Beauty, and by that I mean, the blues is a form of music, with a structure that is repeatable, and this is the power of what we do as artists. So by turning that moment of bewildered loss into a poem, I am extending the experience into something productive, some that can be shared, and shared, and shared again, which is the poem.
I like to hear artists like you talk about the power of art on you. And music has its own peculiar power. And yet, you also know that if you did not practice etudes, or work, and work and work again at a passage, getting your fingering right, getting the phrasing right, getting the tempo right, over and over and over again, if you did not do this, you would not have the music so close to your first instinct in such a way that you could forget the mechanics, or that you are doing the mechanic, and thus able to focus on the full view and feel of the composition. That is why you could find sublimation. Not because you feel more. But because you had technical command of the music.
Poetry is the same. Command of my craft makes me better at capturing feeling and thought. The less skilled I am, the less able I am to be free to explore, to make choices, and much else. But we can treat such skill as something developed over a full life time.
Thanks for your generous and thoughtful letter. And thanks for your kind words about my poem.