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Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He received a BA from the University of the West Indies at Mona in 1983 and went on to study and teach in New Brunswick, Canada, on a Commonwealth Scholarship. In 1992, he received a PhD in English from the University of New Brunswick. 

In 1994, he published his first collection of poetry, Progeny of Air (Peepal Tree Press), which received the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. He is also the author of City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern University Press, 2017), Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), Wheels (Peepal Tree Press, 2010), New and Selected Poems, 1994–2002 (Peepal Tree Press, 2003), Midland (Ohio University Press, 2001), and Prophets (Peepal Tree Press, 1995), among many others.

Dawes is also the author of several works of fiction, including the novel Bivouac (Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2010), and non-fiction, including the memoir A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative (Peepal Tree Press, 2006). He is the editor of numerous anthologies, most recently Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden with Matthew Shenoda (Northwestern University Press, 2017). 

Dawes’ many honors include the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for service to the arts in South Carolina, a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, the Musgrave Silver Medal for contribution to the Arts in Jamaica, the Poets & Writers Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry. In 2009, Dawes won an Emmy for LiveHopeLove.com, an interactive site based on his Pulitzer Center project, “HOPE: Living and loving with AIDS in Jamaica.”

He has served as Faculty Member for the Cave Canem Workshop and a teacher in the Pacific MFA Program in Oregon. He is also founding director of the African Poetry Book Fund and co-founder and programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May biennially. In 2018, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He is currently the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska, where he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English.


Bibliography

Poetry
City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern University Press, 2017)
Speak from Here to There (with John Kinsella; Peepal Tree Press, 2016)
Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems(Copper Canyon Press, 2013)
Wheels (Peepal Tree Press, 2010)
Back of Mount Peace (Peepal Tree Press, 2009)
Hope’s Hospice (Peepal Tree Press, 2009)
Gomer’s Song (Akashic Books, 2007)
Impossible Flying (Peepal Tree Press, 2007)
Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country (Red Hen Press, 2006)
I Saw Your Face (with Tom Feelings; Dial Books, 2005)
Bruised Totems (Parallel Press Madison, 2004)
New and Selected Poems, 1994–2002 (Peepal Tree Press, 2003)
Midland (Ohio University Press, 2001)
Map-Maker (Smith/Doorstop Books, 2000)
Shook Foil (Peepal Tree Press, 1997)
Requiem (Peepal Tree Press, 1996)
Jacko Jacobus (Peepal Tree Press, 1996)
Prophets (Peepal Tree Press, 1995)
Resisting the Anomie (Fredericton, 1995)

Prose
Bivouac (Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2010)
She’s Gone (Akashic Books, 2007)
A Place to Hide and Other Stories (Peepal Tree Press, 2003)
A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative (Peepal Tree Press, 2006)
Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic (Peepal Tree Press, 1999)

By This Poet

14

Talk

            For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone
of resolve, learn to nod, learn to close
in the flame of shame and anger
in our hearts, learn to petrify it so,
and the more we quiet our ire,
the heavier the stone; this alchemy
of concrete in the vein, the sludge
of affront, until even that will calcify
and the heart, at last, will stop,
unassailable, unmovable, adamant.

Find me a man who will stand
on a blasted hill and shout,
find me a woman who will break   
into shouts, who will let loose
a river of lament, find the howl
of the spirit, teach us the tongues
of the angry so that our blood,
my pulse—our hearts flow
with the warm healing of anger.

You, August, have carried in your belly
every song of affront your characters
have spoken, and maybe you waited
too long to howl against the night,
but each evening on some wooden
stage, these men and women,
learn to sing songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.

Dirt

I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.
—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.

Steel

A truckload of fresh watermelons, 
lemon-green goodness on a slouching 
truck, cutting through so many states: 
Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, 
into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities; 
from red dirt like a land soaked 
in blood to the dark loam of this new 
land—from chaos to the orderly 
silence of the wolf country—Pittsburgh's 
dark uneven skyline, where 
we have found shelter 
while the crippled leader 
waits to promise healing 
for a nation starving 
on itself. Two men, dusty
from the Parchman Farm, 
their eyes still hungry 
with dreams, laugh bitter 
laughs, carrying the iron 
of purpose in them. Hear 
the engine clunking, hear 
the steel of a new century 
creaking. There is blood 
in the sky—at dawn, the city 
takes them in like a woman. 
Inside them all memory 
becomes the fiction of survival—
here the dead have hands 
that can caress and heal, 
hands that can push a living 
body into a grave, hold it there, 
and the living get to sing it. 
This is a nation of young men, 
dark with the legacies 
of brokenness, men who know 
that life is short, that the world 
brings blood, that peace 
is a night of quiet repose 
while the dogs howl in the woods, 
men who know the comfort 
of steel, cold as mist at dawn, 
pure burnished steel.