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Back to Empathy

By Kwame Dawes

Sometimes, I get asked questions that allow me to think about what I am doing.  Today I received an email from a young woman at Harvard (this is all I know about her), with the following question.  Her name is Miriam Rutzen, and this is what I wrote in response to her very honest and insightful question.

In working with and representing the persons affected and infected with HIV/Aids (despite not having the disease yourself), how did you feel you were able to engage in the tension of ethically representing them as whole people and not molding them to fit any preconceived notions you, or others working on the project, may have had? How were you able to respect their individuality and avoid making those you met and talked to a number, label, or another statistic?

I did not write these poems for the project.  Well, maybe I did in some indirect way, but I could not promise that the poems would be of any use to anyone related to the project when I was writing them.  When I started to write these poems, I did not imagine how they would be part of the project.  I simply knew that I was meeting people whose lives moved me and whose experiences made me need to write poems as a way of discovering what their stories meant for me emotionally and intellectually. 

In a sense, I was writing the poems as part of the discovery of their lives and my lives.  My point is that these are poems first, and only tangentially, do they constitute some kind of journalistic effort.  In fact they are counter-journalistic because they do not rely on fact, they are not constrained by the absence of fact, but thrive on the contradictions, ambiguities, hunches, feelings, fears, pleasures and anxieties of experience—the kinds of things that I knew I could not write about in an article.

When I wrote “Coffee Break” for instance, I simply retold a story told to me by John Mazourca.  It is, to be honest, a rather slight story, and it would not make its way so easily into an article, because at its core is the most ordinary and mundane experience of death, and behind it is a richness of fear, love, resignation and puzzlement—all at once.  Only a poem could capture these things.  Only one line—the image of the balloons on the lap of the dead man.  But here is the problem.  I don’t know if there were balloons on his lap in that moment.  I know they were blowing up balloons, but I don’t know that the balloon was on his lap when he died.  John did not mention this at all.  But it is truth—at its core is the truth of the moment: the contrast between the dead and the lightness of the balloons full of his last breath.  I could not invent the moment for an article, but for a poem, I could see this as a truth, even if it is not factual.

So I wrote these poems to get to my gut and to get to the gut of the experiences I heard.  The poems gave me room to validate my emotional reactions, to let me see in the way a woman’s hands moved, or a woman’s face lit up when we talked about dance hall music, or the seemingly immaterial details of life and their place in the lives of the people I was getting to know.  The poems allowed me to validate these things—these details of our meeting that were human and touching and important and defining, but that could not be termed factual.

So, in many ways, the poems are as much about the people I met as they are about me.  And this is important.  It is that lyrical part of things, that “personal” if you will, that demands sincerity, and above all, empathy.  Empathy is the answer to your question.  Empathy as a function of the imagination.  As an artist, as a writer, I have to master empathy, and to do so, I must imagine, imagine fully and imagine with discipline and commitment.  If I fail to understand, feel, convey, express what the other person is going through, then my imagination has failed, and my art has failed.  So for me, the instinct to empathize, which is a very human and morally critical act, existed in my relationship with these people long before I thought of writing a poem about them.  And when I came to write the poems, I drew on the lived experience of empathy, which is an act of the imagination (I repeat) to create these poems.

My commitment has always been to be able to pay enough attention to those I meet, to be able to feel what they are feeling, and to then be outside of the experience enough to offer a telling of that experience.  My point is that I never feared somehow not seeing the whole person, because I saw as much of the whole person as it is possible to see before the poem, during the making of the poem, and after the poem.  Since writing is an act of the imagination, in many ways, a writer who allows herself to fall into imagination, will manage to fall into empathy, and empathy is what allows us to see the full person—at least in part.  So seeing them as people happened before the poem.

I was gratified when they read the poems and smiled at the truth of the poems, and they thanked me and embraced me.  They knew that this was how I met them.  They knew that it was one person meeting another person and they saw the empathy there.

Finally, I should say that the poems are not just about people, per se, but about the landscape of Jamaica.  I wanted us to travel to that space and to understand it for its beauty and complexity—its ugliness and grace.  These are the stunning contradictions of the human experience, and the poems hope to capture all of that.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 by Kwame Dawes.