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Kwame Dawes reports from Haiti in poetry

By Harriet Staff

Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins has an answer for last week’s very serious question: Does poetry matter? Collins cites Kwame Dawes and his travels to Haiti over the past year documenting the “human side” of the earthquake’s effects as irrefutable evidence in poetry’s favor.

The PBS NewsHour, in partnership with USA Today and The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, talked with Dawes on January 4th about his collaboration with photographer Andre Lambertson and composer Kevin Simmonds on a series of short videos in which the poet is the reporter. This isn’t Dawes’s first experience in combining poetry with journalism; he’s previously worked in Jamaica on HIV/AIDs, a subject that remains important in his Haiti efforts.

And one of the reasons they picked me was that they thought I could go in to do reporting because I knew Jamaica. But they were open to the idea that, if I wrote poems in response to what I heard and saw, they would be interested in seeing how it could be used.

And it worked out marvelously, because I write poems as a way to process and to work through the experience. And it also gives us an intimacy in the relationship with people.

So, when I was going to Haiti, the idea was really to report, to find out what was happening. But I knew that, somehow, I would have to find ways to respond to it in poetry. And that’s what happened.

Dawes’s approach, spread out over four trips of about a week each, relies on connecting with the people trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of the rubble, uncovering the stories of mothers, children and pastors living with HIV and comforting others while going hungry themselves.

You know, I’m not your standard, at least as far as I know, journalist. I don’t go to do sort of immediate news stories.

I really want to meet people. I want to find out how they’re living. And, really, what ends up happening is that I become very friendly. I become a friend. I become somebody who is just interested in their stories and their lives.

And I can’t — I cannot avoid a good story. You know, a good narrative tells me there’s a poem here or there’s an image that is going to emerge out of it. And I would listen to people’s stories and walk away. And, at night, I would be thinking about it, and maybe an image would come back to me, and I will find a way to turn that into poetry.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, January 10th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.