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Journal, Day Five

By Kwame Dawes


I realize now that one of the things that has sustained me as a writer has been a sense of wanting to carry on a tradition of putting in words the experience of a culture, of a generation, of a society. This amounts to a certain kind of conviction—a prompt for writing that is, in some ways, outside of just the need to express oneself. This broader sense of being a part of a long tradition is one of the things I do envy about longstanding literary traditions like the Japanese and Indian traditions of poetry. The perceived absence of such a place in tradition has haunted and traumatized many writers who have emerged from post-colonial societies, who were educated to value the traditions of their colonizers, but rarely allowed to feel any right to be a part of such a tradition. West Indian literature is still relatively young, but it at least has something of a tradition, one that my father and his generation could not claim to have—not in a tangible and reliable sense. There is something to be said about being “born at the right time,” as Paul Simon sings. My work has a writer is rooted in what I see as the good fortune of being born at a good time and being located a good place for a writer. We can’t plan these things. But we can work on making these elements of who were help to shape some clear-eyed rationale for making art. I like to call this “conviction.” And yes, I think that artist must have convictions.

Conviction impresses me. It frightens me, sometimes, too, but it does impress me. When Yeats laments about those who are without conviction, I understand his concern. I have always felt it to be important to have convictions, to have a framework of ideas that will constantly test action. Perhaps unfairly, I will read poems by people and end up with the question, “So what?” There is a rich tradition of art that really does not want to answer the question, “So what?” And I enjoy such work and I can be engaged by such work, but I do not ever trust that such work is void of convictions of some sort. One of the lessons I learnt during my three years of immersion in the field of literary theory while a graduate student in Canada in the eighties, when theory was the new black, was that discourse is ubiquitous—that no idea is neutral. I should have learned more, but this was complex enough for me to grapple with. I realize now that my inclinations as a writer are shaped by convictions—convictions that relate to how I view the world, but most telling, to how I manage to work through the, for me, quite tough question of why am I speaking publicly—what do I have to say?

When someone comes to see me or writes to me about their writing—someone whose work is unfamiliar to me—I usually have a standard set of questions that I ask them to answer. The list has been distilled to a few key issues over the years largely to avoid protracted and fruitless discussions that take place because the writer and I have not understood each other enough. But I ask these questions because I am convinced that people write out of a set of assumptions (or convictions) about the world and about the function and role of art. I ask also because I have found that people tend to know why they write and everything they do as a writer grows out of that impulse. The toughest person to deal with is the one who appears to be completely assured of his or her importance as an artist/poet, but appears to have absolutely no interest in the work of others or even in the tradition of the genre. Such a person is big on conviction—almost to the point of hubris—but very weak on perspective. And more often than not, this is reflected in the work.

A red flag goes up when someone says to me, “Man, you have to read my stuff to see what I am talking about. There is nothing like it. It is unique because everybody tells me that I have a unique way of seeing things.” I have never seen that turn into a stunning encounter with a fresh new voice. I am sure it happens, but I have not seen it yet. That statement is usually the answer to my question: “Who do you read? What poets do you like to read?” At first there is a pause, and then, “I don’t read poetry, you know—not a whole lot. For two reasons. One, I prefer to read stuff that is real—history, politics, you know, that kind of thing. And two, I really don’t want to be influenced by another writer when I am writing.” That is when the person will declare how unique his or work is.

My response has become standard:

“So you want me to read this manuscript of . . . how many pages is it?”

“A hundred and twenty, but I put a poem per page, you know? I think it looks better that way.”

“Yes, you want me to read your poems.”

“If you don’t mind. I think you will like it.”

“Do you know me to be a writer, a poet?”

“Oh, yeah, I have heard good things about you.”

“And you have not read any of my work, right?”

“No, no . . . ”

“Because you don’t read poetry as you don’t want to be influenced . . . ”


“But you would like to publish your work, yes?”

“Oh, yeah, people tell me I have to get this stuff out there. I mean, I show folks my work and they are like, man, this is really good work. You need to get it out there.”

“So you want people to read your work.”

“Oh, yes.”

“But you don’t read other people’s work.”

“It is just the way I work, you know.”

“So why should I read your work? I mean, shouldn’t I be worried about influence, too?”

“What do you mean?”

There is a fine line between hubris and faulty thinking in these moments. This person has not wrestled with the question of why am I speaking publicly. This person is completely assured of his or her right to speak even when such a person has no clear sense of whether others have said what they are trying to say already and better. The conversation usually unfolds as a study in the logic of uniqueness.

You will never know how unique you are until you have a sense of what is out there. Chances are you are not unique, but as common as most people out there who think they are unique. If you don’t like reading poetry, chances are that I may not like reading your poetry. But even if I do, simply on principle, I just won’t read your work. Finally, I view the business of writing and putting work out as a rather serious thing. Maybe I take it more seriously than I should, but because I do take it seriously, I do not presume that because I have written something, that I should, without some consideration, presume that everyone else should see what I have to say. I call it the responsibility of the artist to the contract with the reader.

In my contract, I will try not to take for granted the opportunity that I have to communicate with a larger public. I will always ask myself whether I really have something to say. I can’t guarantee that my answer to that question will be shared by everyone or by anyone, but I will ask that question because I should at least be able to believe at some level that what I have to say has some value.

Yet, having said that, and even after giving the non-reading writers such a hard time, I must say that I understand their instincts. Perhaps not in the same way that they do, but I suspect that much of what makes reading other people’s work troubling for me is what underlies their unwillingness to look at other work. There is comfort in ignorance. If you find your thoughts being expressed well by someone else, you are less inclined to want to try and express your thoughts yourself. Why engage in such redundancy? Thus even when I would spend a great deal of time reading Caribbean literature during the years when I was starting to write in search of ideas and tutoring for other writers, I was always trying to see if they had already written me out of a job. I was, without admitting, reading with the hope that I could see a gap, a failure, a space that allowed me to justify my own art.

It is a peculiar kind of motivation for making art when one is of the view that art should grow out of the convictions of the soul, but there was something pragmatic about this process that eventually led to conviction of sorts. I found ample gaps. Few writers had managed to create a complex West Indian art that was unafraid of embracing Christian faith. It was important to me—this faith, and so I thought of ways of bringing such conviction to my work in a direct and honest way. Then I found so little written by the next generation of West Indian voices—there was a gap, a gap that I was going to have to fill because of my age—I was the next generation. So I had something of a mandate, a rationale. Finally, I could tell that something significant was happening with the reggae music in the 1970s when I really started to come into an awareness of the world. I could tell that this decade would become an historically and culturally important one in Jamaican history and, as it happened, in the rest of the world. I knew that my work would grow out working through the aesthetics and convictions that came out of that period. I could see models of narrative—plays, poems, novels, short stories—that engage a period, a movement, political change in other literary traditions that had not yet happened in Jamaican writing. Another space to fill. And much of this has kept me working.

The impulse to write is not so calculated, and it is clearly driven by other things that could even be described as pathological. All of those apply to me, but I do know that the feeling of being a part of something outside of myself, part of a tradition of art, plays a great role in shaping what I write, and more, in making me want to keep writing.

Recently, a very close friend of my late father, was generous enough to send me some 20 or so letters that my father had written to him over the span of some 30 years, between the early ’50s and the early ’80s. My father would have been in his mid-20s and fresh from completing his studies at Oxford University, when he wrote the earliest letters. The last letters were written two years before he died suddenly after an accidental fall. There was something strange about meeting my father as a young man—working through his thoughts, anxieties, humor and the details of his day to day existence. Yet the thing that struck me the most about my father at the time, was his earnestness as a writer—his full conviction that his life was dedicate to art, yes, but above all, he was dedicate to his ideology, his way of understanding and contending with the world. I have always known that my father was a Marxist. He told this to us often enough as we were growing up. He was also a Pan Africanist and committed to the idea of a common narrative of people of the African Diaspora. But in these letters, I began to see that his convictions were not just fanciful ones. He was serious. For several letters he talked a great deal about his first novel. It was still in manuscript form, and he would give a ball-by-ball account of how things were progressing with it. At the time he was teaching in Ghana. The novel he wanted to write, had to serve as part of some expression of the need for a revolution in the context of West Indian society. But he was acutely aware of the fact that he was embarked on a task that would seek to bring about political and social change through art. He was skeptical about this, but he also felt that he could not write his fiction without somehow ensuring that it became part of the cause, part of the struggle.

I read him now, and I understand that my desire to find my own place as a writer would lead me in different directions from him. But there is something comforting about reading of his struggle to locate a sustaining impulse to write in a series of convictions that will shape his art. When I fought not to be like him, to write plays instead of poems, to not be a novelists, I was searching for my own place. When we quarreled about my faith and when I stayed faithful to what I believed, we were contending with convictions, but beyond that I was working my way towards art, towards what would be my art for my time. This is what it means to be a part of a tradition, and there is something reassuring about it. This is why I tell people to read something before they come to talk to me. As delicious as it might be to want to feel completely unique and alone, it is just not happening for me, it is not realistic. We are surrounded by a host of witnesses. Deal with it.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 14th, 2006 by Kwame Dawes.