Here's The Elephant
So the elephant in the room must be race. And race has much to do with lots of what happens in America. But race does not explain everything. There are other lines of demarcation that complicate things, and Jeffrey McDaniel is right in suggesting that there are many sides and these sides have something to do with the narratives that have brought us to poetry.
Unlike you, I tend not to meet with the same people or read in front the same people all the time. My audience is not always black. But I think it may be fair to say that I do arrive at places because I am black. In other words, my blackness is part of what defines why I may read in one place versus another. I don’t mind this, at all. In fact I think that is healthy enough. But I am also from the Caribbean and from Ghana and that plays a part in where I will go and with whom I will read.
Could it be that there are really these camps or communities? Of course. But it is odd for me because it has made sense to me that people would not have heard of my work in America for a long time because I am not an American and because I never arrived in America because of my writing. Further, when I came to America, I came to South Carolina. I am an immigrant. I am black. My first book of poetry to be published in America was published by Ohio University Press in 2001. It was my sixth or seventh book of poetry. People have gradually come to know who I am and to know more about my work, but I have been aware of how many people tell me, “I just don’t know how come I have not known about your work.” Well, I know. America is divided by dynamics of race and regionalism. I don’t know how many Southern-based authors are in your community. And some states are cooler than other states. South Carolina is known for Charleston, for Jim Crow and for the I95 that you have to race through to get to Georgia or Florida. All of this has made its own kind of sense to me.
Almost by definition, being a South Carolina poet makes you marginalized and not part of any perceivable community. And yet, I don’t think I am seen as a southern poet in any clear way. My immigrant credentials precede that all the time. But where geography might be a useful factor in shaping where I will read or who will anthologize me, then my South Carolina status comes in handy and may play some role. It is all fluid and indefinable, and this is fine with me because I have lived with this all my life. My Jamaicanness/Ghanaianess and its presence in my writing has, in many ways, ensured that I have continued to see myself writing outside the American poetry scene, even as I have become a part of that scene.
When I was invited to be a judge for the National Book Award, I was quite startled by the fact that people knew who I was in what I called the poetry establishment. That experience introduced me to American poetry in ways that I could not have anticipated. Faced with about one hundred and fifty new titles, I started to read the American poetry of that year and soon I was understanding better the range and impossible breadth of this poetry. And yet I also knew that I was looking at the tip of the iceberg in that regard.
My point, though, is that I am not surprised when I don’t know a poet’s work and I expect to keep finding new poets and discovering new writers all the time.
My entry into the idea of community, however, came most strikingly when I was invited to be a guest poet at Cave Canem four years ago. There is a distinctive community of black poets, one that is self-conscious about creating community and that celebrates the value of community in sustaining and encouraging the generation of art among a sympathetic group of readers. Cave Canem somehow defies the expectation for homogeneity in aesthetics largely because of certain deliberate openness about who is invited in by the organizers Toi Derricote and Cornelius Eady. Yet, having said that, I wouldn’t suggest that those people who have tried to break the code of what kind of work gets accepted at Cave Canem are wrong about what they have concluded. The beautiful thing about the situation with Cave Canem within the African American community is that many people are at once skeptical about Cave Canem’s “community-focused” character while still celebrating the support that such a community can give to writers. The skepticism grows out of a feeling that a certain poetic will dominate the work produced by Cave Canem folks. Yet Cave Canem’s tutors are strikingly different in style and background. Their one commonality is their blackness. But one would be hard-pressed to suggest that Rita Dove, Harriet Mullin, Patricia Smith and Al Young can be safely slotted into an aesthetic camp. Yet they all embrace the idea of a black community largely as a political construct and a necessary construct if one is to contend with the years of exclusion that black poets have experienced in America.
Having “graduated” from Cave Canem, I am bolstered by the embrace that Cave Canem fellows and tutors have given to me and to my work. There is a long list of poets that I probably would not have met had I not been a Cave Canem tutor. And yet, I also know that I would probably never have applied to be a fellow with Cave Canem, convinced somehow, that I would not get in. I could be quite wrong about this, but it is something that I do think about often.
In South Carolina, my poetry “community” is defined by the geo-political reality of the state. The Poetry Initiative, which I started four or five years ago, has been quite careful about being completely inclusive and about beginning with the premise that if someone says he or she is a poet, then that person is a poet and thus a part of the community. We have sought to find ways to get these poets to dialogue with each other, to create programs that encourage writing, to work across class, education and race to define the community of poets in the state. In other words, if you lived in South Carolina, Kenneth, I would know you and you would know me, and not because we both teach at academic institutions, but because we are poets working in a state in which poets have not been able to dialogue with each other or even know about each other for a long time.
I realize that increasingly, I am becoming part of what I used to call the mainstream of American poetry. I am writing a blog for the Poetry Foundation for heaven’s sake! Nonetheless, I am still able to look at the “establishment” as if it is something outside of my purview. I think of NEAs, Rockefellers, Ruth Lilies and Guggenheims, and seats on the Academy of American Letters (or whatever that thing is called), and trips to exclusive colonies and invitations to the prestigious writers retreats—the Breadloafs, the Squaw valleys, the “fancy” poetry houses, the venues for reviews, the appearances on NPR, and so on and so forth, as evidence of the establishment and clear indication that I do not quite belong in those worlds. But I have a sneaky suspicion that very few poets will say, “Oh yes, I am a part of the establishment.” They too will have some credential that they do not quite have and allow that to define the maverick, striving self as out of the main stream. The irony is that despite all our skepticism, we are still faced with the nagging sense that these things should accrue to us at some point. Some of it is prestige, but much of it is financial.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...