Tonight, I spoke about the importance of the imagination at the commencement ceremonies at one of our larger technical colleges in South Carolina. Afterwards, the presidents shook my hand firmly and said, “You are not the person I saw in your poems, you must have a double personality…” She was smiling. I laughed. In her introduction she hoped that I would give them a taste of my Caribbean rhythm. I spoke about the imagination. I had on a suit and shoes. My sandals were strewn in the back seat of my car. I spoke about the value of dreams, of vision, of expanding one’s horizons, of empathy, and I proposed that these were all products of the imagination. I was talking to nurses, mechanics, food technologists, electricians, chefs—all people who were trained to be something very specific. These people knew what they were going to be. These people were what they were going to be. But I spoke of the imagination. And someone else shook my hand telling me that my talk was thought-provoking. “At least it was brief,” I laughed. It was twelve minutes long. The auditorium was filled to the rafters with family and well wishers, and the space was thankfully cool—a major national political event had taken place there a week ago and so the air was working now for the first time in years. Afterwards I made my way through the throngs of people—it was like a day at the state fairgrounds. I tried to make eye contact. A few people nodded, fewer muttered, “Nice message.” In three minutes, I was back in my car, sandals on, jacket tossed in the back, tie loose, and speeding back to Columbia along a darkening high way. I had told the students that when I was twenty two I decided not to be a lawyer but instead to be a teacher. I told them that my change of heart happened because of a vision of Kwame the future lawyer. Thus imagination changed my life. I embraced teaching. It is what I do. Or is it?

People often tell me that I must be looking forward to the time when I will be able to devote all my time to writing instead of teaching. They expect me to soon start to shed as much of the teaching responsibilities I might have so that I can give myself entirely to writing. I have tried to imagine this situation: waking up in the morning, getting some exercise, getting something to eat, and then going to my desk to write. To write. This is supposed to be bliss. The thought of it fills me with a clear sense that I would hate my life. Well, hate is too strong a word. But I do know that I would grow tired of myself so quickly. I have to admit, then, that as much as I like writing, I really don’t like writing enough to make it everything for me. Yes, there are stretches of time when I wish I have more time to write, to finish and project, to take more time on an edit, but I can’t imagine having all that time just to write. The fact is that I would miss teaching. In fact, I plan to teach for as long as anyone will have me teaching. My pleasure in teaching has some altruistic qualities, yes, but mostly it comes from the chance to interact with people and to work with them to discover something they did not know in the first place. Teaching involves dialogue, it involves watching progress in others, it entails facilitating—making things happen. To drop teaching would be to drop a crucial element in my life.
I was reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s short essay/ blog on what he calls “conceptual art” and I kept wondering about the word “conceptual” and thinking that I don’t understand how the word “conceptual” is being used. He offered that “the idea’ is the thing in conceptual idea. The conceptual piece is good or bad depending on the idea. There is a generosity in Goldsmith’s view that conceptual art is not for everyone. But he is able to make some statements that are intended to speak to the uses of all art. And I am fascinated about how void of nuance or uncertainty some of these assertions are. Here is the one that struck me as most curious: “When poetry starts to take on some of the characteristics, such as staking out utilitarian zones, it weakens its function as art.” He also proposes that fiction has to be “utilitarian” or else it has failed. Poetry, however, cannot be utilitarian or it would have failed. My head is hurting a bit with all of this. Goldsmith seems to be saying that utilitarian art is possible in fiction but impossible in poetry. But what he does not do is define “utilitarian”. He also is able to speak of art in absolute terms as if we all agree what art is. And all this is bothering me because I realize that despite his aversion to theorizing in conceptual art, Goldsmith has presented an apologetic that is completely theoretical, and almost impossible to conceptualize.
And so tonight while driving home, I thought, “You know, if I was so given to art, so devoted to it, I would try and arrange to have no teaching and then spend time learning more about this conceptual poetry thing and actually seek to create such pieces because it is so challenging and so complex.” The thought lasts a second. Then a larger thought emerges: “That would be such a boring exercise!” There is much that is unfair about this assertion. S I revise it. I say, “I know I could never abandon what Goldsmith somewhat snootily declares as a partiality to the romantic notions of poetry shaped in the nineteenth century.” Yet look at what he describes as no-no in conceptual poetry: “If the author wishes to explore her idea thoroughly, then arbitrary or chance decisions would be kept to a minimum, while caprice, taste and others whimsies would be eliminated from the making of the text.”—this is the good stuff! This is the sweet stuff.
At the commencement ceremony, I wondered what people expected from a poet. I wondered what poetry meant in that context. I wondered what would have happened if I had simply read a bunch of poems. But I spoke of the imagination. I spoke of the flights of fancy as if they could shape the lives of the people who were listening to me. And in that instant, I was quite sure that I am not in search of time to make art. I almost take the time I have to make art for granted. I will make art whenever I can find the time. But ultimately, I want to teach because I do think that somehow when I teach African American literature and talk about the myth of the American Dream, I am doing something quite valuable.
All of this confirmed for me that were we in a society in which people had to declare who they were and were to be placed in communes where like inclined people existed, if I lived in a society that identified poets and sent them all to poets’ school at age six, and trained them to be better poets, and then gave them the task of writing poetry all their lives; I would deny being a poet. I would go under cover. Is that an act of betrayal, an act of denying my true self, a failure to commit? Perhaps, but I know that I would want to be as far away from the commune as possible.

Originally Published: May 10th, 2007

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)...

  1. May 11, 2007
     trina duncan

    Thank you Kwame Dawes this is beautiful reminder that imagination is the only way to begin any kind of transformation. It's not so much like "if I envision it it will happen" (the theme of a new book all about greed called The Promise) but it is like if I don't have a life where I can envision myself in all kinds of futures, then I am half-dead.