Kwame Dawes: The Busiest Man in Literature
He calls Ghana, Jamaica and Nebraska home. He writes plays, novels and poetry. And he believes literature helps students become empathetic citizens of the world. Kwame Dawes is the Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief of the Prairie Schooner literary journal at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In this episode of Faculty 101, find out what brought him to Nebraska and how the music of Bob Marley changed his life. Show notes: more about Kwame Dawes ›› https://kwamedawes.com; more about the Prarie Schooner ›› https://prairieschooner.unl.edu
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[00:00:00.710]When Kwame Dawes was growing up,
[00:00:02.340]he would sneak into his older brother's room (door creaking)
[00:00:05.670]to listen to records (record needle fuzzes)
[00:00:08.010]and that required a little 007 action.
[00:00:10.571](James Bond leitmotif)
[00:00:13.920]When he would set these traps, like throw powder
[00:00:16.150]on the floor and stuff like that, so if you go in there
[00:00:18.580]he would know you were there.
[00:00:20.170]But you know, I'm smarter than him
[00:00:21.940]so I would break into his room and I would play
[00:00:27.820]all this music and of course, I put the powder back
[00:00:30.110]and so he would never know that was happening.
[00:00:32.330]He especially remembers listening to an album
[00:00:34.650]by the late Jamaican musician Bob Marley.
[00:00:37.320]At the time, Kwame was studying the English poet
[00:00:40.030]Gerard Manley Hopkins in school.
[00:00:42.180]That record changed the way Dr. Dawes sees the world.
[00:00:46.340]Marley's a popular musician, Marley is a Rasta man
[00:00:51.283]who is denigrated by people and yet, I'm wrestling
[00:00:55.700]with the pure poetics of what he was doing
[00:00:58.140]and I think at that moment I realized that
[00:01:00.560]there is an aesthetic that is taking shape
[00:01:02.620]in this music that is opening a door for me
[00:01:06.440]as a writer and as a thinker that felt
[00:01:09.260]that I did not have to depend on the legacy
[00:01:12.470]of the Hopkins and the European legacy,
[00:01:14.680]but there is a kind of indigenized legacy
[00:01:18.180]that is emerging there that I can feed on
[00:01:20.260]and in many ways, that permission and yet the model of that
[00:01:26.170]of those constructs have been my source of confidence
[00:01:31.720]as a writer since and so wherever I go,
[00:01:37.260]reggae music is my anchor.
[00:01:40.170]This is where I wish I could blast the music of Bob Marley
[00:01:43.220]in this podcast, sadly I don't have the budget
[00:01:46.120]to buy copyrighted music, but if you can, listen to Marley
[00:01:49.940]because he is the soundtrack to the life of Kwame Dawes.
[00:01:53.630]Coming up in this episode of Faculty 101,
[00:01:56.220]hear how this citizen of the world found his way to Nebraska
[00:02:00.750]and how you can learn to love poetry.
[00:02:03.813]Okay you should switch partners now.
[00:02:05.670]To be able to inspire young people.
[00:02:09.020]Ace your finals.
It's really rewarding.
[00:02:11.150]I love the student.
[00:02:13.140]Welcome to Faculty 101,
[00:02:15.370]life hacks and success stories from Nebraska faculty.
[00:02:18.563](bright piano music)
[00:02:20.793](bright synth chime) First up, orientation.
[00:02:23.760]Who is Kwame Dawes?
[00:02:25.656](acoustic guitar music)
[00:02:30.640]He is a poet, an editor, an award winner.
[00:02:33.500]A husband and father and a teacher.
[00:02:36.110]So what we're gonna start with, just wrapping up
[00:02:39.600]Miguel Street because--
[00:02:40.760]In his classroom, Kwame Dawes shares the beauty
[00:02:43.350]of literature and enjoys watching students discover a life
[00:02:46.930]enriched by that beauty.
[00:02:48.480]Of course, what does happen
[00:02:49.760]by the end of the work is that--
[00:02:51.040]He says literature helps exercise our empathy muscle
[00:02:54.770]by putting us in someone else's shoes.
[00:02:57.540]And the other part of it is that I like to challenge
[00:03:02.610]in the world that we live in, to ask people to go deeper.
[00:03:08.110]To ask the next question, to think critically about things
[00:03:13.310]and not to take anything for granted.
[00:03:15.430]When we don't do that, I think we fail as citizens.
[00:03:19.220]I think my role as a teacher is to create a thoughtful
[00:03:24.290]and sensitive citizens in the world
[00:03:26.950]and I think that human aspect of things
[00:03:31.050]is hugely important for our continued civil shaped society.
[00:03:37.744](synth chime) Next up, lab work, a deep dive
[00:03:41.380]into research and creative activity.
[00:03:44.836](synth chime) (calm piano music)
[00:03:50.690]For more than 90 years, the literary magazine
[00:03:53.330]Prairie Schooner has published works of fiction, poetry,
[00:03:56.690]essays, and reviews.
[00:03:58.580]Kwame Dawes came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
[00:04:01.430]in 2011 to take over as Glenna Luschei Editor In Chief
[00:04:05.540]named in honor of the former editorial assistant
[00:04:08.240]who endowed the Journal.
[00:04:09.850]Prairie Schooner receives 3,000 submissions a month
[00:04:12.700]for its quarterly journal and uses only a small percentage
[00:04:15.810]of what is received.
[00:04:17.600]People pay attention to what we do.
[00:04:19.980]The interesting thing about literary journals
[00:04:22.010]is that we are sort of ground zero of contemporary writing.
[00:04:26.800]We publish new work, that is, writers have produced
[00:04:30.040]a new work for the occasion and so if you really want
[00:04:32.730]to have a sense of where American writing is going,
[00:04:34.750]where the experimentation is going, what themes and ideas
[00:04:37.920]are occupying people, one of the places to look
[00:04:41.350]is a literary journal and one of the things
[00:04:43.490]about Prairie Schooner is that we get a chance
[00:04:45.470]to select some of the best writers and some of the best work
[00:04:49.030]that is doing that kind of thing.
[00:04:50.720]So we do have a great range of riches to select from.
[00:04:56.470]And therefore, what we do publish begins to announce
[00:05:01.600]what is going on with new writing in America today
[00:05:04.480]and I think people look to Prairie Schooner
[00:05:06.670]for a sense of that to see what is actually happening
[00:05:11.550]with new writing and new ideas in the country.
[00:05:14.383](bright piano music)
[00:05:17.180]Dr. Dawes has been called the busiest man in literature
[00:05:20.410]and that description makes sense when you look
[00:05:22.570]at his body of work. (keyboard clacking)
[00:05:24.740]He is the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books.
[00:05:28.140]His book, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius
[00:05:30.780]is an insightful analysis of the singer-songwriter's lyrics.
[00:05:34.750]Dr. Dawes writes plays and essays, edits anthologies,
[00:05:38.780]and then there's the poetry, more than 20 volumes
[00:05:42.040]including his recent book titled Nebraska.
[00:05:45.035](keyboard clacking) (bright piano music)
[00:05:46.720]Much of his work is a solo endeavor,
[00:05:48.950]but he also values community and collaboration.
[00:05:52.635](bright piano music)
[00:05:55.520]I grew up watching my father, who is a writer
[00:05:59.650]and a teacher who then ended up spending a lot of time
[00:06:04.530]as an administrator in Jamaica
[00:06:09.770]and a facilitator, I grew up watching him
[00:06:13.190]edit people's work, have conversations with writers,
[00:06:16.520]be seen as somebody that opens doors for them and so on.
[00:06:19.750]And then I grew up with a mother who was a social worker
[00:06:22.540]for many years and also drew people to her
[00:06:25.570]and was in the helping things, sort of working with people
[00:06:28.520]and so on.
[00:06:29.550]And I think that has just become a part of the way
[00:06:32.770]that I see the world, so I've spent a lot of my time,
[00:06:35.570]as much as I've spent doing my own work,
[00:06:37.530]but also feeling that working with other people
[00:06:43.460]One effort Dr. Dawes is passionate about
[00:06:45.850]is the African Poetry Book Fund.
[00:06:48.250]He established the organization to discover, promote,
[00:06:51.330]and publish works of African poetry.
[00:06:53.820]It's a work in progress, one he routinely champions
[00:06:56.840]with everyone from UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green,
[00:06:59.500]to the University of Nebraska System President.
[00:07:02.400]I have a blueprint of exactly
[00:07:05.000]what I would like to see happen next
[00:07:07.718]and I will harass Ronnie Green and the new president
[00:07:11.220]and my dean, get with the program guys.
[00:07:15.090]We can make this thing really happen.
[00:07:16.720]So I got lots of things to get done.
[00:07:20.600]But those things that we've done, I'm happy about,
[00:07:23.530]but I do think that we, and these are not things
[00:07:27.640]that just satisfy me, but they benefit us
[00:07:30.000]as an institution, they really, really do.
[00:07:33.429](bright synth chime) It's time for office hours.
[00:07:35.480]How did Kwame Dawes get here?
[00:07:37.659](acoustic guitar music)
[00:07:43.300]Through much of his life, Kwame Dawes has had a foot
[00:07:45.810]in more than one world.
[00:07:47.370]His father was born in Nigeria to Jamaican parents.
[00:07:50.460]Kwame was born in Ghana, and moved to Jamaica
[00:07:52.900]when he was 10.
[00:07:54.160]Wherever he was, he always felt a sense of being away
[00:07:57.620]and home at the same time.
[00:07:59.930]He felt at home in Ghana
[00:08:01.310]and yet became fully immersed in Jamaica.
[00:08:03.810]And that was transformative,
[00:08:05.262]and therefore learning about its history, the music,
[00:08:08.200]and all of these things were hugely important
[00:08:11.700]in shaping me, so that by the time I finally
[00:08:14.080]would leave Jamaica, to study in Canada
[00:08:17.210]I was in my mid to late 20s, so I was fully ensconced
[00:08:22.014]as a Jamaican, but of course,
[00:08:25.180]with the all constant knowledge that my home is Ghana.
[00:08:29.150]My grandparents, my aunts, my cousins, and so on, so forth
[00:08:32.600]are in Ghana, we would return there as well.
[00:08:35.220]So I've always carried that sense of being here
[00:08:39.070]and not here and I think it's convenient
[00:08:42.760]for a writer to have that.
[00:08:44.430]As a young man, Kwame's professional goals
[00:08:46.640]varied from being an artist, playing cricket,
[00:08:49.320]becoming a lawyer.
[00:08:50.850]One college class that didn't go well
[00:08:53.090]almost derailed his plans to be a writer
[00:08:56.000]until friends asked him to write a play for a contest.
[00:08:59.500]So I just, as a whim, I just wrote this thing
[00:09:01.990]over the weekend so they took the play and staged it
[00:09:04.800]and this play won this contest and I got to see it
[00:09:08.720]and so on and I thought well, there you go.
[00:09:10.680]So now I'm a playwright and then I started writing plays
[00:09:13.790]and I started to do theater work
[00:09:15.390]and I really got serious about that.
[00:09:17.840]Playwright, teacher, novelist, broadcaster, artist, poet.
[00:09:22.360]Dr. Dawes finds expression in work that can't be confined.
[00:09:26.800]Coming to Nebraska provided other opportunities
[00:09:29.670]and the kind of push and pull that has shaped his life.
[00:09:33.240]The fact is, I've been involved as an American writer
[00:09:38.390]and as an American person in this space long enough
[00:09:42.270]to know that, to be editor of a journal
[00:09:46.170]like Prairie Schooner, as a black person
[00:09:49.190]would be a massive shift in America.
[00:09:53.518]To this day, there are I think maybe two or three of us
[00:09:55.940]who edit a major literary journal in this country
[00:10:00.450]and there are a lot of literary journals in this country.
[00:10:03.080]So I thought this was a great opportunity, a great chance
[00:10:08.080]to do that and of course, there is a pull.
[00:10:11.320]So there is an interest in recognition
[00:10:14.030]of what I could bring to this space.
[00:10:16.620]In Nebraska, Dr. Dawes has adapted to the space
[00:10:19.990]and the space has adapted to him.
[00:10:22.350]Lincoln is home for Kwame and his family.
[00:10:24.820]His wife Lorna is an associate professor
[00:10:27.010]with University Libraries.
[00:10:28.670]Their three children are UNL graduates.
[00:10:31.240]He's also left his mark on campus
[00:10:33.140]by helping advance diversity.
[00:10:35.250]For example, he led the search committee effort
[00:10:37.760]to hire Marco Barker, UNLs first Vice Chancellor
[00:10:41.160]for diversity and inclusion.
[00:10:42.960]I've never seen diversity as anything but
[00:10:47.160]enriching the excellence of an institution.
[00:10:51.400]I think we are embarked on a very deep sort of
[00:10:55.020]intellectual exercise about who we are
[00:10:57.970]and what it means, and I think that's
[00:10:59.200]a broad American question of how we understand who we are.
[00:11:04.270]How we understand what it means to be a global space
[00:11:10.630]and yet how that affects our present moment and so on.
[00:11:16.101]But I've seen progress, at times I've thought slow,
[00:11:19.340]but then I've seen some rapid changes that have happened
[00:11:23.000]and above all, I think my general attitude
[00:11:29.402]is just vigilance
[00:11:33.670]and enjoying and celebrating when things
[00:11:36.560]seem to be going in the right direction.
[00:11:41.240]Now it's time for a pop quiz.
[00:11:43.350]Random questions, life hacks, and wisdom for all of us.
[00:11:52.281](calm piano music)
[00:11:55.370]Here in Nebraska, we've just made it
[00:11:57.300]through the darkest days of winter,
[00:11:59.700]but one of the factors Kwame Dawes enjoys
[00:12:01.870]about his adopted state is...
[00:12:03.990]There is good light, even in the winter
[00:12:07.940]you get these deceptively sunny days. (laughing)
[00:12:11.820]You walk about and go, (laughing) what was that about?
[00:12:16.041](laughing) There is a kind of duplicitous weather here.
[00:12:19.220]There's all this great light,
[00:12:21.170]but the expanse of light and the generosity of light
[00:12:26.510]has been hugely important for me.
[00:12:30.050]His advice on reading poetry?
[00:12:32.380]Think about your obsession and google poems about it.
[00:12:36.240]If somebody says, "what should I read?"
[00:12:38.040]I say, well, what are you obsessed about?
[00:12:39.560]What interests you?
[00:12:41.220]If you say you're interested in sports, then I can name
[00:12:43.640]some poets who have written really well about sports
[00:12:46.420]and I guarantee you, you're gonna like the stuff
[00:12:49.010]because you understand, because half the reason
[00:12:51.430]why we struggle with poetry is that we don't know
[00:12:53.860]what the allusions are that the writer is making
[00:12:56.930]because that's not our culture.
[00:13:02.930]Dr. Dawes walks almost every day
[00:13:05.280]and listens to audiobooks.
[00:13:06.860]I believe I owed roughly--
[00:13:08.810]He also has plenty of suggestions
[00:13:10.530]for what to stream on Netflix.
[00:13:13.200]I do Hulu, I do Netflix, I do HBO.
[00:13:17.080]I do Acorn TV, I watch a lot
[00:13:21.530]of movies and series because I think this is the golden age
[00:13:27.000]of writing for the screen and it's very exciting
[00:13:32.290]and I also follow NBA TV.
[00:13:37.230]So I follow sports and so on.
[00:13:39.340]So yes, I think I find satisfaction in being indulged
[00:13:43.230]by those sort of escape things
[00:13:46.160]and good food.
[00:13:47.930]If food is good, then I can be happy.
[00:13:53.120]His favorite NBA team?
[00:13:55.050]Right now, of course, I'm hoping the Lakers
[00:13:57.390]because I've followed LeBron for awhile
[00:13:59.830]and it'll be great if LeBron does it again.
[00:14:03.470]I think and then he can retire and it'll all be great.
[00:14:06.600]But you know, the Bucks, I kinda like this Antetokounmpo.
[00:14:10.912]Antetokounmpo, I like this dude.
[00:14:13.120]He's quite impressive and quite interesting.
[00:14:16.320]I don't like the Celtics, never did.
[00:14:18.720]Don't want them to lose, they can lose for all I care.
[00:14:21.140]I like the people in the Celtics, but I'm not like a fan.
[00:14:25.411]And yeah I think I'll stop there
[00:14:27.770]because then I'll start insulting all kinds of people.
[00:14:31.650]I don't mind insulting Boston. (laughing)
[00:14:36.350]And now, graduation day.
[00:14:38.080]Final thoughts from Kwame Dawes.
[00:14:44.290]At every turn, Dr. Dawes finds inspiration
[00:14:47.020]from the Bible or from Bob Marley.
[00:14:49.480]Marley's reggae coupled with Kwame's Christian faith
[00:14:52.420]provide the answers for any situation.
[00:14:55.460]Even somebody, the old commercial Paul's kind of
[00:14:59.360]with the help which I have received, the same help
[00:15:02.210]when I help you, I love that construction.
[00:15:04.790]That as I get help, I'll help you.
[00:15:06.610]That's from the Book of Corinthians.
[00:15:10.440]And so that draws me, but Marley, Marley always
[00:15:13.650]like people are messing with me.
[00:15:16.930]There are many Marley lyrics that are perfect for that.
[00:15:19.920]Like you know, "me no know how me and dem a-go work it out"
[00:15:23.350]means that I don't know how we're gonna work this out,
[00:15:25.350]but someone will have to pay (laughing) is the lyric.
[00:15:28.940]I can quote Marley at any turn, right, because he's always
[00:15:34.020]talking about struggle and the movement out of it and so on.
[00:15:37.040]So there are many quotes that I come back to.
[00:15:43.180]And always, reggae playing in the background.
[00:15:46.490](hopeful piano music)
[00:15:50.760]That's it for Faculty 101.
[00:15:52.540]In the show notes, a link to Kwame Dawes' website
[00:15:55.010]where you can learn more about his books and other projects.
[00:15:58.298](hopeful piano music)
[00:16:03.120]Faculty 101 is produced
[00:16:04.890]by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
[00:16:07.280](hopeful piano music)
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