Award-winning poet, author, and Editor Kwame Dawes, Ph.D., joined American Life in Poetry as its new editor in partnership with the Poetry Foundation and the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Dawes is the author of twenty-two books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His awards include an Emmy, National Press Club Joan Friedenberg Award for Online Journalism, the Forward Poetry Prize, and the Musgrave Silver Medal for contribution to the Arts in Jamaica, the Governor’s Award for service to the arts in South Carolina, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Windham Campbell Prize for Poetry.
CD: How does the new digital space affect how we enjoy literature and poetry?
Kwame Dawes: I feel fortunate to live in a time when technology moves so rapidly. I have a framework that includes print as a form of articulation and the possibilities that come with the digital space. I try to superimpose the principles of print and the manual on what the digital does, so I benefit from both worlds. That is how I have handled being an editor interested in technology and what it can do while still staying passionate about what is on the page. Technology is a gift.
CD: As the new editor of American Life in Poetry, what are your goals for the publication?
Kwame Dawes: Poetry can be relevant to all people. I think we all gain from poetry. People are still moved by poetry. You see it reflected in the music and the love of great song lyrics written by artists like Sam Cooke or Bob Marley. You can see human beings need the articulation of poetry. What I love about American Life in Poetry is that it presents the challenge that there is something for everyone. There is a spiritual element of poetry that takes us beyond ourselves. I want to preserve that, but I also want to bring poetry from all parts of the world and different generations. One of the key goals is to expand the content/
CD: What is the process of selecting works for the publication?
Kwame Dawes: We republished work that has been published in journals or contemporary books. We expanded our subscriptions to include more diverse perspectives. We gather all of these journals, and I go through them all and find the ones that resonate. Once we receive permission, we can republish. I usually will write a column about it. It is a simple but daunting process. We get about 3000 entries per month, so it is a lot of reading.
CD: What’s constitutes a poet?
Kwame Dawes: Poets are the people who have made it their vocation, their mission, their lifelong mission to write poems and continue getting better at writing poems. There are many occasional poets who write for recreation, but professional poets, this is their life. It was not until I published my third book that I even called myself a poet. Poets are priests of language, and that title has to be earned.
CD: These works are available to publications like the Chicago Defender to republish. You do not see many columns devoted to literary works anymore. Why do you believe that is, and why is it important for newspapers to include poetry and literary works in their publications?
Kwame Dawes: There are many reasons, and they vary. The decline has been long-standing. Some would blame the internet or the ease of access for consuming poetry, but I believe the decline predates that. In the 19th century and early 20th century, in publications like the defender, which focuses on communities and culture, there was importance on celebrating the broader culture as part of the intellectual development of people. Poetry was treated as a high art form. It was important to have that as part of our greater stories.
Our hope is that more publications recognize the importance of recording the human experience beyond the headlines. Poetry is recording the history of our emotions, the history of our sensibilities, and our daily existence. The more we present poems that chronicle our experience, I hope news publications understand the need for both the news and literary works to preserve a culture and tell our stories and history.
If we are committed to that, we are improved as human beings. That is one of the roles poetry can play.
The foundation launched a new website that seeks to connect people through poetry. Dawes strives to maintain and expand the original vision for the column by continuing to reach readers through local news media outlets and subscribers to the newsletter that publishes weekly on Mondays.
“This column is rooted in the every day, the broad sense of “Americanness” that eschews elitism and that embraces a democratic sense of lives that make sense to a vast cross-section of the population,” Dawes said. “I welcome readers who can engage in a wide section of American life, can find poetry that speaks to various aspects of American existence, and that somehow embraces the full range of this America.”
Dawes hopes new readers will connect with American Life in Poetry by finding columns that are approachable and speak to their interests, particularly for new poetry readers. With over 60 different themes that can be combined while searching, users can find a poem that speaks to gardening and unrequited love from the archive, including more than 800 poems. For more on American Life in Poetry visit their website at https://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org/.
Danielle Sanders is a writer and journalist living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.