Poet, editor, novelist, cultural critic. Kwame Senu Neville Dawes was born in Ghana on July 28, 1962 to Sophia and Neville Dawes. His Ghanaian mother worked as a social worker and a sculptor; and his father, a Jamaican-born teacher, poet, and novelist, was an avowed Marxist who moved to Ghana in the 1940s, playing a part in reforming the recently independent nation. In 1971 the Dawes family moved to Kingston, Jamaica, where Neville Dawes was offered a position as deputy director of the Institute of Jamaica. This is where Kwame Dawes fell in love with reggae music. In 1983 his father died in an unfortunate accident.
Kwame Dawes received his B.A. in English from the University of the West Indies at Mona in 1983 and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of New Brunswick in 1992. From 1992 to 2012 he was professor of English and distinguished poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. During his tenure, he received numerous awards including the Hugh T. Stoddard Sr. Award for distinguished service as a faculty member in 1994, an Individual Artist Fellowship from the South Carolina Arts Commission in 1996, a Pushcart Prize for his poem “Inheritance” in 2001, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012. In 2009 Dawes was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Poets and Writers honored him with the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, which recognizes writers who give generously to other writers or the broader literary community. In 2012 he joined the faculty of the University of Nebraska as the Glenna Luschel Professor of English and the editor of Prairie Schooner.
Dawes first book, Progeny of Air, published in 1994, won the Forward Poetry Prize for a first poetry collection, being praised for its sense of craft and its ability to examine aspects of memory with a fresh sense of language. Dawes’s second poetry collection, Resisting the Anomie, published in 1995, celebrates his multi-nationality. He quickly followed this up with Prophets (1995), Requiem (1996), Jacko Jacobus (1996), and Shook Foil (1997). Each poetry collection examines the effects of colonialism on Dawes’s fragmented sense of culture and progressively incorporates more and more South Carolina themes. In Jacko Jacobus, for example, Dawes rein- vents the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, creating Jacko, a trickster who flees his violent brother in Jamaica and finds himself in South Carolina selling crack.
In 1999 Dawes published both Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic, a personal narrative that works to restructure the discussion of Caribbean writing, and also Talk Yuh Talk, a series of interviews with various West Indian poets.
Dawes’s next collection, Map-Maker, won the Poetry Business contest in the United Kingdom in 2001 while Midlands, also published in 2001, won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. Divided into four sections, Midlands is organized by Dawes’s various cultural influences: Africa, the Caribbean, England, and the American South.
Commissioned by Talawa, England’s leading black theatre company, Dawes wrote One Love, a play set in the 1970s about a Rastafarian healer in Kingston who takes in a homeless country girl, causing neighborhood unrest. It premiered at Bristol Old Vic Theatre in April 2001 and was published the same year.
In 2002 Dawes published Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, the authoritative critical and cultural examination of Bob Marley’s lyrics.
Dawes’s collection of short stories, A Place to Hide and Other Stories (2003), portrays, through numerous perspectives, a contemporary Jamaican culture struggling with violence and misogyny. In 2003 he also published his New and Selected Poems, 1994–2002.
In collaboration with various visual artists, Dawes published in the following year Bruised Totem, a series of ekphrastic poems that respond to an exhibit from the Bareiss Family Collection of African Art. Dawes’s collaborative projects continued in 2006 when he composed Brimming, a poem sequence responding to the paintings of South Carolina artist Brian Rutenberg. The poems themselves explore local racial themes like the lynching of blacks in South Carolina and the Stono slave rebellion of 1738. Also in 2006, Dawes released Wisteria: Twilight Poems from the Swamp Country, a series of dramatic monologues based on interviews he conducted in 1995 with seven elderly African American citizens of Sumter County, South Carolina. It was a finalist for the 2007 Patterson Poetry Prize. In 2006 Dawes also collaborated with writer and composer Kevin Simmonds to adapt these poems into the performance Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country, which debuted at Royal Festival Hall that same year.
In 2007 two books of Dawes’s poetry were published: Gomer’s Song and Impossible Flying. That same year, Dawes released his nonfiction examination of his childhood, A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock: A Narrative, in which he examines his lifelong struggle with cultural identity, utilizing his father’s notes and papers as well as his own personal recollections.
Dawes’s literary romance, She’s Gone, won the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Best Fiction Debut. His second novel, Bivouac (2010), follows Ferron Morgan, a Jamaican who examines the suspicious death of his father in the mid-1980s.
In 2009 Dawes won an Emmy Award for his work on a television project that documented HIV/AIDS in Jamaica and incorporated poetry, photography, and music. Dawes published his poems from this project in Hope’s Hospice the same year. After the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, Dawes visited Haiti numerous times to write about the lives of people struggling to survive following that natural disaster. In 2010 Dawes saw the publication of two poetry books: the lyrical narrative, Back of Mount Peace, and Wheels. Dawes published new and selected poems in 2013 under the title Duppy Conqueror.
Aside from being a prolific writer and avid humanitarian, Dawes has edited numerous anthologies such as Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry (1998); Red: Contemporary Black British Poetry (2009); So Much Things to Say: 100 Poets from the First Ten Years of the Calabash International Literary Festival with coeditor Colin Channer (2010); Hold Me to an Island: Caribbean Place: An Anthology of Writing with co-editor Jeremy Poynting (2011); and Seven Strong: Winners of the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, 2006–2012 (2012).
In 2003 Dawes was appointed director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, an organization that promotes poetry in South Carolina. From 2006 to 2012 he was the director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative’s annual book prize competition and editor of the Initiative’s chapbook series, publishing dozens of South Carolina poets. In 2012 Dawes wrote the introduction to his father’s posthumous collection, Fugue and Other Writings. He directs the Calabash International Literary Festival, a yearly event in Jamaica.
Kwame Dawes’s writing combines the personal, the mythical, the spiritual, the political, and the cultural aspects of his diverse background. He is part of the New Generation of Caribbean Writers influenced by authors as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Bob Marley, and Derek Wolcott.
Collins, Walter P. “Kwame Dawes: An Interview with Walter P. Collins, III.” Obsidian 8.2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 38–42.
Ross, Sassy. “The Art of Collaboration: An Interview with Kwame Dawes.” Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters 5.1 (Summer-Fall 2008): 115–23.