“Adjectives are Butter”: Celebrated Poet Kwame Dawes Reads to MC

Poet Kwame Dawes gave a captivating poetry reading at a MARS event. Photo by Claire Leaden.
Poet Kwame Dawes gave a captivating poetry reading at a MARS event. Photo by Claire Leaden.

While introducing speaker Kwame Dawes at the first MARS event of the spring semester, Assistant Professor of English Dr. Adam Koehler ended with his favorite Dawes quote: “Adjectives are butter.”

Just before spring break on Wednesday, March 12 Dawes was on campus for a Major Authors Reading Series (MARS) event. MARS events are periodical lectures by well-known authors sponsored by the MC English department. The talk took place in Hayden 100 at 7 p.m., and the room was almost fully packed with students and some faculty by the time Dawes got on stage.

Currently Dawes is an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is editor-in-chief at the “Prairie Schooner,” the university’s quarterly literary magazine. Earlier in his career he achieved the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection for his work “Progeny of Air”, in 2009 won an Emmy for his website livehopelove.com documenting AIDS/ HIV in Jamaica, and received the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award.

He began the talk with a casual “good evening.” As the crowd responded timidly, he said, “Apparently that’s a rhetorical statement in some quarters, but when I say ‘good evening’ I actually expect people to respond and say ‘good evening’ or ‘what’s up’,” he laughed. “So, again, ‘good evening’.” The room now echoed a more assured “good evening.”

Dawes spoke with a Jamaican accent and was quick to make jokes in this manner, inviting eruptions of laughter from the audience numerous times throughout the evening.

He then explained that he would be reading a few poems from his newest collection, “Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems” and after he would answer any questions students might have. His first reading was not his own, but instead a short poem called “Counting the Years” by Kofi Awoonor, a fellow poet and close family friend who died late last year. He followed with his own essay-type poem in commemoration of Awoonor.

Other poems he read included “How to Pick a Hanging Tree,” “If You Know Her,” and more.

“How to Pick a Hanging Tree” included a long backstory before the actual reading. Dawes spoke about when he lived in South Carolina and was touring plantations as possible locations for aspiring poets to visit for writing. As the tour mostly consisted of people scouting the location for weddings, he ended up requesting a separate tour showing the evidence of the slaves’ lives within the property. He was most inspired by a “hanging tree,” as the guide named it, sitting by a canal.

The last haunting lines of the poem read, “But the old trees, seasoned by the flame of summer lightning,/ and hardened to tears, know it is nothing to be a tree, mute/ and heartless, just strong enough to carry a man until he turns to air.”

Assistant Professor of English Dominika Wrozynski, co-director of MARS along with Koehler, felt that the evening was a “tremendous success.”

“Kwame Dawes was dynamic, moving and funny,” she said. “He was also extremely generous with his time, answering student questions after the reading and signing books. His poems, though often set in different global locations, showed us, with startling contrasts, what it means to be beautifully flawed humans.

“It is events like this that do so much to build a community of professors and students who are passionate about the liberal arts,” she continued. “The events become shared community experiences that allow the literature that students have been reading to come alive right in front of them.”

Sophomore Lili DeRossi attended the talk and had positive feedback as well.

“I really enjoyed listening to him read his poems,” she commented. “Afterwards he gave great advice to aspiring writers and shared hilarious stories of his own experiences and how they have had an influence in his work over the years.”

Though perhaps a fun fact known only to English majors, April is actually National Poetry Month. In celebration of the themed time there will be two more MARS speakers visiting campus, Jane Springer on April 3 and Chris Tusa on April 24, both at 6:30 p.m. in Hayden 100.