The expression "Wheel and Come Again", the title of the latest Kwame Dawes book, has a special significance in reggae. When a crowd tells a DJ to wheel and come again at a dance in Jamaica, it not only signals their desire to hear a particular record for a second or third time, but also acts as an encouragement to keep on pumping out the music. To keep producing those magical distortions of drum and bass that shake the speakers to the core. This drive towards booming productivity, this urgent desire to keep things coming, has also defined the career of Kwame Dawes.
Since his first book appeared in1994, Kwame Dawes has kept on producing literature at the same rate as a top reggae star like Beenie Man puts out hit singles. He has written short stories and plays, academic studies on reggae music, and several collections of poetry. His debut, Progeny Of Air, won the Forward Prize for a first collection. Edward Kamau Braithwaite, who many consider to be one of the key figures in modern West Indian literature, has described him as a "big new voice of alarm for the Caribbean", and the renowned Guyanese author, David Dabydeen, says that Dawes is opening up a new aesthetic space in Caribbean poetry.
By the winter of 1998, he will have had his 10th title published in four years. In between writing numerous academic papers and directing plays, Dawes has also done stints of acting, broadcasting, and singing in a band. In reggae music, the sound of the drums may start heads nodding on the dancefloor but it is the bass that stirs the whole body into movement. It is the dynamo of forward motion. Kwame Dawes has a lot of bass in his voice.
Where does this seemingly irrepressible urge to write come from? "What has fascinated me always is telling stories. That's what I am; a storyteller. That's the common thread to everything that I do," says Dawes in a matter of fact way. "All I do is use every media available to tell stories. " For Kwame Dawes, storytelling means engaging with his sense of history, identity and community. The bulk of his output to date has seen him locate intensely personal narratives within a wider framework of the societies he knows intimately: Ghana, where he spent his childhood, Jamaica; where he went from boy to man; America, where he now lives and teaches.
Dawes's bibliography to date is full of thematic migrations: Requiem is a poetry collection inspired by White Ships/Black Cargo, Tom Feeling's illustrations on transatlantic slavery, and Progeny of Air takes the reader from the lively classrooms of a Jamaican youth to the more austere settings of Canadian salmon farms, where the author once worked for the government. If reading Kwame Dawes gives a penetrating insight into the socio-cultural complexities of the African-Caribbean diaspora, then hearing him perform his work puts the emotional charge of his "oraliture" into a sharper focus. When he recently appeared with Guyanese flautist, Keith Waithe, at the Battersea Arts Centre, his language took on an impressive weight when set to the bass and treble of his voice. Literally and figuratively, the words moved. Does he approach the stage differently to the page?
"They flow in and out of each other. I don't find conflict between them and I have to be true to that. I think I write with a sense of performance but I don't think that's unusual. I think that, fundamentally, poetry is a performance medium. Look at the way we teach poetry. We talk about onomatopoeia, about metre, about rhyme, about voice - it's all oral."
The divide between performance poets and published poets is not one which has any great relevance to Dawes. As an award-winning writer and accomplished performer, he has one foot in each camp. Having said that, he himself has entered the debate on the respective merits of "street" and "book" poetry. An article of his appeared in the Critical Quarterly, in 1996, in which he cogently argued that many of the so-called divisons were as much political as artistic, and his oeuvre to date has duly attempted to transcend any contrived pigeon- holing. …