Kwame Dawes on his Guggenheim Fellowship!

Blog Editor Claire Harlan-Orsi interviews the PS Editor in Chief and recent Guggenheim recipient on getting (and using) the award

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Where were you when you found out about the fellowship? Do they call you? Give us the blow-by-blow of your reaction to the news.

The Guggenheim Foundation lets you know about the award in stages, it seems. Almost a month ago, I was told via email that my name had been sent forward to the board for ratification. The note was adamant, however, that this did not mean I was a fellow. I had a sense that it was good news. I told only a select few people of this “nomination.” It was a month later, while in my office, that I received a note with an official letter attached indicating that I was now a Guggenheim Fellow and the nature of the award. I wrote Lorna, my wife, right away, and after confirming the veracity of the note, I told a few other people. Of course, I was quite pleased with the news. The truth is that this award is quite the honor, and it has come at a time when my career is quite advanced. But that is no one’s doing. This is the first time I have applied for the Guggenheim. I might have attempted earlier, but I decided against doing so for various reasons. I have written quite a few letters of support on behalf other people who have applied. It is a very selective process and it seems to me that one ought to be in a good position to apply before doing so. This comes at the right time, and for the right project.

Tell us more about the project for which you were given the fellowship, a poem cycle based on the work of playwright August Wilson. What inspired this idea? What attracts you to Wilson’s work? How would you describe the nature of the project–a commemoration, a dialogue, a reinterpretation, something else altogether?

I have long been deeply impressed by the work of August Wilson, especially the sheer ambition of his century cycle. To decide to write ten plays, each one speaking to a decade of the twentieth century, and to use these plays to explore the history of African Americans through deeply intimate and archetypal characters constitutes one of the great achievements in American theatre. That Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes in his lifetime, as well as numerous Tony Awards and other critical awards, speaks to his monumental achievement and talent. But the August Wilson I met was a gentle, fiercely outspoken and generous man. He spoke of others with tenderness and kindness and he spoke of poetry as the thing he most wanted to write above everything else. I found myself wanting to be in dialogue with Wilson’s plays, his poetry, his language, his ideas and his characters, and I wanted to do so with poems of a broad range that sought to contain the epic narrative of Black migration from the South to the North and back within the lyric intimacy of verse. The story of the African American experience, Wilson understood, was a larger story of African people. It is this unabashed nod to pan African and African Diasporic sensibilities that was Wilson’s proffered hand to me. I am challenged and greatly encouraged by his work. I began these poems before Wilson’s passing, and I found myself continuing to generate more of these poems in the years since. I still have some more work to do in organizing the series and in finding a controlling image to lock things down, as they say. People might have seen some of these poems in the American Poetry Review of a few months ago.

It seems like you have an amazing number of projects going on at once–poems, documentary and social justice work, essays, and more. How do you know where to invest your energy? What advice do you have for artists juggling multiple modes of expression?

I don’t think this is very mysterious or complicated. I am guided first by deadlines. I try to put my energy into the most pressing projects. Sometimes these are externally imposed deadlines and other times they are imposed by me. The second impulse is related to what I like to think of as identifying where the heat is in the mass of projects. If I think a particular project has found its momentum, I will allow it to sit for a while, assured that I know where it is going and that I am fully motivated to work on it regardless of delays. Where a project is still wrestling for its momentum and some clarity of direction, I devote my time and energy to it until it has a running start. Beyond that, I think I should be honest and say that I am constantly working through projects in my head—testing narratives, collecting images, untangling plots, untangling the logistics of collecting and collaborating, and lining up projects one after the other. I have a quite busy head. This is not an enviable place to be. I usually feel as if I am constantly trying to catch up with myself. Fortunately, I enjoy what I do.