It isn’t always one wakes up in Oxford or to a day when you would attend Kwame Dawes’s poetry workshop. But that was the case on this fine Saturday, 1st December, 2018. The clouds were gloomy but that was the least of my concerns. I had spent the night in the town after coming in from Brighton the previous day. Kwame had had a reading, followed by a showcase of the African Poetry Book Fund books. It was fun but that is story for another day.
On this day, I tried to find the venue for the ‘Poet as Witness’ workshop and nearly fainted when my phone went off. For the first time in a long time, I was grateful for Google Maps and for the straight Oxford roads that didn’t have me wondering which side was North, South, East or West. I had a moment of fright on what I would do next but remembered I had a backup in my bag. Yup. My power bank came to the rescue and I found my way to the venue. By this time it was showering and the air was pleasant. I arrived in time to meet with my fellow Nigerian poets, David Ishaya Osu and Adura Ojo. We had been at the evening readings the previous day together, with them coming from Kent. We got a bit wet some more as we rang for someone to get us from the gates of the fine two-storey Radcliffe Humanities Building. I took the time to admire the vastness of the compound space. Soon, we were got and ushered to the Torch Seminar room where the workshop was underway. We walked sheepishly to the only vacant seats at the top of the table, beside Kwame. He paused and welcomed us.
He continued reading our workshop presentation, ‘What the Poet’s Body Knows’ in a way that was anything but reading. If your eyes were closed you could have imagined it was him just talking directly to you with that calculated measured spacing of words… He was just concluding something on the notion of a ‘line poem’ versus an ‘idea poem.’ I tried to take down notes but wisdom kept pouring forth from his lips like water out of a tap:
The making of poems begin with failure…
Poetry is a weapon we have to calm. He noted that he calms his poetry body as it is too sensitive.
Sometimes, even poetry fails us.
Kwame went on to talk of trying, quoting Eliot. ‘There is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’
The central theme that he was drawing to was that, (I guess I have paraphrased a few things here though as in most of what I am putting as reported speech),
‘The poet as witness has to take a stand. The body of the witness has to be vulnerable. To note. The teller has power and the reader will trust more those who they can identify with. Who they can feel. Your decision to detract yourself from the poem does not do anything for anyone. You do no one a favour. We should have trials of beauty as well as trials of evil. Everything is subject to the witness.’
We had the chance to ask questions and boy, did my dear fellow poets ask a million questions. But Kwame took them all in style. One of the answers he gave to a question struck me. He said, there’s no need not to write anything. The problem is in publishing sometimes, that’s where the ethical problem comes in.
Give yourself permission to write, then see if there is an ethical problem [to publishing]. … Don’t edit yourself out of the poem before you complete it. The making of the poem should be the making of the poem. Then, you see where it goes.
And as he told us all of these, Kwame shared stories. He told us at a point, of experiencing some pain when his uncle, Kofi Awoonor died at Westgate in Nairobi [he had also been in the city when it happened]. In some strange twist, Kwame informed us that he had been informed that his elder sister had died previously. This made all of us sober. His voice shook at some points too. I personally felt sad and I was transported to some of my losses too. He also told us of his poetic conversations with the Australian poet, John Kinsella – which has resulted in a number of books. There was also the talk on Haiku. A personal story on how the system had betrayed him too… Each story was a world of lessons in itself.
Next, we went to the practical aspect of the workshop. We were asked to take a picture either from Kwame’s system or from big picture books on a table behind. We took our time in doing this. I and Esther Heller, another poet, took ours from his tablet.
When we were through, we had time to write our poems. We had to write five poems from five pictures. It was tasking, trying to connect some verse to the image. When it was time, we gave feedback. Most of us appreciated the process but also mentioned that it had been tasking. Someone mentioned that the person had been writing poems based on their own pictures.
Kwame explained that there is a tendency to have an explanation to an illustration rather than a conversation. This is what happens many times when we try to get our pictures and support it with words. Thus, our exercise – which is something that Kwame does a lot – is to strike a conversation with the pictures rather than just be a description. This made so much sense.
We all read pieces, and they were brilliant. We gave brief feedback and after that, we were told of a 100 day Haiku challenge which we all looked excited to be a part of.
Finally, as a tribute to us for being good company – or so Kwame claimed – he read a poem he had composed in honour of his sister, Aba, dedicated to her and his father, Neville. It was a very touching poem and there were a few sniffles [or did I imagine this?]:
‘She is gone, Neville. I say gone though I could say she is with you, but I do not know. Her’s was clear faith of hope, and in her going, she was too tired to stay with us,/But once more the hollow of loss, you left us bereft, and now she has left us anchorless./This is not the world we would have made of things, this is not the house we would want to enter,/ Aba is dead, Aba is dead, there is something dully impossible about this, I cannot carry it in me…
We all went quiet as he finished the poem with emotion. He said some more words and we were officially done.
It was time for pictures. We took pictures and had some discussions, made some conversations too. I spoke with Edward Gibb and Esther Heller. Enjoyable company. I waved my byes, mainly to David and Adura, and then gave Kwame a copy of Hyginus Ekwuazi’s One Day I’ll Dare to Raise my Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper. I had debated if I should give him that or my Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell since both books are centred on the theme of death. Ekwuazi took the vote.
I walked with Esther, who showed me the place where I would get my bus. We spoke of her poetry and other things. She has a good spirit and from what I heard of her work, I believe that the future is going to sing her song. But I also got this feeling from most of the pretty faces – it was a gathering of beautiful people making me wonder if there had been a selection process to get only beautiful participants for the workshop! Most of the faces I saw had a fire in them and lots of wisdom in their eyes. I tried to catch their names too: Laura, Eleanor, Carolina, Inge, Yvette, Gautam, Shailen, Lucia, Phosile, Alex, Lou, Shailen, Esther, Katie and Anne. [I couldn’t help praying we become friends too!]
I walked to the Ashmolean Museum a few paces away, thinking of all of this and feeling moody myself. I would remember later when discussing with my mother that it was the first anniversary of my younger cousin, more like sister’s, passage.
I checked a book shop, then went to get my bus to London en route Brighton. It was going to be a long trip that would take about four hours more than it should have, I would be hungry and harrassed when I got home. However, as I closed my eyes to rest on that bus to London, all I could think of was the number of renewed witnesses from Kwame’s class and wondering what the future held for us all.