A brief account of the poetry workshop:
The Poet as Witness,
guided by poet Kwame Dawes.


A rainy Saturday winter morn-ning in Oxford. I started walking at 7.45am from Iffley up to the north area of Woodstock in order to reach the Radcliffe Humanities building of Oxford University. I was excited. First, because I was going to go into the architectural entrails of the building that held the philosophy department of the university. This was exciting, because four years before I had intended to volunteer (research for free) in the department in order to soak up in the knowledge I was so hungry to learn and discuss with others. The intention was a failure. Second, because an unknown poet for me, had offered a ‘free’ workshop with the enticing title of The Poet as Witness.

As dawn became day, I stepped gently in the court where the oyster of life is being held by a Zeus. I approached the entrance after a few minutes of bewildering geographical miss-positioning. There at the entrance was a man, dressed in black and of black skin. Waiting. Also a girl was smiling back in excitement. Waiting. The three of us, with scarce words – perhaps in our resting poet state –  waited and then suddenly the student card of the girl Open Sesamed the doors to the building. We quietly made our way up and found the seminar room. Which after instructions from the black man, the poet himself, Mr. Dawes, the seminar held a circumferential table, where I became Lucia, he became Kwame and she became Carolina.

Gently and almost on time, people arrived. We were approximately 25 souls hungry for Kwame’s words. And so it started. Kwame briefly explained what was the structure of the workshop:

  • First, he would read an essay on personal meditations about poetry.
  • Second we would discuss the title of the workshop.
  • Third, a break.
  • Fourth, an ekphrasis type of exercise would be carried out where everyone would write, including Kwame.
  • Five, some would read their improvised pieces, including Kwame.
  • Six, discussion and farewell.


I don’t quite remember in which of the six stages above Kwame explained he was mour – ning, since on Friday evening his sister had passed away. However, the sensation of his openness and sincerity is something that filled me with compassion and gratitude of him still guiding the workshop despite the circumstances.

On the first stage, the preamble of Kwame’s meditation essay on poetry, took us into the structure of the poem’s body. In particular, the “degrees between a ‘line level poet’, vs. an idea level poet (prose)[1]. The inflection of this comparison was that independent of the poem’s body or structure as such. The line in a poem, it being suspended in a waterfall of lines, or it being gathered in a herd of lines. The parts of the poem, the lines, had to be considered in such a way that they would be necessary and not redundant within themselves, but stand on their one.

In order to apply this, it consequently puts the poem and its parts in a harder dispossition. Since if we allow ourselves to shape a poem under the criteria of  ‘the line level‘ then you may find yourself, that the poem fails you. Kwame explained that the failure of making the urgency of an experience, this being horrendous or/and beautiful, into a poem that transposed the experience  into beauty, was not only disheartening but necessary. Since the tension built between the criteria vs. the experience, would make the poem bloom into something “taut, complex and beautiful”.


From this point onward the meditation essay that Kwame read was to do with the physical body. To be precise, his physical body as a poet. Based on his account my scribbles underlined the following words: the poem fails us when we have an urgency to write about something deeply important to us. We don’t write about it. But after reading back all that you have written after the event. Even though it wont mention such event. You will notice that unconsiously  you may have been writing about it all the time, but without mentioning it.

After the essay, we went on to talk about The Poet as Witness. A lawyer was among us, Kwame prior to discussing any further asked for the formal law definition of a witness. A witness provides evidence of the facts. The criteria for someone to be a witness in a trial, is to have first hand experience in the event therefore, body experience through presence. So what is a trial? A trial is a conclusion of a truth already made, a trial is not an investigation. Thus, the poet is the witness and the lawyer at the same time, interrogating the set. Whilst the poem, happens before the trial. Kwame, suggested to withhold judgement (to the poem) before the poem is done. We should have trials of beauty (the highten form of expression) and crime.

The body of the witness has to be vulnerable.

By being a witness, you witness yourself, and the other. When you witness yourself, when writing poetry, you may find yourself lost within the order of the patterns that become clearer with the words used. And so the poem, becomes an oracle of truth, revealing something about the self that you were searching for. When witnessing the other, empathy will project yourself in the poem, of how you experience the other.

This conversation was coming from the discussion of being objective. The moment you decide to be objective you are being subjective. It is seen that the ‘I’ is becoming lost in the narrative. Is this perhaps to liberate ourselves from responsibility? Independent of the answer, Kwame suggested to include yourself, what you feel is essential, what your body experiences is essential, to relate to the other, is essential. Empathy is a function of imagination. Poetry gives us the muscularity of becoming empathetic. The difference between sympathy and empathy, is that the first is about the other, rather only, lonely. Whilst the second, is ‘with you’ where you embody the experience of the other, together. Or at least you try. Rescuing your ‘I’, rescuing your body.


[1]     All italics in this text are directly quoted from Mr. Dawes words in the workshop.

For an alternative but complementary view of the same workshop, you can read Su’eddie’s Kwame Dawes’s Witness to Poetry here.


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Lucia Sellars, friend and poet, writes from Bristol. You can check her blog at





Some all-rounded writer with the wits to turn anything and everything to words with inspiration... cheering to glory and on...


  1. Wow I’m sure it was a very interesting moment at the workshop. “the poem fails us when we have an urgency to write about something deeply important to us” this happens frequently. Kwame is one of the best poet I have read about.


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